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The Emotional Welfare State

Updated: Jul 5

by Izzy Kalman (November 2004)

My “Turning Bullies into Buddies” seminar draws more criticism than my “Anger Control Seminar,” though the contents and philosophy are very similar. This is probably because I make it clear in the “bullies” seminar that I believe the very idea of a campaign against “bullies” is misguided and unethical. Understandably, some participants take this as a rejection of what they do as professionals. However, the criticism – and often condemnation – I receive is strongest when I present in cities that have major universities. This is not to say that all of the negative responses are unwarranted. They make me realize some of my generalizations are unfair and I need to temper my views. These experiences, though, have led me to identify the core of the problem with today’s society, and why the social sciences are inevitably hitting a brick wall in their attempts to increase human happiness and well-being. And the source of this problem lies in the universities, which are almost monolithically promoting an orthodoxy that negates the most important of all diversities – diversity of thought and expression.

What is this problem? We are trying to create an “Emotional Welfare State.” (I wish I could claim credit for originating this term. Though I don’t recall ever hearing it before, an Internet search revealed its use by Erin O’connor, who runs a website, Critical Mass. I found his article fascinating and I recommend it to you, too. You can find a link at the end of this section.) The more affluent a nation becomes, the more rights it is able to give its citizens. We spread the wealth around so that the population can increasingly enjoy the benefits of the affluence. Thus, we have a right to a free public education, basic housing, and living expenses. No one in the modern world need die of starvation or exposure to the elements. If you are poor but know how to read and follow instructions, you can easily access government services that will provide you with food, housing, education and medical care.

All these things are possible because the nation is productive enough to provide them. Now that we have done a decent job of creating a Financial Welfare State, the next step in our societal evolution is the “Emotional Welfare State” in which everyone is guaranteed happiness and protection from anything that can make them feel bad. While such a right may sound wonderful, it is impossible to guarantee. A right is a law. It is an entitlement backed up by society. We can throw around the word “rights” in an abstract way, but ultimately a right does not exist unless it is backed by the government. While a government may have the ability to provide universal health care, it cannot provide universal health, only the procedures that attempt to make people healthy. And while a government may attempt to provide happiness, it cannot do it. The only person who can make you happy is you, yourself. The only one who can make others treat you well is you, yourself. The Declaration of Independence gives you a right to the PURSUIT of happiness. It cannot provide you with happiness itself – only the right to try to become happy.

The Emotional Welfare State thinking results in the principle that “If I don’t know how to get you to treat me well, it is YOUR problem; you are a ‘bully’ and you need to change or you will be punished.” It is based on the idea that individuals cannot be expected to be responsible for their own feelings.

A Financial Welfare State distributes the wealth, but it doesn’t make people happy. The Financial Welfare State says that if you don’t know how to make a living, we will give you the money you need to survive. Many people, faced with such a choice, will opt for taking the easy money rather than go out and work to make a living. However, this doesn’t lead to happiness of those receiving the Welfare. They still live at a subsistence level and are deprived of the satisfaction of supporting themselves by their own efforts. Rather than appreciating the money they are given, they only develop bitterness over the fact that their level of material life is so low in comparison with those who are working.

“Resilience” has been a major topic in psychology in recent years. The Emotional Welfare State is trying to figure out how to raise children to be able to deal with the hardships of life. And how is the Emotional Welfare State trying to accomplish this? By protecting children from any experiences that might make them feel bad. However, it is impossible to become resilient if you don’t learn how to handle difficulty on your own. Rights, rather than promoting resilience, are the antithesis of resilience. Rights remove the need to become resilient in the first place.

The school anti-bully programs in essence give victims a similar choice. We tell them “You have a right not to be bullied. We will try to teach you how to handle bullies, but if you are not able to, don’t worry. It is not your fault, and we will make your bullies change. We will send them to counseling or expel them from school if they don’t stop bothering you.” Given such a choice, few kids will want to make the effort to solve their own problems. They will let the us handle their bullies for them. Thus, kids are unwittingly being encouraged NOT to become resilient and learn social skills.

At a couple of recent bullying seminars, I asked the audience, “Who believes children should have the right to go to school without being bullied?” Virtually every hand went up. Meanwhile, many of these same people are bullied by their spouses, children, parents, etc., and they don’t know how to make it stop. And without realizing it, they are also bullying their spouses, children, parents, etc. If we don’t know how to make the bullying stop in our own lives – and we are mental health professionals, who are supposed to be the experts at solving human problems – how do we expect to make kids free of bullying?

It is impossible to guarantee a right not to be bullied! As long as you are going to live with people, the things we define as “bullying” are going to happen. The only one who has any possibility of making the bullying stop is you.

Our laws against bullying turn us into bullies ourselves. Call someone a bully, and you have the right to insult them, shame them, isolate them, and destroy their futures. I am increasingly getting complaints that if my techniques are used, it could lead to lawsuits by parents who are angry that their schools failed to stop their kids from being bullid – even though the demonstrations show unequivocally that my techniques actually REDUCE the likelihood that parents will become angry, while making the children more resilient and happy.

Yes, we have painted ourselves into a corner. We have eagerly fought for laws guaranteeing kids the right not to be bullied, and many of us are the ones charged with providing these rights. Ironically, we then have to worry about being sued when these impossible rights are violated. As mental health professionals, we are becoming more concerned with avoiding lawsuits than in promoting the mental health of those we are paid to help.

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