It’s time again to talk about bullies.
Yesterday, a jury in New Jersey found former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi guilty of most of the 15 counts against him, including anti-gay intimidation, a hate crime. Ravi is the former roommate of the late Tyler Clementi, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after learning that Ravi was using a webcam to view his encounters with other men. Clementi was gay.
Now Ravi is a convicted felon, facing at least a few years of jail time and possibly deportation to his native India after he serves that time. When a firm nationwide policy of zero tolerance arrives for the bullies — and it now seems it will — it will probably look like this.
I spent a good half hour talking to my 15-year-old kid about the experience of working with bullies. She sees this as a kind of generational thing (“It’ll die out with us”), and I hope she’s right. Whether she is or not, it’s time for a refresher course on what the bully is and how it works.
The bully isn’t powerful. No one who has reached a secure level of power needs to bully anyone else. The power to disrupt is not power, it’s discomfort.
The bully isn’t very good at things. Never the star performer, the bully’s only magic is in dividing the world into targets and people who aren’t targets yet. The bully is doing this all the time. The trick, the bully knows, is to never seem like you’re doing it.
The bully never takes action: that’s work for other people. The bully aspires to higher things: selecting a target for intimidation, generating drama or stress. To schoolkids, drama feels like news; to people at work, stress feels like energy. If you are wondering whether someone in your organization is a bully, check the timeline of the drama or stress. The clock on those things usually starts ticking once the bully moves in.
The person who exhibits stress is not the bully. Neither is your boss, probably, because he or she has to care. Your boss (or that person who fights with you sometimes) still cares enough about a task, a community, a place, or a person to bother with a fight. The bully does not care, it calculates. It just wants to be allowed to continue its process.
The bully carries a virus, and it spreads. Bullies get what they want when people start to care just a little bit less about others. Then a little less than that. Contempt is a catchy tune, especially for people who want to feel busy and important, and who doesn’t want to feel busy and important?
High-functioning, well-adjusted people are not interested in bullies. Some of them may wonder what makes a bully do what it does, but that question is academic. Their primary impulse is to get away from it. This is a fine idea, and it renders all the pointless questions about bully backgrounds or motivations irrelevant.
Bullies have backgrounds. I’m pretty sure they have motivations. But neither really matters, because what a bully wants to do with its life is bully other people. This is much more of a habit, a life choice, than a learned response to anything.
A good first step in reducing a bully problem is to refuse to engage with it. This is a page right out of the bully bible: as the bully wishes to make its target no longer exist, so must anyone who wants to stop the bully cease to honor its existence. This can be as simple as pretending to forget a name, refusing to make eye contact, or dropping it from a network. If you have to work with one, remember: you don’t meet with the bully. You meet about the bully.
A good second step in solving a bully problem is to isolate it. This one is hard, because people seem to like bullies, especially people who are young, insecure themselves, or have an addiction to work, drama, or catastrophe. The bully isn’t fond of the dull moment either, so these people work well for it. Literally.
A good final step in solving a bully problem is exclusion. The bully is incompatible with the community of healthy human beings. It does not like us and it does not belong here. Once we separate the bully from the community, everything in the community starts to work better.
I don’t think that Dharun Ravi is an evil person. I will never say that the argument in his defense — literally, that he was “stupid” — is wrong. I will say that the chain of events since his roommate’s suicide are a recipe for resolution: disengagement (removal from Rutgers, arrest, trial), isolation (conviction, prison time), and exclusion (likely deportation). I will add that if the person who ends up going to prison for being “stupid” also happens to be a bully, that’s time not only served, but well spent.
A true bully will likely never serve any time. What it does is almost impossible for any third party to observe, never mind prosecute. The bully will keep bullying, as long as there is at least one place in the human community that doesn’t have a problem with casual cruelty.
What’s one more little sociopath, anyway?