Thursday, January 08, 2015

Thinking Like a Bully

I was contemplating a story a while back (not written, but that's another story) in which the viewpoint character was a bully, from childhood on up to adulthood. The problem is, I never understood them as a kid. I understand them a bit better now. What follows are my observations and educated guesses about how and why they operate as they do.

The central motivation in a bully's life seems to be obtaining power over others. This desire could arise naturally--some people are just born to want to be "the boss" in an aggressive fashion (as opposed to leaders, who have the same ability to get others to follow them but usually have more benign intentions). Others develop the desire to push others around in response to their childhood experiences. Either they were pushed around by parents or siblings or they saw one parent dominate the other one, usually with threats or use of physical force. Perhaps there are other explanations, but those are the ones that occur to me.

What's interesting and disturbing is to see how bullying plays out in the adult world. Just because you grow up in an abusive or threatening household doesn't mean you want to or have to emulate that in your own life. I'd like to think some don't. My home life while growing up was benign; my interactions with my peers, not always. I took a lot of teasing personally and mostly just wanted to get along and be left alone: "If you don't have anything nice to say..." The desire to control, boss around, or manipulate others just isn't a huge motivator in my life. I come at life with a notion of live and let live.

A bully doesn't think that way. A bully is paranoid, believing that everyone is out to get him/her, and the only way to deal with someone is to strike back at some perceived slight or to strike first before someone else gets the better of you. A bully "controls" his/her environment by fear--intimidating others through aggressiveness to prevent others from even desiring to "cross" them. Paradoxically, that effort to control through fear is born from the bully's own fears--sense a threat, attack it before it hurts you! It's a sad way to go through life.

Sometimes bullying takes different forms: back-stabbing, ostracism, gossiping, peer pressure, or "political" pressure, all of which are subtle ways of bending the will of the individual to the group: do things our way or you'll be sorry! Bullying works on individuals and groups. An individual with a group behind him/her is stronger and has more resources than a single person alone. A bully tries to get into the head of the victim and get them to imagine what will happen to his/her own skin, reputation, etc., if left standing alone. These dynamics are the same whether one is talking about a cult leader or a romantic partner who seeks to isolate and control another. Gangs, for example, usually don't jump other gangs or even groups of people, they usually assault a single individual and outnumber them.

"There's strength in numbers," the saying goes, and it's perfectly true. The converse of that is,  "There's weakness in isolation." Bullies play on those fears. They also tend to prey on the small, the weak, and the loner. These types of targets are unlikely to cause damage to the bully, are less able to defend themselves, or are less able to call upon others to help them in the event of personal danger. Bullies note those dynamics, too: they're opportunists, preferring targets of opportunity and seeking to dominate only those most easily dominated. Bullies are not exactly cowards, but they only push where they think they will get away with their intimidating behavior.

Some bullies operate on a broader scale and have a larger stage from which to work: crime bosses, armed gangs, even heads of governments. Again, the dynamics apply: isolate individuals, attack the weak, do as much as possible within what seems allowable. Sometimes they hit outside their weight to prove their toughness to others. Sometimes they do it because they sense that a stronger power will let them get away with bad actions. They will keep pushing the limits until they're forced to fight.

What is one to do with adult bullies? In the end, the choices haven't changed for thousands of years: you can either submit to their wishes, ignore them, or stand up to them. However, it's important to know that the first two options have consequences.

Appeasement or capitulation breeds reactive cowardice in the victim and leads to a situation where you lose control of your freedom of thought and movement. A bully, sensing surrender, will get MORE, not LESS aggressive because they now see someone who is not just weak but confessing weakness. Building on that, the bully will double down on their demands and misbehavior, figuring that if they push hard enough they'll get even more for their efforts. Appeasing a bully triggers a "reward" response, where they want and get more by acting in an aggressive fashion.

Ignoring bullies--regardless of the size--might or might not work. If they think you're an easy target, they will keep coming because they think they can get away with bad behavior or maybe they'll lose interest.

Usually a bully only backs off when they are confronted at a level that makes it clear their behavior will not be tolerated. You might yell, you might complain to HR, you might call the police, you might arm yourself, you might have to go out and take down the bully with all the resources you and your fellows have available to you. In the end, though, a bully is only stopped by another bully or by an honorable person with enough strength to make them stop. Such is human nature. I wish that it were otherwise.

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