Thursday, 1 October 2015

Picking on Bullies

     Why is everyone always picking on bullies?

     Almost every day I see some earnest, well-meaning chain letter (it’s amazing how many Facebook status posts are actually chain letters) unironically urging me to “share if you’re against bullying!” I always find this amusing, because of course there is an element of bullying in that very message. But perhaps I should explain what I mean by “bullying”.

     Many people I talk to seem to think that bullying is simply a matter of coercion: Do as I say, or you will suffer. The threat need not be physical, of course; very often the threat is the implication that everyone will laugh at you and you’ll be an unpopular loser. While that’s often a part of bullying, I don’t think it’s sufficient. We might have other moral issues with a coercive ultimatum, but there are plenty of situations where we wouldn’t call it bullying. Standing up to a bully, for example, might well involve threatening violence, but it wouldn’t itself be called bullying. So what is it that marks a use of coercion as bullying?
     I think it is relevant that we often (though not always) describe bullies as cowardly. This suggests that bullying involves an element of bluff: the bully threatens a consequence he himself might actually fear to deliver on. But bluffing itself isn't necessarily cowardly, particularly when an underdog must project confidence to convince a more powerful opponent not to mess with her. So what is it about a bully’s bluff that differs from an ordinary bluff?

     What I've noticed is that the bluffs of bullies tend not to stand up to any serious scrutiny, and what's more, bullies often actively try to discourage their victims from looking too closely at what is threatened. I'd like to propose, then, the following theory of bullying.

     An act of bullying consists of an implicit or explicit coercive bluff, where the bully relies upon the victim's own failure to critically assess the credibility of the threat. 

     Now, a bluff is false by definition, so naturally any bluff will collapse under sufficient investigation, but a non-bullying bluff tends to assume the victim might perform at least bit of due diligence. Consider, for example, the scene in The Princess Bride where Wesley attempts to intimidate Prince Humperdinck into surrendering, and Prince Humperdinck actually accuses him of bluffing. Rather than denying it, Wesley explicitly acknowledges the possibility, but takes advantage of the fact that the Prince actually has no way, short of actually fighting him, to confirm his suspicion. Under my theory, Wesley’s bluff is not bullying, because his bluff is credible on its own merits, and while he exerts considerable effort to make it more credible (standing up and raising his sword takes all his strength), he does not at all attempt to dissuade Humperdinck from considering it critically. In a sense, Wesley’s bluff is honest, in that Wesley is encouraging Humperdinck to consider his next move carefully and calling his attention to a risk he may not have fully appreciated.
     In contrast, I argue that a bullying bluff is not just dishonest, but fundamentally disrespectful of the victim’s basic cognitive independence. Where the “honest” bluff presents evidence and trusts the victim to come to the desired conclusion, the bully presumes not only to present a threat, but to dictate its interpretation: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Of course, the bully does not have any actual power here, because it is ultimately the victim who must make the assessment of the threat. So, in fact, the bully’s only power is that which is voluntarily ceded to him by the victim.
     So, if I threaten to beat you up at recess if you don’t give me your lunch money, that’s usually going to meet the criteria for bullying, because I don’t expect you to look very closely at my threat or the circumstances around it. If you did, you might consider that you could effectively neutralize it by telling the teacher. As a bully, I will expect you to reject that option out of hand because only crybaby losers do that. I might try to reinforce that assumption, taunting you as a crybaby loser if you threaten to tattle, but it’s actually your choice whether or not to give that any credence; if you don’t believe there’s any shame in reporting my extortion attempt to the authorities, then I am powerless.

     It gets a bit more complicated when the assumptions at play are more widely accepted (although the disdain for “snitches” isn’t exactly uncommon). Sometimes the assumption might actually be true, in which case the line between emotional bullying and moral suasion gets fairly blurry. Nobody wants to be a bad person, and if I say you’d be a bad person if you kicked that puppy, I might actually not be bluffing: you would be a bad person. But I also might not be bluffing if I say you’d be a bad person if you, say, approved of interracial marriage; I might genuinely (but wrongly) believe that. At what point does expression of a moral judgment become bullying?
     As with so many moral wrongs, the answer lies in intent. In this case, the intent isn’t so much an intent to bully (many bullies have no idea they’re bullies) but rather an intention with respect to the questioning of assumptions: an unwillingness to allow for any questioning is a key indicator of bullying. I would argue that this is so regardless of the truth value of the assumption itself; one can still be dogmatic about it to the point of bullying.
     By the time it gets to you, a chain letter has been stripped of any initial intention and is just a string of words that somehow induces people to copy it and send it on to others, so it's not really meaningful to talk about a bullying intention as such. But they can and often do employ bluffs based on assumptions you're not expected to question, and some of them do come across very much like bullying. One claim I see from time to time is "99% of people won't have the guts to share this!" which rings the bully bell loud and clear. But what happens if we pay a little attention to the idea that it takes "guts" to share a chain letter?
     As for "Share if you're against bullying!", it's a bit greyer. I suppose you could read it as a terse way of saying “If you’re against bullying, I encourage you to share this message.” But the plain reading is “IF you are against bullying, share it” with the logical implication that if you don’t share it, you’re not against bullying. Nobody wants to be thought of as in favour of bullying, so the choice it offers you appears to be between forwarding the message or supporting bullying. And that is, at least by my theory, what qualifies the message as itself bullying: it depends upon the reader’s failure to stop and challenge the preposterously shaky premise that failure to forward a chain letter indicates support for bullying.

     It is mildly amusing to observe that an ostensibly anti-bullying chain letter bullies people into forwarding it, but there is a more serious issue here. Remember that bullying depends for its power upon the victim’s own agreement to the offered assumption, and so it thrives wherever there is a tendency to accept offered assumptions uncritically. Yet the practice of questioning assumptions does not come naturally to people, and what’s more, there are social conventions that actively discourage such questioning as rude. (Bullies very frequently rely on their victims being too polite to challenge them.) Examining these assumptions isn’t necessarily difficult, but cultivating the habit of doing so takes some effort. We need to train ourselves to be alert to instances of bullying, to recognize when bullying tactics are being employed, even benignly. And that’s why I make a point of mentioning, when I see “share if you’re against bullying!” that I’m not sharing it precisely because I’m against bullying.


  1. I'm afraid I disagree with your entire thesis here, Tom.

    I would argue that bullying is essentially orthogonal to bluffing, with possibly a small correlation /opposite/ to your point.

    The cowardice of bullying is often not immediate. Moe does not seriously believe Calvin is going to turn around and pound him back. "Cowardice" is often, I think, a convenient but not entirely accurate label thrown at bullies.

    Bullying happens because the bully believes that this coercion will produce results. This definition doesn't care whether the bully's belief is justified - like Moe's - or unjustified - like the street punk with the empty gun. My guess at a slight anticorrelation stems from the odds that, unlike in movies, the bully is reasonably likely to be correct that they can indeed stuff you into a locker if they choose to.

    The "cowardice" side of things comes into play because the bully is working from a vaguely rational, if completely short-sighted, model wherein you'll necessarily stick to one of their two scenarios. Pay up or lose some teeth. And one of the readiest ways to burst that bubble is to stand up to them and provide a vivid and visceral counterexample to their mental model. Always the best way to teach, especially on the dense!

    Rather than "cowardice," I would argue that a better common denominator in bullying is actually *short-sightedness.* It's the microcosm of a failure to grasp moral acts as the logical result of enlightened self-interest, and the emergence of that principle (however crudely) in societal norms and, y'know, big brothers and principals and such. The all-to-common failure to think holistically, writ (very) small.

    How does bullying seen this way apply to your chain-letter /bete noire/? I'd say it pretty much doesn't. The expectation of success, which seems to me a crucial component of bullying, is entirely absent; nobody forwarding these memes today really believes that they will be 100% effective, regardless of content. The mental model wherein the recipient only has two options is present here as well, yes, but in place of the bully's short-sighted cost-benefit analysis that makes them top dog in a zero-sum (or worse) game, the chain-letterer does so out of either (a) mild altruism and the mistaken belief that sending the meme on is at worst harmless, or (b) strong altruism plus credulity - always a dangerous combination. ;)

    One could argue, even, that in fact the chain-letter forwarder believes the situation to be a positive-sum game; either you'll ignore the letter and be no worse off than you would have been without it, or you'll kowtow to the horns of the dilemma and benefit from doing so. That's a pretty damn strong distinction from bullying.

    As so often happens, Tom, I like your reasoning... but take issue with your premises. I mean, this place is a pigsty. :P

    1. Interestingly, rereading your post, we disagree less than on my first read. The dogmatic truth-pusher is another corner of a possible semantic rectangle with the dogmatic dupe and the vaguely-well-meaning cynic who falls for "well, it's better than nothing."

      With your assertion that "Share if you're against bullying" portion, I'm in complete agreement. And would add something: it seems to me that since the given in the scenario is that the sender has fallen for the chain letter and/or the surrounding bullying, they are in fact self-selecting for credulity and poor critical thinking. Which means that you would expect to see more poorly-thought-out efforts at moral suasion coming /from/ such a person... like "share if you're against." Not only self-selecting but also causatively connected - the chain letter itself serves as reinforcement of the whole "do what I say, for your own good!" mentality.

      Which in turns brings us full circle... back to where a susceptibility to anecdotal evidence and other pressures turns into an increase on the volume dial. It seems to me that perhaps, if we could come up with a memetic ecosystem where one of the founding rules was "structure it so that stupidity is damped and clear thought amplified, rather than the reverse," then we'd really be cooking with gas. Perhaps GitHub has something to teach us about how social networking should work, too... a meme as a proposed change to our collective mental model?

    2. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary, Eric. Upon rereading my post, I can see quite a few things I'd like to have said differently, which might have made our agreement more plain.

      In particular, I think my reference to cowardice should have been more qualified. That is, I do NOT think that bullies are inherently cowardly, but I mentioned the cowardice aspect because we do tend to suspect a certain hidden vulnerability in bullies that we do not similarly associate with oppressors generally. A bully has some kind of weakness, and moreover it is a weakness that is more often than not revealed simply by standing up to him.

      I think it is, actually, very close to what you describe as short-sightedness, in that the bully often doesn't anticipate his assumptions being challenged, when he ought to.

  2. Let me chip in with my two cents. I enjoyed reading this piece and would agree with most of it, but there seem to be lack of concentration on coercion part of bullying, specifically when it comes to the bullied side. The important side of definition is that bullied side never cooperates willingly but always under the assumption (although sometimes false) that the outcome otherwise will be less than in their favor. Which assumption is quite often based on enough empirical data to be accepted without further contemplation.
    If this part of definition is taken in consideration, chain letters cannot really be considered bullying, as they are being propagated through good will or power of procrastination just as much as through the fear of being assigned to the group of undesirables, if not more so. In my understanding chain mail is the perfect example of the virus that mimics any social mechanisms necessary in order to propagate and multiply itself. The reason why "anti-bullying" chains and others alike do so well is because they manage to apply more than one mechanism to their survival.
    Once again, I enjoy reading your blog and look forward to hearing your thoughts on more matters. I would also like to apologize for any possible mistakes in this reply, they are due to extreme sleep deprivation and second language nature of my English.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Alex. I did, actually, mention the coercion part, and in fact I think it's fundamental. But I don't think that coercion ALONE counts as bullying; there must also be some element of bluffing. Not that the coercive threat itself must be a bluff -- the bully might well fully intend to beat you up if you don't hand over your lunch money -- but the threat must be vulnerable to being called AS a bluff.

      Not all chain letters are bullying, of course. They use a variety of different manipulative techniques. Most are, in some way, vulnerable to a little questioning ("How can forwarding a chain letter POSSIBLY be causally related to whether or not I win the lottery?"), but we usually draw a distinction between positive and negative inducements when deciding if something is coercive, so only those chain letters that threaten or emphasize negative consequences would count as coerciver, and thus potentially be guilty of bullying.

      So my point about the bullying of anti-bullying chain letters only applies to the ones that include an implicit threat. "Share if you're against bullying" includes the logical implication that if you don't share, you're pro-bullying. This could be avoided if they said instead "If you're in favour of bullying, don't share". Admittedly, that's a lot of logical rigor to expect from someone writing a chain letter, but that's not the point. They're simply trying to get you to share their message, and not really thinking about whether or not they're bullying you into doing it.

    2. The fact that I keep arguing may make me look like a perfect victim for a bully unless it is because I enjoy the argument for the sake of itself.

      In this case the statement I am trying to question is if bluff really the necessary element of bullying. My reason to doubt that is following: assuming that in the situation where bullying takes place there is no bluff will that situation still be called bullying? I guess it is hard to say as the answer depends on the definition, and definition is what being questioned right now, but judging by the results (spoiled day, foul mood, lack of lunch money, bleeding nose) it is safe to say from my point of view that bullying took place.

      Now I believe your argument states that unless there is a bleeding nose every time when money is not shared, we should call the threat of it as a bluff. While I suggest that it is merely a threat that will more likely than not be executed in case of lack of cooperation (which is why I said this argument makes me look like a perfect bullying victim). For this threat to be the bluff it would have to have at least equal chance to resolve peacefully, according to my (potentially wrong) definition, which has not always been my experience.

      I guess the main reason for me to doubt the definition of bullying you have provided though, is because it inadvertently places the guilt on the victim where I find the fault to be with the group where bullying takes place, as while victim may acquire enough mental fortitude to fight off the threats it does not provide comfortable living and acceptance of the group (the ultimate goal of a social creature) but merely meets the limits of survival.

      I am afraid I do not have an alternative definition right away, but my main difficulty is with accepting bullying as an altogether separate phenomenon from negative reinforcement, as I tend to see the moral value of the results of said reinforcement irrelevant (is fat shaming bullying, providing that it works for some of the obese, ultimately saving their lives?). But I would definitely be glad to hear your comments on the topic.


    3. On the contrary: the fact that you keep arguing is what makes you less likely a target for bullying.

      I think it is important to distinguish between simple oppressive behaviour and bullying. Saying that one is not the other is not to condone either; it's just a different form of evil, with a different way to treat it.

      When I say bullying involves a bluff, I don't mean that the threat will never be followed through. A successful use of coercive violence, after all, is one in which you get compliance without having to follow through, but it IS a use of violence. I mean, rather, that there is something brittle about the threat, that its presumptions are more vulnerable to challenge.

      Fat shaming is a good example, because it lets us distinguish between bullying and non-bullying forms of persuasion. SHAMING someone for being fat would count as bullying, because the implicit premise (that it's shameful to be fat) is highly susceptible to challenge: "Wait, why should I be ashamed of my body mass?" But urging someone to lose weight by citing well-documented health concerns is arguably not bullying, provided of course that you're willing to let them read up on the subject and critically evaluate the research.

      I want to stress that I'm NOT putting guilt on the victim here. Frankly, I don't care about guilt or blame, and don't think these are helpful concepts in most cases. Teaching people techniques of self-defence is not to imply that they are at fault for being attacked; sometimes there really is nothing you can do, and even if there IS something you can do to protect yourself, the moral blame still lies with the person who put you in a position where you had to.

      I think that people are better off knowing how to protect themselves against bullying tactics, and that we are ALL better off if bullying ceases to be effective.

    4. In this case, just for my own education and practice of critical thinking may I ask if it is really all that necessary to make a distinction between simple oppressive behavior and bullying? Will you not be able to fight oppressive behavior off using same techniques of challenging its premises and basically calling it out for what it is?

      I understand the danger of examples as they can be curtailed to support either side of the argument, but what can be a good example of oppressive behavior that is clearly distinguishable from bullying? As we are already running with fat shaming scenario, wouldn't the society that accept such behavior be called oppressive to fat people (regardless of the nature of their obesity)? The definition seems blurry to me.


    5. An excellent question. My answer would be that simple (non-bullying) oppression generally comes from a power that is relatively impervious to that kind of challenge, whether it be because the oppressor is just so overwhelmingly powerful, or genuinely and openly doesn't have any values you can appeal to, or acts entirely through powerless intermediary agents.

      So, when the secret police kick down my door and haul me off to a secret prison, where they threaten to beat me unless I turn over my compatriots, they are undoubtedly oppressing me, but they may not be bullying me, in that there is nothing I can point to as a flaw in THEIR position. They may have every reason to believe they are following lawful orders and that I really am an enemy of the state. Or worse, they may know full well that I'm innocent, but that THEIR families will be shot if they show disloyalty. Indeed, there may well be bullying involved (in that the officer may be bullied into oppressing me), but the officer might not be bullying ME.

      You are right that the definition is blurry. I submit that there's a spectrum, and the degree to which an act of oppression is bullying is just the vulnerability of the presumptions, and how much the oppressor relies on the victim's failure to challenge them.

    6. Looks like this is where scientific approach meets engineering one. From scientific point of view as long as there is even a micron of a distance between two objects they should be considered as two independent bodies, when from engineering standpoint, especially considering the friction coefficient, those two are "close enough" to be treated as one.

      As it looks like philosophy does not look kindly on the concept of "close enough" here is the definition of bullying based on your example:

      Bullying is the form of oppressive behavior that by design is vulnerable to the critical thinking.

      Bully in this case is a person or a group that partakes in the act of bullying, which definition is broad enough to get everybody on board, race, age and gender alike, be they assertive or cowardly, short sighted or strategic.

      I use words "by design" as I assume that any oppressive regime or behavior would be vulnerable to critical thinking by nature, but some will be able to withstand it better then others.


    7. I think I'd phrase it a little differently, because "by design" implies that the bully intends the vulnerability to critical thinking. Rather, I think that the bully doesn't really care what reason demands, and just wants to adopt whatever seems to support his position, rational or not, and is hasty in embracing the most direct argument.

    8. You are right, it can be read that way...

      Oppressive behavior is considered bullying as long as it is vulnerable to critical thinking.

    9. That's much closer, although I don't think I'd limit it to critical thinking as such. In the super-simple, archetypical case, all it takes is not to be afraid, to stare him down. It's akin to critical thinking, in the sense that it's questioning the bully's offered presumption that you're afraid of making him mad, but it needn't be so contemplative: you just might not be afraid.

    10. Generally speaking, the lack of fear can be established through the complete understanding of danger and risks involved or through the complete lack thereof. In the first instance critical thinking will be preceding the bravery and therefore there will be no contradiction with the definition.

      In the second case though lack of fear comes from either lack of understanding or from certain level of superiority of the bullied one. The sense of superiority presuppose some even the most basic level of analysis (I am twice his size and have three friends with me); when lack of understanding will not necessarily bring positive result. Besides such brutish approach is not specific or any more effective towards bullying than any other type of behavior and therefore it may not be necessary to include it in the definition?

      Also staring bully down seems relevant only in case of physical one-on-one type of bullying and may not be as effective in case of group bullying or cyber bullying.

      Either way, let me know if you are growing weary of this conversation, as I am having a good time and can keep going like this practically forever.


    11. Oh, critical thinking isn't EXCLUDED as a means to defeat bullying; I'm just saying that it's not NECESSARY. A complete lack of understanding or fear will render one more or less immune to a bully's intimidation, but it's much less adaptive. I don't think I'd recommend it as an overall strategy.

      That said, feigning complete ignorance can be a useful way of applying the critical thinking approach, after Socrates. "You'll beat me up if I don't give you my lunch money? I don't understand; how will that benefit you? Surely the teachers will wonder how I got beat up, and if you are then found in possession of my lunch money, wouldn't that get you in trouble? Is this some sort of mutual-assured-detention scheme?"

      I'm glad you're enjoying this, and you've helped me to clarify in my mind some of my theory, so I thank you. Not getting weary at all. (It takes quite a long time for me to be convinced the horse is dead before I stop beating it.)

    12. I see the confusion, I am entertaining the task of finding the most generic yet accurate definition of bullying rather than to discover ways to fight it. As far as methods of "warfare" go, lack of fear, or as per recent facebook post presence of "bravery" defined as "being afraid yet doing it anyway" is certainly necessary.

      Also there is a fair chance to be beaten for mere excessive employment of multisyllabic words with your depiction of fake ignorance approach. Kidding of course, although the idea of teenage Socrates is an amusing one.


  3. I think what started me on this project really was just the "share if you're against bullying!" and "99% of people won't have the guts to post this!" nonsense, and how they struck me as bullying. I wanted to figure out WHY I had this intuition they were.

    Another way to put it (which I'm not completely satisfied with) is that bullying is coercion where the victim is in some sense expected to contribute to maintaining or enhancing the power imbalance that allowed the coercion in the first place. For some reason I'm remembering the dynamics of Castle Wolfenstein (the first old Apple ][ version), where you could hold an SS guard at gunpoint and demand he give you his ammunition and his bulletproof vest. The typical way of playing through this encounter was to force the guard to take off his vest so you could shoot him. So, "Give me your bulletproof vest so I can shoot you, or I'll shoot you!" becomes an act of bullying under this theory, because you're enlisting the guard's own assistance in his persecution. (I know, it sounds strange to talk about persecuting an SS guard in a Nazi prison, but it's the structure of the immediate interaction I'm talking about, not the wider narrative of the game. And actually, I found the game was more challenging if I tried to get out of the castle without killing anyone.)

  4. Exactly, like Jayne Cobb said once: "Tell us where the stuff's at, so I can shoot ya". Could the missing part of the definition be that imbalance may be a perceived one? Or is there anything else to be unsatisfied with?
    So far bullying looks more like the psychological issue rather than social one. It is like the Eric Berne's games, which you have a full right to refuse partake in but quite often lack the realization of having such right.

  5. Absolutely. The power imbalance does not actually need to be real to have effect; it need only be perceived as real by the participants, although that kind of amounts to the same thing when it comes to social power. And, of course, with many bullies, the mere fact that someone has been successfully bullied into recognizing the bully's power helps to maintain the social perception of that power. This is why bullies really hate it when you stand up to them; often they can get along just fine without your lunch money, but they can't have people see that it's possible to challenge them successfully.