Is Our Society Rewarding Bullies?


You may have been bullied or bullied someone else as a child. Kids can be very cruel to each other, and it can leave victims scarred after the bullying stops. Some of the bullies grow up and learn to treat other people with proper respect, but what about those who either don't grow out of bullying, or worse, grow into bullying?

Social scientist Arthur Brooks says that in American society today, we've got a problem with rewarding bullies at many different levels. From television to social media to the everyday political landscape, bullies are the ones winning the day, and that's a serious problem for our society because bullies deserve no such fame.

If we hate bullies, why are they rewarded in the public sphere with fame, attention and even electoral success? Why aren’t they repudiated?

It doesn't seem to make sense at first. Of course bullies need to be appropriately called out and told to change the way they treat people. But they continue in their act, and gain a bigger following over time. Why is this? Brooks believes there are three explanations.

First, people tend to be selective ethicists. The other side’s bully is a horrible person; your side’s bully is a “truth teller.” Indeed, we sometimes even flip the script and say our bully is actually a victim who is simply fighting back against even bigger bullies.

Second, people are, paradoxically, attracted to bullies. In her book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” the social scientist Jean Lipman-Blumen shows that people complain about political dictators and tyrannical executives yet nearly always remain loyal out of a primordial admiration for power and need for security in an uncertain world.

The third explanation is simple acquiescence. In a famous study published in 1999 in the Journal of Adolescence, three psychologists investigated how children act when they witness an act of bullying. Hundreds of schoolchildren were videotaped on the playground, and nearly 200 bullying incidents were recorded. Bullies love audiences, and in more than half of the cases, two or more peers were present in addition to the bully and victim.

Peers' reaction tells a story as well. 21% joined the bully, 25% defended the victim, and an astonishing 54% just sat by and watched passively. Adults tend to respond in a similar way, as well, with speeches and comedy routines regularly delving into blatant bullying, but little repudiation of the bully.

Brooks concludes by stating that bullying is an audience- and demand-driven phenomenon. Bullies love having a crowd watching them, especially if that crowd is eager to see more, or is just neutral. We can look at events like the White House Correspondents Dinner as an example of bullying, but Brooks believes more introspection is needed.

As a former musician, he mentions how conductors are often bullies themselves, as they single out specific players in the orchestra and tear into them. Only once has he seen someone stand up to bullying in that setting.

If you hate it, stand up. I saw that happen only one time in the orchestra. A guest conductor was browbeating us in rehearsal and singling out individuals for abuse. An oboe player finally stood up and said, “With all due respect, Maestro, I think I speak for all of us when I say that the problem is not us, but you.”

The conductor kicked him out of the rehearsal. For the rest of us, he was a hero.

Perhaps if just one of us stands up on behalf of a bullied person, it will inspire others to do the same. Are you willing to start that chain-reaction?