Calvin Neufeld on Bullying

Brace yourselves; we’re here today to talk about bullying. It’s on our minds because it’s on the news or in our lives, we hear about it, we know about it, we witness it, we experience it, we inflict it on others. In some way or another we are all affected by bullying so we have the responsibility to take it very seriously. It’s destroying lives and it’s got to stop.

In my experience, the best weapon and the best defence against anything is understanding. So with understanding as our common goal here today, together, let’s take a good, thorough look at bullying, and not conceal or understate any of the ugly things that must be told. I’ll begin by sharing my own scattered observations, after which we can spend time talking about it together.

Bullying is… appalling.

In schools it’s always the little ones who get it, or the ones who look unusual, or the ones who reach puberty first, or last, or the girly boys or the boyish girls, or the ones with zits, or the ones with different hygiene standards or different anything else. These are the ones who seem to get it worst and that has always pissed me off, these are the people who could use a little extra help, not a little extra hurt!

Whenever I’ve seen bullying it has appalled me, and when I’m appalled, I butt in. And you know what, when it comes to bullying, butting in goes a long way. We’ll talk more about that later but for now let’s take a step back and look at this whole thing as observers, together, you and me.

You can draw on whatever experience you have; it’s all part of the same equation. Maybe you’ve witnessed bullying, maybe you’ve been bullied, maybe you’ve bullied someone else. Think back honestly to your school days, I don’t think any of us was always kind. And bullying is not unique to youth; this behaviour easily carries on into adulthood, by then it’s just subtler and more socially acceptable. Think of office politics, for example. The bully might even grow up to be your boss, it’s an effective quality in a leader. Or you could be bullied by a friend, or by a sibling, or by a parent – at any age. Anybody can bully, and to some degree everybody has.

Remember that there’s more than one form of bullying. We’re all familiar with physical bullying, particularly common among boys, which is the taking of power by rendering another person powerless, either indirectly through physical intimidation (which, by the way, is the French word for bullying – intimidation) or directly through physical incapacitation, literally beating someone up. And there’s another form of bullying, increasingly common among girls, with words instead of punches – looks even – and psychological rather than physical domination.

These are the ways that we bully. And it’s important to recognize that these behaviours are common to us all as human beings. It’s only the intensity of it that makes a bully. When it comes to the desire to physically or psychologically dominate another, and when it comes to the experience of being physically or psychologically dominated by another, we’re all on common ground if you ask me. Perpetrators and victims, all of us. If I’m to understand what makes a bully and what makes a victim, I must first recognize the bully and the victim in me. We can’t afford to look at the problem as conceptually foreign – the nameless faceless Bully with a capital B – when the roots of oppression run deep in us all. So let’s dig it all out. I’m not so much interested in treating the symptoms of bullying, I’m interested in the cure. It’s the difference between picking a weed and uprooting it.

So what is this equation? What factors come together to produce this vicious predatory behaviour? And why do the prey submit? And why is the phenomenon getting worse, not better? We have to ask ourselves these questions, they directly affect our wellbeing. If I want quality of life for me and for everyone else, I have to take these questions seriously. Same goes for you.

The Bully

Let’s look first at the bully. You can recall one from your life, no doubt. And remember, take a look also at the bully in you, I assure you it’s there. I didn’t have to look far to find it in myself. In high school one of my classmates spilled liquid paper all over my Bible – at the time my most precious possession – and, well, I was angry and I treated her more unkindly and more unforgivingly than I felt. I knew it at the time and I know it now that I did this just because she was on the nerdier side of things. How dare she, of all people, abuse me this way? In those few minutes, I genuinely looked down at her, the worst punishment I could think to dish out. That was the bully in me. Minutes later I apologized for the whole thing of course, I can’t help myself, I can’t bear the weight of my conscience. Thankfully she forgave me.

This is all peanuts I know compared to what big B Bullying looks like. But… it’s the fact that I did it just because. Just because she was below me in the hell of high school hierarchy I treated her worse than I would have treated someone cooler who didn’t give a crap about my good opinion – or my Bible for that matter. The ingredients were there; my sense of superiority, her sense of inferiority, and a dash of anger birthed the bully in me.

A bully preys on inferiority, you don’t attack someone you think you can’t beat. The very act of bullying is a show, a physical or verbal demonstration of my superiority, the flexing of whatever physical or mental muscles that I possess that are more powerful than yours. And that’s all it is, flexing. There’s no actual point, nothing purposeful whatsoever is achieved by the act of bullying. So bullying is a showing off, a demonstration of my superiority over you.

Why do we show off? Why this competitiveness to look better than someone else? We need to understand this if we’re to understand bullying.

Probably, as animals, biological organisms, hierarchy is built into our genes, survival of the fittest and the instinct to eliminate threat by establishing dominance. In this sense a bully is not unlike an alpha hyena.

But psychologically, as thinking beings who generally consider ourselves to have evolved beyond the hyena and beyond the instinct to divide weak from strong, why do we compete, why do we show off, puff ourselves up, what’s our excuse?

When I show off, aren't I just saying “please think I’m good at this, please think I’m good?” Or please think I’m smart?” Or “please think I’m strong?” Or “please think I’m cool?” I think so.

And where does that desire for approval come from? Obviously from a sense of inadequacy, inferiority. If you think I’m good then I must be. If you think I’m smart then I must be. If you think I’m strong then I must be. If you think I’m cool then I am. All of this comes from the same place, the fear that I’m not good, the fear that I’m not smart, the fear that I’m weak, the fear that I’m uncool. Fear, fear, fear.

Fear is revealed in the act of bullying. The worst bully is the most afraid, with the lowest sense of self. Have you ever seen a dog attack someone? You must have seen the fear there – not just in the person being attacked but the fear in the dog. A dog that attacks you is a dog that is afraid of you. The worst behaviour comes from animals, including humans, who are afraid.

And the silly, or the tragic, thing is that in reality, the bully usually is strong or smart or cool – and always, in my experience, the bully is even deep down truly good – but the whole problem of the bully is that the bully doesn’t believe it. That’s what’s so silly, so tragic about it. This is a problem of self-sabotage because if the bully had a healthy and accurate and un-meddled-with sense of self-worth, there would be no problem. But somewhere along the line, through whatever unfortunate circumstances, the bully has been made to feel weak, or been made to feel afraid, or stupid, or uncool, or powerless, or whatever other insecurity emerges from a distorted perception of myself. These common insecurities become the inflated weapons that the bully uses to clobber others with for flexing purposes. You’re weak! You’re frightened! You’re a freak. Not me.

Not me.

A bully who shows off strength feels weak, and by bullying proves it. Violence, whether physical or psychological, is an act of powerlessness, it reveals that I can think of no better way to get what I want. It’s the crudest form of action and ultimately the weakest form of influence. Hitler brought millions to war by violence and had the trust of no one. Gandhi brought millions to peace by fasting and had the hearts of every one. Who was more powerful?

Power through fear versus power through love, there is no comparison. So those who choose fear as the source of their power are those who feel most powerless to accomplish it any other way. Bullies are the weakest among us.

And as I said, the silly or tragic thing is that they’re not powerless. A bully could use his strength or her intelligence to protect instead of destroy, for example, or to inspire instead of devastate. This can change in an instant, the only thing stopping you is you. Look at me! Bald baby girl becomes bald bitter man. That took change. And the recognition that I am radically free, I am the author of my life and I’m determined to make the story a good one, no matter what I’ve got to work with.

So if you’re a bully, or anyone caught up in an unhappy existence, maybe you think that you go so far along a road you can’t really turn around. This is who people think I am, this is how I act, this is what I do, I can’t just… change. Well, bull. Change. Turn. Spin on that dime if you want. You are radically free and don’t you forget it. Whatever turn you have to make to make life better for you and everyone else, do it!

There are many ways to gain respect and admiration, and bullying has to be the laziest, shallowest, most despicable means to that end. Using bullying to get respect is like using rape to get sexual intimacy. The comparison is not so far-fetched. Physical and psychological domination are hardly a stone’s throw from sexual domination.

A comparison could also easily be made to drugs. More than a comparison, really, you could almost say that bullying is a drug. I bully someone and get a quick fix of feeling stronger, cooler. It’s artificial but it feels like the real thing. Then the instinct kicks in to keep getting that fix, to keep doing it to remain under that influence. A habit forms and there you have your bully, a person addicted to belittling others. There are single acts of cruelty all the time, we’re a particularly cruel species, but it’s the habit, the repetition, the continuance and intention of torture that makes a big B Bully. It’s a form of addiction, a habitual escape from what’s really going on in myself, which is that I feel weak, powerless, afraid, I hate myself, I hate my life.

And of course, as with a drug, the bully is unaware of how transparent that kind of under-the-influence behaviour looks to everyone else. That guy’s got issues. That girl’s messed up. The bully wears a badge of fear and insecurity. I want to say to the bully “Be smarter than that! Don’t be so quick to reveal your powerlessness!”

It’s like Mark Twain said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” It’s true of words and equally true of actions. Silence is easily confused with wisdom, whatever stupidity was on the tip of your tongue. And inaction can look a lot like strength, composure, confidence, no matter what storm is raging inside. I might feel weak and insecure but unless I go running around stomping on people no one would know it. Think about what your words and actions reveal about you, for goodness sake!! Don’t be so quick to reveal your weakness and fear.

And anyway, so what if you feel weak, powerless, stupid, ugly, mediocre, or whatever other insecurities plague us all? We all say the same mean things to ourselves and we’re all idiots for it because the reality is that I have never known a person who did not have a good, beautiful, powerful heart buried beneath all the crap. So if someone’s acting like a bully I want to know why. Why in the world would you sell yourself so short? What lies are you telling yourself and why? And how much poop will you make me shovel before you reveal the good but hurting heart underneath?

Darn it all. Be good to yourself and everyone else. It’s easy if you try.

The Victim

And now let’s look at the victim of bullying. I have known victims of bullying and I am painfully conscious of the pain of many here whose lives have been crippled by bullying and a shattered sense of self-worth. You have my compassion.

I myself haven’t been big B Bullied but I’ve known what it feels like to be belittled and psychologically dominated. I know what powerlessness feels like at the hands of someone who takes control away from you with the intent of causing you harm. Whatever the degree, that’s bullying in my book so to some extent or another I suspect we have all been victims.

What makes a victim? What makes it possible for me to be abused in this way? And I want to make it very clear here that these questions suggest in no way that the victim is to blame for anything. Blame goes to the bully or whoever chooses to do violence. But looking objectively, observantly at the victim, as a piece of this puzzle, a necessary part of the equation: what makes a victim?

We’ve looked at the bully and seen that fear and a low sense of self are the cause. I hope we’ve all seen this. A person who is confident and self-assured doesn’t go around stomping on people, that’s just not how it works. So fear and insecurity make a bully.

And what makes a victim? Ironically, the exact same thing. Fear and insecurity. Isn’t that so? In some cases there is physical fear, I don’t want you to punch me, so I submit, I don’t resist you. I give up my power to you because I fear you.

In other cases there is fear of psychological harm. The fear that the bully will identify my weakness or my insecurity and exploit it. You think you’re ugly? I’ll make sure you and everyone else knows it. You’re fat? Bet that’s something you wouldn’t want pointed out all the time. And God, what’s with those clothes, what the frick is wrong with you?

You could be targeted for your looks, your shape, your personality, your clothes, anything, it isn’t any specific quality that attracts the bully - I should know, I’ve worn some of the worst clothes in history and totally got away with it, I’m getting away with it now. The bully is attracted to insecurity – remember, you don’t attack someone you think you can’t beat. So the bully is always sniffing out an advantage over someone else to exploit.

If I’m afraid of anything, my fear can be manipulated, it can be used to control me. This is a fact and that’s the bully’s power. If you fear letting others know the real you, for example, like a gay kid putting on a straight act or a Trekkie trying to look cool – the bully sees right through that, sniffs out the fear and takes the bait in a heartbeat. Having insecurity around bullies is like Superman handing kryptonite to his enemies.

Take my butt for example. Growing up, a girl at the time if you’ve forgotten, I had a great big bubble butt that I hated with a passion and I dreaded anyone teasing me about it. And it didn’t help that I wore my gym shorts under my skirt for practical purposes (I’m a practical person), which made my butt even broader and bubblier. I probably reeked of insecurity and sure enough one day a group of kids approached me in the yard and got to teasing me about it – “hey, you’ve got a big bum” and other witty remarks. I was mortified, I wanted to crawl into a hole, butt-first, and die. But… a revelation came to me. If I don’t look humiliated, they won’t know that I feel humiliated. They only know what I show them. So I showed them instead a smile and said “well isn’t it a good thing these days for a girl to have a big butt?” They paused, pondered that observation and… agreed! Yes, people like big butts and I cannot lie. I never heard a word about it again and it taught me a valuable lesson in the vulnerability of insecurity and the power of confidence.

There are many treatments for bullying but the cure is right there: without insecurity no one could be bullied. A person could be beat up, sure, or killed, however fearless. A person could be teased, we all get our fair share. But a person without fear and without insecurity can not be big B Bullied. There is nothing to be exploited, the bully is powerless.

Like Gandhi said, that frail little man: “You can’t hurt me without my permission.” And when he said something, he meant it. So think about it.

If your psychological security is utterly independent, if your sense of self is whole and healthy, un-meddled-with, if your sense of worth is totally self-contained, then your happiness and wellbeing depend on no one but you. This is radical freedom. You can’t hurt me without my permission.

Screw fear. Screw insecurity. Love yourself. So what if you’re fat or tall or short? So what if you’re stupid or genius or ordinary? So what if you’re queer? So what if you’re scrawny? So what if you’re transsexual? So what if you have a big butt? Who cares? Experiment with loving yourself, I dare you.

Same goes for bullies. Screw fear, screw insecurity. That’s the cure, that’s where you’ll find your un-meddled-with sense of self-worth, and that’s where you’ll find the you that is not cruel.

Bullies, if you’re so strong, prove it. Genuinely. Picking on the weak proves nothing but weakness. What is strength for, anyway, if not to protect? As organisms that’s why it’s there, that’s its function, to protect me, my mate and my offspring and anyone else I’m connected to, it’s essential to survival. Bullying is fundamentally a perversion, it uses strength for exactly the opposite unnatural purpose of harming myself and others. A bully is a malfunctioning organism.

As for bullies who psychologically devastate their victims, if you’re so clever then prove it. Genuinely. Crippling the already frail proves nothing but cruelty and stupidity. What is intelligence for if not for problem-solving? As organisms that’s why it’s there, that’s its function, to identify problems, potential and real, and to find solutions, it’s essential to survival. So again, this form of bullying is a perversion, it uses intelligence to create problems where there would otherwise be none. This is unnatural, cruel and stupid, the opposite of intelligent.

So if you’re bullying, then stop it! You can do better than that.

And if you’re being bullied, then take control! Take YOUR control back. Tell your parents, tell teachers, tell the janitor, tell a reporter, tell the police – don’t hesitate for a moment to shout it from the rooftops. Be a tattle-tale, there are worse things, like continuing to be bullied. Tell. Talk. Find your voice and then use it.

You do not deserve to be treated like dirt and anyone who tells you otherwise lies. You deserve dignity, love, nurturing, you are good and precious and don’t you forget it for a moment, not even with your head dunked in a toilet. Don’t let anyone break through. Don't let anyone sabotage your self-worth.

You’re as powerless or as powerful as you think you are. Gandhi was beaten up more times than most people in this world but it took assassination to render him powerless. As long as he had breath he used it powerfully.

If you believe you’re powerless then you are. And by the same mechanism, if you believe you’re powerful, even if you aren’t, you are, believing makes it so, I know, I’m doing it now. So screw fear, screw insecurity, love yourself and live confidently.

It’s like Orson Scott Card said: “Perhaps it's impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.” I think about this all the time, it’s why I’m up here right now pretending to know what I’m talking about.

Think about what you’re pretending to be. If pretending leads to becoming, you’d be wise to pretend wisely. Are you pretending to be a bully, a tough guy, a cool girl, whatever? Is that all you want to become? I’d rather pretend to be loving, compassionate, intelligent, and then see what becomes of me.

Bottom line, bullies and victims and everyone else, do whatever work you need to do up here to accept, respect, and love yourself. After all, why not? It can only make life better. Experiment with loving yourself; see for yourself that a strong sense of self is as good as a bulletproof vest when it comes to abuse.

The Witness

So we’ve looked at the bully and hopefully recognized the fear and insecurity at the root there. And we’ve looked at the victim of bullying and hopefully recognized the fear and insecurity at the root there. Finally, if we’re to look at every piece of this whole puzzle, there is a third party involved in the equation of bullying - without which there would be very little bullying indeed - and that’s whoever witnesses it, sees it, hears about it. The audience.

Since bullying is primarily a show of strength or superiority it’s essential to the equation that there be some form of witness. Not every single act of bullying is public – often things are done that only the bully and the victim will ever know about – or perhaps the witness is someone the bully brags to afterwards. But a bully that acts only in secret in my mind would just be insane, purely sadistic, a step away from serial killer, which I think would be the natural evolution of such a violent secret life. No, bullying by its very nature is a show, an act, and a show without an audience isn’t a show; an act without an audience isn’t an act. You show off for someone, this could be a friend, a classmate, a stranger, anybody online, it could be a single person or a crowd of a hundred, I don’t think it matters. Unless a bully is purely, secretively sadistic, there are three parties involved in the equation we’re looking at today: the bully, the victim, and the witness.

You, the witness, are the most powerful of the three. It’s obvious why you’re more powerful than the victim, who likely feels powerless and may in fact be rendered physically powerless. But you’re also more powerful than the bully because the bully wants something from you: respect, submission, admiration or whatever. You are the one the show is for. If you’re my friend I want you to think I’m cool. If you’re my enemy I want you to fear me. I want to feel stronger or smarter or cooler. I bully because I want.

That’s the bully’s weakness. When I want something from you, you are in a position of power. That’s how it works. You have power over the bully, so exercise it! Whatever you do, you play a role.

Do you think, as a witness to bullying, that you’re not involved? Do you think that standing by and watching someone get beat up leaves you innocent of the crime? Or laughing when someone gets teased, is that innocent? It is perhaps the worst form of guilt. You were present, you were mentally and physically able, you were conscious and unaffected by the passion that blinds the bully and the suffering that paralyzes the victim. Why were you not appalled? And if you were, why did that not move you to do something about it?

Refuse to give your respect, your submission, your admiration, and see how quickly that can deflate a bully. Be appalled, find your voice and then use it.

Every single person has the power to stop bullying. The bully can stop it, obviously, by not doing it. The victim can stop it by being psychologically immune to its devastation (which isn’t easy but it is possible). And the witness can stop it. No matter who you are.

I remember one day in elementary school the two biggest guys in my class got into a violent fight. I never knew what the whole thing was about, it just shocked me and appalled me and as I’ve said I tend to react by sticking my nose in, which I did, literally, and it got punched. I don’t know what else I was expecting when I stepped between them – the best position maybe to show them my appalled expression? It may not have been the cleverest thing in the world to do but it worked, you can bet it stopped right there and never happened again, especially since a teacher arrived just in time to see what amounted to a big guy punching a girl. And in an odd twist of events, one of the fighting guys ended up with a crush on me for years afterwards, however much I wasn’t interested, poor thing. But that event left a strange and lasting impression in him. So you see it’s clear, I know from my own experience that it isn’t violence but the intolerance of violence that inspires respect, admiration, even submission, whether you want it or not. So all the things that the bully wants, ironically, are gained even by accident by doing exactly the opposite of bullying.

That’s one of the reasons bullying bugs me so much. It’s not only bad, it’s stupid. It’s the opposite of intelligent behaviour, it’s the means to the opposite of the end that you want.

So come on, let’s all be sensible. If you’re bullying then stop it. Become someone’s boss instead, or a politician. If you’re a victim then take control – if you can’t take control of the bully you can take control of your ability to be independently well, which is even better and more effective. And if you’re a witness then be appalled and intervene. I’m proof that even the dumbest idea is enough to put a stop to cruel, senseless behaviour. Interrupt. Throw a stick in that wheel. Do whatever it takes to disrupt the equation of strong Xing weak = power.

But most witnesses don’t intervene. Otherwise there would be very little bullying indeed. No one would get away with it and there would be no reward, nothing to tempt habitual cruelty. So the problem is not that witnesses can’t stop bullying, it’s that they don’t.

Why don’t they? Guess what: same reason. Fear. Always fear, fear, fear. If I stick my neck out it might be my head dunked in the toilet. Who’s kidding who?

But it’s more than that. I know, because when I see cruel, senseless behaviour I don’t have time to think logically enough to fear; when I’m appalled I butt in, I can’t help myself, it’s a reflex. Act now, regret later.

What does it take to witness cruelty and suffering and remain unmoved by it? Why the apathy? Your problem isn’t my problem and in fact if I get a laugh out of your problem, all the better. Disgusting. Apathy, indifference to others, is perhaps the worst and most common crime. It has enabled everything from bullying to slavery to the holocaust of Jews and the holocaust of animals. None of this is possible without apathy infecting the majority of a population. Apathy makes a partner in crime.

And this is especially tragic since, I repeat, the witness has the most power when it comes to putting an end to cruel, senseless behaviour. See what happens to a crowd of observers when one steps out and objects. Or if you don’t have the advantage of numbers, if you’re the only witness, see what happens to a bully when you have no reaction to offer – no respect, no admiration, no submission, no fear, no laughter – no reaction other than appalledness.

Every one of us plays a role in the phenomenon of bullying and every one of us has a role to play in stopping it.


So if you’re just tuning in now, here’s my conclusion:

Screw apathy. Screw fear. Screw insecurity.
Be appalled. Butt in.
Love yourself. Love others.
Live confidently. Think sensibly.
Be independently well.
And be good for goodness sake!