The blow-hard, the bully, and the antagonist have been with us since the beginnings of societal structure. Those with strength are regarded as powerful, power is appealing, thus there have always been those without strength who seek to claim power through bluster. In primitive survival situations strength is rather easy to define and determine, difficult to fake. Our society has become so complex and virtualized perception has become more powerful than fact leaving us far more vulnerable to fakery and manipulation.
To be idolized as a hero has historically required overcoming all obstacles, defeating all opponents, proving oneself to be the best. Lead the troops to victory, sell the most albums, score the most touch downs, win the most Oscars for performances in a leading role. To be hailed as a hero has historically required being a champion of a particular contest or cause and thus been an honor reserved for those with the strength and skills to achieve noteworthy accomplishments.
The bully, historically, has been viewed as the opposite of a hero. They are someone who victimizes only those weaker than themselves in order to manufacture an appearance of strength, a nemesis to a hero, who invariably and inevitably gets their comeuppance from someone with genuine strength. To be called a bully was an insult, and to some degree still is, so how has that behavior gone from being worthy of derision and disapproval to being elevated and celebrated?
It is essentially the result of a convergence between the marketable characteristics of the bully and the vulnerabilities of our current society, both exacerbated by the massive imbalance of wealth which has become seen globally the superseding type of strength.
Wealth as Winning Sets the Stage
At the hunter-gatherer level the concept of strength is pretty easy to define and measure, pretty difficult to fake or cheat around. As our species urbanized and industrialized success became defined by the accumulation of currency. For a most of our history accumulating wealth took a great deal of doing, a lot of actual work and conquest, which not only made it difficult to fake or cheat around but also meant relatively few were able to achieve it.
But in the last few hundred years industry and technology have leapt forward at an explosive rate not only creating exponentially more acquirable currency but also removing both it and those in command further and further from the actual work. Endlessly stratifying hierarchies drastically separated the board rooms from the ground floor of everyday life and currency became more and more entangled in ceaselessly complicating systems rendering it less tactile and literal and far more vulnerable to manipulation and malfeasance.
This created a perfect environment for bullies to thrive. Once opportunity was able to matter more than demonstrable strength or quality of character those willing to victimize others for the sake of personal gain had a prime scenario to exploit. And once money became the most powerful form of influence those with wealth became able to tilt the playing field further and further in their own favor.
This is not to say all those with wealth are sociopathic profiteers devoid of scruples or compassion. Running a business, however large or small, and aiming for it to be profitable is not inherently evil. It is a necessary goal and there are many who work very hard and very conscientiously to achieve it.
Trouble is the complex systemization and virtualization of currency has made it possible for a proportionally miniscule group to amass truly ridiculous amounts of wealth, the upper 1% possessing 45% of the total global wealth. When individual people are able to exert that level of influence the vast majority are then at the mercy of those individuals.
When potential paths to that kind of wealth favor those with a bully type disposition we can get stuck with bullies in positions of immense power.
But why are bullies able to persist and thrive in any environment at all? Why aren’t they instantly disregarded and exiled for their bluster and willingness, or seeming eagerness, to be cruel? Despite their supposedly doomed fate of inevitable comeuppance why do bullies still manage to have followers and supporters? The short answer is, they have characteristics which are appealing.
Bullies Sound Certain
Not only do we find confidence and certainty reassuring and appealing but from a bully’s viewpoint things are also very simple.
According to them they are the hero and anyone who disagrees is the enemy, they are right and their enemies are wrong, and if they can over-shout or overpower you it proves they are right. Even if theirs is a certainty grasped with a tightness born of desperation if we are feeling overwhelmed with our own fears we are willing to overlook that, gladly taking any port in the storm.
As our concepts of society and identity continue to evolve, growing more nuanced and complex, the more confusing and potentially frightening it can all seem. With information technology potentially connecting us to what is happening everywhere on the planet, placing the literal weight of the world on our shoulders, the more daunting and overpowering it can all feel. And the more dangerously appealing the appearance of simplicity and certainty can become.
Bullies Like to Blame
If there is one thing fear craves it’s a target to blame.
The more fearful we feel the more desperately we want that fear to have a specific source we can point to, attack, and potentially defeat. And the simpler the target the better. We want our boogie men to be obvious, one dimensional, and completely deserving of our animosity.
Bullies never call for personal accountability or responsibility, not of those who follow and support them. That burden is reserved for the enemy, who of course are simply and unquestionably wrong and can only rescue themselves from their doomed fate if they admit their wrongness, apologize for it, and properly acquiesce.
For those who are scared, frustrated, and hurting having someone specific to point at and blame can feel empowering and anyone providing such a target can seem like a savior. Problem is it only feels empowering rather than the avoidance and escapism it really is. And the savior adulation tends to blind us to the fickle nature of that blaming finger, to how easily it can swing round at us the moment we don’t agree the one doing the pointing.
Bullies are Charismatic
One of the genuine skills necessary to survive as a bully for any length of time is the ability to talk a good game.
Claiming a strength you don’t truly have, twisting fear around to instead look like bravery, requires the ability to persuade. Bullies without this skill tend to get their comeuppance in short order but those with the gift of the silver tongue can potentially outrun it their entire lives.
Those who are able to convincingly broadcast certainty and a perception of dominance can become someone we crave acceptance and praise from. We want them to acknowledge us as being part of the elite hero tribe, exempt from derision or targeting. To earn that nod we can end up doubling down on their rhetoric which not only reinforces the story they are spinning but traps us into needing just as desperately for the story to seem true.
Certainty aimed at a simplified target can be very appealing and if offered up by someone with a knack for persuasion it can be capitalized on to potentially immense degrees. In historic terms Adolf Hitler is probably the most profound example, having taken his bullying to a truly global scale. Those who can master the art of stirring up frenzy can then use that frenzy both as obscuring cover and as a source of dangerously mercurial power.
These appealing traits have allowed bullies a sustainable foothold but it has taken more for them to gain their current positions of leadership and adulation. Much like a virus it takes a particular type of vulnerability in the organism to enable the parasite to flourish.
Societal Stresses are High
As a species we are experiencing stresses and anxieties at a global level unlike any other time in history.
The list could go on and on and on but the three primary sources are the day-to-day life stresses caused by massive economic inequality, a global environmental crisis, and information technologies connecting us making us aware of pretty much everything happening everywhere all the time.
Just one of those things alone would be a source of enormous stress but to have all of these forces crushing at us simultaneously and on a scale which seems impossible to do anything about can create an ambient level of simmering anxiety which can feel almost paralytic. Being faced with chronic fear, like chronic pain, can make us desperate for any respite or rescue.
Enter the bully with their high volume certainty and ready-made targets for blaming, offering us a chance to channel our fear into anger aimed at someone else.
Virtual Connections Supplanting Physical Presence
The irony of the technology which globally connects us also isolating us more profoundly than ever before continues to become more tragic and potentially destructive.
The virtual world makes it possible to share nearly limitless amounts of information over nearly limitless distances however it has extremely limited capacity for sharing actual presence. And what’s worse, it actively distracts and diverts us away from the actual presence we currently have access to.
We humans are a pack species which means we need contact and interaction and a sense of belonging. The more isolated and disconnected we feel the more fear and anxiety claws at us. Unfortunately we are turning towards the technology rather than away from it which only worsens the feelings of isolation while seeming to offer greater and more free connection.
And a primarily text based online world, where the common paradigm is ‘misinterpreting others while being misunderstood’, is the perfect environment for bullies pedaling in obscuring appearances rather than factual realities.
Virtual Platforms Offer Instant Mob Mentality
It’s been said several times. Individual human beings can be intelligent, astute, and aware. In large groups humans are dumb, reactionary, and primitive.
Stable, level-headed people can get swept up in a frenzied mob losing all sense of themselves and wind up doing previously inconceivable things. The mob frenzy has been likened to an intense drug, a very apt comparison, and because of the global scale virtual communities can exist on we can potentially be assailed with it every time we turn on our devices.
Online platforms cater to the impulsive and reactive parts of our nature. ‘Instant’ is better than ‘considered’, what does it matter if you’re accurate if you’re last? They encourage to us seek reaction rather than engagement and the isolated anonymity they offer disinhibits us from the constraints of congenial social concerns. All the more difficult to maintain a grounded sense of self in an environment which requires none. We feel free to let the frenzy take us when any sense of consequence can dissipate the moment we log out.
Bullies by their very nature thrive on stirring up the fears, anxieties, and angers of others and aiming them at a target other than themselves. With twenty four hour access to a potential global mob bullies are kids in planetary scale candy stores.
That we have so many bullies being cheered and venerated is not because of anything special about them in particular. Bullies have always been around and always will be. It is the current environment of stresses and anxieties which has allowed them to flourish by making us vulnerable to their exploitation.
The good news is the choice, ability, and power to resist the provocation and misdirection is all ours. The bad news is the choice, ability, and power to resist the provocation and misdirection is all ours.
It is up to us to resist being bated, to not allow someone to take advantage of our stresses and emotions for their own benefit, and to refuse the condoning or normalizing of cruelty.
The call to frenzy can sound incredibly appealing, especially when we are feeling powerless in the face of our own anxieties. But allowing bullies to make claims without accurate factual evidence, to endorse and submit to their frenzy, can lead to being convinced factual evidence doesn’t matter at all.
Once we let them convince us of that we leave ourselves vulnerable to being convinced of anything.