Thursday, January 09, 2014

How Do You Know When You're Being a Bully?

"It's not my fault being the biggest and the strongest. I don't even exercise." 
— Fezzik the Giant

I grew up with four younger brothers and sisters. I was a bully. I know that I was, despite my mother's best efforts. I felt angry and powerless in a house where everyone competed for time and attention, and my younger siblings were easy targets for all my rage. I was not powerless over them. I'm sorry about that; I think I've apologized over the years, and the dynamics between us have changed. But the memory of punching my two-year-old brother in the stomach (I was six) still haunts my early-morning hours.

Watching Governor Chris Christie on TV this morning reminded me that this power imbalance is the key to bullying. Not every act of meanness is bullying. To be a bully is to threaten someone who lacks the ability to defend himself or herself, for whatever reason. They might be smaller, older, younger, physically frailer, less wealthy, less knowledgeable, less influential — or, in a group situation, outnumbered.

A lifetime of policing my own tendencies (not always successfully) and watching other bullies in action has taught me that many, if not most, bullies have no idea that they're bullies. They don't realize how scary they are. They don't see how people react to them, because they have no idea how much more powerful they are than the people they're bullying. Under stress, Chris Christie probably doesn't remember that he is 5'11" and however many pounds and governor of the 11th largest state in the country. He probably doesn't remember that he's got a pretty wife and four kids and two honorary doctorates, or that Bruce Springsteen hugged him. I don't know anything about Chris Christie's childhood, but I'm willing to guess it didn't feel very powerful.

A woman I used to work with terrified our junior colleagues. She had no idea she did this; in her mind, she was still the sweet young thing no one took seriously. Her aggressiveness was merely pushing back against the forces that had conspired to keep her down 20 years earlier, even though those forces had long since been vanquished.

I have caught myself doing the same thing. I am a freelancer who provides a service, and a single woman of a certain age (we don't say "spinster" anymore). My assumption is that in any group dynamic, I'm the beta animal or even the omega. But that's not always true. That ignores the bone-deep privilege I carry as a European-American, as an officer's daughter, as the product of private education and as someone with an IQ that tests above average. Not to mention being taller and larger than most of my peers (though I'm working on the "larger" part). In certain situations, I am intimidating. I can't help it. I can't let myself forget it, either.

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