“Have You No Sense of Decency?”

If we call a bully out, it can wake us to decide that enough is enough.

Posted Jun 10, 2019

Social empathy calls for us to consider the feelings of others on a broad scale. It asks us to consider the lived experiences of others who are different from us and who belong to different groups. With that insight, we can see others in meaningful ways. One way to build social empathy is to challenge public bullying.

Public Bullying 

What is public bullying? It is often cloaked in political rhetoric, but it puts one group down as inferior and makes claims about the characteristics of that group that are often difficult to prove. Sometimes public bullying uses outright lies, such as linking a social group to negative behaviors. This type of bullying relies on stereotypes and repeating those stereotypes as if they are true. Bullying prevents seeing others in meaningful ways.  

Public bullying by elected officials is not new. From 1950 to 1954, Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy became famous with his allegations that Communists had infiltrated federal government agencies. He spent years “hunting” Communists, using his platform as a U.S. Senate committee chairman to create blacklists and publicly claim without true evidence that individuals who he did not trust or like were traitors. The result of his work was to destroy the careers of countless people. 

Finally, in 1954, he went too far. McCarthy took on the U.S. Army, claiming it was infiltrated by Communists. In a televised hearing, he claimed that one of the young attorneys hired to defend the Army against his allegations was linked to a Communist organization. Realizing that this lie would forever ruin this young man’s career, the lead lawyer, Joseph Welch famously said “Until this moment Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir?”  With that televised statement, Joseph McCarthy’s popularity declined. It was the tipping point that called out to a public bully, enough is enough.1

Bullies lack empathy

We know from research on bullying that bullies lack empathy.2 Bullies can know what others feel, but they lack the ability to feel what others feel.3 What makes bullying so powerful is that bullies can read others to find their weaknesses and what bothers them, and then use that knowledge to control and torment others. It makes the bully feel more powerful and in control because those feelings are lacking internally. When bullying is done publicly, it can have the effect of controlling groups and set a tone of us versus them.  

How do we stop bullying? 

We know what to do with bullying by children.4 The same principles apply for public bullying, even when that bullying is done by people in powerful positions:

  • Never ignore bullying.
  • Intervene to stop the behavior.
  • Not be a bystander, seeing but doing nothing. That gives implicit permission to the bully.
  • Build a sense of community, that “we all belong.”
  • Model behaviors that are pro-social like helping others and cooperation.

How do we stop public bullying? We can stop being bystanders. We can urge people to ask loudly and clearly “Have you no sense of decency?” and instead build a sense of community and model cooperation. When we communicate that "we all belong" we build social empathy.  And when we build social empathy, we validate others, even those who are different from us.  

We all must say no more to public bullying. We need a sense of decency. Enough is enough. 


1.  Sources to read the full text:



2.  Joliffe, D. & Farrington, D.P. (2011). Is low empathy related to bullying after controlling for individual and social background variables? Journal of Adolescence, 34, pp. 59-71.

     Joliffe, D. & Farrington, D.P. (2006). Examining the relationship between low empathy and bullying. Aggressive Behavior, 32, pp. 540-550.

3.  van Hazebroek, B.C.M., Olthof, T. & Goossens, F.A. (2017). Predicting aggression in adolescence: The interrelation between (a lack of) social goals. Aggressive Behavior, 43, pp. 2014-214. 

     van Noorden, T.H.J., Haselager, G.J.T., Cillessen, A.H.N., & Bukowski, W.M. (2015). Journal of Youth Adolescence, 44, pp. 637-657.

4.  Lawner, E.K. & Terzian, M.A. (2013). What works for bullying programs. Child Trends Research Brief, #2013-39.

     Sidorowicz, K., Hair, E.C. & Milot, A. (2009). Assessing bullying: A guide for out-of-school time program practitioners. Child Trends Research-to-Results Brief, #2009-42.