Categorized | Our Town

Bullies and Bullying

Posted on 04 November 2011

By Richard Gambino

Let’s Do More

Newspapers report that the Sag Harbor Schools and Southampton Schools are working on no-tolerance policies regarding kids bullying other kids. Appropriately, there is an emphasis on didactically establishing tolerance among kids for others who are different from them. Yet, it is also important to understand what goes on in the bully’s personality, and to use this understanding, one, to educate bullies’ potential targets, i.e., virtually everyone, so that they may throughout their lives do more than just barely “cope,” and two, so that we may understand ourselves when we are tempted to resort to bullying others.

In the 1960s, I wrote my PhD dissertation at NYU on Concepts Of Mental Disorder and Criminal Responsibility. Although it was in philosophy, it also focused in large part on the case histories of some 1,000 violent people, collected by the Bellevue Psychiatric Center. It was a very sobering educational experience. While many of the people studied seemed “mad,” others seemed to have methods in their madness.

Today, I’ve concluded that the bully is motivated to inflict mental-emotional humiliation and/or physical pain on others not primarily because of his victim’s personal characteristics. Rather, the bully is driven by another psychological dynamic, and in the service of this he or she chooses targets of opportunity, and when necessary, he simply creates the targets from whomever he encounters, by trying his bullying on individuals until he finds vulnerable ones.

In the end, just about anyone will do. The bully will always find someone to harass or assault.

A 1990 short story, You’re Ugly, Too, by Lorrie Moore comes to mind. “Zoe” is teaching history in a small college in a very rural area, hired in the context of the college having “had a sex-discrimination suit, and the dean had said, well, it was time.” Zoe feels isolated and lonely, so is a perfect target of opportunity for some of her faculty colleagues and other peers, and even for some of her students.

One student says to her, privately, “You act like your opinion is worth more than everyone else’s in the class.” She dates a man who takes her out to dinner: “Once, in a restaurant, he stole the garnishes off her dinner plate and waited for her to notice. When she didn’t, he finally thrust his fist across the table and said, ‘Look,’ and when he opened it, there was her parsley and her orange slice crumpled to a wad.”

When Zoe desperately takes to answering bullies with sharp remarks, her “crazy sarcastic” mind too becomes an excuse to target her. So when a wife of a fellow faculty member says to her, “You know, I know everything about you: your birthday, your license-plate number. I have everything memorized,” Zoe responds in a way that seems “weird:” “I knew a dog who could do that,” she says.

The bully will always create targets because he very much needs the rewards he gets by bullying. Each of us, children and adults, in experiencing and interacting with others, seeks a sense of competence in relation to them, i.e., a feeling that he is successfully dealing with them in ways that reward him. To use a current cliché, each of us seeks to empower himself or herself vis-a-vis others. For most people, most of the time, our efforts involve constructive ways to do so by developing social skills. Failures in this, or fear of such failures, causes us anxiety, depression, rage and other “disempowering” sufferings.

The bully seeks to leapfrog over the constructive work necessary to become competent in relating to others, by gaining power through mental and/or physical intimidation of others. Unfortunately, this shortcutting sometimes succeeds in childhood or youth. Let’s each think back to our high school days, and remember the “cliques” students used to empower themselves by humiliating other, “less popular” kids. Even a school stepping in to protect a bully’s “victims” may prove, in his mind, that he is superior to them. So, some young bullies when they become adults continue their bullying to have power over others, e.g., by intimidating their spouses, their children, co-workers, neighbors and now, starting as kids, through electronic “social media,” countless individuals.

Sometimes outside the law, but usually the bully learns to stay within the law and may use manipulative “head games,” as some psychologists term them, in exercising power over others. A man I know harasses people targeted by a company, not only legally, but actually using the law in the harassing, and the company pays him well enough to give him an affluent life-style, including an expensive summer home in the Hamptons.

Because of, one, our fear of inadequacy in living with others, and, two, the rewards bullying provides, all individuals at some points in their lives are tempted to use bullying. I recently watched a TV program about a study that found that the large majority of high school students say they have been targets of bullies, but also say they have sometimes been bullies.

Consider Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing. “Beatrice” and “Benedick,” two decent people, bully each other mercilessly — while they are falling more and more in love with each other! She does so with deadly wit, he is just plain nasty. The play begins with Benedick returning from service in a war as a soldier. On first seeing Benedick, talking to another person, Beatrice says to him, “I wonder that you still be talking, Signor Benedick. Nobody marks you.” He replies, “What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?” Beatrice retorts, “Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such food to feed it as Signor Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain if you come in her presence.”

Bullying is often learned behavior, from peers and parents — many bullies have a parent or parents who are themselves bullies. Witness that when a school administrator penalizes a bully, sometimes his parent(s) surfaces and tries to bully the official. So, in fact, many come to the conclusion that what they can do is limited pretty much to deterring bullies.

However, there is something else which is very important that schools and parents should do — educate children, all of whom are potential targets of bullies, and will be for all of the rest of their lives, and will themselves at times be tempted to become bullies, as is also true of all of us, especially when we are anxious, fearful or angry. The goals are to give kids understanding of bullies, and to recognize and understand the bullying impulse when it rises in themselves. Ideally, in this, teachers well educated in, and guided by, a curriculum about the psychology of bullies and bullying, and including the sequential development of young people, should lead regular discussions (not lectures) with kids about bullying. In high school, the discussions should be enriched by reading literature. The short story about “Zoe,” and other literary works, included in a high school curriculum, can cultivate students’ minds and courage so that they can defeat bullies, not only in school, but also long beyond the time when they can go to parents and teachers for protection. E.g., students can be helped to see ways in which Zoe might have spoken and acted to end the bullying.

Much Ado About Nothing could also be used in high school literature curricula so that in discussions students can come to understand why otherwise good people bully. Beatrice, a woman of the English Renaissance, does not want to be a stereotypic medieval wife, totally servile to her husband. Benedick doesn’t understand her anxiety, so just returns her nasty gibes. Finally, as students will see, the two come to understand each other, to accept each other each as he and she is, and to understand love. So the play has a happy ending, after a bit more ado, after Beatrice says to Benedick, “I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.” And he says to her, “Come, bid me to do anything for thee.”


RICHARD GAMBINO with Thomas Jefferson has “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

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