Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 30 March 1997; on the web by permission, August 2003

One of the best books reviewed in CNT last year was an economic treatise by David Korten, When Corporations Rule the World. Here is an ethical treatise to match, with a title that runs parallel. The biggest bully around, says Bly, is "a corporation depleting or poisoning the planet for the benefit of its senior management and shareholders." Bullies come also in individual form, of course. This book is aimed at transforming all bullies, both the real persons and the corporate persons-in-law, into decent folk.

No book I have reviewed in the last ten years deserves a wider readership than this one. It grew out of a course Bly helped teach at Minnesota on "Ethics in Ordinary Life." Anyone leading an ordinary life should read it, share it with co-workers, family members, and friends, and engage them in pointed discussion about the direction of change it recommends.

Many CNT subscribers will imagine that this book was written just for them. Are not Catholics often left in a state of postmodern wishy-washiness once they have abandoned traditional absolutes? Don't they often, in our deconstructed world, lapse into self-serving relativism, or what is almost as bad, into some kind of true-believer fanaticism? This book gently lifts readers to a higher plane.

Bly's ethics rest on acknowledgement of the evil in human life. Bullying is its embodiment: the pleasure one takes in forcing another to submit, the way a cat plays with a half-dead mouse, to the point even of extermination. The Holocaust figures here as a kind of archetype, and Bly cites some of the best books on it. She discerns evil, however, in any individual or group that enjoys enslaving, humiliating and crushing opponents, denying them their respective uniquenesses. There are chapters on "Genuine Jerks and Genuine Jerk Organizations," on "Evil in the Comfortable Herd," and on "Evil by Pain Avoidance and Psychological Sloth."

This book's solution to the problem of evil is blessedly free of preachiness and sanctimony. Bly is not holier than thou. She claims only to have gleaned from social psychology and literature some principles and techniques for changing bullies and toadies into people who do more good than harm. Her summary word for these techniques, offered with apology for its overuse, is empathy: deliberately hearing the point of view of the other. She spells out the practice of empathy in specific steps like stating back to the other in your own words what you believe he or she has said.

Bly also describes the kind of upbringing that prevents children from growing up into bullies and toadies in the first place. If adults affirm, love and respect a child, introduce the child to a rich vocabulary, protect the child's solitude, encourage imagination, refrain from insult, discourage groupthink, and keep the child's world free of violence, the result will be an adult less likely to acquiesce to company policies that wreak havoc on people and the earth.

The good life, as Bly sees it, depends on more than willpower. It is a matter of putting into practice the results of a coherent body of theory and research. Drawing especially on Jane Loevinger's and Lawrence Kohlberg's theories of personal moral development, Bly describes the stages by which a person can outgrow the bully-toady syndrome, learn to live with ambiguity and behave according to principles of his or her own. Therapists may or may not speed along this process of ethical maturation. William Doherty's helpful checklist for distinguishing good therapists from bad ones is reprinted as an appendix to this book.

Yet it is not the theoretical points or practical pointers, insightful though they be, that make this thick paperback a great work. It is how Bly joins the points and pointers to about 25 selections from contemporary literature reprinted here. There are poems by Donald Hall and Denise Levertov, short stories by Tobias Wolff and James Agee, essays by Wendell Berry, Joyce Carol Oates, and Katha Pollitt. The effect of these selections, both in themselves and as Bly discusses them, is not just to illustrate abstract ideas but to lend them nuance, subtlety and grace. No ethical formulary could be a trustworthy guide to life's mystery and complexity. The literary side of Bly's book picks up where the social scientific side leaves off. The result is a marvel.