No one likes a bully (except just about everyone)

Kid holding I am a Bully sign.
Father forces son to hold pink ‘I am a bully’ sign on Texas highway.
In most action movies there’s a scene that everyone in the theatre cheers. One of the bad guys—one who has been portrayed earlier on the movie as being particularly cruel, heartless, otherwise repulsive—meets an especially grisly death, usually at the hands of the hero.

Of course we cheer, you say. He wasn’t just the bad guy, he was an extremely bad bad guy! No matter how egregious or overly cruel his final moments were, he had it coming! We’re just cheering the concept of justice.

I get it, truly I do. And I have certainly cheered many such scenes, myself.


Whenever a story about bullying or hazing or similar sorts of harassment comes to light, there are always people who say, “Of course I don’t approve bullying, but…” and then proceed to make a case that in this specific circumstance the person deserved it and brought it on themself.

Without fail, no matter how egregious or horrific the situation, someone will try to rationalize it. Just last year a woman who was groped under her skirt by a drunk cop in a bar—not just groped, the words “fingers inserted” appeared in the description of what happened as the woman protested and tried to slap the assailant away. All the witnesses agreed as to what happened and that it was clearly not wanted. What did the judge in the case do when it came time for sentencing? Lecture the woman that she should have known something like this would happen if she went into a bar. The drunk cop who sexually assaulted a woman got a suspended probation; the victim was scolded.

I wrote earlier about one of my middle school bullying incidents. Sometimes when I tell that story, someone asks, “Why were you the one sent to counseling, and not the bully?”

The primary reason given to me and my parents at the time was that since I had been the victim in so many different incidents at the school over the course of the previous couple of years, and not always by the same people, then obviously I must be doing something to provoke them. Furthermore, the bully’s version of the story was a bit different than mine. The bully insisted that I had threatened to kick him with my walking cast, which is why he had grabbed my broken leg. The bully insisted that he had never kicked me in the back of the head, but rather that he must have “accidentally” let my head hit the ground a few times because I was heavier than he expected. And so on.

In terms of sheer humiliation, this incident had hardly been the worst, but it was the first one that required sending me to the hospital, so the principal felt that he had to do something to demonstrate he was taking the situation seriously.

I also made a mistake during the many questioning sessions that occurred afterward. When asked if I was certain that he had kicked me in the back of the head, or whether maybe he had actually just inadvertently let my head hit the ground a few times, I said that it is rather hard to tell exactly how one is being struck in the back of the head, since it is coming from behind where you can’t see.

That got interpreted (and entered into the incident report) as a generic “he admits he may be mistaken on some events.” And with that, everything else—including the other witnesses who all agreed with my account in every other detail—was dismissed as a “no one knows what really happened” situation.

An important reason why (perhaps the primary reason) was because I was a person who did not conform to the social norms.

I was one of only eight boys out of the entire middle school who was not on the football team. I was one of the worst players on the sports teams I did participate in. I would rather sit in a corner by myself reading than hang out with the other kids during breaks. I was more interested in science and science fiction than watching sports on TV. I was more interested in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, and The Carol Burnette Show than Kojak or The Streets of San Francisco. I often said the wrong things at the wrong time. I laughed at the wrong things.

It was summed up quite succinctly at a parent-teacher night: “If he would just act like the other boys a little more often, I’m sure he’d have an easier time.”

People who don’t act as we expect make us uncomfortable. Depending on how uncomfortable they make us, our responses range from avoidance to hostility. Because we are social animals, this also happens on a group level. We react to a person who violates social norms by varying degrees of teasing, harassment, ridicule, and rejection.

When it happens to children to teach them to be polite, share, and otherwise get along, we call it “socializing.” When it happens to kids and encourages them to do things that their parents and so on don’t approve of, we call it “peer pressure.” And when it happens to adults, whether we classify it as “assault and battery” or “a harmless prank” largely depends upon our political/philosophical leaning and our perception of the leanings of the perpetrator.

And when we let ourselves decide that the person being bullied really deserves it, we cheer.

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