Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought

Return to the home page

Adult Bullies Are Everywhere

“The bullies aren’t just in the schools,” wrote blogger Cap’n Transit (“Protecting the Vulnerable From Bullies,” June 17, 2009). “They’re everywhere that they’re allowed to be. Everywhere that there are power imbalances, and nothing to counter them. They’re definitely on the roads.”

He’s right about that. Try driving the speed limit in the right-hand lane and see how long it is before somebody is honking at you, hollering at you, crowding you, and cursing at you. “Drivers who obey the traffic laws—including the speed limits—are almost certain to be tailgated,” wrote Robert Thomson, the Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock (online chat, Jan. 9, 2012).

And as we know, bullies are in schools, sometimes treating people so badly that students kill themselves in an attempt to escape the pain. But the same thing happens with adults, apparently even in the military. “A recent Army study found a potential link between toxic leadership and troop suicides,” wrote Senior Chief Jim Murphy and Jayne P. Cecil (“Toxic Leaders: Bullies in Our Ranks,” Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, February 2014). The Army even has official doctrine defining bullies in positions of power: the writers cited Army Doctrine Publication 6-22, “Army Leadership,” which describes those who “consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others.”

Who are these bullies? “All bullies are narcissists, with an inflated sense of self-importance and a marked lack of empathy for their victims’ suffering, while many narcissists turn out to be powerful bullies,” wrote Joseph Burgonov in the Atlantic Monthly (“All Bullies Are Narcissists,” Nov. 2013). He explained: “The narcissist lives in a world populated by two classes of people, the winners and the losers. His constant aim in life is to prove he’s a winner and to triumph over the losers.”

There are plenty of such people. Pope Francis has mentioned the problem of “narcissistic” Christians—people “not really concerned about Jesus Christ or about others.” Love of God and love of neighbor—what Jesus called the two greatest commandments—are displaced by love of self.

Burgonov cited the case of Lance Armstrong, an athlete caught using “illegal performance-enhancing drugs”: he “made extensive use of the legal system and his access to media in order to bully and intimate anyone who challenged him.… Armstrong wanted to make his detractors appear like contemptible losers; he tried to turn public opinion against them, enlisting the support of his many fans.” (I’ve witnessed this: an adult bully in our neighborhood made false police reports against me when I resisted the bullying.)

“Schoolyard bullies employ identical tactics, spreading vicious rumors and recruiting followers in order to persecute their victims,” wrote Burgonov.

Murphy and Cecil also noted that “bullies often have a following” (the slang word for the followers is “toadies”). “Bullies and those who support them tend to reinforce their own negative qualities, using results or intent to justify their own behavior.” (Our neighborhood bully went to court with false witnesses.)

Although bullies and toadies may justify themselves, on some level they’re aware of what they’re doing. “They are adept at hiding their behavior from superiors,” wrote Murphy and Cecil, who even used the same words as Cap’n Transit: bullies create “an imbalance of power.” (When I told the police the truth about an incident involving the neighborhood bully, one deputy told me, “I don’t believe you”—like the Army superiors that are duped by bullies who hide their behavior.)

Why do they engineer the balance of power in their favor? “Bullies typically act out of feelings of insecurity,” wrote Murphy and Cecil.

“Through physical and psychological persecution, the bully off-loads her own shame and fear of not belonging,” wrote Burgonov. (The bully who made false police reports claimed that a deputy said of me, “He isn’t one of us.” Whether that claim was true or not, it showed a desire to prove that the victim, not the bully, was the one who doesn’t belong.)

Bullies on the roads may convince themselves that they, despite their aggressive, illegal behavior, are in the right, acting out their anger against those who are actually obeying traffic laws. And for the most part, there is, as Cap’n Transit said, “nothing to counter them.”

So if bullies are “everywhere that they’re allowed to be,” what can we do about it?

We need to “identify the bullies in our ranks,” wrote Murphy and Cecil, stating that “toxic leadership and bullying … can be prevented and corrected.” Prevention, they said, “includes setting a tone of respect.” We must not only “hold perpetrators accountable” but help “the target and the bully build self-acceptance.” Both have “personal worth.” Identify them, hold them accountable and give them what they won’t give others: respect? That’s hard, but I suspect that Pope Francis would agree.