Bullies, the bullied, and bystanders

Watching that disturbing video of a Filipino middle school boy threatening, insulting and beating up a terrified fellow student inside a school toilet, in a brazen display of bullying power, struck me in a way that I could not fully understand. I had to review the video a number of times to grasp what it was that made it specially chilling to watch.

Finally, on perhaps the seventh or eighth replay, it dawned on me: The bully was not only aware that the entire encounter was being recorded. He, in fact, also seemed like he was performing for an imagined audience of anonymous voyeurs. At one point, he brashly faced the camera, as though to address the gallery, and went on to describe in a cold measured tone what options he was offering to his prey — a beating or a rite of degradation (that included kissing his genitals).

The camera briefly panned the room to show the presence of other students who stood by and passively watched while a schoolmate was being brutally beaten up. No one dared to stand up to the bully and intervene while he stalked his victim, all the while pontificating about the hard choices that one must make in life.  One student who was standing before a urinal, next to the victim, gave a nervous smile to the camera and hurriedly left the scene. When the beating ended, another bystander abjectly approached the bloodied boy and nudged him toward the door.

At that precise moment, I became convinced this was not just an example of adolescent play. This was a parable of our time, a revealing demonstration not only of the violence and brutality that a few dominant individuals routinely inflict on the defenseless among us, but also, most distressingly, of the indifference or dread that seems to have gripped and paralyzed the rest of the community.

At once, I recognized in that little bully’s face and crass language the mirror image of the nation’s highest official. The same swagger was there, the same crass utterances, the same intimidating demeanor. It was a frightening sight — it was as though I was seeing a replica. I asked myself: Could Dutertismo have spawned millennial tyrants in its mold in such a short time?

Bullies, of course, have been around for a long time, a menacing presence in almost all cultures. The literature on the psychology and sociology of bullying behavior in schools, the workplace and institutions like prisons is rich and varied. There are all kinds of theories that try to explain the making of bullies and their victims. Existing definitions of bullying behavior point to three things: first, the deployment of aggression with the intent to assert social dominance; second, aggressive behavior, usually unprovoked, occurring over a span of time; and third, the existence of a power imbalance: the bully usually picks on those who cannot defend themselves.

Studies of bullying victims, on the other hand, show a complex process that is at work in all bullying behavior: the social construction of difference, of “weirdness,” and even of imagined inferiority in the identification of the bullied. This process is typically accompanied by “contempt production” and “exclusion,” usually culminating in the targeted child or person becoming cruelly “dehumanized and under pressure to assume an abject position.” So compelling is the ensuing stigmatization of the victim that peers tacitly avoid contamination by keeping their distance from the victim, or by looking the other way, or, in the worst of cases, by participating in the orgy of violence the bully initiates.

But, right now, I think that what we need more of are studies that would explain to us the making of passive bystanders, the transformation of active citizens into docile spectators. How much of this is due to fear? How much is attributable to the silent admiration (what Michel Foucault once called “the fascist in each of us”) that a creeping culture of disrespect reserves for those who can muster the impudence to break norms and inflict violence? How much is due to the idealization of a “hierarchical and competitive ethos” in our schools, which makes no room for the vulnerable? What is it about our present culture that breeds enablers of tyrants, rather than courageous witnesses who do not hesitate to call out the perpetrators?

The author Timothy Snyder has written a little book titled “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.” Its first lesson is perhaps the most striking: “Do not obey in advance.” He writes: “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.”

Bullies are not self-enabling; they constantly clamor for validation and reinforcement. It is bystanders, by their failure to intervene, or, worse, by their hooting or cheering, who supply these even when they don’t mean to. No doubt, the role of peers who are not afraid to stand between bullies and their victims is pivotal in any effort to stop bullying.

In a critical survey of the literature on the social dynamics of school bullying, Robert Thornberg (2015) cites studies that show that while bullies may enjoy popularity, they tend to score low in likability.  The bullied, on the other hand, tend to rank low in both popularity and likability.  It is the “defenders,” the ones who are ready to intervene and take personal risks, who consistently rank high in both popularity and likability. That’s an interesting lesson worth keeping in our hearts in this season of love.

Merry Christmas!