Bullies On the World Stage

Susan Cooke

I’ve been thinking about some of our world “leaders” and how they got so mean. The classic answer, I figured at first, is someone was mean to them when they were kids, but that happened a lot to Winston Churchill and he turned out mostly okay. His dad was fiercely critical at times, and his mom was pretty much hands-off, so there wasn’t much affection (though his mother was verbally supportive). Both parents failed to visit him at school much and were pretty self-involved. Luckily he had a loving nurse, “Womany,” who was in essence mother and father to him, always giving support and affection whenever he was home. As an adult he snapped at his wife a lot, and suffered from chronic depression. The strikes against him emotionally could have made him both a miserable and perhaps tyrannical leader, or no leader at all, but some magical combination of good things must have changed what might have been an awful course for his life to take, altering what is now such an important moment in history. His father’s at least occasional closeness, and his admiration for his father seemed to inspire him periodically, though sadly this was cut short by the syphilis that gradually destroyed his father’s mind and ended his life too early. Thankfully he was also strengthened enough by the love, even if distant, of his adored mother, and the unending unconditional support of Womany even as he grew older–until she died–so that the world gained an inspiring leader rather than a powerful bully.

I’ve known other people with not the greatest childhood experiences who did not turn into bullies, and some who bullied part-time yet could be caring at other times. But what about the people who bully most of or all the time? This of course includes most heads of governments of countries whose unfortunate people we’ve seen suffer a great deal, both in the past and today, and also heads of governments who want to make people in other countries suffer too. You know the names–tyrants and dictators through the ages and those bullying millions right now.

KID BULLIES

On the bullying information site “Ditch the Label” which largely addresses school bullies, it says bullies usually want to gain a feeling of power, purpose and control over you. In their research they found that many bullies were likely to have experienced a stressful or traumatic situation in the past five years before they bullied someone. They say while some people meditate or find other ways to deal with their trauma, some simply don’t know what to do and may bully as a coping mechanism. 66% of the people who told these researchers they’d bullied someone were male.It’s believed this has partly to do with the way boys are raised, not feeling it’s okay to show emotions, while girls are usually encouraged to talk about their feelings.

Their research shows those who are bullied are twice as likely to bully someone else. One in three who bullied told researchers they felt their parents/guardians didn’t have enough time for them. They were more likely from larger families, less likely to live with biological parents, often felt rejected by their parents, or came from violent households with lots of arguments and hostility. They tended to feel relationships with their friends and family were not secure. They were more likely to feel those closest to them weren’t very supportive or loving, and made them do things they were not comfortable doing.1

I was bullied often as a child, but I guess there was enough love and support from various people along the way to prevent me from turning into a complete jerk. For what it’s worth, being bullied is probably partly what made me want to fight on behalf of victims of all sorts. (Still, I don’t recommend the experience.) So this seems an imperfect science–predicting who becomes a bully–but I do think based on my own experience that the people I quote here have a lot of ideas that make sense.

ADULT BULLIES

Psychology Today‘s page on adult bullies tells us one way people bully others is to use title, position, or material leverage to intimidate, threaten, harass, and/or harm. The bully uses his advantage in stature and/or resources (like wealth) to control and dominate the victim. It quotes Edmond Burke: “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” It also mentions verbal abuse as bullying, including threats, shaming, hostile teasing, insults, constant negative judgment and criticism, or racist, sexist, or homophobic language. Quoting Lundy Bancroft, “The scars from mental cruelty can be as deep and long-lasting as wounds or punches but are often not as obvious.”

The site discusses physical, cyber, and “passive-aggressive or covert” bullying. Author Preston Ni describes the latter this way:

This is a less frequently mentioned form of bullying, but in some ways it’s the most insidious. With many bullies, you can see them coming because they are quick to make their intimidating presence known. A passive-aggressive or covert bully, however, behaves appropriately on the surface, but takes you down with subtlety.

Examples of passive-aggressive and covert bullying include negative gossip, negative joking at someone’s expense, sarcasm, condescending eye contact, facial expression or gestures, mimicking to ridicule, deliberately causing embarrassment and insecurity, the invisible treatment, social exclusion, professional isolation, and deliberately sabotaging someone’s well-being, happiness, and success. 2

On another Psychology Today page, Andrea F. Polard, Psy.D, author of the book A Unified Theory of Happiness, reports bullying is widespread and increasing:

Bullying is an aggressive behavior with the aim to intimidate and harm another, repeatedly over time and with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one. While it happens more frequently in countries that promote violence and that are intolerant of inter-individual differences, bullying is everywhere. Even in other species: chimpanzees do it; dogs do it; mice do it. 

We might bully, she says, when we feel threatened by someone who stands out or who seems to have a competitive edge over [our] perceived limited resources. She says anyone different from the group is a potential target. Her quote from Hogan Sherrow of Scientific American is especially apt and I think interesting in our present culture:

Individuals whose behavior challenges, disrupts or are considered unusual are often the targets of aggression, and that aggression continues until those individuals change their behavior…Bullying-like behaviors are used to enhance an individual or coalition’s competitive ability, or to coerce others into changing their behavior to conform to the rest of the community. Bullying-like behaviors provide the individuals who engage in them with advantages over their targets, through enhanced status or access to resources, or both.

If I understand her correctly, Polard is saying some (I would think mostly insecure) people want power of various kinds, either just because they want it or because that power leads to getting resources like money, attention, status from a peer group, or fame. Such people seem to have no qualms about bullying to get those resources.

STOPPING BULLIES

Polard says the victims’ coming forward to say they were bullied isn’t near enough to stop the bullying. You have to understand bullying better, and understand what’s up with the bully and why he/she feels insecure, threatened or disempowered enough to do this. It’s also the responsibility of the community to stop the bully by building powerful coalitions around the victim (I assume she means provide widespread protection of people who tend to be bullied.)

Her next thought seems important to remember: we can’t wait for bullies to become aware of how they need to change. We need to empower the victim now with education about why bullies bully, and help the victim discover his/her own power. Next, victims (and I would think the rest of us too) should let the bully know we know they bully because they’re fearful and insecure or don’t feel they have enough or are good enough. We should demand not only an apology, but that the bullies examine their behavior, get help, and not bully again. She suggests a support group for the victim, and finally a look at the entire society. Is it hostile or unkind, for instance?

I know she is talking largely about kids at school in this instance, but in many ways this applies to adults in the larger world, for example she writes:

All parties ought to look into the contributing factors of an atmosphere of intolerance and aggression. If schools promote competitiveness from an early age on, dividing kids according to their test taking skills, offering special classes, discussing college in elementary school and the “rush to nowhere” in general, we ought not to be surprised that kids start to elbow each other. We need to look at racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and other discriminative behavior and engage in open discussions. Where is the dialogue about uncomfortable truths?

Also helpful are her observations on the contribution of mental illness, which itself is added to by unhealthy trends in our culture:

We need to address the fact that a myriad of people are unhappy and highly medicated, suffering from depression and anxiety, triggered by the great recession, social injustice, glorified aggression in movies and actual warfare, extremely high divorce-rates and dysfunctional families, inertia, anorexic role models and reality TV stars whose one God is money. Happy people are the exception, not the norm and are therefore an easy target for those who are fashionably unhappy. The least we can do is to be mindful about mental health and the lack of thereof. 3

TODAY’S BIG BULLIES

I imagine as you read through these various quotes and ideas about bullies, the behavior of many people comes to mind, people both in your inner circle and in public life. Since I was looking primarily for keys to help us stop political bullying from those in power in the world now, I’ll only comment on them here.

I might in the future look into those bullies’ childhoods and see what I can find, but I think our main problem is what they’re doing right now. I’m not sure we can undo enough childhood damage to change those bullies, although I’ve always thought we should have the best psychotherapists around working for the government to help formulate policies with regard to world bullies. (Those psychotherapists should be selected carefully, using peer review, etc. and no politics!)

Our own President is a bully in more ways than I can get into here, but I’ll mention one that applies to several comments of Preston Ni on covert or passive-aggressive bullying mentioned earlier: “…deliberately causing embarrassment and insecurity…professional isolation, and deliberately sabotaging someone’s well-being, happiness, and success.” Trump just did the above to ex-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe by firing him a few hours before his pension began. Even if it’s found that McCabe broke the law he could have been given his pension for now. This was classic, mean bullying. We need to act on Polard’s direction to build a coalition of safety around McCabe, support him in his efforts to obtain justice, and call out the bully Trump for what he is as well as let him know he’s showing his fear, insecurity, and the fact that underneath his shows of bravura he doesn’t think he’s good enough. He needs to know we’re onto him and how he’s using power and money to belittle and harm someone (and the someone’s family). Trump’s behavior in general is also reflected in part of another statement mentioned earlier, on using verbal abuse to bully. Methods include “threats, shaming, hostile teasing, insults, constant negative judgment and criticism, or racist, sexist, or homophobic language.” My experience of him has been he uses many of these methods constantly.

As for Putin, we need to let him know even more certainly than we have already that we’re onto him, that he’s using resources and the power he used bullying to get, to then bully millions by threatening their very existence. Kim Jong Un doesn’t have as much money from what I understand, but his nukes and the friends (I think some of them are also bullies) who give him money for nukes and for whatever other brutal stuff he’s cooking up are all clearly a threat to us and seem happy in that role. (I’d like to see an entire book on what makes people happy to be monsters. And what does it take to go from bully to monster? It seems hard to know where to draw the insanity line.)  I’m not sure but I think Kim is more transparent about what’s bothering him than is Putin, though Kim may not mean to be. We all know he feels unsafe, so I say do what we can to make him feel safer, but let him know the world can see he’s feeling insecure. On second thought he might be too unstable to withstand that. (It really is time to consult the world’s therapists.) Maybe we should just let him know we think he’s acting dishonorably, in case there’s an ounce of him that cares about that.

I’m afraid Putin would be unaffected by our calling him dishonorable. He seems both a covert and overt bully, with his constant denials that he’s done anything wrong while he continues to threaten and frighten people. I guess Polard would say we need to build up our own methods of protection against both these bullies, but maybe we should also remind them that if they did even only partially destroy us it would in the end give them a very expensive clean-up job to do. Our country wouldn’t be worth near as much to them in the terrible disarray, death, and destruction a nuclear (or severe cyber or wide chemical) attack would leave. We might mention that most history books and countries would vilify them forever if they did enough such nasty stuff to us or to other countries. They’re already down for some pretty negative pages in those history books now of course. It’s worth mentioning, since we don’t have lots of alternatives left to use to defend ourselves from all of their many methods of causing death and chaos, other than harming yet more innocent people in an un-winnable war. If they do contemplate lots of expensive further destruction, I’d like to remind them that we could all (including them) put that money to great use helping each other’s countries become wonderful rather than scary places. So I refer them to a new idea on the off-chance they ever read this: They should look at my posts on making and living in a kinder world. Better yet, they should just start doing it. Bullies, put your energy and money into something that will really make you famous–doing good.

At some point we have to hope today’s big bullies can stop thinking about their own amassing of power for a few minutes to remember they won’t live forever and may leave behind terrible reputations as hateful, useless humans who had the power to contribute wonderful gifts to the world but chose instead to use power to harm. The mess they make will be an embarrassment to their memories and for their families down through the generations for eons to come, that is, if they haven’t wrecked or blown up the whole planet before then.

  1.  https://us.ditchthelabel.org/why-do-people-bully/
  2. Ni, Preston, “5 Ways that Adults Bully Each Other,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-success/201701/5-ways-adults-bully-each-other
  3. Polard, Andrea, “How to Stop a Bully,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/unified-theory-happiness/201602/how-stop-bully

Leave a Reply