We as a society teach children that successful adulthood means being the richest, the prettiest, the most powerful, the most confident – or being a lifelong outcast. “[Children] 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,” says Jessie Klein’s in her book “The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools.”
Not all cultures focus on winning, Klein explains:
- Teams of Hopi Indians “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,” she says.
- Europeans value human needs as birthrights rather than needs that we should compete for. The U.S. idea that your income level gives you access to better health care and education does not apply in Europe. Everyone goes to the same doctors and sends their children to the same (largely free) universities.
In the U.S., we believe that competition keeps the system productive. And inequalities are simply 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,” says Klein. We associate words like competitive, aggressive, and powerful with capitalism and success. We also associate these words with masculinity. Klein even correlates the rise in school shootings with the Reagan “up by your own bootstraps” era.
We increasingly define people as consumers or investors – how they relate to money – instead of citizens and community members – how they relate to people. Disconnectedness breeds anxiety, depression, materialism, and even narcissism. The result: some of the worst social problems in the industrialized world: murder, rape, and infant mortality.
We need a compassionate economy
We live in a culture that gives little support to those who meet hard times. Emotional struggles can get in the way of both academic performance growing up and productivity at work as adults. Even if you do well, cliques and bullying from the cutthroat culture make the best performers risk failing. We grow up having hope for our futures after high school only to face an unnecessarily harsh environment. And we all understand this antagonistic culture. “Everyone is terrified of not ‘making it’ in a country where the safety net has been torn to shreds,” says author Mark Ames.
Most European governments provide a safety net. They take some responsibility for ensuring basic health care, education, housing, food, child care, elder care, and even indefinite unemployment if necessary. Six hour work days and four to six week paid time off mean healthier people. Meanwhile, Americans went backwards. The forty-hour week their parents and grandparents fought for turned into 50+ hour work weeks. “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,” says Klein.
When American parents hire out child care, we prioritize profit over human needs. “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,” says Klein. American parents find themselves saying of their children “I can either feed them or be with them, never both.” Nevermind not having time for community. The result: increased greed, loneliness, and isolation.
Yet productivity doesn’t mean longer hours – it means shorter ones. “Higher hourly productivity… 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,” says Anders Hayden.
The F word: Feminine
We as a society are afraid to trade in the hypermasculine – competitive, aggressive, and powerful – for a more feminine – cooperative, compassionate, and nurturing – culture. When we fail to nurture by giving Americans economic support, they become more stressed “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,” explains Klein.
So workplace bullying – aggression rooted in the idea that we must break the backs of co-workers to get ahead – stems from our cultural emphasis on masculinity. If we want to be happier, we as a society have to also value femininity. We have to more often trade in promoting those who are aggressive and competitive and for promoting those who show cooperation and compassion. As a result, we’ll trade in loneliness and isolation for connectedness, community, and well-being.