Sympathy for Bullies

Oh nellie, people do not like bullies. This is hardly news, because people have never exactly liked bullies, but the sea change in popular opinion on bullying has been one of the more pronounced cultural shifts of the last decade or so. Schools now have anti bullying programs, where my schooling was marked by a series of ostensibly-not-pro-bullying-but-wink-wink programs (called “school”). Our beloved “celebs” have been falling all over themselves in an attempt to “reveal” their bullied pasts, which may be an important step in a national dialogue and may be mercenary bandwagon jumping (spoiler: it’s both, split 30/70).

I’m interested in why this change happened, but I think before we look at that, we have to look closer at why the change didn’t happen in any of the decades or centuries before. And we find:

Bullies have a job.

Traditionally, bullies have performed an important role in the ecosystms of childhood. It may be an unpleasant role we don’t like to look at or talk about; you probably don’t like to xxwasplook at wasps laying eggs in your brain, either, but that’s how ecosystems work.

A bully’s job is to isolate traits that society deems unacceptable, such as being fat, unfashionable, ugly, aspergery, weird, or poor, and to mercilessly persecute people with those traits. (I’m using persecution not as a technical term but just as an attempt to cover a range of behaviors from name-calling to pummeling, inclusive.) You may be already loosening up your self-righteous muscles, preparing to say, “But that’s terrible!” and I mostly agree with you. This is also, I should point out though, not just the job of bullies, but of every aspect of our culture. I don’t just mean us, I’m not singling us out.

This is the job of culture.

Or at least a job, as I assume culture does other things, too. But certainly one thing it does is isolate behaviors it deems unacceptable and attempts to correct them. This is the only way to preserve your culture and pass your values along to the next generation. A culture that fails to do this is essentially refusing to compete, and, by the elementary laws of nineteenth-century Darwinian mechanics, will drift aimlessly until it is outcompeted by a rival culture, whereupon it will be exterminated.

This is not a sinister, and should not be a radical, statement. Think of things you find reprehensible: rudeness, flag burning, transexclusion (depending on who you are). People who practice these things you refuse to associate with, sure, but if you are forced to associate with them, you will of course use the weapons at your disposal to change them. What these weapons are varies. If you do not write your bread-and-butter letter, Emily Post will not invite you over again. If you have a racist friend, the party ends. If Bette Davis wears the wrong color dress, she is ostracized. Some of these examples sound silly or extreme, and we can laugh at their narrow-minded folly, but then someone makes an offensive joke on twitter, and BLOOD WILL RUN!

xxbullies.jpgBullies are often violent, but our culture’s response to arson, for example, is violent. We have designated some agents (the arson police) as the bearers of that violence, just as we designate bullies as the bearers of violence to our children. We do not generally endorse a non-violent response to murderers. Also, we gave Rosemary Kennedy a lobotomy for being “assertive and rebellious,” which is kind of weird; but that was the past, and now we just medicate.

We saw this before when speaking of how tolerance so-called is only about tolerating the tolerable. Every culture has behaviors it does not tolerate. Every culture tries, through various methods, to get people to change their behaviors.

Let’s run down bullies’ job description then, and why these tasks have been assigned by HR.

  • Bullies are to beat up fat kids so that the fat kids will wise up and lose weight.
  • Bullies are to beat up unfashionable kids so that the unfashionable kids will wise up and purchase the correct products.HRD1
  • Bullies are to beat up ugly kids so that the ugly kids will wise up and learn the compensating tricks of makeup or poise.
  • Bullies are to beat up aspergery kids so that the aspergery kids will wise up and learn social skills.
  • Bullies are to beat up weird kids so that the weird kids will wise up and become good little soldiers.
  • Bullies are to beat up poor kids so that the poor kids will…well, it sucks to be you, poor kid. Maybe you can bootstrap yourself out of poverty, or something, but five out of six ain’t bad.

If you don’t like the idea of assigning the task of beating people up, remember that you can just have bullies tease their victims instead. Sorry, I wrote victims, but I should have written clients or patients. (Saying mean things about celebrities on twitter is called bullying, as I was going to prove with a link, but all the listicles were too stupid; so just google it if you want.)

(Please note that none of this implies that bullies themselves are not poor, ugly, etc. We never hesitate to turn the preterite against each other in an attempt to keep all of them, and the entire freewheeling system, under control. Bullies are (this is just an analogy) soldiers who carry out orders, not generals who plan the attacks or politicians who orchestrate the wars. In this model the generals and politicians are not the bullies, but most of the rest of us.)

Look at where bullying traditionally takes place. I don’t want to go off on a pet tangent, but there’s a reason school is designed to force you to sit quietly and pay attention to an authority figure. This may be good for you and may be bad for you, but if you do not conform, you are punished: gently, with demerits; harshly, with detentions; and, for intransigents, violently: with the birch rod in the old days and with handcuffs today.

If you have a speech impediment, the iron grip of the state will deliver you to a speech therapist until you no longer speak differently. If you have behavioral issues, a counselor will assist you in conforming. If you cannot sit still for six hours straight, you will take these drugs to help you. I’m not trying to bathe in Swiftian irony here: We do this, and we xxbrady1are not even wrong to do so (except sometimes that last one). A society can choose not to send lispers to the speech therapist, but this is the same as saying “we consider lisping a free variation in language, the way some people say /s/ with the tip of the tongue up, some down. We don’t care either way.” If we don’t care about lisping, bullies will not target lispers. If we do care, both bullies and the state will work together to “correct” lisping. We used to care about “correcting” left handed dominance and we gave it up.xxbrady2

I don’t know who’s better at getting Cindy Brady to stop lisping, but bullies clearly had a role. We may not like it, but we didn’t like having to amputate that gangrenous foot either. It’s tough love. We’re doing what it takes to keep our society free from lispers. Remember, we can choose not to care about lisping, but we cannot choose not to care about anything; or rather, we can, but our culture will be outcompeted during the resulting anarchy. You can assert (correctly) that lispophobia is arbitrary, but recall that odds are all your beliefs are arbitrary. The very choice to demand tolerance for lispers is an arbitrary choice.

Bullies are, essentially, the normative police. You may say that bullying is unsuccessful or inefficient, which is possible; attempts to control behavior are often failures. Anti-drug campaigns, for example, are notorious for accidentally increasing drug use. But I’d wager that beating up every drug user in school constantly would get better results than a Nancy Reagan visit.

No one (this depends on your demographic, of course) likes cops, but no one wants a world without them. Bullies had long been the same way, yet now we hate them. So what changed?

The world changed, that’s what. There was a sea change about bullying, as we’ve already said, but there were other sea changes as well.

I once read (I think it was in here?) that the age of imperialism could not survive the proliferation of newspaper reporters, because in order to hold an empire you need to periodically massacre natives, and the folks back home will not stand for seeing that in their Sunday papers. If every sausage came with a photo of the killing floor on the label, we may decide to eat fewer sausages.

Seeing bullies in action, it turned out, was no more pleasant than seeing cops in action, and social media + cameras everywhere obviously gave us the opportunity to see bullies in action. But this is not, in itself, the cause of the turn.

Take a look at one of the viral articles about bullies you shared, back in the day when everyone was sharing viral bully articles. (The crest of this wave was several years ago, so you’ll have to go back a while; I should have written this post then, but I didn’t have a blog at the time; sorry.) That bullied kid: Was he ugly? Was he poor?

I don’t know who you are, so I don’t know what articles you shared back then, but, on the other hand, I do know what articles you shared back then. I know who was getting bullied in your articles, and was a photogenic middle-class white gay male.*

(*If you’ve shared an article more recently, it was probably a photogenic middle-class white female, and the bullying was online; so faddish our culture has become.)


The alliance

This is what happened to bullies. We, not bullies but the rest of us, changed our minds about homosexuality really fast. When I was young the gay kid and the aspergery kid were getting beaten up together indiscriminately (which is why there was a longstanding gay-nerd alliance and The Rocky Horror Picture Show). But one day we decided gay people were good guys. The bullies didn’t react quickly enough, and suddenly they were beating up good guys! That’s not their job!

I hope I don’t sound like I disagree. Not beating up gay kids—that’s progress! Also, obviously there are (large) parts of the country where being gay makes you a bad guy, which is why social media is important, so Boston can march its troops into South Carolina again (so to speak). By which I mean: So Boston can tell South Carolina once again that its behavior is intolerable, and it must not be tolerated. As cultures do.

So (like Jenny McCarthy) bullies were blindsided by a sudden change in popular opinion. I trust it’s clear, though, that we as a people have not grown less tolerant, or even less bullying. The word bully is one of a long line of terms we have decided applies to the behavior of other people. The expanding surveillance-state aspect of ours schools, the burgeoning link between our so-called educational and our penal system, our obsession with supervising and mediating every moment of children’s lives: these are all clear attempts to fill the bullying role. Our passion for cyberbullying allows us to extend the vigilante aspect of controlling our peers’ behavior beyond its traditional schoolyard boundaries.

“Bullying” we now define as nothing more than aggressive normalization we disagree with. Aggressive normalization we agree with is too much BAU to even have a name. It’s so much easier (as we see again and again) to turn against a word than to change our behavior. (It’s easy, though, to demand that children change their behavior while we sit around)

It’s possible our desire to regulate child lives in an official capacity will prevent old-school bullying from staging a comeback in the near future. But if it does come back, it still has plenty of targets to choose from; bullying can survive the social unacceptability of picking on gay kids, just as it survived the social unacceptability of picking on racial minorities. Unless we, as a society decide that it’s wrong to ridicule fat, weird, poor people. And, although Honey Boo-Boo got canceled, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.


From MAD


  1. Perhaps this essay will be of interest to you, To the extent that it relates to bullying, he states that bullying tends to happen when there are groups of people who have little ability to do anything of importance and who have little control over their lives and he gives prison and school as the examples. I don’t think this is mutually exclusive with your statement that bullying is just an aggressive enforcement of social norms.

    Also, you sort of touch on this, but I’ll state it explicitly: the bullies are enforcing their cultural norms, and they don’t necessarily overlap with everyone else’s cultural norms. See social justice warriors and internet shame mobs, high school jocks who didn’t get the memo that gay sex is in this season, and inmates whose cultural norms include not being a white person.


    1. I know this essay well, and I used to read it in terms of why school makes behave badly; now I tend to see it in terms of why our infantilizing, impotent culture makes us behave badly.

      I’m never sure of, and didn’t really touch upon, the definition of bullying; but I think to count as a bully you need to have enough power for your own norms to be, you know, norms, and not eccentric opinions. Power is always local, like custom, so the norms being enforced are not necessarily the norms of Peoria, or wherever it is we get our instructions from. Your examples would all fit, as all represent subcultures who have local power.


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