Everyone knows what a bully is. They are a sadist who likes to prey on those weaker than them, inflicting pain, physical and psychological, just for the sake of doing so. They often travel in packs, and they are cowards who only like fights where they know they can win. If they are poor, they are usually big, bulky and fond of physical violence. They might look like a caricature of an ape, with a protruding brow and dragging knuckles. They might be the only six year old who shaves. If they are rich, expect a blond, square jawed boy who drives a sports car his father bought him. Female bullies also exist, and they are rich blond princesses who bully by teasing and exclusion, usually directed against a girl who is overweight, or has bad hair or glasses.
Oh, and bullies are usually racist, homophobic and generally reactionary and closed-minded.
So that is what we know about bullies. Pretty simple, besides it isn't true.
So lets talk about bullying.
Bullying comes in so many variations, but we all know the tropes: the big mean kid shaking down for lunch money. The jocks giving wedgies to nerds. The aforementioned blond-princess not inviting the odd girl out to her party. Racist slurs. Physical violence. As adults, gossip and exclusion.
But what all forms of bullying have in common is they are meant to make someone feel bad. Even more, they are meant to make someone feel bad about themselves.
And my central thesis here, the reason I am writing this, is that bullies and bullying don't always go together. Actions or words that are meant to make people feel bad about themselves are not confined to one group of people. It is something that all of us do, probably every day. In childhood and adolescence, when social boundaries are being developed, and the understanding of both social boundaries and how to enforce them are complicated and partially-grasped concepts, bullying is a hard thing to avoid.
I have wanted to write this write-up for a while, and one reason why I have not is that I have not done definitive research on the subject. I have read various short news articles describing the growth in the understanding of bullying, how researchers are finding that it isn't a matter of "mean, socially prominent kid" beating up on a "poor innocent nerd". Much of my understanding has come from a series of three books I read discussing bullying in adolescent girls: SchoolGirls, Queen Bees & Wannabes and Odd Girl Out, written some years apart, and showing an evolution in the understanding of bullying amongst girls, from looking at girls as victims to agents of bullying. As well, bullying, cliques and exclusion were not seen as confined to certain people in only pathological contexts, but were rather widespread and normal.
Which matches my own experience. Even as an adult, when the social confusions of adolescence have eased, I have seen bullying coming from people who are not sadistic, not mean, and who can otherwise be kind, calm and open-minded people. I myself see this type of behavior in myself. I've started paying attention to it, and notice that even on an average day, I will say or do one or two things designed to make someone feel bad.
And sometimes that isn't bad: much bullying is designed to curtail or punish anti-social behavior. One of the biggest problems with adolescence is that adolescences are still learning the difference between true anti-social behavior and merely erratic or eccentric behavior. But in many cases, bullying might be a natural (if unproductive) reaction to youths who are either truly anti-social, or are tardy in learning to behave socially. In one of the most famous examples of bullying and its aftermath, the Columbine High School shooters were racists and obviously anti-social. If you are a black high school student dealing with a racist anti-social personality, what is a more likely reaction: offering them kind, sympathetic treatment or bullying them further? Obviously the second option led to tragic consequences, but it isn't an unnatural way for an adolescent with developing emotional skills to deal with the situation.
Which brings us back to our original definition. As described, the bully is an evil, sadistic coward with no redeeming characteristics, and he is therefore open to any type of punishment. bullies, those mythic creatures are perfect targets of bullying themselves. Which is why the one person who hates a bully the most is another bully. The rest of us accept that anyone, including ourselves, might be a bully.
If you hate bullies, you just might be one. But if you accept that you are capable of being a bully, you probably aren't.