Bully Pulpit:  Eliminating the Coercion we Enable, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Oct

 

  Romero 4

You aren’t those words. You aren’t the shouts and names. You aren’t the awful things spat at you like flavorless gum. You aren’t the punches or the bruises they cause. You aren’t the blood running from your nose. You aren’t under their control. You are not theirs.  Salla Simukka

They could give a number of reasons for why they had to torment him; he was too fat, too ugly, too disgusting. But the real problem was simply that he existed, and every reminder of his existence was a crime. John Lindqvist

Maybe you never considered yourself a bully, a batterer or an abuser before, but maybe you are — to yourself.  Bryant McGill,

Decades ago, George Orwell suggested that the best one-word description of a Fascist was “bully.”  Madeleine Albright

Though the headline event of the UN’s week was probably the announcement that Nikki Haley will step down as US Ambassador to the UN, the six committees of the General Assembly were now fully in swing as diplomats seek to consolidate gains from High-Level discussions recently held and resolutions previously adopted, while forging new paths to address ever-evolving development and security threats to agriculture and oceans,  children and indigenous persons.

This is also a time of many side events, smaller group discussions that focus on topics important to the UN but less appropriate for larger plenary settings.  Unfortunately, these side events often take on the character of “sales meetings” as UN secretariat officials and NGOs show off their reports and their expertise, hoping to carve out a large niche for the issues they represent and, hopefully, interest those funding states in attendance in writing new (or larger) checks to support their work.

Given this “sales” dimension, too many side events are primed to miss the mark, featuring too many “authorized” voices and seemingly operating on the assumption (false in my experience) of vast gaps in expertise between the speakers and audience.  Rarely is there sufficient time for discussion despite virtually every moderators promise to host an “interactive dialogue.”  In most instances, there is barely time left over for reflection of any kind.  Everyone with relevant policy or funding incentives has seemingly pushed their way on to the agenda for the “show and tell” that most side events represent.

But every once in a while there is an event that both ticks the boxes and tickles the imagination, raising issues that are both under-represented in the UN and have broader social and policy significance, bearing implications beyond the immediate report event and its targeted implications.

Such occurred this week at the launch of Ending the Torment,  an excellent report on bullying in schoolyards and cyberspace, with a discussion moderated by the SRSG on Violence against Children Marta Santos Pais, one of the most consistently kind, thoughtful and determined of all the special representatives.  The focus on her remarks – and of the report – is on bullying, the sort we mostly associate with “mean girls and boys” taking out their frustrations and insecurities on each other and, as Pais noted, eroding trust and social cohesion in ways that breed the “social isolation” that is now a virtual epidemic among adolescents, especially in the “west.”  As the UNICEF representative to this discussion noted, too many children dread the start of school each year, not (solely) because of teachers and homework, but because of the violence, intimidation and even loneliness that is likely to punctuate their return.

Another relevant thing about bullying is its implications for so much of what goes on – often behind the scenes – in the “world of adults,” including in our multilateral institutions.   The bullying we do in this policy spaces like the UN, for instance, is perhaps more subtle than what takes place by children in schools (and requires some rather intense scrutiny of UN processes in order to expose and address it), but it exists nonetheless.  We, too, practice forms of coercion that lie beyond our mandates and the limitations imposed by international law. We, too, employ levers of power to coerce and cajole, to remind states and peoples that the world can still be as unfair and unrepresentative as they had long-suspected it was.

The passive aggressive mode which is perhaps our singular specialty here at the UN only occasionally conveys its own coercive underbelly. We don’t talk much about the intimidation embedded in our own policy processes, nor do we take sufficient steps to ensure that member states (especially the major powers) are called out for their bulling beyond the walls of the UN.  In states like El Salvador for instance, bullying by large states, corporate entities and, at times, the El Salvador government itself have long conspired to shed innocent blood, endanger water supplies, denude forests, enable corruption and block inclusive political participation such that only a few could be considered to “have a say” of any consequence.

The “bully pulpit” which former US president Teddy Roosevelt helped to make famous, was considered by him to be a positive development, a way to ensure that he would always “have a voice.”  But people like Roosevelt – and like me for that matter – always seem to find our platform.   If we are serious about ending the scourge of bullying in our multilateral institutions as well as in our schools, we need to ensure a much broader (and hopefully safer) access to existing pulpits.  The voices of the entitled, demanding the microphone over and over when there are so many valuable human perspectives left unacknowledged, can bully in the places where diplomats congregate as they do in the places where young people congregate.

The “solutions” to bullying are elusive, as many speakers at this UN event noted.  In this current “deficit of kindness” moment, where “difference” is exploited for policy gain as it is so often bullied and otherwise humiliated within schools and communities, we need to get back to some very basic truths about how attentive we are to each other, how much respect we are able to demonstrate beyond our rhetoric. As Greece noted during the UN session, we adults must return to “teaching with our practices,” showing children that we are willing to listen, to de-center our views and prejudices, to recognize that the bullying in our playgrounds is simply the mirror image of the multiple forms of coercion that permeate our family and civic life.  Mexico reflected that as bullying seems to be on the rise in our time, especially prevalent in social media, we need to forge a “sensitive and genuine alliance” among all age groups more than we need rigid censorship.  The internet is now the medium-of-choice for our often anonymous and cowardly attacks on each other; but we adults, we officials and erstwhile leaders, we provide the fuel that makes bullying efforts resonate within our children’s increasingly battered psyches.

I am in San Salvador this weekend in part to encourage local participation in the sustainable development goals. But even more I am here to do my small part to celebrate the legacy of Archbishop Romero, once assassinated and now canonized in Rome but never forgotten by the people who grew to cherish his vision for the transformation of human and material conditions. So many in this country grew to embrace Romero’s own transformation from a conservative ecclesiastical caretaker to someone who lived the “good news” of a world still able to dream that all could have enough, a world where humiliation and coercion have been effectively stricken from the human lexicon.

The now sainted Romero had his “bully pulpit,” but he did not bully.  He had a secure space to share his voice, but he was committed to promote the voices of others.  His own status was secured, but he understood that the God he referenced was mocked by a world where some had so much and many others so little.  The thousands who filled the streets of San Salvador in the name of Saint Romero last evening – drum beating young people, indigenous mothers holding their children, people waving support from the stalls in the markets, reporters and photographers by the dozens almost not believing their eyes – were calling out a country that has been bullied for too long and celebrating Romero’s vision for a more just and sustainable world that their many footsteps, hopeful chanting and creative imaging helped bring back into focus.

If we want to end bullying by young people, it will take more vigilance from parents and teachers, more open-ended discussions with young people about their anxieties and fears.  But beyond that it will take a demonstrated commitment from all of us to end our own aggressive and self-serving policies and passive- aggressive manipulation of circumstances, renouncing the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of bribery and coercion that keep too many nations and peoples, minority groups and persons with disabilities, facing a pervasive if worn double threat – the half-hearted attention of the policy community and the full-hearted scorn of too many of their peers.

One of the songs erupting from the groups of marchers who took to the streets last evening to celebrate and pray, to honor and discern, was one about a small bird that, once it learns how to fly, never loses the skill.  Too many of us in these times, it seems, have serially-neglected to flap our wings.  The energy on the streets of San Salvador last evening was a challenge to all those who bully, to all who use their power and privilege to manipulate and coerce, that we will never again mute our voices or misplace our vision, that we will never again overlook our capacity to fly.

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