Oliver vs. Cleveland: Beyond Right & Wrong

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A graphic that reads 'Defy Labels.'

Judgmental labels are pervasive in our society. Did Bryan Oliver identify with the messages he heard and blame himself? Credit: Judy Rose Sayson / Creative Commons.


In the light of Bryan Oliver’s plea bargain and sentencing for the shooting of alleged bully, Bowe Cleveland, increasingly polarized conversations have flown back and forth about who was to blame and whether the sentence is just. I generally enjoy reading comments sections until they become too personal and vitriolic. Is the implicit purpose of commenting to convince someone of a particular opinion and is it effective to do so? Is it possible to be convinced of something just by hearing an opinion in opposition to our own or do we need to be deeply heard first? Do such debates serve as a forum for where the loudest voice wins? Some of the milder comments include telling Bryan Oliver to suck it up, that he deserves his sentence, and that there is no excuse for attempted murder. Other voices include exculpating him and holding the school and authorities culpable for neglecting their duty to protect Oliver from bullying and sexual harassment, and leaving him no choice but to seek protection and justice himself.
A vital piece that is missing from these discussions is how pervasive judgmental labels are in our society, and how they have contributed to a culture of shame and blame. (I am not talking about judgments as sometimes necessary evaluations which are a normal part of our psyche.) Adjectives shape our thinking and behavior, but they are subjective perceptions. Labeling people as good, bad, intelligent, stupid etc. puts them in a narrow box and omits huge chunks of their character. It also serves to keep the attention on the other person when really the nature of the compliment or insult is an experience of the person making the judgment. In a relationship, if Partner A wants more connection than Partner B, B may call A needy, while A may call B aloof or distant. Neither of these labels are necessarily objective. They exist in the context of each partner’s experience and their differing needs for connection and space. It would be more accurate and helpful to say that B is behaving in ways that do not meet A’s need for connection. (Based on Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication.)
One could argue that objective judgments do exist. Certain behaviors are considered good, others bad, but the step that often follows is that the person behaving in those ways is then good or bad too. The problem then, as Walter Wink articulates in The Powers That Be, is that we tend to believe that good people deserve to be rewarded and bad people deserve to be punished, and that violence meted out to bad people by good people is righteous and deserved – the myth of redemptive violence.
When I was bullied at school, I wouldn’t have dreamed of telling anyone, though I finally told my sister many years later. Victims of bullying were seen as, well, victims! There was and still is a lot of negative baggage associated with that label, like they have somehow brought it on themselves or if only they did this, this or this, then they wouldn’t have been bullied in the first place. Labels aren’t helpful unless we seek to understand why we’re using them in the first place. I will admit that I use them in this article though. I grew up speaking that language. However in using them I also hope to draw attention to their meaning, and to build a bridge where we can become conscious of our usage of such words and seek to translate them.
I have grown up in a culture of right and wrong, good and bad, and while it can certainly make logical sense to think and act according to those dualisms, it is not always helpful to do so. Helpful in what way, you might ask. Well, I believe that we are complex, multi-faceted beings, inherently ‘good’ as a characteristic of our essential essence. I believe that we have layers of pain that cloud our perception and cause us to behave in ways that are not always life-serving, but are strategies to meet unmet needs. If we can consciously find ways to meet our unmet needs, we are more likely to choose strategies that are life-serving for us and others. Reacting unconsciously to our pain is more likely to lead to our choosing tragic strategies to meet our needs that may not actually meet the needs of us and others, and may lead to more pain. If our goals in life are to dialogue not debate, to resolve conflict not stay stuck in blame and shame, to feel the organic outpouring of compassion for self and others rather than stay stuck in anger and pain, and to choose ways of living that are life-serving, then living in the paradigm of dualisms doesn’t help us with those goals.
I wonder if Bryan Oliver internalized the pain of being bullied and felt shame. Did he identify with the messages he heard and blame himself; because unless a person has a strong sense of self, it is likely that they will take on at least some of what they hear. And yet, something in him knew that they were wrong, something in him still believed in himself and was reaching toward the assertion that he was an inherently precious person regardless of what anyone said or thought about him. I am guessing that he longed for acceptance and belonging, to be seen for his authentic self and loved into fullness. I am also guessing that he was longing for justice, for someone to take action to challenge an action that was causing pain (and was probably rooted in pain).
Now let’s get this straight, I am not condoning Oliver’s actions. I am not about to postulate who the real victim was and who should be spending time in prison. I am not even advocating for anyone or anything but dialogue and a real understanding of how we got here.
I once heard about a young man who noticed that he had strong thoughts about sex with minors. He never acted on them but was very tempted, and wanted to get help before he hurt anyone. He had support from his mother, and together they saw therapists and social services. All he received was a lot of shame, fear and disgust. People did not know how to respond to him because they were unable to view him as anything other than a potential criminal. He was shocked and scared that he would have to commit a crime before any support would be available to him.
Rumi wrote:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about
language, ideas, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

If we can move away from dualistic thinking that keeps us all apart and not understanding each other, and talk in the language of needs met and unmet, we will have a much better chance of creating a culture of transformation. In a world of right and wrong, good and bad, we’re never going to meet unless it’s to duel or at best, agree to disagree. I want to make it to that field fast so we can dialogue, hear each other, and transform our culture to one with the potential to heal.

Elizabeth De Sa is a Quaker, writer, mother, teacher and Non-Violent Communication practitioner. Of Indian descent, she grew up in London, studied Biology at the University of Oxford, has lived in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and California, and now lives in intentional community in North Carolina. She is passionate about creating a culture of compassion and deep listening, where inner peace makes outer peace.