We All Hate Bullies but Disagree on Who They Are

Discomfort with aggression and confirmation bias misidentify bullies.

Posted Nov 14, 2016

My political, social, and psychological views coalesce around a single principle: when you see bullying, take the side of the victim. Nearly everyone feels this way, and Hollywood reliably shows bullies to get us rooting either for the victim or the victim’s protector. What divides us is not our hatred of the bully; what divides us is our differing perspectives on whether it’s bullying that we are seeing. Once we identify a bully, we take the victim’s side, but we’re not very good at identifying the bully. That’s because, if you will, life doesn’t come with a director who films it in a way that gets the story across. Life is more like abstract art or a Rorschach card than it is like a readable novel or watchable film. Sure, some bits are clearly representational, but we have a lot of leeway to impose our expectations on what we are seeing.

The biggest discrepancies in identifying bullying revolve around discomfort with all aggression and confirmation biases about what bullies look like. Let’s take these one at a time.

Discomfort with aggression. Many, many aversive interpersonal experiences are associated with other people’s aggression. Parents are angry before they hit or banish or insult their children. Friends are angry before they threaten exclusion. Lovers are angry before they leave you. This leads people to find other people’s aggression unpleasant (a negative reinforcer). Even worse, your own aggression becomes associated with your own unsuccessful experiences. When you are angry, you are sent to your room or hit or criticized. When you are competitive, you may be told that you are not ladylike or gentlemanly. When you impose your will on others, or when you correct your students, you may be told you are a bully, regardless of the reason you are doing it. This all leads people to find their own aggression unpleasant. And worst of all, your quest to avoid all aggression keeps bumping up against the fact that you are a member of the most aggressive species ever, and the vastness of your innate aggression makes you despise yourself, like a lion who thinks it should be a lamb.

Read the current definitions of bullying and you will be amazed at how broad they are. Here’s one: “A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.” This definition really says that nothing unpleasant should ever happen to dear little Billy. The government’s official definition is also steeped in skittishness. “Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” Hunh? “Perceived” power imbalance? This definition really says that any expression of aggression is bullying, since any angry person will seize on whatever social or physical ammunition is available, and anyone facing anger is likely to feel like there is a power imbalance.

In my view, bullying is hounding versus teasing, stalking versus pursuing, crushing versus defeating, robbery or extortion versus gossip, and only under threat of physical violence. Maybe it’s 30 years dealing with abused and neglected children that has made me want to distinguish so-called emotional abuse from physical abuse. I’m not saying that names can never hurt; they hurt a lot. But I am saying they are very different from sticks and stones. It’s our job to teach children how to handle name-calling; it’s our job to protect from sticks and stones. Technically, then, I think bullying is dominant behavior reinforced not by submission or obedience but by humiliation or injury or disappearance. Its hallmark is that bullies escalate rather than sympathize when the victim starts to cry, because winning is not enough.

I don’t think it’s any secret that a lot of Republicans do things that a lot of Democrats identify as bullying, and vice versa. Trash talking one’s competitors or savoring one’s success may be examples of the former, and shutting up white guys or political correctness may be examples of the latter.

Confirmation bias about what bullies look like. Confirmation bias is the tendency to see things as we expect them to be so as to confirm our view of the world. The most potent confirmation biases always have to do with ourselves. We are biased in the direction of what we already think and especially in the direction of what we have already said. Thus, bullies typically don’t think they are bullies; they often think they are victims. Trump mocked a reporter with a disability because the reporter said something about him that he thought was unfair; Trump’s assessment that the reporter bullied him, by the way, would be approved by the official definitions cited above. Clinton called a large portion of the electorate deplorable because she couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t vote for her over Trump unless they were deplorable. I don’t think either of these examples were bullying, because I think Trump was probably looking for an apology rather than humiliation and Clinton was probably looking for applause. But I think they were good examples of how people behave with respect to giving themselves a pass on deplorable behavior when they think things ought to go their way, and all of us usually think things ought to go our way.

Beyond excusing ourselves, if you think bullies are male you will miss bullying by women, and so on. I was stunned the first time I realized that many mainstream Catholics are still telling themselves that they are the perennial victims of bullying, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the consignment to Hell of non-Catholics notwithstanding. The insistence that one is in the Jesus role in any scenario and that those who disagree are in the roles of Romans and Sadducees makes it impossible to see your own bullying.

Bullying in psychotherapy. What I call therapeutic privilege sets the stage for therapists to bully their clients. The therapist has the power to decide what is really going on in the therapy relationship, and the privileges associated with this power include ignoring the client’s discomforts or disagreements. Often, therapists are like the dominant kid at school who never says an unkind word or threatens anyone, but other kids hand over their lunch money just the same.

Anxiety is often the manifestation of a bullying problem where the bully is or has become anonymous, as in gossip-mongering or social marginalization. The anxious client cannot point to a specific villain, sometimes because prior bullying was so pervasive that almost everything is aversive. The therapist’s job is to convert this single-character narrative into an interpersonal narrative, often by allowing the client to replay the narrative in the therapy relationship by casting the therapist as the bully. Therapists often wind up playing the role of the inadequate friend who says, “Well, I still like you.”

Depression is often self-bullying, but the client looks like the bullying victim who meets alone with the guidance counselor and, when asked if there is any trouble with other kids, cannot imagine that the counselor can offer any real protection. The kid and the client say, “I’m just feeling blue,” or “I just don’t like school.” Treatment of most depression requires a conversion from single-character sadness to an inter- or intrapersonal narrative of who is squashing the person.

Therapists treating anxiety and depression are likely to fail if they cannot imagine themselves or their clients as bullies.