Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Bully

It’s a cliché – and like most clichés true – that the bully is a coward.
The archetypal bully – the one we all, or at least all who have ever been their victims, remember – is the playground one. Stocky, ugly, slightly overweight, surrounded by his[1] jeering cronies, he goes for the direct attack, first verbal, then, if that doesn’t seem to his limited perception to have hit home, physical. I mean violent.
I said ‘Direct attack’ and ‘Limited perception’ but a striking (!) feature of the bully is the uncanny intuitive precision of his attack: just where it will hurt most, physically or emotionally. Uncanny, intuitive: he hasn’t intellectually worked out the precise point on his target; some more primitive force is at work: something like a vile perversion of the instinct that makes the lion go for the belly of the wildebeest.
There is also a less easily identifiable kind of bully: one met more often in ‘adult’ life than on the playground. This is the sort whom it would occur to almost nobody to call a bully. Quiet, respectable, unassuming; a nowhere man. He pays his bills promptly and always puts his rubbish out on the right day, properly sorted into the right recycling bins. An unremarkable job in an office; ideally somewhere like the council or the DHSS with its wide opportunities for his joyful pastime.
If, as I believe one can but perhaps shouldn’t, one divides people in general into those whose existence is a net gain and those whose existence is a net loss – and I am still hopeful enough for humanity to think that the former group is far larger than the latter – then this second type of bully is on the debit side. Not individually a vast bank-breaking loss like Hitler or Thatcher; just a nagging discrepancy in the petty cash account. He has never done anything really wicked, but then nor has he ever done anything really good. He has just lived quietly, absorbing what he wants from the world, giving nothing back. He has never loved anyone, and probably never been loved. No-one notices him.
But, distasteful as it will be, one ought to notice him: there’s a good chance he’s one of these closet bullies.
His modus operandi is to lie low and say nothing, just wait, watchfully, possibly for years. Perhaps waiting for a victim to swim into his bottom-feeding fishy gaze, perhaps patiently watching an already-chosen victim. Then he darts out and attacks, retreating at once to his previous impassive position. It is by the uncanny, unerring, instinctive pin-point precision and timing of his attack that one recognizes him as a bully.
Usually no-one notices the attack: not the victim – at least not at once – not the onlooker, and very often not even, consciously, the bully himself. If and when the victim does notice, he rarely retaliates or complains: this meekness is one of the factors in the bully’s choice of victim. If, however, the victim (or more likely some concerned third party to whom the victim has complained) tries to hold the bully to account, he will hold his hands out in a Pilate-like gesture of innocence and say ‘But all I did was… And indeed he has been careful to leave no obvious mark. Just a deep, invisible, unhealable psychic wound.
A thorough psychological study of the Bully Character would be valuable; perhaps someone is writing one or has already done so. An inquiry into what goes wrong in infantile development, at what stage it is arrested, that turns someone into a bully.  

[1] The usages ‘His/her’, ‘She/he’ etc. are inelegant and not a solution to the perceived sexism of what we once knew as ‘The inclusive he’, which I continue to use. There are of course as many female as male bullies; victims too.

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