Next month, my book Bullyocracy: How the Social Hierarchy Enables Bullies to Rule Schools, Work Places, and Society at Large will be published. Bullyocracy by Donald Jeffries I will be talking more about this issue, here and online, as we draw closer to publication.
The original title of the book was Bully Nation. I changed it when I saw that another recent book with that title had been released. The book covers much more than the countless tragic cases of serious bullying, some resulting in the suicide of the victim, and every school system’s refusal to address it properly.
America has always been enamored with toughness. Rugged individualism. Duking it out with someone you disagree with, to “prove” who’s right. Slug fests in the boxing ring, now “evolved” into far more violent mixed martial arts fighting. Highlight reel hits in football and hockey. Loud shouting matches in the stands at sporting events and in bars. Glorified violence in films, which consistently promote the seemingly discredited concept that “might makes right.”
It’s fitting that we finally have a president who goes far beyond a previous bully personality like Lyndon B. Johnson’s. Donald Trump has every quality that the most successful bullies possess. And his many powerful enemies are, if anything, more bully-like in their discourse than he is. Threats. Trash talk. Michael Moore’s recent serious proposal that Trump step into a ring with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was topped a few days later by Joe Biden’s videotaped bullying of an 82 year old man who dared ask him a difficult question. Biden even resorted to calling the guy “Jack,” a favorite sobriquet of bullies everywhere.
As I talk about in the book, we must face the fact that most people, and certainly all successful people, value attributes like aggressiveness and self-confidence far more than they value empathy or kindness. Leo Durocher’s credo that “Nice guys finish last” could only be accurate, as it undeniably is, in a corrupt, depraved society.
Most high school students are background players, bored and only attending because they have to. Much as they either cheer on the popular kids, who are literal celebrities in their respective schools, or enable them through their silence, American adults tolerate the tough guys- the bullies- “winning” over and over again, often through nefarious means. As the pro athletes put it, “it isn’t cheating, if you don’t get caught.” Rules of sportsmanship mean about as much as our standards of conduct and actual laws do.
Few adults- whistleblowers of all kinds- have the courage to stand up to the bullies, the wrongdoers, the corrupt. Given the treatment accorded to the most high-profile whistleblowers like Manning, Snowden, and Assange, you can’t really blame them. And they learned this acquiescence to authority in school, when they didn’t intervene when the popular kid was pounding away on the unpopular one. More accurately, they learned not to confront the social hierarchy.
The social hierarchy rules in every middle and high school in this country, and most around the world. The adults in these facilities do everything they can, with lettermen jackets, pep rallies, and an embarrassing emphasis on sports at the expense of education, to keep this hierarchy in place. And no one would have any idea who the “popular’ kids are, if there weren’t corresponding “unpopular” ones to contrast them with.
What I discovered is that a huge number of the most successful people in America were popular in high school. Many were sports stars, others were prom or homecoming queen or king, cheerleaders, etc. Fraternities and sororities continue the social hierarchy at an elevated level, resulting in an astounding 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives having experienced the “Greek life” while in college. “Popular” kids go on to become successful adults, far more often than not.
To put it frankly; a good number of high school bullies are now in charge of the adult world. And they face as little opposition from the adult population as they did from school authorities or their teenage peers. It isn’t just Joe Biden who objects to being challenged. Watch any press conference involving a high profile athlete or coach. On the extremely rare occasions when one is given anything but a softball by the journalists in attendance, the mask falls and the overt bully personality is fully on display.
It’s impossible to satirize American culture at this point. We are a combination of an Idiocracy and a Bullyocracy. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, revealing just how “different” he is from his counterparts, has now challenged Ted Cruz to a game of basketball. While this isn’t quite as bad as challenging him to a boxing match, or a push-up contest (as Biden did with the 82 year old man), it is pretty stupid. Exactly what are such contests to prove? Again, that if you win at some kind of competition, that proves you’re right?
The most popular kids in any school are often guilty of regular bullying. Very few valedictorians, who aren’t also athletes, on the other hand, are popular. The most accomplished tuba player in the marching band is never going to be popular, anywhere. Spectators, in high school bleachers, or in expensive sky suites, want to cheer “tough” guys. Tuba players and valedictorians aren’t normally “tough.”
This attitude extends especially to teachers, principals, and even superintendents of every school system in this country. Like the student bodies, and the adult population at large, they instinctively side with the bully, and not the bullied. This attitude goes back to Roman times, when crowds cheered the lions devouring Christians. Sports fans love winning teams- there are very few who regularly root for the underdog. Bandwagon fans are just as typical as bandwagon students, who loyally vote for the same popular kids to win every accolade doled out by the system. The unthinking mob, with their pitchforks and lighted torches, is not a literary and Hollywood trope, but a very sad and real historical phenomenon.
Although we all learn the classic fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes as children, the lesson is clearly lost on society at large. How many Americans have the courage to point out that our collective emperors are stark naked? It takes a lot to go against the grain- against the social hierarchy and the popular kids- in high school. It takes just as much to go against the popular consensus in the adult world.
I think most of us still teach our kids that it’s wrong to fight, and that right makes might, not the other way around. However, this parental admonition is contradicted by the messages coming out of every film and television show, and the behavior of politicians and other alleged role models. We are counseled repeatedly that the best way to resolve any conflict is through violence.
Not only are there few if any adherents of Gandhi’s nonviolent opposition left in this world, virtually no one- least of all any Christian- follows Jesus’s advice to “turn the other cheek.” On the contrary, bullied victims that take their beatings like good unpopular inferiors find no support from authority figures or the unthinking mob. It’s only when they strike back, that the authority figures notice (by instantly punishing them), and the mob starts to cheer.
We have to face the sad fact that most people love bullies, because they are usually popular, successful “winners.”