The Bully Next Door

Conventional wisdom holds that bullies of the schoolyard variety grow up to be workplace tyrants. Doubtless some do, but the evidence for a clean bully-path from kindergarten to the board room isn’t terribly compelling. In fact most little bullies grow out of it quite naturally having discovered the advantages of socialization. The ones who don’t become school district superintendents. (Note: when I say school district superintendents I mean the entire dairy industry.) One more tip of the hat to CW: it’s said that bullies are insecure types. I don’t have statistics at hand, but it’s a good guess most are not uncertain or self-conscious since these dynamics require comic irony. Bullies are angry. Grown bullies are still angry. They’ve never had a molting period where their nursery rage finally falls off. (Imagine you could hear such a thing—you’re standing with a loosely affiliated group when you hear a clunk and a common enough looking guy with a man bun says: “Thank God! My toileting anger just dropped!”) Forgive me. It’s no joke, this business of unrepentant intimidators failing to grow up. From hate groups to fraternity parties, from fringe occupiers to vulgar staff meetings one sees the un-remediated and intolerant waving their arms. What interests me, and hence the motive for this disquisition, is when in America did adult bullying become fashionable, or more precisely, when did it again become voguish, for we know slavery and indentured servitude were built on bullying—so much was this the case, Thomas Jefferson’s family was eager to portray him after his death as the nation’s only “kind master.” The United States was founded on industrial scale bullying. Cruelty was always taught by school and plough. But when did it become OK to carry on in the public square as though one’s poorly individuated potty training and sand box bitterness over swiped toys is admissible as a component of civics?

Silly. Of me. I’m disabled; my people were always being locked up just for how they looked or sounded; abused; catcalled; reduced to beggary; shelved; squashed; abandoned; branded. The tragedy of disability stories is consistent with tragedies written large across the American landscape. (And we’re the osmosis minority—we factor into every marginalized group. Native Americans have never had good health care or rehabilitation services; just to try find wheelchair repair in the inner cities.) A “big lock up” depends on the creation of, the ready availability of, bullies. I mean we should be clear. In these United States we’ve consistently had machinery for bully manufacturery, and more insidious is how we learn to shrug it off. In his classic novel Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury wrote:

“Why aren’t you in school? I see you every day wandering around.”

“Oh, they don’t miss me,” she said. “I’m antisocial, they say. I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this.” She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. “Or talking about how strange the world is. Being with people is nice. But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription history or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film-teacher. That’s not social to me at all. It’s a lot of funnels and lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us it’s wine when it’s not. They run us so ragged by the end of the day we can’t do anything but go to bed or head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball. Or go out in the cars and race on the streets, trying to see how close you can get to lampposts, playing ‘chicken’ and ‘knock hubcaps.’ I guess I’m everything they say I am, all right. I haven’t any friends. That’s supposed to prove I’m abnormal. But everyone I know is either shouting or dancing around like wild or beating up one another. Do you notice how people hurt each other nowadays?”

The passage always takes my breath away. The Fun Park! To bully people around! Just picture the damaged kiddies, drunk with ragged enforcements and funneled pedagogy out on a spree. It’s just good clean fun. In fact, bullying is popular entertainment of a certain type. Zan. W. Zack, a young writer who’s written a good deal about coming of age as a gay teen writes: “Bullying builds character like nuclear waste creates superheroes. It’s a rare occurrence and often does much more damage than endowment.” This is superb! We’re best served when we see bullying has no consistent upside even as metaphor. Despite it’s wide spread and accepted narrative place it’s analogous to toxic waste. TW is not much of a plot driver.

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I’m forced to admit that like many born in America after the Second World War and who grew up in the Sixties I’ve always imagined our nation was making firm social progress. Even when there was plenty of evidence to the contrary I stuck to this. When the ethically moribund presidential campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush was racializing the mom and pop-ism of the white body politic I didn’t see it for what it was. One must believe in aberrations when the times turn poisonous—I honestly thought the Willie Horton commercial was an anomaly. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 I actually believed it was proof that we were better than Lee Atwater or Karl Rove allowed.

It’s true, we’re not entirely a nation of bigots and twerps. But we’re more accepting of ugly behavior just now than at any time since the fifties. Bullying is increasingly a passable standard, held aloft like a Nazi guidon, bragged about, excused by media, indulged by apparently well off white people. Bullying is sweeping like wildfire, jumping ditches, flashing in schoolyards, workplaces, political rallies, youth hockey leagues, even in churches and non-profit organizations. We may not yet be wholly a country of bullies but we’re tending that way which leads to a question: what happened to reproof? Is admonition dead? It’s tempting to feel this—though harder to defend the claim as the opposite of bullying is disclosure and the smart phone stands, if not as an ideal, a serious corrective.

We have more bullies now. I can’t allow myself to think it’s an anomaly.