I suspect most of us want to be heroes. We want to be the sort of person who stands up to the bully, tells the abuser they are out of order, maybe even the person who punches Nazis. There’s a great feeling to be had when you’re fighting the good fight, righteously doing the things that need doing. It feels powerful, and exciting, and wonderful. And you get to kick someone else while holding the moral high ground.
I’ve been the monster in this scenario, several times now. I’ve been the bad and wrong thing that deserved kicking, and I’ve had people kick me when from my perspective, I was already down and bleeding. I’ve had people kick me and tell me how proud of themselves they were for standing up to me. I’ve had people attack me for talking about depression, anxiety, pain and despair. I’ve been told what an awful, mean, bullying, unfair, unreasonable sort of person I am. I’ve had people try to cost me my day job on that basis. Were they right? I wondered at the time. I tend to take criticism to heart, because I’m nasty and unreasonable like that.
The desire to be heroic can leave a person wide open to certain kinds of manipulation. I’ve seen it done. And I’ll pause and salute the courage of one person who, having realised they’d been manipulated into attacking me, came back and apologised.
It’s easy to tone police the vulnerable person whose language you dislike rather than going after the system oppressing them. A notorious problem when white feminists deal with women of colour, for example. It’s easier to go after the ally who isn’t completely perfect than to go after perpetrators of the problem. It’s easier to go after people who have no power, than to go after the ones who do. Safer, too, because the people with no power can’t really defend themselves or do you any real harm, whereas those with power, can.
It’s important to look at what we’re being persuaded to do when the opportunity comes along to be heroic. Put your body in the way of the fracking machines? That’s heroism. Call out an actual bully who has the power to harm you? That is brave. The odds are if you wade into a fight, you won’t know everything that’s going on. If you’re on the bully-kicking team, and the bully just lies there, whimpering, if you knock down without consequences, if your righteous indignation looks poised to wreck someone’s life… pause and look at that power balance. Ask whether the response is proportional. Ask whether you’re sure the person you’re taking apart really deserves that.
Taking down abusive people who are in places of power is difficult, hazardous work, and often has a high cost for those doing it. If the takedown feels safe and easy, if the ‘bully’ can’t really do anything to stop you, if you can shame and blame and hurt and humiliate them with impunity… there are questions to ask.
Of course it is true that people with no power can be mean, spiteful, horrible and so forth. Is the first port of call on discovering this to trash them in every way possible? Or should we be trying to talk to them about what the problem is? Should we consider that education, insecurity, inexperience, incompetence might be part of the mix, rather than malice? Should we try to help them not do it again rather than going for psychological warfare?
Because the thing is, it takes very little effort to call someone a bully, especially if you have no reason to fear them. I’ve been called a bully for saying no, for disagreeing, and for not co-operating. I’ve been called a bully for complaining about how I was being treated, when I found that treatment unkind. For people who are really wrapped up in their privilege, a challenge to comfort and ego will be re-branded as bullying. It is not bullying to tell men that women are afraid of being raped. It is not bullying to prevent one person using another person as a resource. But these are things that I have seen called out, because some people can’t handle discomfort and prefer to blame the messenger. Feeling discomfort is not the same as being bullied.
If we want to tackle bullying, we have to do so by not perpetrating it. It’s easy to go in guns blazing, and when you do, it is easy to blame, shame hurt and humiliate people who have been victims all along, and that really doesn’t help.