Bullying and the Serpent's Egg

Image: Elyeser Szturm


Psychoanalysis and the Frankfurt School to understand school violence

From the article entitled "It's neo-Nazism, stupid!", by Leonardo Sacramento, published on the website the earth is round, we feel called to enter into the debate and consider some points related to the analysis and position taken in the face of episodes of extreme violence that occurred within school institutions.

We have been working as a study and research group for almost a decade with the themes of inclusion and school violence, especially in the forms of discrimination and bullying.[I] Sustained by the concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis and reflections by Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse, we have tried to contribute towards setting in motion an analytically oriented social psychology; that is: our research attempts to investigate both the cultural climate that allows the outbreak of violence by one individual over another, as well as the psychic configurations that have been generated from that society.

For some years now, we have been investigating the hypothesis that the narcissistic personality tendencies of individuals have been accentuated. One of the consequences of this emphasis would be the search for relief and satisfaction through the annihilation of the other, who is objectified.

This has helped us to think not only about the horrors of Nazism and its permanence as a constant threat even in democracies – which have been shown to be, above all, merely formal – but also, unfortunately, about the predominant psychic structure in students who practice bullying. A similar psychic organization would also be present in those who practice femicide and rape. The harmful logic in all these situations would be that the other 'is worthless', or, as the Nazis said, they would be a 'sub-race'.

Therefore, what is terrifying is that a type of violence that has been widespread for more than six decades does seem to be related to bullying, not in the sense that the latter justifies it, but in the sense that, in both cases (and in the other mentioned above) there is the release of an impulse of destruction that knows no limits and goes on until eliminating the will of the other, which often coincides with its physical elimination, and, by all indications, dispenses with any justification, for more faux that it can be and tends to be.

We made this brief explanation to show that our point of view differs from that presented in Leonardo Sacramento's article. It states, for example, that: “Bullying does not provoke attacks. Anyone who thinks that is because they identify with the authors, identifying themselves socially and racially – a kind of veiled supremacism.” Perhaps the text wanted to express that those who are bullied do not provoke the attacks, on which we are in complete agreement. In fact, the hypothesis of an 'overflow', of an 'outbreak' on the part of someone who is a constant victim of humiliation does not have the slightest ballast with the perpetrators of the attacks that have recently occurred in our country.

We also refuse any “casuism of the psyche”, but remember that the pressure of the cultural climate, political regression and economic coercion are experienced, objectively, in the flesh and in the spirit of people and social groups. Our research has indicated that students who do not do well in academic performance and who excel in sociability, especially in the attributes of physical dexterity, are more involved in the practice of violence against their peers.

It never hurts to remember that the social exaltation of physical strength and certain body standards – characteristic of authoritarian and totalitarian-inspired social contexts, such as in the great demonstrations of parades and synchronized acrobatics exalted as mass events in Nazism and Fascism – is still sets up as practice in many schools. The trend towards totalitarianism also present in the school institution needs to be faced from the critical reflection of its professionals.

We live under the imperative of adapting to what is neither natural nor tolerable: since the presidency, FHC endorsed, with cold political resignation, that the social destiny of some would be to become unemployable, until the terrible machine-gunning of the petralha, there is a climate of greater permissiveness to launch the attack and aggression without a more elaborate justification, just because the other seemed to be more fragile, more vulnerable and, therefore, deserving of humiliation, since now the fallacy of that cake that in the future is not even supported distant would be shared with everyone.[ii] It started to seem 'natural' for someone to be 'eliminated'.[iii] And this is exactly the logic of bullying: it is a form of power in which one feels entitled to tear apart, to tear the other to pieces. Bullying is not minor violence. If the lack of tact with the other starts to be accounted for in supposedly tolerable degrees of violence, we have already lost the horizon of its combat.

The text vehemently alludes to the “neo-Nazi groups” that attract young people and are articulated in networks that are not so hidden, but that dominant mediation institutions strive not to see and not to let see. Like Freud[iv] reminds us, when we give in on names we give in on things themselves. We must, as the text does, call what it is by its own name and, unfortunately, under the veneer of a certain conceptual rigor, even the academy has been too hesitant to call its most ostensible manifestations fascism. Sadly current is the formulation of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno warning about “how stupid it is to be intelligent”, alluding to the well-founded arguments, manifestation of a “well-informed superiority”, with which the intelligent sayings contradicted “the chances of Hitler reaching the power, when his ascension was clear as day!”[v]

In this sense, we agree with the need to point out the systematic and unpunished action of neo-Nazi groups, as well as with the urgency of acting to demobilize them; we just remember that it is not appropriate to hypostasis organizations like these, accentuating their sect character and inflating them. The increase in power of this type of organization stems precisely from the fact that the destructiveness they embody is not their monopoly, nor are their ideals, their methods, their targets. They are in fine tune with the development of the very logic of industrial society in late capitalism. This seems to be what best explains a certain alliance identified by the text between this network that is not “afraid to appear” and the “police, the media, governments, the bourgeoisie and the middle class, including the progressive”.

The threads that weave that network are the same ones that weave, in a claustrophobic way, the social fabric. Supported, once more, in Adorno[vi], we emphasize the understanding that, if the survival of fascist tendencies (in the form of neo-Nazi organizations) against democracy is threatening, potentially more threatening is the survival of these tendencies in the core of democracy itself. Possibly for this reason, for example, traces of supremacism are often found in young perpetrators of these acts, “even if they are not formally active in a Nazi cell,” as the article states. Isn't this an ideology that is very accustomed to the ignominy of the struggle of all against all, prevailing and increasingly pressing in capitalism, which has long been used to justify its expansion?

This relationship of material determination between the dominant social rationality and forms of violence, such as massacres, is made explicit by Sacramento — on different bases from those evoked by us — in the important formulation that links neo-Nazism to the neoliberal ordering of society. However, entangled with such a formulation, we identified the argumentative risk of transforming the problem of these manifestations of violence into a generational issue, as echoes in the proposition of the text according to which “this generation [it seems to us that it refers to the most recent generation, native to the environment of the social networks and their similes, emphasized in his text] is more attached to neo-Nazism because it is the most well-finished product of neoliberalism”.

Yes, there is a need to understand how spheres of mediation whose notable advancement in recent years operate in promoting a cultural climate increasingly conducive to barbarism and how this generation carries it out, but perhaps there is no particular predilection for choosing in the ranks of this generation the testamentary heirs of the spoils of Nazi-fascism (which did not even die). In this sense, we remember that there has already been a relapse into barbarism and it happened before what is called the neoliberal era, although already within the scope of managed society and monopoly capitalism.

At the same time, there are many similar manifestations of violence whose perpetrators do not belong to “this generation” and the egg that hatches with the blows of neophytes was hatched in the political silence (and silencing) of previous generations, due to the failure to face the social conditions and economic conditions that allowed Auschwitz and countless other barbarities. Under the pressure that really intensifies — and in the deterioration of work this is particularly visible, as pointed out by Leonardo Sacramento — we witness more and more explosions of barbarism, but we cannot forget that its determinants are intertwined with culture itself and this is not something recent, as it is not the persecution of minorities, not even under the allegation that the persecuted group is “occupying the place that would traditionally be captive to it” — which in the persecution of the Jews was already in place. We do not emphasize the archaic traits of barbarism to deny the emergence of new elements, but to draw attention to the persistence of the old ones; which only makes the task of coping with it even more difficult.

In a context in which the challenges arising from the setback in inclusive education policies, the advance of technical education, the amputation of critical content, among other regressions, are mounting, it seems too risky to state so bluntly that the escalation of violence in the form of brutal attacks in schools “is not a problem of school structure”, as described in the text with which we dialogue here.

The reservation about the real lack of investment ends up becoming insufficient, because, remember, although we experience cuts much more frequently than subsidies, these can be (and were) injected to strengthen measures that are contrary to inclusive education, aligned with the fetishization of technique, the appreciation of meritocracy and alien to critical content. In short, investing in school education without any commitment to emancipation is nothing new, and any denunciation of budget cuts needs to be accompanied by an emphatic defense of education committed to emancipation.

Furthermore, it is possible that, under the formulation that rejects that “there is a cause and effect relationship between school structure” and manifestations of fascism and neo-Nazism, there is a tendency to underestimate how much the school and its structure were targeted in the past , and still is, by all conservative social sectors of the status quo of domination and by those frankly reactionary (here we also diverge from the text, since it is not a question of cause and effect, but of mutual determinations). We must not abandon interest in the school structure to those who want to ensure the maintenance and advance of their domination, relying on the aspects of the school reality that already favor them, encouraging trends that prove to be profitable and cutting down existing resistance potentials.

By minimizing the importance of constant attention to a school structure guided by democratic principles, the scope of broader social determinants is also minimized, as if these were not operated with diligence to be present in the various instances of social mediation, among them, the school. Even within the author's conceptual bases, it should be noted the existence of vigorous denunciations and rigorous analyzes of the hegemony of neoliberalism in the school structure.

We agree with the inadequacy of slogan of the culture of peace that, despite its impotence in the face of the reality of violence and its aggravation, continues to be the weak response confused with educational policy. We also agree on the need to impose very clear limits on combating these brutal attacks, which society cannot relativize. These people and groups must be identified and held accountable, suffering the consequences both within institutions as well as civilly and criminally, understanding that there are already enough legal provisions for this.

However, we differ on how these limits should be imposed. Noting the tiny possibility of dialogue with people whose personality coincides with what Adorno called the “manipulating type” – the one who conceives others and relationships as simple things on which one’s own will is imposed[vii] – does not authorize us to treat such people equally as objects that can be manipulated and eliminated. As educators, we are not allowed to suspend the cultural and democratic assumptions that we defend, which aim to safeguard the dignity and integrity of each one, because this is what we deem to be fair and necessary in a given circumstance – however costly it may be.

Otherwise, there will be no more theoretical obstacles to converting such assumptions into their opposite, as discussed by Max Horkheimer regarding the distinction between democracy and dictatorship.[viii] If there is currently a climate more conducive to the outflow of narcissistic impulses by destroying those identified as belonging to minority groups, our position should not be to equally destroy the aggressors, as this would only reinforce the tendency to be guided by the law of the strongest, retrogression to 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth', which is exactly what this group wants and, for this reason, is so dedicated to attacking and destroying democratic institutions and means.

Encouraging and/or tolerating the use of aggressiveness as a primordial and definitive way of resolving conflicts (including internal ones) prevents the elaboration of our questions and frustrations and gives rise to the coldness that encourages the replacement of aggressors and victims in a destructive order. As it is in this arena that those who are tormented by the possibility of a democratic life stand out, it is the prevalence of that which we need to fight.

It is no coincidence, for example, that schools, places of cultural formation and dialogue, and, therefore, of opposition to barbarism, have been the scene of attacks made mainly against those and those who symbolize the strength of culture and knowledge. that contest sexism, racism, misogyny, lgbtphobia, ableism, etc. The challenge, therefore, is to summon, in the midst of so much threat, sadness and desolation, the forces of Eros to create, as a collectivity, times and spaces that radically oppose the brutalized forms of existence and, above all, the social forces that generate them. and keep them.

* Herik Rafael de Oliveira is a master's student in psychology at USP.

*Marcos Natanael Faria Ribeiro is a Technician in Educational Affairs at the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of São Paulo (IFSP).

*Marian Dias is a professor at the Department of Education at Unifesp

* Patricia Andrade is a doctoral student in psychology at USP.


[I] More recently, in 2017, we formed the Education Observatory: violence, inclusion and human rights, which brings together researchers from Unifesp, USP and professionals from public schools in the region of Guarulhos, SP.

[ii] The logic of “sharing the cake” was widely used in the country's redemocratization process, and became known in the voice of Delfim Netto. https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/folha/treinamento/hotsites/ai5/personas/delfimNetto.html

[iii] Silvia Viana, in the work suffering rituals (Boitempo, 2013), strongly addresses this destructive aspect of social life,

[iv] FREUD, S. Group psychology and analysis of the self and other texts. Translation by Paulo César de Souza. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2011.

[v] HORKHEIMER, M. & ADORNO, TW Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Translation by Guido Antônio de Almeida. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor, 1985.

[vi] ADORNO, TW Education and Emancipation. Translation by Woolfgang Leo Maar. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1995.

[vii] ADORNO, TW Studies on the authoritarian personality. Translation by Virgínia Helena Ferreira da Costa, Francisco López Toledo Corrêa, Carlos Henrique Pissardo. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2019.

[viii] HORKHEIMER, M. eclipse of reason. São Paulo: Unesp, 2015.

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