Home » How Do I Deal With a Bully, Without Becoming a Thug? by Scilla Elworthy at TEDxExeter (Transcript)

How Do I Deal With a Bully, Without Becoming a Thug? by Scilla Elworthy at TEDxExeter (Transcript)

Scilla Elworthy

Here is the full transcript of peace activist Scilla Elworthy’s TEDx Talk: How Do I Deal With a Bully, Without Becoming a Thug? at TEDxExeter conference.


I’m so delighted to be able to see you. In half a century of trying to help prevent wars, there’s one question that never leaves me: how do we deal with extreme violence without using force in return?

When you’re faced with brutality, whether it’s a child facing a bully in the playground, or domestic violence, or on the streets of Syria today facing tanks and shrapnel, what’s the most effective thing to do? Fight back? Give in? Use more force? This question, “How do I deal with a bully without becoming a thug in return?”, has been with me ever since I was a child.

I remember I was about thirteen, glued to a grainy, black and white television in my parents’ living room, as soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. And kids not much older than me were throwing themselves at the tanks and getting mown down. And I rushed upstairs and started packing my suitcase, and my mother came up and said, “What on earth are you doing?”

And I said, “I’m going to Budapest.”

And she said, “What on earth for?”

And I said, “Kids are getting killed. There’s something terrible happening.”

And she said, “Don’t be so silly.” And I started to cry. And she got it and she said, “OK, I see it’s serious. You’re much too young to help. You need training. I’ll help you, but just don’t pack your suitcase.”

And so, I got some training, and went and worked in Africa during most of my twenties. But I realized that what I really needed to know I couldn’t get from training courses. I wanted to understand how violence, how oppression works.

And what I’ve discovered since is this: Bullies use violence in three ways. They use political violence to intimidate, physical violence to terrorize, and mental or emotional violence to undermine. And only very rarely, in very few cases, does it work to use more violence.

Nelson Mandela went to jail believing in violence. And twenty seven years later, he and his colleagues had slowly and carefully honed the skills, the incredible skills that they needed to turn one of the most vicious governments the world has known into a democracy. And they did it in a total devotion to non-violence.

They realized that using force against force doesn’t work. So, what does work? Over time, I’ve collected about half dozen methods that do work — of course there are many more — that do work and that are effective.

And the first is that the change that has to take place has to take place here, inside me. It’s my response, my attitude to oppression that I’ve got control over, that I can do something about. And what I need to develop is self-knowledge to do that. That means I need to know how I tick, when I collapse, where my formidable points are, where my weaker points are.

When do I give in? What will I stand up for? And meditation, or self-inspection, is one of the ways — it’s not the only one — one of the ways of gaining this kind of inner power. And my heroine here, like Satish, is Aung San Suu Kyi, in Burma. She was leading a group of students on a protest, in the streets of Rangoon. They came around a corner, faced with a row of machine guns.

And she realized straight away that the soldiers, with their fingers shaking on the triggers, were more scared than the student protesters behind her. But she told the students to sit down, and she walked forward, with such calm and such clarity and such total lack of fear that she could walk right up to the first gun, put her hand on it and lower it. And no one got killed. So, that’s what the mastery of fear can do, not only faced with machine guns, but if you meet a knife fight in the street. But we have to practice.

So, what about our fear? I have a little mantra: “My fear grows fat on the energy I feed it. And if it grows very big, it probably happens.” So, we all know that 3-o’clock-in-the-morning syndrome, when something you’ve been worrying about wakes you up. I see a lot of people. And, for an hour, you toss and turn, it gets worse and worse, and, by 4 o’clock, you’re pinned to the pillow by a monster this big. The only thing to do is to get up, make a cup of tea and sit down with the fear, like a child beside you.

You’re the adult. The fear is the child and you talk to the fear and you ask it what it wants, what it needs. How can this be made better? How can the child feel stronger? And you make a plan and you say, “OK, now we’re going back to sleep. At half past seven, we’re getting up. That’s what we’re going to do.”

I had one of these 3-am episodes on Sunday, paralyzed with fear of coming to talk to you. So, I did the thing. I got up, made the cup of tea, sat down with a digital, and I’m here. Still partly paralyzed, but I’m here. So, that’s fear.

What about anger? Wherever there’s injustice there’s anger. But anger is like gasoline. And if you spray it around, and somebody lights a match, you’ve got an inferno. But anger as an engine, in an engine, is powerful. If we can put our anger inside an engine, it can drive us forward, it can get us through the dreadful moments, and it can give us real inner power. And I learned this in my work with nuclear weapon policy-makers, because, at the beginning, I was so outraged at the dangers they were exposing us to that I just wanted to argue, and blame, and make them wrong. Totally ineffective.

In order to develop a dialogue for change, we have to deal with our anger. It’s OK to be angry with the thing, the nuclear weapons, in this case. But it is hopeless to be angry with the people. They are human beings just like us, and they are doing what they think is best, and that’s the basis on which we have to talk with them. So, that’s the third one. Anger.

And it brings me to the crux of what’s going on, or what I perceive is going on in the world today, which is that last century was top-down power. It was still governments telling people what to do. This century, there’s a shift. It’s bottom-up, or grass-roots power. It’s like mushrooms coming through concrete. It’s people joining up with people — as Bandi just said — miles away, to bring about change. And Peace Direct spotted quite early on that local people, in areas of very hot conflict, know what to do. They know best what to do.

So, Peace Direct gets behind them to do that. And the kind of thing they’re doing is demobilizing militias, rebuilding economies, resettling refugees, even liberating child soldiers. And they have to risk their lives almost everyday to do this. And what they realized is that using violence in the situations they operate in is not only less humane, but it’s less effective than using methods that connect people with people, that rebuild. And I think that the US military is finally beginning to get this.

Up to now, their counter-terrorism policy has been to kill insurgents at almost any cost. And if civilians get in the way, that’s written as “collateral damage.” And this is so infuriating and humiliating for the population of Afghanistan that it makes recruitment for Al Qaeda very easy when people are so disgusted by, for example, the burning of the Qur’an.

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