Several months ago the NY Times ran an article entitled “Publishers Revel in Youthful Cruelty,” describing how the topic of bullying has ignited a book bonanza on the subject over the last few years. This probably isn’t news to anyone since the ubiquitous nature of the subject is evident way outside of old fashioned print media. Many are the awareness campaigns about bullying, ads with celebrities, special emphases within the schools, anti-bullying surveys and petitions across social media, etc.
Bullying applies to every kind of potential victim: the overweight, the mentally challenged, the religious minority, the socially awkward. Frequently it is associated particularly with the gay issue. Bullying is no longer the straightforward thing we once took it to be. Now it can be subtle, nonphysical, a particular feeling one gets from another person. And of course there is cyber-bullying, a word nobody would have understood in my school days.
I will admit readily that anytime something like this leaps out of obscurity and onto the radar of political correctness, my knee-jerk reaction is negative. I can’t help it. I have such little faith in and respect for contemporary popular culture that I just assume that whatever captivates all of its attention at the present moment is probably idiotic. But that’s not really fair, so I have to back off and take a closer look sometimes. And even though the issue of bullying has popped up like a trendy ‘cause of the month’, if I think about the issue for what it is, disregarding some of the silliness that is currently written about it, I can’t deny that it is an important subject.
Bullying is necessarily a moral issue, since the word itself, like “murder” or “rape,” is morally slanted. It isn’t a neutral word. It is implied that you are doing something wrong if you are bullying. And as with any moral discussion, we have to make judgments about things that are right and things that are wrong. My specific interest here is not with bullying in the schoolyard but with bullies in the contemporary public discourse. These are the forceful voices who come strong with their opinions and use illegitimate bully-style tactics in order to twist the philosophical arms of people into agreeing with them (or at least into saying that they agree with them). My contention is that this kind of “Bully Bob” is problematic and needs to be confronted.
Bully Bob is a Big Talker
The first problem with the kinds of bullies I’m talking about is of a verbal nature. The general rule is that the bully in the yard with the biggest mouth is likely to cower the first time he’s confronted by someone whose toughness is more than talk. That’s why, when Wyatt Earp looked over & saw ‘Bully’ Bob Thornton as the belligerent Faro dealer bossing people around & doling out the threats (after having abused the regular customers and chased off all the high class play, according the bartender), Earp saw right through Bully Bob & realized immediately that he didn’t need to “go heeled to get the bulge on a tub” like him. A typical loudmouth, this bully – a “madcap” identified as “Johnny Tyler” by Doc Holliday (and based on a historical figure)- was all noise, too cowardly to “skin that smokewagon and see what happens” when stood up to by a confident and unarmed stranger.
If you don’t get the above reference, never mind the specific names & quotes (but seriously, how can you call yourself an American?). The point is that when someone talks too big a game it is an indicator of the high likelihood that the situation is exactly the opposite. And the odds continue moving in that direction with every additional bit of verbal abuse he adds to his swagger. When I hear someone using verbal and ideological bully tactics in a modern day debate, it automatically weakens that person’s position for me. I hear weakness masked by the noise of a bully megaphone.
And while the big talkers who bring the noise can be intimidating, a certain calm confidence on the part of someone who questions the verbal bully can cut right through his bluster. The worst thing you can do in response to his or her noise is to play the same game and try to talk more trash and louder. The best thing you can do is to ignore the petty stuff and go right to the heart of the person’s point of view. Ask her pointed and penetrating questions that require her to articulate and defend the view she is trying to bully people into accepting. It is sometimes surprising how quickly someone who seemed so sure of herself will back off once critical questions are put to her.