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This Is What Happens When Everyone Is a ‘Bully’

For starters, it quickly becomes weaponized by the very people it’s meant to keep in check

Depending on who you ask, Donald Trump is either a serial bully or a great defender of bullying victims — and perhaps even a victim himself. “All Andy Johnson wanted to do was build a pond,” begins a story in USA Today about the way the Environmental Protection Agency administers laws that protect natural resources. “Approximately two years later, the project came to a screeching halt when bureaucrats from the Environmental Protection Agency knocked on Johnson’s door.” The story declares that “this type of murky, unclear, bureaucrat-driven style of regulating […] is, essentially, bullying by the government,” and the author praises Trump’s administration for “taking welcome steps to stop the bureaucratic bullying.” 

Trump, too, frames himself as anti-bully. He described New Hampshire’s Union Leader, a newspaper that’s frequently critical of his presidency, as “a bully that got knocked out!,” and called the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, a leading figure in Trump’s impeachment inquiry, “a brutal bully.” He also cited approvingly Jason Riley’s comment in The Wall Street Journal that the repeated attempts by the House of Representatives to access Trump’s tax returns “is not Congressional Oversight, [it] is bullying” and complains frequently that he’s subject to “presidential harassment.” 

But Trump has also been widely accused of being a bully himself, including by high-profile figures like Meryl Streep and Elizabeth Warren. In one New Yorker article, people with experience dealing with middle-school bullies are cited as “experts” who can help us “beat Trump,” so closely is he associated with the stereotype of the schoolyard bully. As such, pundits and comedians delighted in pointing out the apparent irony of Melania Trump’s anti-bullying campaign, married as she is to the so-called Cyberbully-in-Chief

If the president can be both a bully and an anti-bully, depending on your perspective, it’s tempting to think that the word has little meaning — and, indeed, plenty have made that claim. A flurry of online articles beginning about six years ago declared that the term “bully” is being “overused,” “misused” and “defined down,” and that too many of us are “crying bully.” “‘Bullying’ ends up encompassing such a wide spectrum of negative behavior that it’s meaningless,” Leigh Honeywell, the CEO of Tall Poppy, a tech startup building tools to protect people from online harassment, tells me. “While bullying is a serious and important problem, the term gets thrown around in a way that diminishes the severity of the issue of online harassment and the material harm it causes its targets.”

Over the past week, I’ve been speaking to about a dozen people with stories that suggest the term “bullying” is capable of almost comical misuse. “If we ask our daughter to do basic things that should be no big deal, like feed the cat, do her homework or put her dirty dishes in the dishwasher, she will often respond by saying, ‘Stop bullying me,’” says Michael, a 52-year-old IT consultant and father of a teen girl. “I don’t know the origin, but I assume it’s from her peers at school.” 

Several other parents share similar accounts, including Justin, a 29-year-old stay-at-home dad based in Vancouver. “My six-year-old calls me a bully when I’m trying to get him to do something and he’s mad at me, but he has autism so he understands things a bit differently,” he explains. “I think he does this because when he started school last year, we really drilled into his head that people who do mean things are bullies, so when he thinks I’m being mean I must be a bully.” Justin adds that his neurotypical four-year-old has also picked up on the habit.

These examples of children crying “bully!” because of reasonable requests and boundaries set by their parents are harmless, and even charming; Michael tells me he finds the habit “funny” and insists his daughter is “a great kid.” But accusations of bullying aren’t always so inconsequential, especially when they’re made through formal channels. “Last year, I pulled a guy up on his sexist behavior at work, and two days later, I got dragged into HR for bullying,” says Laura, a 30-year-old working in the IT industry in the U.K. She explains that her co-worker would make constant comments about her outfits, ability and sexual prowess, and when she challenged him on this behavior, he told HR that she belittled him in front of the team, that this was “typical” of her and that “everyone was scared of” her. 

Darby, a 22-year-old elementary music teacher in Nevada, had a similar experience when she severed ties with a friend who she describes as “mean” and “nasty” and who would “call people fat or ugly to their faces.” “She reported me to our college for ‘bullying’ her and apparently making her suicidal,” Darby tells me. “I almost got kicked out of school, and she got a lawyer involved who threatened to sue me and the school. I didn’t do one thing to this girl other than disassociate myself from her because she was mean.” 

In academia and the field of psychology, bullying is usually defined as physical or verbal aggression that’s intentional, repeated and causes distress and which involves unequal power between the bully and the bullied. The qualification about power dynamics is important and is meant to guard against misuse of the term by people like Laura’s co-worker and Darby’s ex-friend. “I was in an IT department staffed with 19 men and two women, and I certainly didn’t have the power in the situation,” Laura continues. “Essentially HR said that they didn’t believe him, but that if I continued my counter-allegations against him, they’d have to investigate his allegations, too. I think it was a case of ‘get her before she gets me.’”

This phenomenon of bullies claiming victim status is well-known among psychologists and others familiar with the dynamics of bullying and abuse. “Bullies don’t want you to set boundaries, and one way they try to fight against a boundary being set is to pull the classic, ‘No, you’re the abuser’ move,” Honeywell tells me. “DARVO is the technical term there.” Jennifer J. Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, defines DARVO as occurring when “the perpetrator or offender Denies the behavior, Attacks the individual doing the confronting and Reverses the roles of Victim and Offender, such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim — or the whistleblower — into an alleged offender.” Freyd notes that DARVO can occur on an institutional level, such as when police charge rape victims with lying, a phenomenon she describes as “a pernicious form of institutional betrayal.” 

This is one of the ways that the word “bully” becomes diluted or meaningless: It’s routinely weaponized by those to whom it should apply, sometimes a diversionary tactic. “Trump has repeatedly cast himself as a victim,” writes Erin Dunne in the Washington Examiner. “Like clockwork, every time some eyebrow-raising shred of information comes out about him or his administration, the response is never to rebut the alleged facts but to latch on to a narrative of being attacked.” 

“Bullies often conceptualize themselves as being under attack, when they’re the ones originating the pain,” writes Sarah Schulman in her book Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair. But Schulman is interested in the way that both powerful and relatively powerless individuals and groups routinely overstate the harm caused to them by other people, conflating abuse with conflict. It’s become common, Schulman says, to see normal interpersonal conflict described as “abuse” and for reasonable persistence — in pursuing a lover, say, or trying to repair a relationship with a friend — to be cast as “harassment” and “stalking.” She’s interested in the “moment of overreaction” that causes conflicted parties to “conflate discomfort with threat, internal anxiety with exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve,” resulting in “a wide practice of overstating harm” and the harmful “shunning” and scapegoating of the (falsely) accused. 

An arena in which this dynamic plays out frequently is in the “callout culture” of online social justice spaces, in which Schulman’s book is now sometimes brandished as an antidote. A typical example is the way in which white people, when called out even relatively gently on racist speech or behavior, respond with tears, theatrics, DARVO and self-pity. This phenomenon is called “white fragility,” and it’s often mirrored when people in what Schulman calls a “supremacist” position are asked to reflect, change and be accountable. Callout culture itself is frequently derided by commentators like David Brooks as being an arena of constant bullying. 

All of this delights the conservative right, who have concocted a reactive moral panic about “triggered snowflakes,” their need for “safe spaces” (especially on college campuses) and the supposed inability to “say anything these days” without being accused of harm and then “cancelled.” These claims are often used to deflect criticism of figures who are subject to legitimate accusations of abusive behavior or harassment, such as Louis C.K. and Trump. These arguments — that “everything is bullying these days” — might sound superficially similar to Schulman’s, and she says her arguments are often taken out-of-context by those who haven’t read her work. But Schulman is careful not to downplay actual abuse: She notes the cultural propensity to “underreact to abuse and overreact to conflict” and makes use of more clarifying definitions and models, such as social worker Catherine Hodes’ idea that “abuse is power over, [whereas] conflict is a power struggle.”

Drawing the line between abuse and conflict is difficult, as is navigating the balance between overstating and understating harm. Schulman suggests that “when we’re in the realm of conflict, we can move from the abuse-based construction of ‘perpetrator and victim’ to the more accurate recognition of the parties as ‘the conflicted,’” but even that requires us to make an assessment of whether we’re in the realm of conflict or abuse. Journalist Aviva Stahl thinks there’s value in saying “I was abused,” and worries that Schulman’s approach might abet abusers and cause victims to experience even more shame. 

Basically, none of this stuff is simple.

The way forward might involve rethinking our impulse to frame one party as totally at fault, unsympathetic and blameworthy (“the perpetrator”) and the other “the victim,” as innocent and morally “clean,” and then harshly punishing the first individual in order to exact retribution and encourage deterrence. These simplistic binaries are attractive in their simplicity and also culturally familiar — they’re the basis of most of our superhero movies, for example, as well as the criminal justice system — but they actually cause increased harm to all of the parties involved

We can move away from this paradigm by exploring less punitive models of dispute resolution, such as the transformative justice approach pioneered by prison abolitionists, and by abandoning our impulse to call the police and involve the state in interpersonal conflicts. As Schulman notes, this will involve the difficult work of challenging the entrenched systems that cause (and claim to justify) abusive behavior, such as capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy. 

Of course, none of this is to say that bullying and abuse aren’t painfully real or that they’re trivial problems. A cultural shift has occurred in the U.S. in which bullying is no longer seen as an inevitable part of school life (the “children will be children” attitude) and is instead seen as a problem that should be systematically addressed and solved, and this is a progressive shift. But little real progress is allowed by binary framings like perpetrator/victim and the punitive models of punishment that accompany them, from school expulsions to prison sentences.

We can start the change by being careful about the language we use to describe conflict, by committing to negotiation and communication and by making clear-eyed assessments of the facts — not just as individuals, but as a community. “Above all, it’s the community surrounding a conflict that’s the source of its resolution,” Schulman writes. “By differentiating between conflict and abuse, we can become advocates […] against scapegoating and shunning on the small and large scales, and contributors to a group dynamic of accountability and repair.”