How America's Bully Economy leads to a "Bully Society"
The following is an excerpt from Jessie Klein's new book "The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America's Schools," (New York University Press, 2013).
Schools are microcosms of American society where students are told that financial wealth and superficial gender markers are compulsory for social acceptance. They learn these lessons from each other but also from grown-ups—parents, teachers, and the wider culture they inhabit. As they prepare to enter the adult workforce and social life, children come to understand that being perceived as the richest or prettiest, or the most powerful or confident, could dramatically enhance their futures—and that without these marks of American success they may become lifelong outcasts. They also learn to see life as a zero-sum game, where they can win only if someone else loses, rise only by ensuring that someone else falls. These values are at the core of bullying behavior, and they are also the foundation upon which much of the economic, political, and social life of our nation is built.
Not all cultures are so obsessively focused on winning. In the Southwest, for instance, coaches say that teams of Hopi Indians want to win but that they often try not to win because they don’t want to embarrass their opponents. In some traditional cultures, the game isn’t over until the two sides are tied. They work hard to make sure no one loses. Even in Europe, as T. R. Reid writes in “The European Social Model,” some core human needs are seen as everyone’s birthright rather than as something to be “won” through competition with one’s compatriots. “To Americans,” Reid writes, “it is simply a matter of common sense that rich families get better medical care and education than the poor; the rich can afford the doctors at the fancy clinics and the tutors to get their kids into Harvard. But this piece of common sense does not apply in most of Europe. The corporate executive in the back seat of the limo, her chauffeur up front, and the guy who pumps the gas for them all go to the same doctor and the same hospitals and send their children to the same (largely free) universities.”
In the United States, however, hardcore competition and striving to be the best are generally considered vital to keeping people motivated and functioning at optimal levels. Harsh inequalities are considered, at best, an unfortunate consequence. Yet gender pressures—and especially the expectation to embrace hypermasculine values and behaviors—are seldom examined in the context of the larger socioeconomic forces that shape them.
In one of my criminal justice classes, I asked students to tell me what words they associated with capitalism. What qualities do you need to be successful in our society? The board filled up quickly: competitive, aggressive, and powerful were some of the first suggestions. At that point, we were discussing white-collar crime and the unprincipled behavior that had produced both the Enron scandal and the economic meltdown of recent years. Later in the course we discussed school shootings and their relationship to gender, and I asked my students to list some words they associated with masculinity. The same list emerged—competitive, aggressive, and powerful. Without intending to, my students had highlighted the link between the values of masculinity and capitalism.The school shooters, for the most part, grew up in the 1980s or later. The rise in school shootings roughly coincides with the Reagan administration’s restructuring of the American economic, political, and cultural landscape—a period that glorified unrestrained capitalism and reemphasized an “up by your own bootstraps” ethos. Following a landslide reelection in 1984, Reagan promised an America rich with freedom, individualism, and financial reward for those who skillfully met the standard, coupled with a lower degree of support for those who did not. Increasingly, success was defined in terms of power, economic attainment, and social status—the same barometers increasingly used, at the high school level, to assess masculinity.
Capitalism is hardly new to the United States, nor is the system’s relationship to core American values. But as former labor secretary Robert Reich observed in his book Supercapitalism, in recent decades the power of unregulated, unrestrained capital has increased to such an extent that it has outstripped democracy as a primary foundation of our society. According to Reich, Americans became identified more as investors and consumers and less as citizens and members of a community.
Further, in this same period, a slew of books documenting America’s increasing social problems hit the shelves. The titles alone explain why Americans are more stressed, broke, unhappy, and doing whatever they can to survive: The Overworked American (1993), The Overspent American (1998), The Cheating Culture (2000), and The Lonely American (2009). Another set of recent titles document the new plagues with which our children are grappling—increased anxiety, depression, materialism, and even narcissistic personality diagnosis: Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers (2004); The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and The Crisis of Adolescence (2004); The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids (2006); and Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before (2007). Couple these telling titles with the alarming statistics depicting the United States as scoring highest on almost all of the worst social problems in the industrialized world (including murder, rape, and infant mortality), and it becomes less surprising that school bullying is so common here, or that its vicious and fatal retaliations in the form of shootings are more prevalent in the United States than in the rest of the world combined.
What is a Compassionate Economy?
Competitive and punishment-oriented schools mirror the combative workforce. In the larger world, adults are given little support if they meet hard times and are unable at some point to work at their best, or work at all. Similarly, as adolescents struggle to find their identities and their place in the world, the emotional ups and downs of their journey can undermine academic performance. Even students who tend to do well risk failure, and their confrontations with widespread cliques and bullying only add to the stress. Children’s understanding of this antagonistic culture feeds their fury and fear as they find that their every move in school so profoundly affects their future prospects.
In his book Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond, Mark Ames writes:
“The kids are stressed out not only by their own pressure at school, but by the stress their parents endure in order to earn enough money to live in [a prestigious] school district. ... Everyone is terrified of not ‘making it’ in a country where the safety net has been torn to shreds.”
Children who might otherwise look forward to a life after high school see, in the model of their parents and the larger society around them, a similarly brutal environment.
While their safety nets are weakening as well, in most European countries the government still takes some responsibility for ensuring that everyone has basic health care, education, housing, food, child care, elder care, and even indefinite unemployment if necessary. There are real limitson work hours (in Finland, for instance, a six-hour workday), and mandatory paid vacation and holiday time is often four to six weeks.
In contrast, even before the start of the latest recession, workers in twentieth-century America were losing some of the gains they had fought for in the earlier part of that century. The eight-hour day (forty-hour week) that Americans finally won in 1938, under President Roosevelt’s New Deal Fair Labor Standards Act, is a dim memory for most Americans today, who tend to toil more often at fifty to seventy or more hours per week.
Americans once hoped to achieve the demands made by the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen for eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure, and eight hours of sleep, but most now have little if any leisure and much less sleep. We are working much longer hours than our counterparts in other industrialized countries. John P. Walsh and Anne Zacharias-Walsh write in “Working Longer, Living Less” that the average American works seventy more hours per year than his or her Japanese counterpart and 350 hours or nine more weeks per year than Europeans. Americans tend to work more hours and then spend money paying others to do the services they don’t have time to do because of they are working.
Because we Americans work so much, it becomes more difficult to take care of our children and our homes. In many European countries, the government pays mothers as well as fathers to stay home with their young children so they can return to work when the children are older. In the United States, middle-and upper-class adults make money and often pay other people to do these tasks; many small children in the United States are under the care of nannies or some other form of child care worker. Rather than a system designed to meet human needs, our economy prioritizes profit. Instead of opportunities to nurture ourselves, and our friends and family, and larger community, our time is managed by someone else’s drive to make money. Walsh and Zacharias-Walsh write that “to argue that an expensive factory should be left idle because workers are tired or that production should be organized using a less efficient but more comfortable process—is considered absurd.” Yet the “overworked American,” to use Juliet Schor’s term, does not necessarily generate more profit. As Anders Hayden notes,
“Several shorter-hours innovators in Europe—Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Norway—are actually more productive per hour of labor than is the United States. Higher hourly productivity in these countries is almost certainly due, in part, to shorter work-time’s beneficial effects on employee morale, less fatigue and burnout, lower absenteeism, higher quality of work, and better health.”
European economies tend to prioritize family and community as a primary value. The notion of “time affluence,” not just “material affluence,” is important—a concept that is less common in the United States. Instead, Americans work longer and live with their family less. Walsh and Zacharias-Walsh write about one mother of two young children who summed up this collective quandary: “This is the only job I could get that paid enough for me to take care of them, but it never lets me be home when they need me. I can either feed them or be with them, never both.” The increased workday also prevents participation in community life—politi- cal organizations, social clubs, sports leagues, religious institutions—as well as family life, leading to what Robert Putnam called the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon; other research also notes a related plummeting of social connections and increased loneliness and isolation among Americans.
In recent decades, the U.S. government has taken less responsibility for people’s basic human needs. Life has become a struggle for many working parents, especially single working parents. In addition to lacking the government-supported universal health care that is available to citizens in virtually all European countries, the United States does less than any other industrialized country to support parents, who receive no legally mandated paid leave when a child is born or adopted. Among the168 nations surveyed in a 2004 Harvard University study, 163 have paid maternity leave, while the United States stands in a category with Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.
The lack of economic support for American citizens means adults are under more pressure and stress to keep their jobs and succeed in them in order to support themselves and their families. Driven to succeed, with dwindling access to community, adults end up forming similar social cliques to those that fester in children’s schools. Workplace massacres, then, tend to have causes that parallel those found in school shootings.