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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

15.1 (Winter 2015)


The Polis vs. Progress



The Pristine Self: Psychodynamics of the Anti-Bullying Movement
Howard S. Schwartz


Bullying appears to have become a matter of great public concern, but there does not appear to have been an increase of bullying in recent times. This suggests that what needs to be understood is the anti-bullying movement. This paper looks at the anti-bullying movement from a psychoanalytic point of view. The movement is built around a normalization of the “pristine self,” a self untouched by anything but love. This idea is a product of anti-oedipal psychology, based on the apotheosis of an omnipotent mother and the expulsion of the father. It undermines the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Keywords: Bullying, anti-bullying, pristine self, anti-oedipal psychology, childhood


The anti-bullying movement came upon us like a summer storm. Everywhere was the belief that bullying is everywhere, and it is intolerable. Schools all over the place were moved to stamp it out. The President got out in front of this by calling a White House Conference. Under enormous pressure, and with the highest sense of urgency, laws were proposed and passed in forty-nine states (Clark 2013). To be sure, there is somewhat less publicity than there was a couple of years ago, but that probably just means that the movement has become institutionalized. Certainly there can be no doubt about its social power.

But where has this power come from? There is no reason to believe that it was generated as a response to an increase in the incidence of bullying. There is no evidence of that, and certainly it has not increased at the same rate as the incremental drive to stop it.

All this suggests that the interesting question is not so much what to do about bullying, but how the idea developed that bullying is everywhere and therefore is a phenomenon that something needs to be done about.

In what follows, I am going to make the assumption that the anti-bullying movement is of a piece; that whether the concerns are with workplace bullying or school bullying, the movement against bullying comes from the same dynamics. I think this is a reasonable assumption, given that all such concerns arose at the same time and have the same general focus.

At the end of this essay, I will discuss implications for organizations. For purposes of theory development, however, I will look at only one area of the anti-bullying movement, which is the concern with school bullying. This idea invokes the image of damage to children, and this is where I believe its emotional center is located and where it derives its power.

Looking at the matter this way presents us with an interesting paradox. which is that school bullying, in practice, encompasses individuals who, in previous times, would not have been considered children at all. For example, a New York Times article on the relationship between bullying and suicide, focusing on the case of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, relies on a study of “students between the ages of 11 and 22” (Schwartz, 2010b).

I submit that it is the treatment of people well into their twenties as children that provides us with our first clue about the nature of the dynamics in question. The anti-bullying movement treats people as children, whether they are, in any realistic sense, or not. It does not seek to limit its efforts to those areas most central to its concerns, but rather expands to areas outside of its core and bring its concerns along with it.

I will try to show that this would tend to perpetuate childhood and establish it as the normal way of living life, the corollary of which would be the diminution of adulthood.

Looking at the matter this way suggests that the anti-bullying movement is not actually about bullying, but about something much broader; and that the way to understand it is to get at the broader phenomenon of which it is part.

My claim is that the anti-bullying movement is an avatar of political correctness: one of a range of social phenomena that go under that label. It is, moreover, an avatar of a very particular sort. Political correctness, by itself, is a very controversial matter. It has its power, but that power is often contested. Almost anyone, for example, will acknowledge the category of things representing political correctness run amuck. Being against bullying is not ordinarily subject to that kind of check. To the extent that anti-bullying arises from, and brings with it, the dynamics which, once identified, almost anyone would be able to associate with political correctness, it can become the driving wedge of these dynamics in a way that is very difficult to oppose. If it is an avatar, it is an avatar of a very dangerous sort.

As I have said, it protects children, but it also reinforces childhood and establishes it as the normal way of living life, at the expense of adulthood. But there is a powerful irony at work here. Bullying is a perfectly normal way for children to relate to one another. The cure for it is growing up. Adulthood, that is to say, is the only way that bullying can be recognized as bullying, and thereby gotten over. The result is that the logic of the anti-bullying movement leads to a condition in which bullying is not eliminated, but made universal.

The Pristine Self

The key to my analysis is the proposition that the anti-bullying movement offers as normal what I will call the pristine self. The pristine self is an idea of the self as not having a boundary around it. It is not thought to have a boundary around it because it is not thought to need one. A person necessarily encounters other persons, but in the model of the pristine self, such experiences with others are exclusively a matter of being loved. We form a boundary when we need to defend ourselves against the negative feelings that others have toward us. In an interpersonal universe made out of love for us, such boundaries would not develop. But while this universe of love sounds appealing—and certainly the idea that we can hold ourselves entirely open to the feelings of others sounds so—such appeal is superficial. The boundariless, pristine self, properly understood, poses dangers to society that are very serious, and ultimately these are what I would like to bring to our attention.

My plan will be to first explain, following Schwartz (2003), the psychological underpinnings of political correctness, then to show that the anti-bullying movement expresses that psychology and how political correctness and the anti-bullying movement establish as normal the boundariless, pristine self. Then, I want to show the negative consequences of all this for social organization. Finally, I will illustrate some of these points through analysis of a case of bullying and anti-bullying in the US.

Oedipal and Anti-Oedipal Psychology

As I have said, the key to understanding the anti-bullying movement is political correctness, and the key to understanding political correctness is what has been called anti-Oedipal psychology (Schwartz, 2010a). But the best way to understand anti-Oedipal psychology is to understand the Oedipal psychology that it is defined against. That is a relatively easy matter, because it is based on a story that is familiar to us all: Freud’s adaptation of the myth of Oedipus, which here will be slightly adumbrated for our use.

As we all know, Freud tells us that, in the beginning of psychological life, we do not experience ourselves as separate from mother, but as fused with her. In this state, life is perfect. Mother is the world to us and loves us entirely. We thus experience ourselves as the center of a loving world, a condition Freud refers to as primary narcissism, and whose appeal is obvious. The advent of any degree of separation has the result that we desire to return to it. Mother, then, is the unique object of our desire. We want to marry her, as Oedipus did.

The problem is that father stands in the way. He has a bond with mother that does not revolve around us. We must get him out of our way, kill him, so we can marry and fuse with mother again. But there is a problem. Father is big and we are small. If a fight develops between us and father, it is not we who will kill him, but he who will kill us. In fact, he does not even have to kill us. He can cut off our penis, such as it is, and end the rivalry that way. The result is pure terror on our part, with the fear of being castrated being ever present[i].

What a quandary we are in! What shall we do? Well, it is not inevitable that we do anything. Some people spend their whole lives in a condition of castration anxiety, afraid that if they follow their desires, they will be mutilated by authority. But luckily, for most of us, there is another way. We can become like father, and then we will be able to have, not mother exactly, but someone like mother. More precisely, we will be able to have a bond with mother, as father has, and which we understand in the only way we can, as the kind of close loving embrace that we remember from our early experience. This program of becoming like father proceeds first through identification and then through the internalization of father’s way of approaching the world, so that we can thrive in it as father does, gaining love as father has gained love.

It is this pursuit of mother’s love, unconscious though it may be, that provides us with the motivation to do what we must do in the world, to fulfill the obligations that come to us as adults, such as the necessity to make a living through work. In this way, through our efforts, the world is constructed. That, taken all together, is Oedipal psychology.

But notice here that all this is based on the idea that mother and father are bonded in a way that we would like to have. Mother, that is to say, loves father. But what if she does not?

Why should she?

As we saw before, the child’s love for mother is absolute, and is based on her love for the child. For the child, that love, by itself, is enough to make life perfect. This must impart to the child’s image of mother, which we may call the maternal imago, a degree of benevolence and omnipotence that nothing in real life can ever match, nor to which anything can even come close.

Look at this from the other side. The infant’s image of mother, the maternal imago, is an image that mother can have for herself. As Lacan observes, the image we have of ourselves is always a misrepresentation. In the nature of things, we cannot get it right. The only question is what way do we get it wrong. This way is spectacular.

Seeing herself as the infant sees her, mother would be the fount of all goodness in the world. She would be omnipotent. Her love would make anyone feel perfectly loved and would be all anyone needs. Her very presence would make life perfect. After all, as John Lennon wrote, all you need is love, right?

Set against the prodigies she could perform, what would there be about a man’s accomplishments that could possibly register as being worthwhile? Even the best would be compromised, partial and imperfect. Indeed, by acting in the world, creating a world suitable to him, the father has taken away the possibility of the mother’s creating a far better world just by herself. Given her importance, it must be that the whole world that he has a created is organized around her; specifically, its meaning is to subordinate and repress her. On what basis could he possibly claim a right to her affections? In these circumstances, her attitude toward him would not be one of love, but of resentment.

How would this impact the child? Just as the child in the Oedipal model takes his cue from the mother’s love for the father, so in this case he would take his cue from her resentment. This is the basis of anti-Oedipal psychology.

One aspect of this would be that it would undercut his reason for admiring the father and wanting to become like him. The father has not earned mother’s love through his accomplishments, but has stolen it from the child. Instead of wanting to become like the father, the child would want to get rid of the father, in that way returning to the mother’s love by removing the barrier that stands in the way.

For our purposes, the crucial matter is the transformation in the child’s conception of himself. In Oedipal psychology, the child sees himself as a child, not yet an adult. He would see adulthood, gained through accomplishment in an indifferent world, as the proper model for his development, as a potentiality that he must actualize. It is what the child is to become, though he is not there yet. The identity as an adult is the person’s real identity, even though it must be created through work which one has not done yet.

In anti-Oedipal psychology, the model of the adult as one’s real identity, and as something one must become through accomplishment, is undermined and rejected. One’s real identity consists in fusion with mother, which one once had and would still have if the father had not stolen it way. This self would be without boundaries; boundaries would not only have been unnecessary to develop, but would get in the way.

What we can see here, obviously, is the root of the pristine self. Looking at the matter more broadly, we can see the dynamic underlying the anti-bullying movement. It is a maternal movement, based on the image of the omnipotent mother, whose absolute love is not only possible, but natural and normal. Creating boundaries in the face of an unloving world is not something one must do.

On the contrary, the unlovingness of the world is already an expression of its corruption. Dislike, or even indifference, is an act of offense—of bullying. This is why bullying is seen as ubiquitous. None of us lives in the world all by himself. We live among others. But if we take ourselves as the pristine self, the existence of others must be experienced as an attack, as bullying. So we experience bullying as omnipresent because others are omnipresent.

Now, in saying this, I do not wish to deny that there are acts of bullying and that there are bullies. There certainly are, and as such they are lamentable. What I am trying to explain is the way such acts are now seen as ubiquitous, even in the face of the fact that they are no more common than they ever were. I am trying to understand why they are seen as having a unity to them, as a malignant social phenomenon that is to be found everywhere and must be destroyed by contrary benevolent social phenomena.

This is an important difference. As I have said, there are, as there always have been, acts of bullying, and they are as lamentable as they have always been. Seeing them as omnipresent is quite something else. As I have argued, this view is based on a normalization of the pristine self, driven by the dynamics of anti-Oedipal psychology. Looked at that way, the anti-bullying movement may be seen, itself, as an expression of anti-Oedipal psychology; and its benevolence, which is so easy to take for granted, cannot be assumed.

My purpose in what follows is to call that benevolence into question by showing what is at issue in anti-Oedipal psychology: the attack upon the father. I want to explore how the anti-bullying movement, seen in this way, can have adverse social consequences, and serious ones at that—even leading, perhaps, to an increase in bullying, not as an increase in individual incidence, but, ironically, as a universal form.

The Pristine Self and Social Interaction

If the anti-bullying movement simply noted that people are sometimes overly aggressive toward one another and called for them to cut it out, no problem would arise. The problems come from the fact that it demands a pattern of social interaction based on the normality of the pristine self, experiencing the world from within primary narcissism. From within this framework, all acts that are not loving are seen as part of a pattern of oppression; all are of a piece, and all are, equivalently, bullying.

This a model that is inconsistent with civilized social interaction; it cannot be realized. It makes demands on us that cannot be satisfied and backs these demands with threats of powerful social sanctions, up to and including the power of the law. It thus institutionalizes organized coercion to which we must all be subject. Far from abolishing bullying, this is a set up for making it universal.

The anti-bullying movement undermines social structure. The maternal approach to the self normalizes the pristine self and primary narcissism. Within its embrace, we are all transcendentally important. The world is organized with love around each and every one of us. But each of us has what we see as the predominant place in this; others should revolve around us. The problem, of course, is that they make exactly the same demands on us. This would be a circle that has its center everywhere. One can see that this would be as contradictory for social order as it is for geometry.

Hobbes engaged this matter in Leviathan (1651). There he noted that there are three sources of discord among men: competition, distrust, and glory. The third is most relevant to us. He says

Glory·: Every man wants his associates to value him as highly as he values himself; and any sign that he is disregarded or undervalued naturally leads a man to try, as far as he dares, to raise his value in the eyes of others. For those who have disregarded him, he does this by violence; for others, by example. I say ‘as far as he dares’; but when there is no common power to keep them at peace, ‘as far as he dares’ is far enough to make them destroy each other. That is why men don’t get pleasure (and indeed do get much grief) from being in the company of other men without there being a power that can over-awe them all.

But of course if every subject is pristine, there cannot be a common power to “over-awe them all.” The result must be that

… for as long as men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in the condition known as ‘war’; and it is a war of every man against every man.

From which, he concluded:

Therefore, whatever results from a time of war, when every man is enemy to every man, also results from a time when men live with no other security but what their own strength and ingenuity provides them with. In such conditions there is no place for hard work, because there is no assurance that it will yield results; and consequently no cultivation of the earth, no navigation or use of materials that can be imported by sea, no construction of large buildings, no machines for moving things that require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no practical skills, no literature or scholarship, no society; and—worst of all—continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

This is a point that Hobbes made for politics, but it can also be made for consciousness, as Hegel (1806) did. When two consciousnesses come together, there is a fight to the death. I engage the world with myself as the locus of reference, and you do so as well. This is a matter of the structure of consciousness. But in doing this, we do not experience it as an issue of consciousness, but of the world. My affirmation of myself requires that the world be organized around me. As a result, your affirmation that it should be organized around you is experienced as threatening and intolerable. Hence the duel to the death, in which each attempts to replace the other, in the mind of the other, with himself. Each attempts, that is to say, to destroy the self-concept of the other. And it does not go too far to say that the methodology here is bullying, which we can see would be the universal form of social interaction.

Now, Hobbes proposes an answer to this lamentable state of affairs. It is the Sovereign, the common power who will keep us all in awe. But does this put an end to universal bullying? I think not. Bullying is still ubiquitous: it is just done by a hegemonic, unitary bully.

So what can be done about this? How can civilized social order be possible? The psychoanalytically inclined will recognize that Freud (1913) dealt with exactly this question and had an answer. We will all recall the hypothesis of a primordial horde under the domination of the primal father, who had exclusive access to everything good. We can see that he had the form of the Hobbesian Sovereign, the hegemonic bully, who kept them all in awe, and provided the basis for social order, tyrannical though it was.

But of course his sons didn’t like his bullying any better than anyone else’s, so they killed him. The result was, however, that they felt guilty, not only for killing the father, I suggest, but for causing the breakdown of the social order and letting loose the incipient state of nature. As we know, they resolved this by cooking the old man and eating him up, internalizing him, in other words; and this was the basis for social order, but of a different sort, which we may call civilization.

But what exactly did they internalize and how did it serve as the basis for social order? My claim is that the internalization was not so much of the father, but of the function of the father in creating social order, the paternal function. Internalizing the father meant internalizing his role, making it part of themselves. What is more, they all understand that the others had done exactly the same thing. This provided a basis for their cooperation in creating, maintaining, and developing civilized social order. Organization, which as Hobbes noted was impossible in the State of Nature, becomes possible. It is based on the exchange that can occur when the mutual acceptance of laws that apply to each of us in the same way is understood.

So, to conclude, if Hobbes is correct that the state of war is the normal state, what keeps us out of it is the mutual internalization of the meaning of the father’s role, the paternal function.

The problem that develops for our current concern is that the anti-Oedipal psychology inherent in the anti-bullying movement is an attack upon the paternal function. So, implicitly, the anti-bullying movement represents an attack against the foundation of social order.

To explore the meaning of this, we need to go back again through the Oedipus complex. I want to add a view here that is derived from Chasseguet-Smirgel (1988).

The Father and Social Order

The story of the resolution of the Oedipus complex told above focuses on the boy. The place of the girl is rather different. In Freud’s account, the girl’s response to the threat of castration is that it has already happened. Lacking a penis, she cannot become like the father, but must become dependent upon him, until, ultimately, her male child will serve as a penis. This is a view, of course, that has been roundly rejected by women, who have objected to the image of women as passive and dependent on men.

Chasseguet-Smirgel’s approach was not so much to deny Freud’s account, but to psychoanalyze it. Her central insight is that the image of the passive, dependent female is the exact opposite of the omnipotent maternal imago that we all carry around with us, which we discussed above and which we observed must be the most powerful image in the psyche. It must have been that Freud’s account had the unconscious purpose of denying this power.

We can understand why. The heart of all of our desire, whether we are male or female, is to fuse again with this powerful and wonderful figure. But such fusion also means the obliteration of the individual self. Our dependence on her is total, but she can abandon us at her whim, leaving us absolutely abject and bereft, undermining the very foundation of the meaning of our life. Freud repressed all this because it terrified him, as it terrifies all men.

Now, the little girl can live with this situation relatively easily. The mother’s power over her is awesome, but she can counter it because, in her imagination, she shares it. She can see herself becoming a mother, and in that way gaining the power she needs to mitigate her mother’s power over her.

But the boy cannot do that. What is he to do? He must, in his imagination, find a way to attain countervailing power over the mother, based on a dependency that she recognizes. He must do something she values enough to want to keep him around. But he must do this without the conscious recognition that this is what he is doing, which would maintain for him the terror that must always accompany his always precarious position.

Schwartz (2003) argues this is the meaning of male work. As such, it has certain characteristics that arise from the dynamics of this position. These features of work have something in common that cannot be attained in any other way. Most important is the necessity to act outside of the emotional realm. This makes possible the impersonality that Weber saw was the key to formal organization. For example, impersonality makes it possible to design work activity so that work can adapt to circumstances, rather than having its direction monopolized by desire. In its impersonality, man’s work is always a substitution, the direct object of his desire being elsewhere.

These activities have a premise that undergirds them. It is what may be called objective self-consciousness, which is a capacity and a readiness to see ourselves as objects, as others see us who have no emotional involvement with us.

Objective self-consciousness is the core of the paternal function. It is what makes it possible to develop rules that will apply to all of us, and in that way to be able to predict and coordinate with each other. As I have argued, the sons of the primal father learned to deal with each other on the basis of relative equality because each one recognized that the others had internalized the paternal function in the same way that he had. This mutual internalization makes possible the acceptance of joint responsibility for the organization of the group, which in turn makes possible the adoption and common agreement to be bound by norms: i.e., civilized social structure.

In all of this work, the object is to create something that the woman desires, which, as Schwartz has argued (2003), is simply to be herself. That is, her desire is to be what she is in her fantasy of the maternal imago: loving and omnipotent through her love. The meaning of the man’s work, then, is to create a space within which she can simply be herself, hoping that within this space she will love him and they will fuse. In other words, his aim is to create a boundary between the sphere of the operation of her love and the harsh and unloving world outside of it. We refer to this space as home, and the products of their fusion as their children.

Returning to our subject, it also makes possible, not so much the elimination of bullying among children, but outgrowing bullying by becoming an adult. It makes it possible to place in proportion the various slights and insults that all human beings encounter. This sense of proportion does not exist for the pristine self because, within its cosmic significance, all slights take on the identical cosmic significance.

Anti-Oedipal Psychology and the Destruction of the Paternal Function

We can now see what danger there is in anti-Oedipal psychology and the establishment of the pristine self. The primordial mother vouches for our importance and guarantees our safety. That is what she is created to do. However, she is not a real mother, but the fantasy of a mother that brings forward the time when mother was the world and loved us absolutely. Her meaning, therefore, is to make us safe as we carry primary narcissism forward and grow into what would otherwise be adulthood.

By committing ourselves to the normalization of this state, and committing ourselves to discredit or punish any impingement upon this pristine self, we in effect take over the function of this primordial mother. We enable infantilism.

Rejecting and destroying the father means the repudiation of the paternal function, which after all tells us that we are not center of the universe and makes it possible to understand ourselves in universalistic terms. That is what we mean by becoming an adult. Only within adulthood can we step outside of ourselves and recognize that narcissism is narcissism. In that we way we can temper the tendencies that grow out of it, including, ironically, bullying.

For this reason, we must temper the wish to enable the normalization of the pristine self among our children. We must recognize the grandiosity, and, on many levels, lack of realism it involves. The alternative here is to arrogate to ourselves power beyond what we can wisely use, and put ourselves in the position of hegemonic control that, historically, only the worst of bullies have possessed.

Let me illustrate some of this reasoning through the case of Phoebe Prince.

Nightmare at South Hadley High

On January 14, 2010, Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts high school student, committed suicide, ostensibly having been bullied to death. The case became an instant cause célèbre. This is from the article in the Boston Globe that first brought the matter to public attention:

She was a freshman and she had a brief fling with a senior, a football player, and for this she became the target of the Mean Girls, who decided then and there that Phoebe didn’t know her place and that Phoebe would pay.

Kids can be mean, but the Mean Girls took it to another level, according to students and parents. They followed Phoebe around, calling her a slut. When they wanted to be more specific, they called her an Irish slut.

The name-calling, the stalking, the intimidation was relentless.

Ten days ago, Phoebe was walking home from school when one of the Mean Girls drove by in a car. An insult and an energy drink can came flying out the car window in Phoebe’s direction. (Cullen, 2010 a)

Phoebe had been done in by an evil force, it appeared. Yet, evil as they were, these bullies who were “stalking the corridors of the South Hadley High” were unpunished and left free to continue their depredations, a condition that could only have resulted from failure on the part of school administrators to accept their responsibility:

The Mean Girls are pretty, and popular, and play sports.

So far, they appear to be untouchable, too.

South Hadley is a nice, comfortable middle-class suburb that hugs the Connecticut River nearby and a certain attitude.

“Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in South Hadley,’’ said Darby O’Brien, a high school parent, wondering why the bullies who tormented Phoebe are still in school. “And so instead of confronting the evil among us, the reality that there are bullies roaming the corridors at South Hadley High, people are blaming the victim, looking for excuses why a 15-year-old girl would do this. People are in denial.’’

School officials say there are three investigations going on. They say these things take time.

That doesn’t explain why the Mean Girls who tortured Phoebe remain in school, defiant, unscathed.

“What kind of message does this send to the good kids?’’ O’Brien asked. “How many kids haven’t come forward to tell what they know because they see the bullies walking around untouched?’’ (ibid.)

So when District Attorney Elizabeth Scheidle filed felony charges against six of them, including a charge against five of them for “civil rights violation” for calling her an Irish slut, “involving bodily injury” (that being her suicide), which could put them in prison for up to ten years[ii], her charges ran to great, even though not unanimous, applause.

A subsequent investigative report for Slate magazine by Emily Bazelon (2010) puts quite a different light on the matter. As it turns out, Prince, a recent immigrant from Ireland, had an unstable family and a history of cutting herself. She was a drug user, both of the illegal kind and of psychoactive medication for depression, a regimen that had recently seen an upgrade from Prozac to Seroquel (quetiapine). This is an antipsychotic with a known side effect of suicidality, which is not generally prescribed for teenagers for that reason[iii]. In fact, she had recently attempted suicide, before the advent of extreme bullying, by swallowing her bottle of Seroquel.

Bazelon found that she was a bit more of an actor in this drama than had previously been recognized:

The narrative that’s emerged since Phoebe’s death is that because she was new to the school and popular with boys, a pack of jealous, predatory kids—“the South Hadley Six”—went after her en masse. But that’s not the story the police interviews tell, and it’s not how many of the students I talked to see it. … Phoebe’s death “has been turned into this Lifetime movie plot. It’s so unlike what actually happened.” (Bazelon, 2010, Part One)

Taking a particular beating here was the idea of bullying as an organized, relentless force, outside of the normal give and take of mutual aggression:

What actually happened, in the eyes of many of the students I’ve talked to, is that Phoebe got into separate conflicts with different kids. That doesn’t excuse the other kids’ bad behavior in response to Phoebe’s actions. But it was one source of the trouble. Social scientists generally define bullying as repeated acts of abuse that involve a power imbalance. Is that what happened to Phoebe? “In the end you can call it bullying,” says one adult at the school. “But to the other kids, Phoebe was the one with the power. She was attracting guys away from relationships.” (ibid.)

The day of her suicide, all agree, was the period of the worst bullying she received:

Phoebe went to the library during lunch. She sat with a girl she was friends with and a senior boy who was helping her with math. At another table were Sean, Kayla, and Ashley. One of them wrote “Irish bitch is a Cunt” next to Phoebe’s name in the library sign-up sheet. According to several students Ashley yelled “whore” at Phoebe and “close your legs” and “I hate stupid sluts.”

At the end of the school day, Phoebe encountered Sean, Kayla, and Ashley again outside the auditorium on her way to the parking lot. According to student witnesses, Sean said, “Here she comes,” and then Ashley called Phoebe a whore. Sean and Kayla laughed. A few minutes later, as Phoebe walked home, Ashley drove by her in a friend’s car, yelled “whore” out the window, and threw an empty drink can at her. Phoebe cried as she kept walking. (ibid.)

A few hours later, she hanged herself, but it is worth asking whether, if she had not hanged herself, that episode would have seemed extraordinary.

The fact is that most of the bullying was stuff like this:

The problem with Phoebe’s involvement with Austin was that he had a serious girlfriend—Flannery Mullins, now 17. Flannery mattered a great deal to Austin, students and adults say. “Austin was an angry kid for a long time,” one of the adults at the school says. “But he had really come a long way. He was poised to get his diploma at the end of the summer. This thing with Phoebe, it appeared to throw him. Because he seemed really committed to Flannery. She was pretty well grounded and she had good connections in school with other adults. I think she was good for Austin.”

One night in early January, Flannery made an apparent reference to Phoebe on her Facebook page. In an exchange with another girl who brought up an event they’d both attended, Flannery replied, “Hahaha best night of my life 🙂 ya we kick it with the true irish not the gross slutter poser ones :).” A third girl asked if she counted as cute and Irish, and a fourth one chimed in “like meeee :).” Flannery answered, “Yes I love you … I think you no who im talking about :).” A couple of girls replied with a chorus of “hahas.” (ibid.)

Having looked at the whole picture, what strikes me about this is the banality of it all. Even the worst of the bullying seems, to me, to be well within the normal range of cruelties that teenagers inflict upon one another. This is a judgment with which the teenagers themselves seemed to agree:

… while publicly calling out a girl as a slut wasn’t condoned at South Hadley High, it wasn’t entirely beyond the pale either. A few of the kids the police interviewed reported similar incidents of kids “flipping out” on one another. One 18-year-old said she heard Kayla privately call Phoebe a “whore who wanted attention.” “I didn’t take what Kayla said that seriously because girls in my school get in ‘bitch fights’ all the time,” she told the police. (ibid.)

So note, along with Bazelon, the contrasts:

In her public statement at the end of March justifying the criminal charges against the six South Hadley students, District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel described the bullying Phoebe endured as a “nearly three-month campaign” of “relentless” and “torturous” bullying. But in the police interviews there is no evidence that the bullying was an orchestrated campaign or lasted for anything like three months. Scheibel also said of the teens: “Their conduct far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels.” This is crucial to Scheibel’s decision to exercise her discretion in favor of prosecution. But I haven’t talked to a single teenager in South Hadley who agrees with the D.A. that what happened to Phoebe was much out of the ordinary. They see the taunting and ugliness Phoebe experienced as a bad case of “normal girl drama,” as several kids put it to me. And though it’s hard to say so, because nobody, rightly, wants to blame the girl who died, many kids see it as normal girl drama that Phoebe contributed to. “Each person had his own conflict with Phoebe—that’s what no one outside our school seems to understand,” says Christine, the friend of Sean’s and Austin’s. “The girls found out she’d been with the boys, and true to high-school girls, they got mad at the girl instead of the boyfriend.” (Bazelon, 2010, Part Two)

Let me clarify what I am saying here. I am not saying that Prince’s death was not tragic, nor that the bullying that preceded it was not condemnable. Prince was certainly very unhappy and the bullying certainly contributed to that. The question I am raising is whether these specific behaviors justified the lurid presentation of school life as dominated by untamed bands of bullies, roving the hall and committing unprovoked depredations at their whim—or whether, instead, they were within the spectrum of ordinary disorganized spontaneous behavior characteristic of students in that age range. Bazelon’s evidence inclines us toward the latter possibility.

The question raised is therefore where the idea of bullying as a unitary, malignant force, from which Prince could not escape, came from. I think we get a leg up on this by considering that the worst case of bullying, described above, came from only three of the students charged, while the felony charges, five of which were identical, were leveled against six students, and included behavior that was not extraordinarily cruel by any measure. Evidently, then, in the mind of the DA, the mildest of the acts of bullying were seen in the same way as the most egregious. The only way one can see such mild behavior as seriously offensive is by looking at them in the context of a self that is infinitely susceptible to abuse because it is categorically vulnerable to any expression of offense and totally incapable of defending itself. Such a context has a narcissistic premise to it that sees a unity in these expressions of offense that is not necessarily there.

That is what I call the pristine self, and it is, I submit, the image of the self in the mind of the DA, who, ironically, was here acting as hegemonic bully.

So if what we are seeing in the Prince case is not an expression of bullying as an organized malignant social force, what is it?

I contend that it is no more or less than the social sanctioning through which norms are enforced. Moreover, the norm that was being enforced was an important one, and one that is hard to imagine being enforced in any other way.

That norm is the expression of a belief that sexual activity should be organized in a certain way. Beginning with the incest taboo, the psychoanalytic model (among many others) says that society organizes itself by regulating who can have sex with whom. Such regulation is so critical because sex is not only about sex. Rather, the desire for sex being what it is, its regulation provides the leverage for determining family structure and kinship, which in turn determine the nature and meaning of work, and everything else that takes place within those contexts.

The normative structure of society is a product of the paternal function, but norms operate through feeling, not through thought. Society obviously cannot depend on all of its members being able to think such matters through. Rather, it transmits norms, and must transmit them, through feelings of what is right and what is wrong.

And yet, it is clear, such transmission cannot help but involve pain. It ultimately has to be taught by subjecting individuals to sanctions, positive and negative, moral approval and disapproval, for upholding and violating the norms. But the burden of determination must fall on the negative of these. The positive is largely a matter of simple acceptance, which by definition does not stand out from the background.

These expressions of moral disapproval gain their strength, not so much as abstract judgments, but from individuals feeling that the organization of their own lives, including their security in the preservation of whatever good they have attained (as in their erotic connections), is threatened by violation of these norms, especially when this impinges on their own case. This is going to be nasty, emotional stuff.

So how does a high school girl respond when a new girl comes to town from Ireland and starts sleeping with her boyfriend? Odds are she calls her an Irish slut. And when the new girl starts sleeping with a whole raft of such boyfriends, you find exactly the sort of thing that happened at South Hadley High School.

And so we have explained the case of Phoebe Prince, and have done so without once referring to bullying. But if that is so, then how did it happen that the concept of bullying was invoked here, and invoked in such a way as to establish a paradigm?

The answer I propose is, of course, that when we invoke the concept of omnipresent bullying, we are employing the idea of the pristine self, which is not our customary way of seeing ourselves—and not a very good one, given that we can explain even its paradigm cases without the use of it.

But if we look at the matter that way, we may recognize something very disturbing, which is that there is a conflict between the idea of the pristine self and the social processes though which norms are enforced, even the norms that are the most important. The concept of the pristine self, that is to say, makes social order impossible.

But reflection tells us that this was implicit right at the beginning. The pristine self is inherently narcissistic. The maternal other that guarantees the safety of this self is, in fact, not an other at all, but an infantile image of what an other ought to be, a complement to the infant’s narcissism. There is, in this world, no possibility of real others. On the contrary, their very existence is an intrusion that shows up as bullying.

In short, it is easy to see that there cannot be social order on this premise. Either there is no “social,” in the sense that social involves the existence of others, or there is, as we saw before, no order. Such are the wages of the expulsion of the father.

Conclusion: The Case of Organizations

In concluding, I would like to draw some direct implications concerning the anti-bullying movement in organizations. Organizations are based on the paternal function, as it is manifest in rules that apply to all members of a given status, irrespective of who they are. But this stands counter to the pristine self, to whose models nothing can be higher than who they are. This will be so with regard to formal rules, but also informal rules in the form of norms—which, as we have seen, fare badly at the hands of the anti-bulllying movement.

The implication of this is that the anti-bulllying movement, invoking the concept of the pristine self, poses a threat to organizations in general. As it turns out, there is an illustration of this at South Hadley High School.

In the wake of Prince’s suicide, the school took a tremendous amount of heat. For example:

Michael Cahillane is a protégé of D.A. Elizabeth Scheibel and is running to succeed her when she leaves office in November. Until mid-June, when he stepped down to campaign, Cahillane worked on the cases against the six teens charged in relation to Phoebe Prince’s death, a spokesperson for Cahillane’s campaign named Matt Baron told me. Baron also said, “Mike’s position is that D.A.s wouldn’t have to bring cases like this if schools were doing their jobs.” (Bazelon, 2010, Part Three)

Bazelon thinks there is some merit in this. There were, it turns out, signals of Prince’s suffering, and Bazelon takes seriously the charge that the school was not more aggressive in caring for her. Others say that school officials should have known more about the bullying that was underway and should have dealt with it.

But if the case simply involved teenagers being teenagers and only looked problematic in retrospect, after the suicide, what exactly would they have had to be aware of?

If the involvement of the pristine self is the issue here, then the analysis of what signals were missed in the Prince case misses an important point. Anything can count as an assault on the pristine self, and if we are looking to outlaw anything that could set off anyone, that will come to include the fact that an organization is an organization.

Keep in mind that Prince was taking serious anti-depressant medication, and that this is one of the signals that was supposed to have alerted the school administration. But how would it have been with her if she had not been medicated? Presumably, she would have been more depressed, but there would have been fewer signals. This raises the following question: what would an organization need to do in order to ensure that every member of the organization, even the most vulnerable, is not hurt? How much of its attention would need to be given over to identifying vulnerability?

One does not want to pretend to have knowledge where one has only conjectures, but it looks to me as if Prince belonged in a mental hospital. That would have been the level of attention that would have been appropriate to her condition. But can a high school function like a mental hospital? Can any organization? Should every organization have to become a mental hospital? What about the work that other kinds of organizations, dedicated to other purposes, perform in the normal course of their operations? And, finally, who will take care of those who are taking care? Why would they be less vulnerable than those in their charge?

The problem is that the pristine self is an absolute. Having no boundaries, the existence of a world outside itself is already an assault. Recognizing nothing outside itself, it cannot step outside itself and look at itself. For this reason, the pristine self does not have any way of assessing proportion; any violation can feel like an absolute. Yet if we are going to insure that nobody feels injury, we must assume that everyone is infinitely vulnerable.

If we raise up the pristine self as normal, learning how to cope becomes anomalous. We all become helpless children needing our mothers. But there are no such mothers and there never were.


Bazelon, E. (2011) What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince? Slate Magazine. July 20.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, J. (1988) Sexuality and Mind: The Role of the Father and the Mother in the Psyche. London: Karnac

Clark, Maggie. (2013) 49 States Now Have Anti-Bullying Laws. How’s that Working Out? Governing the States and Localities.

Cullen, K. (2010a) The untouchable Mean Girls Boston Globe. January 24.

Cullen, K. (2010b) Standing up for Phoebe Boston Globe. March 30.

Freud, S. (1913) Totem and taboo. The Standard Edition, 13. London: Hogarth Press, pp. 1–162.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1964) The Phenomenology of Mind New York: Humanities Press

Hobbes, T. (1651) Leviathan. Amazon Kindle edition

Schwartz, Howard S. (2003) The Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers

Schwartz, Howard S. (2010a) Society against Itself: Political Correctness and Organizational Self-Destruction. London: Karnac.

Schwartz, John (2010b) Bullying, Suicide, Punishment, New York Times, October 2.


[1]This is of course the little boy version. The little girl version will be addressed later.

[1]In the end, all the students pleaded guilty to minor charges and received probation. In all but one case, the charges will be expunged on satisfactory completion of probation

[1]From the website PubMed Health, part of the National Institutes of Health

Why is this medication prescribed?

Quetiapine tablets and extended-release (long-acting) tablets are used to treat the symptoms of schizophrenia (a mental illness that causes disturbed or unusual thinking, loss of interest in life, and strong or inappropriate emotions). Quetiapine tablets and extended-release tablets are also used alone or with other medications to treat or prevent episodes of mania (frenzied, abnormally excited or irritated mood) or depression in patients with bipolar disorder (manic depressive disorder; a disease that causes episodes of depression, episodes of mania, and other abnormal moods). Quetiapine extended-release tablets are also used along with other medications to treat depression. Quetiapine tablets may be used as part of a treatment program to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in children. Quetiapine is in a class of medications called atypical antipsychotics. It works by changing the activity of certain natural substances in the brain.


Risk of Suicidality:

A small number of children, teenagers, and young adults (up to 24 years of age) who took antidepressants (‘mood elevators’) such as quetiapine during clinical studies became suicidal (thinking about harming or killing oneself or planning or trying to do so). Children, teenagers, and young adults who take antidepressants to treat depression or other mental illnesses may be more likely to become suicidal than children, teenagers, and young adults who do not take antidepressants to treat these conditions. However, experts are not sure about how great this risk is and how much it should be considered in deciding whether a child or teenager should take an antidepressant. Children younger than 18 years of age should not normally take quetiapine, but in some cases, a doctor may decide that quetiapine is the best medication to treat a child’s condition.

[i] This is of course the little boy version. The little girl version will be addressed later.

[ii] In the end, all the students pleaded guilty to minor charges and received probation. In all but one case, the charges will be expunged on satisfactory completion of probation

[iii] From the website PubMed Health, part of the National Institutes of Health

Why is this medication prescribed?

Quetiapine tablets and extended-release (long-acting) tablets are used to treat the symptoms of schizophrenia (a mental illness that causes disturbed or unusual thinking, loss of interest in life, and strong or inappropriate emotions). Quetiapine tablets and extended-release tablets are also used alone or with other medications to treat or prevent episodes of mania (frenzied, abnormally excited or irritated mood) or depression in patients with bipolar disorder (manic depressive disorder; a disease that causes episodes of depression, episodes of mania, and other abnormal moods). Quetiapine extended-release tablets are also used along with other medications to treat depression. Quetiapine tablets may be used as part of a treatment program to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in children. Quetiapine is in a class of medications called atypical antipsychotics. It works by changing the activity of certain natural substances in the brain.


Risk of Suicidality:

A small number of children, teenagers, and young adults (up to 24 years of age) who took antidepressants (‘mood elevators’) such as quetiapine during clinical studies became suicidal (thinking about harming or killing oneself or planning or trying to do so). Children, teenagers, and young adults who take antidepressants to treat depression or other mental illnesses may be more likely to become suicidal than children, teenagers, and young adults who do not take antidepressants to treat these conditions. However, experts are not sure about how great this risk is and how much it should be considered in deciding whether a child or teenager should take an antidepressant. Children younger than 18 years of age should not normally take quetiapine, but in some cases, a doctor may decide that quetiapine is the best medication to treat a child’s condition.

 Howard S. Schwartz, the author of The Revolt of the Primitive, is Professor of Organizational Behavior at Oakland University. His previous essay, “Religion Against Itself: The Revolt of the Elite Church of Christ,” was published in these pages in winter of 2007 (7.1). 

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