The Bitter Angels of our Nature

I hate bullies. Always have. My problems with them began in nursery school when a group of older kids smashed me around enough to open a cut the length of my bicep (you can still see the scar). A few years later a gang of teenagers happened upon me playing alone at the park and battered me to a pulp. Those early lessons motivated me to conduct a study of the species. I learned that bullies are easy to spot. When you’re in a  group, they’re always the first to point out when someone else trips over their feet or their words or expresses an unpopular opinion and they do so loudly and clearly, soliciting agreement. It’s their social go-to: bullies are quick to create and claim space by excluding and ridiculing others.

Examining Donald Trump’s behavior during the primary debates and comparing them to his first days as President-elect yields interesting parallels. In the debates, he distinguished himself among a large field of competitors by ridiculing and hurling insults at his opponents. The strategy must have worked, because he successfully adapted it to an election campaign unparalleled in modern memory for its invocation of nativist and xenophobic themes. And in the four days since he has become president, Trump has shown every indication of bringing this style of management into the Oval Office. He has stated his intention to immediately deport 3 million people and made two key administration appointments, Mike Pence and Stephen Bannon, both notable for their anti-gay and anti-minority views. This is the politics of humiliation writ large: Trump has created and claimed space by excluding and ridiculing the concerns of others, specifically those of women, GLBT folk, ethnic and religious minorities.

Meanwhile, incidents of racial and sexual harassment have proliferated nation-wide, documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and chronicled in such news sources as The Guardian and the Globe and Mail. Similar reports have emerged on social media. Perhaps most troubling has been the outcry (mostly ignored by the mainstream) from teachers witnessing a terrible upswing in racial bullying among students. As a former teacher I’m convinced these kids are probably mimicking the behavior of their parents, who are themselves mimicking the Bully-in-Chief.  The Left has responded mostly with horror and hand-wringing: protest marches, indignant social media posts and the well-intended but vaguely ridiculous Safety Pin Campaign, which has left most targeted minorities shaking their heads in frustrated incredulity.

I learned, as a kid who spent a tortured adolescence fending off attacks right and left, that bullies don’t listen to reason. They are immune from persuasion by argument or emotional appeal. That’s because they don’t care: about you or morality or the opinion of people other than those they hold in thrall. All they care about is hurting you, over and over again, until you are reduced to nothing, whereupon they wander off in search of their next victim.

Anybody seeking to counter this new trend of social authoritarianism (a bully’s favorite form of government) must be prepared to get their hands dirty. Useful guides are popping up on the internet on how to confront and stop racist attacks. But it’s going to take more than good intentions – both in America and elsewhere – to halt this wave of xenophobia breaking out across the western democracies.

Opposing bullies comes at a risk. Specifically, you might get your ass kicked (or worse). But here’s a secret: refusing to give up, refusing to back down and refusing to accept the abuse is the only sure cure to bullying. Wearing safety pins is nice and all (and probably makes you feel better about yourself) but it won’t be enough to counter the vicious, primitive energy of the herd that has been unleashed. It took me nearly putting a kid in the hospital for my bullies to stop. I’ll never forget being dragged into the Dean of Student’s office, bloody and missing chunks of hair, to answer for my actions. I just stood there, bruised and grinning, not caring that I faced detention. I served it happily, reflecting on my new lesson. To survive, I would have to be that one kid who rises again and again, no matter how many times I got struck down.

Nothing terrifies a bully more.

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