Changing the Bully Who Rules the World : Reading and Thinking about Ethics


Bosses, partners, governments, corporations - all can act as bullies in our lives, intimidating us to their will. But changing their behavior may be in our power. In this provocative, visionary book, Carol Bly examines some of this century's most far-ranging concepts about how to nurture ethical human beings and presents them through the lens of excellent contemporary literature. Changing the Bully Who Rules the World is a book of hopeful, practical ideas that can hasten ethical change both in our thinking and in...
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Bosses, partners, governments, corporations - all can act as bullies in our lives, intimidating us to their will. But changing their behavior may be in our power. In this provocative, visionary book, Carol Bly examines some of this century's most far-ranging concepts about how to nurture ethical human beings and presents them through the lens of excellent contemporary literature. Changing the Bully Who Rules the World is a book of hopeful, practical ideas that can hasten ethical change both in our thinking and in our behavior. Through an anthology of exceptional literature, Bly's book asks the reader to contemplate anew the voices she presents - including works by Charles Baxter, Donald Hall, Jim Harrison, Mark Helprin, Denise Levertov, Thomas McGrath, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Oliver, Katha Pollitt, Alice Walker, Tobias Wolff, and many others - and to consider them in terms of the ideas of important thinkers in human behavior and our own experiences.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Some people are plainly evil. Mass popular education and growing prosperity have not prevented the Holocaust, race riots, and mindless domestic violence. Bly, an author and promoter of co-operation between teachers and social workers, thinks we know more than we are willing to admit. We have not used our knowledge of social psychology or exploited the riches of literature as a device for reconceptualizing and understanding our lives. There is good writing here by Joyce Carol Oates, James Agee, Tobias Wolff, and many othersand the aim is for us to use it. Bly feels that we should try to interact with the characters in literature, try to assess the long-range impact of all our decisions on the lives of others and develop coherent accounts of our own values. More historical understanding and a little formal philosophical analysis would have improved the book, but ordinary readers will find help and comfort here. Recommended for public libraries.Leslie Armour, Univ. of Ottawa
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781571312051
  • Publisher: Milkweed Editions
  • Publication date: 9/5/1996
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 535
  • Product dimensions: 6.05 (w) x 9.01 (h) x 1.59 (d)

Read an Excerpt


This book includes an anthology of first-rate literature, offered with a description of hopeful, elegant ideas from recent work in the helping professions of psychotherapy and social work.

    Most of the discussion is about the stories and poems, and the social theories they touch upon. The essays in this collection are largely self-explanatory, and therefore are mentioned in connection with their own themes and wisdom.

    My purpose in writing Changing the Bully Who Rules the World was to show general readers that some of the past half-century's most important insights and strategies about ethics come not from philosophy or political science but from social psychology. With no real home in the universities, helping professionals, in their offices, clinics, and conferences, have been developing several kinds of expertise for systemic change. Their amazing insights and experiences are waiting to be translated into action in our businesses, schools, civic organizations, and churches. If enough of us apply these new methods we have a real chance of transforming the age-old behaviors of bullying and coercion. What is most hopeful is that the modern breed of helping professionals offers methods for transforming privileged predators in nice clothes and nice places as well as ordinary bullies.

    For centuries slave owners enslaved people. The process was normal and the slave owners were imperturbable. We don't practice slavery now in most countries, and nobody thinks slavery is acceptable. For centuries bullies in high places have felt entitled to push other peoplearound. They have felt entitled to cheat little people of their life earnings. Now that there is some technology for changing their behavior, I suggest we pick it up and use it. Perhaps, soon, white-collar bullying, like slavery, will no longer be acceptable.


Let us imagine that we are members of a very nice, classically educated, sensitive American family. Our Airedale, a terrific pet because she is big and romping and full of moxie, has mixed it up with a porcupine in the woods. Her face and paws are full of quills. She has dragged herself home, whining piteously, frantically snapping at such quills as she can get her teeth on. But dozens of other quills have dug themselves into her mouth and under her chin. Both parents have tried to yank out some quills, but God made porcupines as well as dogs so the quills are hook-shaped in order (a) to hurt when they go in and (b) once in to stay stuck so that the attacker will get infected and die.

    The children of the family grieve. The Airedale goes into a fever. "Do something, Mom! Do something, Dad!" they cry. The parents shake their heads sadly. The mother is literary, so after she has consoled her children as well as she can, she slips into her study and works on a poem about destiny. The poem is on how dogs are as vulnerable to their destinies as human beings are to theirs. We share this terrifying mortality.

    The father of the family gathers the children on the sofa. In a grave and loving way he tells them this is life. There is nothing one can do when life shows its claws. The darn thing is, he tells them, that it is in the nature of dogs to go after porcupines. And it is in the nature of porcupines to use such tools as they have—and powerful tools they are, too!—to save themselves. We love our Airedale, the father says, but the porcupine doesn't, love our Airedale. This kind of trouble, the nice dad says gently, is an eternal verity. It is the essential fate. We don't want to get into denial here—we acknowledge we are sad—but we move on because there is nothing we can do.

    The children listen. Into their minds seeps this idea: Dad and Mom tell us the truths we need about life. These truths stay true forever. In the eighteenth century, porcupine quills killed dogs. In the nineteenth century, porcupine quills killed dogs. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, quills will kill dogs.

    There is such dignity in eternal truths. The children feel it. They are horribly sad about the dog, but they also feel that Dad is giving strength to their own characters. The children already have noticed that the gloomier the eternal truth one hears the more dignified its ambience.

    The children's minds are recording. The tape they make says, Dad and Mom, who are the spokespeople of our culture so far as we are concerned, have told us directly that they cannot save our dog. In their kind authority they have told us indirectly that quills cannot be got out of pet dogs. They have shared our sadness. We feel wonderfully close to Mom and Dad. "Poor girl," Dad says, on his knees now, touching the Airedale's burning nose.

    Next day, fortunately before the dog died, an uninvited neighbor shows up as a guest. She takes a look and says, "Poor girl," in the same compassionate tone in which the father had said it. She is a veterinarian, so she removes a syringe from her bag, measures out 3 cc of ketamine and Valium, injects it into the dog's paw, and supports her head as it sinks to the floor. With surgical pliers the neighbor depresses each quill to break its vacuum and then removes it. Finally, she swabs the worst places with a disinfectant. After a while the Airedale wakes up, totters around, and in a half hour rejoices.

    If we have been educated to "eternal truths," sad or happy interpretations of life that stay put, we may have wonderful liberal arts educations but, like the Airedale owners, we may be losing some winnable battles. Here is an example. In 1994 four experts on international affairs were being interviewed on public television about various aspects of Nazi Germany. One of them announced in a grave tone that "of course"—and he used those words—"there is no way we can know why the German people allowed and followed Adolf Hitler."

    The others nodded sagely. These were men educated in the liberal arts and in political science, but they were utterly ignorant of the large, large body of psychological work in ethics that has been done. Not only are there several likely explanations for why the German people followed and loved Hitler, but some of the psychologists and stage-developmentalists who have investigated Nazi personality structures have drawn psychological parallels to other group phenomena. These findings are already of great use to us all. If we do not close our eyes to them we will find innumerable ways to head off or transform those Nazi characteristics that rightly frighten us.

    My own education was in the liberal arts, so I have been late coming to the good of psychology and ethics. The thinkers about Nazi Germany who have surprised me with hope are Bruno Bettelheim, Hannah Arendt, Robert Jay Lifton and Eric Markusen, and Ervin Staub. Some thinkers about group psychology—how normal people do either evil or good in groups-have given me some rough insights that offer hope. They are Irving Janis, Irvin Yalom, and Murray Bowen. Some thinkers write about how human beings refine their perceptions, and it follows, their character, by growing from stage to stage. Those who have moved me and to whom I am most grateful are Erik Erikson, Tom Kitwood, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Jane Loevinger.

    Some thinkers who do not write about Nazi Germany or about group psychology as such, or about stage development as such, have germane, immeasurable wisdom to offer: they are the psychotherapists and social workers who have deliberately studied the conversations between people. They now know that certain conversations are not "just common sense" or "just common courtesy." They have learned, and they model to their clients, a style of conversation between human beings for which Americans know only the name: it is empathy.

    Why bring up a word that we are mostly sick to death of, even if we don't know what it means? When people get as sick of a word as most people are of the word empathy, they suppose that they do know what it means. Unfortunately, most people think that the word empathy means some slightly fancier kind of general sympathy.

    I bring up empathy because a major position of this book is that when a person of indifferent or little ethical development can be mentored or patented or both by someone who will practice empathy with him or her—not just vague niceness, but real empathy—that person will move more quickly into the next more desirable ethical stage.

    For the sake of clarity, here is an example of anti-empathy—that is, here is a young man speaking who had been motivated by parent and school teachers, but in early adolescence (in the streets) abandoned every potential empathic situation in order to validate himself with a brutal peer group. In brief, his adolescence reversed the ideal growth process.

Through those guys, I discovered the strength and solace in camaraderie. It was a confidence booster, a steady support for my fragile self-esteem. Alone, I was afraid of the world and insecure. But I felt cockier and surer of myself when hanging with my boys. I think we all felt more courageous when we hung together. We did things in groups that we'd never try alone....
    After I started hanging, the purpose of school changed completely for me. It seemed more like a social arena than someplace to learn. The academic rigors lost their luster and the reward of making the honor roll just wasn't the same.

    Later, the author takes his place near the end of the line in a gang rape, or "train," being run on a girl named Vanessa:

While hovering near Vanessa, I remembered how Scobe had disgraced that guy. I wasn't about to let that happen to me. I wasn't about to let it be said that I was scared of pussy. I took a deep breath and tried to relax and free my mind....
    After a few miserable minutes, I got up and signaled for the next man to take his turn.
    While straightening my pants, I walked over to a corner, where two or three dudes stood, grinning proudly. Somebody whispered, "That shit is good, ain't it?"
    I said, "Yeah, man. That shit is good." Actually, I felt sick and unclean.


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Table of Contents

I Good News about Leaders and Followers 3
Ode for the American Dead in Asia 4
Dead Games 6
Lilies 21
II Leaving the Casual Brutality of Nature 47
Against Nature 48
III The Brutality of Lucky Predators 69
Cider [actual symbol not reproducible] a Glass 70
IV Good News of the Twentieth Century: We Can Combine Stage-Development Philosophy with Empathy, Partialization, and Story 115
A Mother's Tale 116
Marooned on Gilligan's Island: Are Women Morally Superior to Men? 137
Solving for Pattern 154
V The Psychological and Moral Habitats of American Children and Adults 215
The Woman Lit by Fireflies 216
White Canyon 272
VI Genuine Jerks and Genuine Jerk Organizations 319
The Soft Core 320
Dismantling the Castle 331
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs 332
VII Evil in the Comfortable Herd 373
"The Vote Is Now," illustration by Helen E. Hokinson, from The New Yorker 374
VIII Evil by Pain Aviodance and Psychological Sloth 391
A Story about Chicken Soup 392
Brothers and Sisters 394
IX Culture and Enthusiasm: A Secret Kept from Most People 421
Gryphon 422
Above Everything 439
Like Loving Chekhov 440
The Schreuderspitze 442
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World 470
Poem in Three Parts 472
Daddy Longlegs 473
The Undeclared Major 474
Appendix 513
App A Small Reading List 515
App Some Milestone of Ego Development, from Jane Leovinger, Ego Development: Conceptions and Theories 517
App Comparison of Rogers's Process of Psychotherapy with Ego Development, from Jane Loevinger, Ego Development: Conceptions and Theories 519
App Stage Development of Motives and Values, from Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice 521
App The Six Moral Stages, from Lawrence Kohlberg, in Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research, and Social Issues 522
App A Sequence in Growth in Interpersonal Style as a Result of Group Therapy, from Irvin D. Yalom, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy 524
App Two Math Problems Set to High School Students in Nazi Germany, quoted by Robert Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis 526
App Women of Los Alamos during World War II: Some of Their Views 527
App Finding a Good Therapist and Creating Moral Communities among Therapists from William J. Doherty, Soul Searching: Why Psychotherapy Must Promote Moral Responsibility 528
App Empathy in Literature: A Sequence of Five Steps in Empathy 537
App Shakespeare and the Psychological Work of Listing Particulars: An Excerpt from Henry VI, part 3, act 2, scene 5 538
List of Readings 541
Cited Works 544
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