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I was never bullied. Somehow, I survived thirteen years of public schooling without suffering that particular indignity — despite being, in some ways, a prime target. Over the years, I’ve developed a theory about why I managed to avoid the usual adolescent social drama, and I think it has some relevance to the current political situation.
My first realization: Bullying almost always occurs within cliques. Inter-clique bullying is rare, but intra-clique bullying is universal. At my school, the greatest victims and victimizers alike were the “popular” kids — the cheerleaders and athletes — who treated each other like animals while the rest of us looked on in disgust. Other cliques had similar (though less dramatic) dynamics. But I, curmudgeon that I am, made my radical indifference to the high-school social scene known to all, and it worked. I didn’t care about belonging, and that made me all but immune to the harms which proceed from the desire to fit in.
The most valuable item in the bully’s toolkit is the ability to offer and withdraw membership. Bullies invite a would-be victim into a group, then expel her in a fit of taunting and rage. She comes groveling back, and the process repeats itself — expulsion, followed by groveling, followed by expulsion, followed by groveling, and on and on. So it is with abusive partners and cults, and so it is with the priggish hyenas who frequent Twitter, Facebook, universities, newspapers, and corporate HR departments. Bullying of this kind* requires a willing victim. Stopping it is as simple as saying, “Pound sand!” But, of course, you can’t expect an invertebrate to grow a spine, and we’ve raised several generations of them.
C.S. Lewis, wise as always, saw this dynamic at work in the world (though even he couldn’t have foreseen the way it would overtake all of politics . . . and perhaps the way it undergirded the political revolutions of his own lifetime):
[Y]ou will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment . . . you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel. . . . Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.
It’s not surprising that an ideology which conceives of human society as nothing more than a set of zero-sum power relations should transform the whole world into a middle-school cafeteria, but that’s where we are. Thanks, Foucault. And thanks, social media, for making it all so easy. And thanks, modernity, for eroding and invalidating all the healthy ways that men can belong.
* As opposed to the male-dominated “Give me your lunch money!” style of bullying, which seems to be a Hollywood staple, but which I never actually witnessed in my childhood.Published in