|Young Abe Lincoln vanquishes a bully.|
Bullying is a serious problem, but our attempts to do anything about it seem worse than crippled by a general inability to understand what bullying actually is.
This seems odd, because the matter is straightforward. My leftist columnist friend offers a good one: when “it makes you feel good to make someone else feel bad.” I’d expand it: less extreme bullying is the attempt to control another person: to “push them around.” Merriam-Webster has: “bully: one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable.” Oxford says: “bully: A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.”
Yet people keep getting it wrong.
For example, I went to a talk by a supposed expert on teaching writing from McGill University. His main thesis was that writing should always be done in groups. With no assigned roles. And, if one member of a group tended not to go along, such “bullying” was to be punished.
So dissent from the group is bullying? Orwell would be proud: that makes Winston Smith the bully in 1984. It just about has the valences perfectly reversed.
Then it occurred to me: one big reason why we seem to have such trouble dealing with bullying and with even understanding the concept is that there are, in fact, a lot of bullies out there. And bullies are never going to admit the real nature of bullying. Not as a matter of deliberate conspiracy, mind you. It is just that bullies are never going to see themselves as bullying. That, after all, would reflect badly on them. And bullies always have to be right. They will see themselves as special, above others. And so bullying as their right, because they are special. And anyone who resists their bullying—that is the bully.
Who is feeding us our current ideas about bullying? Who is pushing the current “anti-bullying” initiative? Most notably, teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and perhaps social workers.
Guess what? Those are exactly the professions in which one would expect bullies to congregate.
As a result, it is only too likely that this “anti-bullying” initiative is really going to be a huge boon to bullies. It gives them another, especially choice weapon for their arsenal: charging their victims with being bullies. Imagine the mental anguish! No wonder the thing is so popular.
People keep saying, for example, that Donald Trump is a bully. This is an example similar to that of the McGill professor. Trump is the very opposite of a bully. He is someone who stands up to bullies and bullying. He actively and openly resists being pushed around by the media, and by the Republican party establishment. So he gets called a bully, and not them! But whom has he ever bullied, so far as we know?
Yes, he can be harsh and strident. But he seems to follow a clear moral code. He does not attack unless attacked. It is always in defense.
This is why a lot of people who feel bullied have rallied behind him.
It seems unlikely that Trump is a bully even in private. First, politics is not a good career for a bully. Succeeding in politics, in a democratic system, requires continuing support by those under you—ultimately, the general public. A bully might not be found out, but it surely goes against his grain to be always helping others in need, and deliberately being nice to them. Trump’s electoral success in itself suggests therefore that he is not a bully.
|Young George Dewey, the hero of Manila, takes on a bully.|
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand—there we have reasons to suspect a bully. There are indeed rumours that she is a bully in private, to secret service agents, to aides. And it would help to explain her surprising electoral failures. She has gotten further than she ought through marriage; she got to parachute in at the top of the electoral pyramid. But in a serious campaign, she seems to have consistently lost, despite starting out as a favourite. The public senses something, a lack of empathy, and her subordinates are perhaps not prepared to go the extra mile for her.
Second, Trump is a notable success as an entrepreneur and a salesman. Again, that is especially hard for a bully to pull off. Both require people trusting you and feeling inspired by you. You pretty much have to treat them well to get very far at this.
Bullies can succeed in business now and then, but as bureaucrats in large corporations, not as entrepreneurs and salesmen. In any business, bullies are going to pull the enterprise down. A bully will be a consistent failure at business. You do not get far in business by treating either your customers or your employees badly. Because, generally speaking, they always have somewhere else to go. Business is not where you are likely to find them. But in a large corporation they may not as swiftly be detected.
Third, Trump’s children seem close to him, and he seems prepared always to give them important responsibilities. This is a good test: a bully will probably bully, first and foremost, his own children. Trump, far from controlling them, seems to treat them as colleagues.
My left-wing friend then singles out military officers as bullies. This is another common false conception. The common image of the drill sergeant. But this is also based on a second dangerous misdirection: the identification of strict discipline with bullying. There is no relation. The military is a pretty unlikely place to find a bully. A bully wants a helpless victim. With the military any potential victims are likely to be armed. Not just the enemy, either. An officer who was not honourable to his men always stood the chance of getting “fragged” in combat, in any war. Most times, nobody would ever know. Among higher officers, the main element of success is the ability to inspire: to inspire people to risk their lives for you. That is an extremely high level of trust, and no bully is going to command it.
He then mentions clergy. It is popular to bash clergy today, but this is probably the one least likely place in the world to find bullying. A bully needs a victim who is trapped. Everything about religion is voluntary. You bully a parishioner, and he just turns and walks out the door. Without leaving anything in the collection plate.
A current anti-bullying campaign urges everyone to wear a pink shirt, in solidarity with bullying’s victims. And here we see another common misdirection. Pink seems to suggest homosexuality, does it not? Maybe, you will protest, not to you, because that sounds possibly politically incorrect to notice. But undeniably, to most people, pink on a man puts a blip on the gaydar. The misdirection is a common suggestion that bullying has something in particular to do with your treatment of gays. There is no, or little relation. Yes, once upon a time, you could use their homosexuality as a club to bully people with. But no more. Moreover, it is equally possible for gays to bully. If you do not believe this, you know little of the English public school system. Or, for that matter, the SA and Hitler’s rise to power. So making it all about being nice to gays just gives a blank cheque to gays who are bullies.
Where are you actually likely to find bullies, and the worst, most unrestrained bullying?
Think for a moment. The perfect venue is the family. The perfect scenario for a determined bully is simply to have a kid, or better, a bunch of kids, and push them around mercilessly. They are completely vulnerable. They are there all the time. And you, legally, have close to absolute power over them. The rest of the world really does not want to interfere with the family. Yes, you do have to contend with their other parent. But that can be solved by marrying a doormat, or a milquetoast, which a bully is going to tend to do anyway. Then they will not dare to raise a peep. And you can bully them into the bargain.
Hence, I suspect, most or all of what we call mental illness. It is PTSD from those who have grown up being bullied, with no escape.
First and foremost, actually, in the family. If you are a bully, the simplest and most satisfying outlet is simply to have a good number of kids, and torture them at will. Nobody wants to interfere, because we do not want to bust up families. You get them day or night, and it’s generally nobody else’s business. The only tricky part is having to deal with your spouse. Properly, you want someone who is temperamentally an absolute worm, because the spouse really does have options.
Another really great option, unfortunately, is to become a psychiatrist or psychologist. The downside is that it is hard to qualify. But the upside is that, once you have, you are accorded immense social prestige, so you will be more or less left alone to do your worst. With great pay for pursuing your hobby. Obviously, psychiatric patients are emotionally vulnerable. Most often, they are pre-selected as the perfect victims. That is how they got where they are: by being systematically bullied by someone in the past. If they object or report you, no problem. Heck, they’re crazy. You are a respected professional. Why would anyone believe them? It’s perfect.
And who is it who is giving us our current perspective on bullying and its causes? We should assume everything we are being fed about bullying by the “professionals” will be a lie.
Next to psychiatry, palliative care nursing is probably your best option. Failing that, any kind of in-hospital nursing. There people are under your care around the clock, often when no one else is around. They are often physically unable to protect themselves—that’s why they’re there—and in many cases, nobody cares what happens to them any more.
We’re incredibly careless about this possibility—no, probability.
Next to that, probably teaching. This makes it especially worrisome that the current drive against bullying comes from the schools. Teaching is a great profession. The kids are of course physically and emotionally vulnerable. The system gives you physical control and supervision of them for a good number of hours every day, and the wonderful weapon of getting to mark them as well. If you’re a bully, you get to be both perpetrator, prosecutor, and judge. Kafka would enjoy the situation. If the kids complain, well, they are just kids; they are probably lying, imagining things, or they got it wrong. The danger, of course, is from the parents. If schools is no longer compulsory, or if they have the option to change schools, the jig is up. Hence you are adamantly against things like school vouchers. Public education is our right!
Not as good is being a judge. You get to self-righteously drop heavy bricks of phony moral outrage on the vulnerable, and nobody faults you for it. On the other hand, we have a solid system of judicial review, so I don’t think this is a great problem in our system. Prison guard is another good one, although those prisoners can be tough, and there are a lot of them, so there are certain risks. Cop is good, but nowadays we are pretty well on to the risks, and web cams can go a long way towards accountability.
Being a social worker is a really great one. You get to mess with people’s most intimate concerns. Usually people of low social status, poor, socially vulnerable. And we have few checks against this. Sure, they can complain to the politicians, but if they are marginal enough, they are likely not to be listened to.
Being a manager in the civil service is a pretty good one. First off, being in charge of people, you get to mess with them. Second, because it’s the civil service, nobody gets fired. So you cannot get fired for acting as you want. Sure, you can’t fire anyone either, but you can make their lives hell. Your victims are trapped to some extent by their very job security. It would be catastrophic for most to leave their secure job and huge promised pension. So they have to put up with offal from you indefinitely. You can humiliate; you can berate; you can hogtie; you can play mind games forever. This is why we get the term “go postal.” A poisonous work environment is the norm in the civil service.
In a dictatorship, being a civil servant generally is an ideal opportunity for a bully. The public is at your mercy; nobody can walk away from the government. It works much less well in a democracy, because your political bosses are vulnerable to public displeasure. This is one of the best arguments for democracy.
Why do bullies become bullies? Again, we must not trust the experts here. Many or most of them have a vested interest in misdirection. The common claim today is that bullies bully because of “low self-esteem.” And/or they bully because they have been bullied. This, again, is the predictable opposite of the truth. By process of natural empathy, if someone has suffered, they identify more easily with others who are suffering. Those with low self-esteem are the least likely to put their own interests over others, as bullies do even in the most trivial matters.
No, bullies are made by being spoiled. By being taught to believe they are special, and whatever they do is wonderful. Therefore, if they want something, or if they do something, it is wonderful. Other people, by comparison, are significantly less wonderful in every way, and so the bully, as the hammer of righteousness, has the right to kick them around. Pharisees are bullies; bullies are pharisees. They will be convinced of their own righteousness, and so impervious to improvement.
Hence the old wisdom that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. We are now adamant against any sort of physical punishment. Another misdirection as to bullying: the claim that it is the same as being violent. Children must always be told they are awesome, and that everything they do it wonderful. Another misdirection: fair but strict rules and honest but tough evaluations are not bullying.
No, far from ending bullying, such educational movements guarantee more of it over time.