Let’s get this clear right off the bat: bullying is a bad thing. “The use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others” is pretty nice summary of ways people shouldn’t behave towards each other, and for those on the receiving end it’s quite possibly the worst thing your average person will ever go through. Oh sure there are far worse traumas out there, but between how common it is and how it can infiltrate and poison every part of your life, bullying has to be up there as one of the greatest social evils around.
But despite how common and potentially catastrophic it can be, bullying is one of those strange issues where you can have a massively different attitude towards it depending on how you’re involved. The harmful psychological effects of bullying have been well known for quite a while now, but despite this there is still no shortage of people who are willing to use words, authority, body language and even violence to bully others. Sure some of these people may simply be psychopaths lacking the empathy necessary to know or care about the harm they are inflicting, but given only about 1% of the population show potential psychopathic traits that doesn’t explain how common bullying is.
Even stranger is the vast majority of people who witness bullying behaviour between others and just… do nothing. Normal, functional, generally well-intentioned people like you and me who witness an obvious act of psychological abuse being inflicted, and shrug and walk away as if nothing is happening. Perhaps this could be explained by being paralysed by genuine fear, but again, that’s hardly a common experience is it? Seriously we have all been this person at some point – watching someone victimise another, completely able to intervene ourselves, rally other spectators or at least call someone in authority. But we didn’t, did we? We just stood there or walked away and let it happen.
So what gives? Are we really so apathetic to the suffering of others? Is this the animal side of human nature coming out? Or are things a bit more complicated than that? Let’s have a look at an example:
Have a look at the video on this news story. Anything jump out at you?
Notice how the crowd encourages the attack, relishing the situation. They aren’t just letting it happen, they’re encouraging it and clearly even enjoying. Which makes sense really – why else would you stand there and watch unless you were getting something out of it?
But in odd contrast to this, the attack is also clearly not about hurting the victim. There’s violence alright, but note how it’s delivered – short bursts followed by long stretches of inaction, the attacker spending a lot more time posturing than anything else. Surely if the bully and/or the crowd were so eager to actually harm the victim then they’d just wade in as a group and get it done.
And finally you’ve got the victim themselves – cowering on the ground and not doing anything to help themselves apart from huddling against the blows and whining to be left alone. Not screaming for help, not fighting back, not trying to run or threaten their attackers with retribution, just lying there and trying to appease them.
Assuming this situation is representative of bullying in general, and personal experience would suggest it is, then odds are slim that any let alone all of the bullies involved here are psychopaths. So how could relatively normal people engage in their behaviour? Well as I mentioned before, it all comes down to your perspective.
For the victim this situation is no doubt terrifying. You’re surrounded by a group of people clearly eager for your harm with no way of defending yourself and absolutely no guarantees of how far they’re going to take it. Sure they might just mock you and push you around. Or they might beat you up. Or destroy your bag and school books. Or tear your clothes. Or something much, much worse. These might not be likely outcomes, but the victim has no way of knowing their attackers’ intentions and no way of stopping them if they decide to go that far. For the victim this is a situation of complete and total powerlessness and that means anything they can think of might happen.
Nothing in real life will ever be as terrifying as what you can imagine yourself.
But for the bully the complete opposite is true. They are completely and totally in control of the situation – their victim is lying on the ground basically telling them how powerful they are, they are surrounded by friends and allies who are celebrating them and their abilities, and best of all there will be absolutely no consequences to this. Sure you might rationally know that you’re hurting the victim but the fact that you chose them for a victim likely means you don’t like them for whatever reason, and from there it’s remarkably easy to convince yourself that they deserve to suffer, or else let the overwhelming benefits of bullying them overwhelm any empathy you might have had for them.
And to be clear there are benefits and they are in themselves very positive things, especially for a teenager. Not only acceptance but celebration, adulation by your peers is something every human wants. And while many of us would be uncomfortable with having total control over another person, assuming you didn’t like that person then there’s no denying that it at least guarantees that they won’t be a threat to you and may actually be of great benefit to your life. That goes double for environments like school or work where you don’t get to choose who you interact with – if you’re going to be forced to deal with this whiney loser all the time, you might as well make it enjoyable/valuable to you, right?
There’s a reason this trope exists
And then there’s the spectators, who are the weirdest of the lot. I mean it’s easy to understand the mindset of a victim and maybe even the bully, but what the hell is up with people who watch it all go down and don’t help? You’d think basic empathy would kick in almost immediately and force them to stop the suffering, right? Well that assumes they view the victim as sympathetic in the first place, doesn’t it?
Watching that video up there is becomes very tempting to feel a tiny bit of contempt for the victim. Look at them, whining and crawling in the dirt, not raising a finger to protect themselves. Yeah of course what’s happening to them is awful, but Christ kid, friggin’ DO something about it would ya? Show some backbone. I tell you what, if it was ME in that situation I’d beat the ever-loving crap out of those arseholes, I tell you what! Put them in their place. Mind you, I’d never have gotten into that situation in the first place. I mean how does an innocent kid end up being hated by so many people? Surely she must have done something to make them hate her. I remember a kid in my school who used to get picked on a lot and he was such a weirdo that he definitely deserved a kicking or two.
And so on and so forth.
It’s a pretty toxic line of reasoning, but it’s one I’m sure you’ve heard a million times about any group of victims, and one you’ve likely indulged in yourself from time to time. Why? Because it’s comforting, isn’t it? Because if the victim did do something to deserve it, or is pathetic and self-destructive, or if the bullying was just a bit of harmless banter or schoolyard antics then that means there’s nothing wrong, and you don’t have to get involved, do you? And since getting involved means being a killjoy, acting against the crowd mentality, siding with someone everybody hates and maybe even exposing yourself to the same sort of victimisation, there are some damn compelling (and damn understandable) reason for not wanting to get involved, aren’t there?
“Because if cyberbullying WAS a thing, then I’d feel really bad about myself!”
From an ethical point of view bullying is a perfect example of what happens when power gets centralised. A bully holds all the power and victim hold none of it. The bully is in control, can indulge their every whim or wish and suffers no consequences for it. The victim has no power, no control and is thus paralysed not just by what is currently happening, but also by their complete inability to stop anything else from happening to them, no matter how bad it gets. Power is centralised more and more into one person, causing accountability for their actions to disappear – is it any surprise then that they treat their victim badly when there is no reason whatsoever for them to question their own behaviour?
As a result, successfully overcoming bullying requires the victim to take their power back and force their attackers to hold themselves accountable for their actions. What that actually involves will vary a lot depending on the situation, because contrary to how we often imagine it, bullying is quite a diverse issue.
Maybe standing up for yourself and beating up your tormentor the way 90% of the internet suggests will work – assuming of course you’re physically and mentally capable of doing that and that your bully won’t simply take that as an opportunity to victimise you even harder.
Maybe you should appeal to higher authorities like your boss or teachers – but that assumes they can or will actually do something about it, and it doesn’t just make you look all the weaker to your attackers.
Or maybe you should simply shrug off the insults, focus on being the best person you can be and rise above it all – but that in turn assumes you’re not being physically attacked (not really viable to ignore), have the resilience and exceptional self-confidence necessary not to be affected by the opinions of your peers, and also don’t mind not having any friends for quite a lot of the time.
Generally what I would like to see happen with bullying is for us all to abandon the stories we tell ourselves about it. The old ‘it’s just a bit of fun’ excuse, the narrative that ‘well the victim must have done something to deserve it’, the ‘violence is the only language bullies understand’ solution, and of course the equally simplistic ‘violence is never the solution’ mantra. These stories aren’t just way too simplistic for what is really a highly complex problem, they also serve as excuses for the rest of us not to have to, y’know, DO anything about it all. Just dump the simple explanation of your choice on the issue and walk away, problem solved! Because if you actually spend the time and effort necessary to understand what exactly is happening and why, then you’d be involved, wouldn’t you? And that would suck, wouldn’t it?
But that’s the thing about ethics – sometime the right thing isn’t easy.