Liza Featherstone writes a kind of political advice column for The Nation. In the February 20 issue, "Walking on Eggshells" writes Featherstone to complain about a woman "of public prominence" who "uses politics as a form of bullying." To be specific, the unnamed woman singles out people she hates, criticizes their every mistake, and encourages others in her organization to "pile on." Her bullying behavior "has thrown at least one political organization into disarray," or so Walking claims. This is a tantalizing glimpse at left-on-left bullying that inspires Featherstone to comment on "a huge problem in our movements right now." To begin with, "people on the left feel paralyzed and scared" amid right-wing ascendancy, and on top of that "progressives are blaming their political impotence on one another." This isn't new behavior, even on the left, Featherstone notes, but as many others have noted "social media rewards this behavior" in some new way because "its neoliberal incentives favor those who come up with the most attention-getting insults." On the left, bullies "use a variety of hot-button emotional issues, all genuinely important -- Syria, racism, sexism and the recent U.S. election -- to foment division and denounce others for not having exactly the right position." Such people should be shunned as much as possible, regardless of whatever power or prominence they enjoy. Addressing Walking's complaint, Featherstone advises, "This person would relish a public battle, and you must not give this satisfaction." If she's a leader, it may be time to form a new group. The key is to ignore the bully as much as possible. "Bullies thrive on getting a reaction, especially a negative one," Featherstone advises, "Block her on social media ... do your best to ignore her baiting, even in public.We simply don't have time for such people."
Here the devil's advocate must ask, "But do the bullies really have as much time for you as you assume?"What, exactly, is this particular bully trying to accomplish? Is she trying to accomplish anything other than trolling people in order to get a kick out of the negative reaction? Most likely she is. Attempting to describe political bullies in general, Featherstone says two potentially contradictory things. Bullies "feel everyone is wrong except them, and they're temperamentally disposed to thrive on pointless infighting." But is the infighting pointless to the bully? Couldn't perceived bullying be a reaction to a presumption of pointlessnes? Couldn't there be something more substantial behind supposed bullying than the trollish narcissism Featherstone implies? If bullying appears to express contempt for a person, could that contempt be merited? Bullying, if we must call it that, may be exacerbated by 21st century social media, but it may also be motivated a greater sense of urgency to things in our time. This is an anxious but also an impatient age, and as anxiety increases so will impatience with those who don't seem to share an appropriate sense of urgency. It begins not only with Tea Party anger at the Obama administration, but also with Democratic anger at Republican obstructionism. That anger has intensified now that Republicans appear hypocritically to protest Democratic obstructionism against the Trump administration, while Republicans in turn see hypocrisy in obstructive tactics that Democrats seemed recently to think were wrong on principle. In both cases, an essentially democratic sensibility rages against the entitled attitude of liberalism and its "conservative" cousin, their refusal to see election results ( i.e. the will of the people de jure or de facto) as reasons to rethink their positions or prejudices -- or in simpler terms, their refusal to let winners rule. The American system tends to privilege the sovereign conscience, while our postmodern culture probably hardens an "accept me as I am" stubbornness to which many cases of supposed bullying between or within parties probably are reactions. The fact that people perceive more pervasive bullying in political life -- liberals naturally play canaries in the mineshaft here -- should be a hint that this bullying isn't just a matter of unhealthy individual pathologies. They are more likely reminders that, howevermuch liberals have tried, with some success in more peaceful and prosperous times, to soften the blunt force of politics, coercion, crudely expressed or otherwise, is an inevitable element of politics, and a necessary one in any polity where decisions are made and carried out without unanimity of opinion. In recent times, however, our culture has grown more resentful of coercion, but more recently still conditions have provoked a sense of coercive urgency in many Americans that makes that resentment more resentful. If you can follow that, then you might understand why we seem to have more bullying, and why you might feel a bullying mood yourself sometimes. For those who only see themselves as victims of bullying, things probably won't get easier anytime soon.