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Retrieving a Moral Comportment in an Age of Violence and Bullying

The Canadian government recently expressed the desire to address cyber-bullying through criminal code reform. It would be more effective to retrieve a more potent sense of moral accountability in our ongoing relations with one another.

(Image: Enter Key Stop Cyberbullying via Shutterstock)

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guerin cyber(Image: Enter Key Stop Cyberbullying via Shutterstock)

In a recent “Report to the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Justice and Public Safety,” the Canadian government, in an entirely predictable fashion, expressed the desire to address the issue of cyber-bullying through criminal code reform.1

There is, of course, nothing wrong with revisiting the law in light of new technologies and electronic manifestations of certain crimes that might not have been contemplated originally. However, phenomena such as aggression, violence, bullying or cyber-bullying cannot be remedied merely by resorting to criminal injunction. The latter also involve historical, social, cultural, economic, institutional and moral issues. This fact was underscored in part by the working group charged with making the report when it acknowledged that the phenomenon of cyber-bullying is, in fact, a “recent manifestation of the longstanding social problem of bullying.” The Working Group concluded that a multifaceted approach should be taken. One can imagine that this slightly more complicated and nuanced finding was not received with overwhelming enthusiasm by a government that tends to reduce social and economic problems to issues of disciplinary, procedural or criminal reform.

It has, in fact, become common for governments and zero-tolerance schools, workplaces and institutions to reduce complex child and adult relational issues to simple behavioral problems and to unreflectively respond to the latter through procedural or disciplinary reform. This punitive mind-set relieves governments, educators, judges and managers of the responsibility to look for social, environmental, economic or historical reasons and causes or to examine whether their own policies and perspectives actually might be exacerbating an already-bad situation. The reality is that recognition of individual accountability should not prevent us from also reflecting upon other causes and contingencies that might help us to better understand phenomena like cyber-bullying.

There are many forms of individual and group aggression, violence and bullying: emotional, psychological, physical, verbal. There are also many different contexts where the latter can show up: in the home, at school, in the workplace, in academia or in the military. What all of these have in common, however, is that they involve asymmetrical power relations and the infliction of intentional harm to others by coercing, intimidating, spreading rumors, isolating or humiliating them. What is disturbing is how prevalent aggression, violence and bullying have become, not just in North America, but around the globe. This fact should push us to look beyond present cultural or technological explanations and reflect upon deeper historical, political and economic origins.

Human history may appear to tell us that cruelty, aggression, violence and intolerance is ingrained, natural or intrinsic in human affairs. This conclusion is appealing because it conveniently explains away rather than explains the phenomena. However, it is a hasty generalization not wholly supported by the facts. In reality, there are many individuals, historical cultures and societies that live and have lived in relative peace. Many more initially were aggressive but, over time, became much less so. Indeed, one could persuasively argue the opposite thesis: that we are naturally cooperative and peaceful, even if not always altruistic beings. This does not mean that we do not have any potential to be aggressive or violent. What it does mean is that when violence, aggression or bullying become ubiquitous and normalized, we need to inquire into the conditions, causes and contingencies that gave rise to this latter state of affairs.

From the more recent historical perspective of the last century we get a sense of what preceded the present culture of aggression, cruelty and violence. The 20th century was marked by unprecedented mass destruction, violence and ideologies of hatred and intolerance on an international scale. Various manifestations of totalitarian government practiced efficient forms of human repression, abrogated the rule of law on a systematic basis and devalued democracy and accountability. In the latter part of the century, powerful corporations were encouraged to advance an ethos of endless insatiable greed and allowed to profit immensely from environmental destruction, human misery and natural or man-made disasters. What was the inevitable result of this in human relational terms?

The creation of perpetual turmoil – war, violence, profound wealth disparities, the continuous repudiation of the rule of law by the powerful – inevitably throws the human condition into a state of flux or chaos.2 When this happens, we experience a sense of powerlessness and an intrinsic fear that we are profoundly vulnerable to those who have power. Some respond to this sense of powerlessness through aggressive behavior and bullying of others whom they deem weaker than they. In fact, many and perhaps most of us become conditioned to believe that the only way to regain power is by intimidating or overpowering anyone who is perceived as fragile or without power.

In a state of political, economic and legal flux where laws are made and continuously nullified, where inviolate human rights are arbitrarily violated, where greed and narcissism are considered normal and even virtuous, where increasingly violent film, television and video games desensitize us to the pain and suffering of others, where massive wealth disparities are structured into national and international economies, we inevitably cease to be oriented by notions of commonality and cooperation. Instead, we become rivals and competitors who readily take on aggressive comportments, xenophobic or intolerant attitudes and bullying tactics.

The legacy of 20th century violence, aggression and turmoil has continued in entirely recognizable ways in the 21st century. Perpetual war, carceral attitudes, gun violence, xenophobia, fundamentalist religious perspectives, racism, sexism and massive wealth disparities persist – and in some cases, they are escalating. At a domestic level, we have seen a rise in child, spousal and elderly abuse, workplace harassment and bullying, cyber-bullying, hazing and teens who inflict violence on themselves and, in extreme cases, take their own lives in desperation and hopelessness.

No doubt there are very local reasons and causes of violence, aggression and workplace or cyber-bullying, and we must always respect the unique circumstances of each situation, and carefully examine all the facts and contingencies. However, what is abundantly clear is that we also suffer under a more general and deeper apathetic malaise when we extol narcissistic and selfish attitudes, believe that aggression, abuse or intimidation is acceptable, or take pleasure in the humiliation, degradation and suffering of others. When this happens, we become morally disfigured at both an individual and collective level. In essence, we lose the capacity to orient ourselves according to virtues such as friendship, love, respect and justice.

The question we need to ask is whether it is even possible to restore or rediscover any sort of moral comportment at a ground level, given our present world. The wager here is that, although difficult, it is in fact possible. Implicit in this wager is the idea that we can change things on a larger scale when we think and act morally at local levels.

To adopt a moral attitude toward others is not to be enslaved by rules, ideology, dogma or fundamentalist religious attitudes, but rather to comport oneself toward another in such a way that we make an effort to think from their perspective, and not exclusively from our own. In this sense, moral orientations proceed not just at the individual level, but also at a social and political level where we are asked to think from the perspective of different cultures, genders, races, national or international interests and allegiances. To be moral in this sense is to refuse narcissistic or selfish orientations and resist insular nationalist or xenophobic perspectives.

If restoring a moral orientation is first about pausing to think, it is also about acting in the world in such a way that thinking can be realized in just and fair relations with others. We are, in an important sense, the sum of our actions. To become just, respectful or fair persons means that we think and act our way toward others in a just, fair and respectful manner. As the philosopher Aristotle might say, we become just persons when we do just deeds. In a fast-paced, competitive world, this will not always be an easy task. It may even appear insignificant or inconsequential. The reality is, however, that it is one of the most powerful ways we can individually and collectively transform ourselves and our environments. Additionally, to become practiced at thinking and acting in a just and respectful way toward others allows us to glimpse something fundamental about how we might intervene and respond to injustice or unfairness at a more universal or global level of thinking and action.

So what does the recovery of a moral perspective entail? Minimally, it requires that we think and act toward others in a way that encourages us to:

Discover and develop a moral voice.

Recognize and respect others as unique and irreplaceable persons.

Understand justice as solidarity.

These three elements or orientations are by no means exhaustive. However, they have the virtue of allowing us to see things from different, although inextricably related points of view. They also have the advantage of being orientations grounded in a fundamental sense of the moral as the enactment of thinking and acting from the perspective of another.

Discovering and Developing a Moral Voice

Discovering and developing a moral voice is a way of talking about cultivating the virtue of courage – in this case, the courage to resist a prevailing culture of silence and passivity. Many different social and occupational contexts press us to remain mute, or not to voice our displeasure when we witness systemic injustice, distorted and reprehensible language, actions, laws and policies. For example, when we are online or in the workplace, most of us tend to avoid confrontation. In most cases, this is probably a wise course. However, there are always exceptions. There are times when taking a courageous moral stand is called for – when we must speak up for ourselves or especially for someone else. When friends, relations or co-workers are degraded, when they are treated unfairly, disrespectfully or in an arbitrary and unjust way by others we must speak up for their sake as well as our own. It takes daring to act in such a public way. Speaking out is difficult and in some cultures subversive. However, it is also rewarding – and very often a transformative and humanizing experience.

What prevents us from developing a courageous moral voice? No doubt, in some measure we fear standing out from the crowd and we dread being left out or isolated by friends, acquaintances or co-workers. This is true in the schoolyard, the workplace or in online chat rooms and social media contexts. In the schoolyard, we have all felt the profoundly painful and humiliating sense of being singled out for censure or left out of a dominant group. In online relations, just as in the schoolyard, allegiances and rivalries form and we can experience the pressure to go along or risk exile and isolation.

In the workplace, there may be different reasons. In desperate economic times, the stakes are always high. The risk of losing status or position – of being seen as a whistle-blower or a trouble maker – is always present when one speaks out. In the face of isolation or economic loss, we look away rather than confront the injustice of favoritism or bullying. Instead of challenging prejudicial, racial or sexist views or remarks by supervisors, schoolmates, friends, family members, co-workers or union brothers and sisters, we keep silent. We swallow our personal grievances, go along with the crowd, censor our moral outrage or suppress the uneasy feeling that something unfair or unjust is happening. We rationalize and persuade ourselves that it is not our business to interfere when favoritism or bullying shows itself and that we can’t do much to change things anyway. This is the moment when we need to pause and think again so that we may retrieve a moral voice. Why is this so important?

Anyone who has been a victim of harassment, ridicule or bullying in school, in a social or community group or the workplace is not just someone who has been wronged but someone who may have lost the vocal power to articulate the wrong that has been done to them. This form of disempowerment occurs in various ways. It may quite literally be that the injured party feels threatened or embarrassed into silence. Alternatively, he or she may be able to speak, but their words will simply be unable to fully capture the sense of profound wrong that has been done to them. In a real sense, they have lost their voice – and it is up to us, as moral beings, to speak up on their behalf.

What happens when we don’t do this? What a culture of silence permits can be gleaned from the disturbing array of statistics:

77 percent of students become victims of one type of bullying or another.

35 percent to 40 percent of Canadians and Americans are bullied or harassed at work.

One out of 10 students will quit school because of repeated bullying.

75 percent of school shooting incidents are linked to harassment or bullying.

More than a million children and teens are harassed, threatened or subjected to other forms of cyber-bullying in online chat rooms and through social media.

In the end, to retrieve or rediscover a moral voice is a matter of persistently thinking and acting toward others in a just, respectful and fair way. It is about learning from and actively affirming exemplary persons who say to us by their actions: “No, I will not be a party to cruelty, bullying or injustice.” It is, finally, about discovering in ourselves that we are much braver than we might think. In fact, to discover or retrieve a moral voice is one of the most fundamental and rewarding forms of courage we can embody as thinking and acting beings.

Recognizing and Respecting the Other as a Unique and Irreplaceable Person

The second means through which we can recover a moral perspective is realized through thinking and acting in the recognition that it is always a person rather than an object or thing who stands before us: a person is a complex, unique and irreplaceable being who can experience joy, sorrow and humiliation and undergo suffering and grievous loss. As persons, we each have a history, a unique story to tell; as persons, we embody diverse interests, desires, obligations and allegiances whether at school, online or in the workplace. These aspects of personhood mark us as distinctive beings, worthy of recognition and respect. How does this sense of recognition and respect unfold?

As thinking, self-conscious beings, when we respect ourselves, we are implicitly accepting who we are. This does not mean that we never make evaluations about what we have done, or that we have no desire to become better persons. What self-respect means is that we have neither an inflated sense of our own importance, nor a debilitative feeling of self-hatred. In respecting ourselves, we are affirming who we are – and we are implicitly recognizing that this who, this person, is unique and multidimensional. In much the same way, to respect another person is to accept them for who they are. It is to recognize that they too are unique and many-sided. In a crucial sense, to accept and respect ourselves as persons is at the same time to attest to the other as, equally, a person.

Once again, there are many reasons that might account for letting go of or forgetting this moral comportment toward others. In the workplace, there are power differentials and competition; online, there is a sense of omnipotence and anonymity; in the social-political context, there might be rivalries and profoundly differing perspectives. In fact, the failure to respect and recognize others as unique and irreplaceable might seem inevitable in a culture that obsesses over celebrities and encourages the rampant desire for celebrity status through reality television. Moreover, we leave little room for moral recognition in a narcissistic culture that is steered by hedonistic consumption, global free-trade zones, corporate economic downsizing, privatization and deregulation. In such a world, it may appear that we have no alternative but to operate in a very selfish and strategic way. Thus, it might be claimed that our failure to recognize others issues out of the necessity of self-preservation: it is a necessary selfishness, because it is a necessarily brutal, competitive and selfish world. But what is wrong with this picture?

The problem is that if selfishness is something that issues out of necessity, then we must conclude that we cannot choose to act unselfishly. Even seemingly unselfish acts will tend to be interpreted as, at bottom, selfishly motivated. Perhaps we should not be surprised at this, living as we do in a world that valorizes profit over people and trumpets the motto that greed is good. However, the reality is that if we were to literally and consistently adhere to such a maxim of selfishness, we wouldn’t survive long as a species, and we could never, in any way, be morally accountable to each other. To experience discomfort at this point is probably a good thing. It means that one has witnessed people who engage in unselfish acts all the time. Anyone who has developed a close relationship with another person, anyone who has loved or cared for a sibling or aging parent, anyone who has raised or participated in raising children, anyone who empathizes or has felt the pain and suffering of others can perfectly grasp this fact. We want our husband, wife, friend or fellow human being to do well, not for our sake, but first and foremost for their sake.

As parents, we strive to act unselfishly toward our children as a matter of course. When we see them acting selfishly or bullying others, it bothers us – we do not encourage them to continue such behavior. Rather, we go to great lengths to instill in them a sense of sharing, responsibility and care for others. We know implicitly that they are capable of learning this. We also know that nurturing in our children a sense that they are connected with others also helps them to discover who they, as unique persons, are. To lose this sense of recognition toward others as unique and irreplaceable beings would not just be to become loveless and friendless – it would be to cease to remain a person. A world where we actually lived according to a rule of selfishness would not be, in any way, recognizably human. To recognize oneself as another, to see the other as unique, irreplaceable and worthy of respect is to continuously say no to the valorization of selfishness and narcissism.

Understanding Justice as Solidarity

The third moral comportment directs thinking and action beyond immediate relationships with people we know toward people we do not know. How does this sense of connection with and respect for others as persons emerge in the context of relations with those who are actually strangers to us? In family and among friends, it emerges out of love. But it is well said that the other side of love is justice. There is nothing vague or idealistic about justice. It expresses a basic universal human concern toward others.

From a more limited procedural perspective, to be just is to be impartial – to treat everyone as equal before the law. From a more substantive moral perspective, justice is made possible through the thinking and acting realization of solidarity with all other human beings. In the unionized workplace, solidarity is a way of talking about power in numbers and the collective struggle for reasonable wages and fair working conditions. But, as the best unions know, the word solidarity has a deep reservoir of meaning that goes beyond mere strategy, countervailing power or the preservation of local interests.

Solidarity, in fact, expresses an ineradicable existential human need for belonging. It presupposes that we are social beings who are intimately connected to each other, even if we do not know each other in any intimate way. It is not driven by tribal allegiances, but by deeply held universal values of fairness and reciprocity that help us hear the cry of those who needlessly suffer, or advocate on behalf of the powerless in their struggle for recognition no matter where they live, what language they speak or what culture they belong to. To understand justice as solidarity is to recognize both what distinguishes us and what we have in common. It is to grasp that we are a plurality of unique individuals, cultures, languages and races that share a common world; it is to internalize a fundamental obligation to look beyond race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status or disability and defend each and all from abuse, violence, arbitrariness, bullying and cruelty. If ever there was a positive moral meaning to the word globalism, it can be discovered through this very sense of justice as solidarity.

To conclude, the recovery of a moral voice, the recognition of the other as a unique and irreplaceable person, and understanding justice as solidarity are three distinct but related moral comportments. Each, in its own way, invites us to think and act toward others in a way that retrieves a more potent sense of moral accountability in our ongoing relations with family members, co-workers, friends and indeed all who bear the mark of humanity.


1 For an executive summary see . The report was undertaken in January 2013. Soon thereafter the government intervened and pressed officials to expedite the process and submit a final report by June of the same year. This need for an expedited process followed in the wake of the cyber-bullying, sexual assault and tragic suicide in 2012 of Rehtaeh Parsons of Nova Scotia, and the bullying, sexual assault and equally grievous suicide of Amanda Todd in British Columbia in 2012. Both of these teens were bullied by other teens that used the internet and social media as weapons of isolation, ridicule and humiliation. Rehtaeh Parsons mother was fairly unambiguous in her claim that the justice system failed her daughter. One can certainly sympathize with this perspective, but it is also critical that we grasp that the failure was not just at the criminal level, but also a social, institutional and moral breakdown.

2 A similar point is made by Naomi Klein in her groundbreaking book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador 2008

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