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The Mistake Bullies Make

On the tactic of intimidation.

We talk a good deal about bullying among children and adolescents. Mean child-villains populate coming-of-age literature. But bullying among adults, while an equally serious problem, is less frequently a subject of conversation. It is primarily adult bullying that interests me here, but I will begin with bullying among children.

When I was 7 or so, a school bully said something hurtful to my brother. Although my brother is a year older than me, he was an unusually sensitive child, easily hurt, and I was very protective of him. He did not tell our parents what had happened, but he told me (and cried). I got enraged. Rage was highly unusual for me, a novel state I had not previously experienced. There was something exhilarating about it — I felt fearless. Foolishly, perhaps, I confronted the bully, a boy about three years my senior and a head taller than I was. I told him that what he had done was wrong.

There must have been something very persuasive about the way I spoke, because the bully listened silently to my tirade, then looked at me, said nothing, and walked away.

He never again teased my brother, but years later, I thought of the incident and kept wondering: Why did he do what he did? I was sure my brother had not done anything to provoke him. He had no aggressive instincts.

Bullies on the playground, like the one I confronted, frequently enact a pattern — they choose a non-threatening child to taunt in the hope of sending a message to others: “I am one who dominates,” “I am not to be messed with.”

Valber Cortez/Freeimages
Young man alone in a room, head buried in his arms
Source: Valber Cortez/Freeimages

In other cases, children may team up against an adult — often an older adult but sometimes a younger person, including a teacher — harassing the adult mercilessly, with a kind of cruelty all the more hurtful to the victim on account of coming from victimizers at the age of innocence. Consider, for instance, this case involving middle-schoolers who go on insulting a school official, a woman in her late 60s, on a bus for 10 minutes, becoming increasingly creative — as torturers often do — amping up their insults and going from simple body shaming to (this woman, let us note, is a widow): “You don’t have a family because they all killed themselves because they don’t want to be near you.”

There are also children who are not bullies themselves but who might be described as bully enablers — standing idly by as an innocent child gets humiliated or verbally abused, taunted for his or her appearance, skills, and even for a disability. (Unfortunately, teachers too may do nothing about bullying at times, partly, perhaps, because there are kids in many schools that even teachers fear.)

But children are sometimes led by their better angels. For instance, in this clip and this one, middle-schoolers can be seen helping special needs teammates score a point while playing a sports game. In addition, former bullies often come to regret and be ashamed of their past actions and even of their past omissions, of failures to act when someone else got bullied. At any rate, that children fumble and occasionally act with malice is not surprising given their developmental stage although the consequences can be tragic as children have the power to inflict on each other long-lasting trauma. What interests me here is why grownups, whose characters and identities should have been developed, bully each other too.

Sometimes, adult bullies are people who were once child bullies and who just can't stop, in a pattern reminiscent of what Freud called "repetition compulsion." But at other times, people develop tyrannical and domineering tendencies later in life. Why? For several reasons, I think.

Bullies may themselves be former victims of bullying who, as a result of early experiences, have come to accept a false dichotomy, namely, that there are two kinds of people in the world — victims and victimizers — and that the only way to avoid being pushed around is to join the abuser class. (I have personal knowledge of someone who fits this category. He was a chubby child, taunted for his appearance, but he got in shape while in college and developed a mean streak.)

At other times, bullying may be seen as conducive to professional advancement. People may come to believe, sometimes not fully consciously, that if they succeed in psychologically dominating business negotiations, they are more likely to achieve their own goals. They may, to that end, choose clothes and adopt mannerisms meant to communicate, “You will do as I say.” Those who are disinclined to fall into such patterns may opt to simply leave, and as a result, an entire work culture might, for lack of civilizing influence, come to resemble the worst among schoolyards.

In other cases, several people gang up against one, a phenomenon labeled “mobbing” and not unlike lynch mob behavior. Interestingly, the victim of mobbing may be a superior. While some people in a position of power use coercive tactics to gain control over subordinates, some underlings may use them too, against a superior. In such cases, people’s motivation is perhaps similar to that of children taunting adults: One wants power over the more powerful but cannot get it alone and bands together with others.

What can be done about bullies and bullying?

Vivian Paley, a teacher and author of several books, in an attempt to counter the exclusion from group activities some children suffer at the hands of their peers, decided to institute a rule forbidding kids to ever tell each other, “You can’t play.” When she first talked with children about this rule, they were skeptical and thought that only kindergartners would consent to follow it, but in the end, she got them to adopt it, and it worked. She tells the story in her You Can’t Say You Can’t Play.

What about adult bullying? When it happens in the workplace — among people of equal rank — some superiors may, just like some school teachers, stand idly by, possibly leaving victims with no choice but to try to change jobs. But what if avoiding a bully is not an option, either because changing jobs is not or because the bully is a member of one's family or friends circle, not a coworker?

It is not easy to say. Showing indifference would probably be my own preferred strategy. Bullies, after all, are not people we respect or admire, and as I argue elsewhere, there is no reason to mind what those we do not wish to resemble in any way think of us or how they behave. (Unfortunately, we may mind it without thinking there is a reason to.)

The bully's mistake

There is something else I wish to note, however. This is my main point. Bullies often make a mistake. For what they generally want — setting aside cases involving business interests — is to be respected. Nothing angers them more than what they perceive as signs of "disrespect." But in order to get the respect of others, you have to show yourself respectable, and trying to intimidate those around you is simply not a way to achieve that goal. Children cannot be expected to know this, but adults can. Thus bullies, adult bullies especially, are destined to fail to get what they want even as they may succeed in inflicting pain on other people. For to hope one can gain respect through intimidation is to either act in bad faith or — a bit like gangsters and the mafia — to confuse respect and fear.

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