A personal tale of trial and triumph
When I was ten my life was pretty sweet. I had finally acclimated to living in the United States after moving from Israel to the Bronx at the age of six. It was 1986 and my friends and I were all about baseball. Our New York Mets just won the World Series and Keith Hernandez was my favorite person in the world. But shortly thereafter my parents decided that the family move back to Israel. So I said goodbye to my friends, sadly retired my Mets cap, mitt and bat and replaced the gritty streets of the Empire City with the rolling hills of Jerusalem.
Reintegration into Israeli society was hard. I had no friends at the local public school and was different due to my strange accent and all around cluelessness about most things Israeli. I was awkward and shy, a stark difference from the typical Israeli “Sabra” demeanor. As a result, I was singled out by bullies.
Some days after school, I had a throw down with one, two or more kids, who were usually twice my size. Bullies gravitated to me because I was new, different and on my own. But I had my New York pride, which gave me a sort of inner strength. After all, I thought, if I survived on the mean streets of the empire city, I could stand up to a few bullies. I would imagine my idol Keith Hernandez fighting beside me. Together we would swing our fists and kick our feet. After many fights in which I was eventually joined by new classmates I befriended, the bullies had enough and moved on to someone new, someone they could easily push around. Successfully warding them off greatly empowered me.
Neuroscience of bullying
Findings in the neurosciences elucidate the effects of trauma on the brain and can guide the discovery of treatments for its victims. Understanding the neural pathways affected by trauma can also reveal novel and creative approaches to effective movement building, justice and reconciliation, which are highly relevant to conflict resolution in general, and Israel-Palestine in particular.
As too many children know, being bullied is a source of despair. A growing body of laboratory work shows that chronic social defeat stress (a scientific model of bullying) can lead to profound changes in brain and behavior and that social affiliation and interaction may reverse these effects. Preclinical as well as clinical work have demonstrated that re-exposure to frightening situations and people under neutral conditions, and an embrace of friendships and loved ones can blunt fear and even heal the negative impacts of bullying.
Being shunned or cast out can lead to profound misery. The structure and function of our brains clearly indicate that humans are social animals, and that isolation has profoundly negative effects on mood and health. Studies on prisoners who were subjected to solitary confinement show severe negative physical and psychological repercussions, which have led the Center for Constitutional Rights and the United Nations to declare it as a human rights abuse that can amount to torture.
Victimhood and the cycle of violence
Though our empathy leads us to focus on the misery of the abused, bullies themselves are more often than not victims too. Studies show that those who engage in abusive behavior were likely abused themselves, probably during early life. Thus, bullies naturally and tragically preserve a cycle of violence. This is applicable for individuals, as well as societies.
But rage does not necessarily lead down a single path. Victims of abuse can cope with their trauma in two ways. They can either channel their rage toward weaker elements in society and in so doing perpetuate the never ending cycle of abuse, or they can stand up to their abusers, who are stronger than them. The first option of picking on the weak is easy and can be a solitary endeavor; victims become abusers and in so doing feel empowered. The second option of fighting one’s oppressors poses a greater challenge and requires courage, resolve and social skills, as abusers are usually stronger and more formidable than their victims. For this purpose, victims must join forces and collaborate with fellow victims so that together they may form a winning strategy to overcome their oppressors. In so doing they would break the cycle of violence by refusing to become bullies themselves.
Individualism as a hoax
Western capitalist society is predicated on the notion of individual mobility within a predetermined hierarchy. Success is measured by the distance one has travelled away from his/her origins, family, community and roots. Capitalism requires individuation and consequent separation and glorifies the reinvented “self-made” man/woman as its hero.
Hailed as a triumph for freedom, individualism is idealized while collaboration within an egalitarian collective is frowned upon. We are told that the pillars of our society were/are “lone geniuses” who beat all the “odds” that were stacked against them. But these notions are not only factually and historically false, as many “lone geniuses” were/are highly dependent on others for financial, emotional and intellectual support, as well as base their own accomplishments on those of others; they also go against the very nature of our humanity as a social species.
In our profit-driven individualistic society, seeking out help and guidance is considered a flaw, while failure is always personal and never systemic. As such, individualism divides people and serves as a tool for supporting a status quo whereby certain classes remain at the top while others linger hopelessly at the bottom. In this environment, the only coping mechanism left for victims of oppression is to repress those who are weaker and more vulnerable, perpetuating a societal cycle of bullying, violence and misery.
The hope of collaboration
Keith Hernandez was a great first baseman, who was probably nurtured by family and a range of coaches. But ultimately, Hernandez needed Gary Carter on the plate, Dwight Gooden on the mound, Rafael Santana at short stop, Lenny Dykstra in center field and the rest of the Mets team to become a real champion. A team provides a background which not only nurtures genius, but also provides the ‘set’ for exceptional talent to shine, giving each individual a collective channel and joint purpose. Independence within such a collective is meaningless, and therefore the individual prerogatives lost are gained as extended reach. Just like within the Mets, it is only the unifying goal that enables people to achieve their potential and transforms an assortment of individuals into a winning collective.
The human race is in a state of crisis. Inequality is growing, our planet is dying and we are divided, lonely and frightened. Abandoning notions of individualism within a rigid hierarchical system and embracing egalitarian collaboration and movement building can lead to the formation of novel, transformative and sustainable approaches, which can break the cycle of violence and inequality. It is past time to embrace our collaborative human nature, and selflessly place our faith in ourselves as a democratic collective with a real hope for a future on this planet.