We all grew up with bullies. There was the physical bully who, unwilling to engage in a face-to-face fight, liked to inflict the cheap shot in a contact sport or game.
There was the verbal bully who employed relentless insults to belittle, demean, and hurt another person.
And now, today’s kids experience cyber bullies who spit out venomous lies about others, lies that they do not have the courage to say face-to-face. Technology makes them feel anonymous, safe and insulated, detached from the consequences of their cowardice.
Sometimes we feared bullies and avoided them and their followers. Sometimes we confronted them, knowing instinctively that their bullying was a mask which hid insecurity and was the source of their insatiable need to feel superior.
As adults, some of us came to admire fictional “good guy” bullies. As Robert Evans Wilson wrote in Psychology Today, we admire bully-heroes in the movies: Dirty Harry, The Godfather, Captain Kirk, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket.
Evans went on to illustrate how we sometimes allow bullying to entertain us in reality TV shows like The Real Housewives franchise, Kitchen Nightmares and even Survivor.
Too many reality TV shows encourage their participants to exercise power over “underlings," form “power” alliances, gossip, and deceive others.
The theme of one kind or another bullying is often a main component of a “reality” show.
According to a study published by researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center included in the November issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, the relationship between exposure to bullying used to achieve the adult bully’s purposes and the emergence of bullying by young adolescents confirms that kids are not born as bullies, they learn to be bullies from watching adult behaviour either actually or vicariously.
As adults, most of us have experienced or are aware of narcissistic bullying where employees are bullied overtly or less explicitly by an individual who needs to exploit his or her self-perceived “power” over people they see as lesser than themselves.
Service staff in restaurants or clerks in some other service industry are common victims.
Research also tells us that narcissistic bullies are by nature frauds who lie, exaggerate, and brag about themselves and denigrate others to bolster their shaky self-image.
That said, it is difficult to write a column about bullying without mentioning, at least once, the daily media’s example of the most egregious example of everything that is bullying — Donald Trump.
It’s not just that Trump is a prolific if unimaginative bully, it’s more the way Trump enjoys bringing his dominance to the public stage almost comically.
It all calls to mind the hapless schoolyard bully of our school days.
That’s as it may be and it is fodder for ratings, but is of no real news value in the sense that it adds nothing to our understanding of the normal world around us.
When it comes to media coverage of schoolyard scraps and bullying, the same could be said. The media, especially TV news media, is not doing anybody, least of all the victims of bullying, any favours.
For the high-school bully, the mild punishment of a reprimand by the principal is completely offset by the celebrity among the other kids gained from being in the spotlight — whether the images are blurred or not.
As the vice-principal and wrestling coach at a large urban secondary school, I devised a strategy which, while it did not shut down bullies altogether, discouraged them coming under my radar.
“Hey," I’d say as I pulled a bully away from his victim “you look like a pretty tough guy and I work out every day with some other tough guys on the wrestling team — be in the gym at 3:30 for our workout and there will be no need for me to take this any further — suspend you, talk to your parents, any of that — so be there."
Naturally, the team members were accustomed to this and had been warned to “take it easy” and not act like bullies themselves thus compromising the ethics of their sport.
That was not substituting one version of bullying with another.
Once in a while, the bully would learn that the weakness he had feared about himself could be replaced by the genuine self-confidence.
That would come from eventually experiencing hard earned success after weeks of training and feeling helpless amongst companions who just enjoyed a contact sport played by rules based on mutual respect between opponents.
And bullying on the political big stage? As Alice Garza, civil rights activist and writer explained : “We all lose when bullying and personal attacks become a substitute for genuine conversation and principled disagreement."
Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools. firstname.lastname@example.org