In a New York Times op-ed piece from earlier this year, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), ponders why our society all too often rewards bullies for their behavior. He offers three reasons:
First, people tend to be selective ethicists. The other side’s bully is a horrible person; your side’s bully is a “truth teller.” Indeed, we sometimes even flip the script and say our bully is actually a victim who is simply fighting back against even bigger bullies.
Second, people are, paradoxically, attracted to bullies. In her book “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” the social scientist Jean Lipman-Blumen shows that people complain about political dictators and tyrannical executives yet nearly always remain loyal out of a primordial admiration for power and need for security in an uncertain world.
The third explanation is simple acquiescence. In a famous study published in 1999 in the Journal of Adolescence, three psychologists investigated how children act when they witness an act of bullying. Hundreds of schoolchildren were videotaped on the playground, and nearly 200 bullying incidents were recorded. . . . And how did the peers react? Twenty-one percent joined the bully, while 25 percent defended the victim. The rest — 54 percent — watched the incident passively, neither joining in nor defending the victim.
Brooks’s perspectives on bullying were shaped by his experiences performing with a professional symphony orchestra during his twenties. He calls orchestra conductors “notorious tyrants, cruel and demanding” who “turn players against one another, prey on weakness, destroy confidence.”
One of the most telling aspects of this op-ed piece is how the experience of being bullied can stick with people for decades. Brooks in his mid-fifties. He is a regular contributor of op-ed pieces to the New York Times. His editorial voice tends to be deliberate and pointed, rather than overtly emotional. Accordingly, his sharp criticisms about orchestra conductors show, in hard relief, the lasting impact of bullying.
Brooks suggests that standing up to bullies is the best way to curb their power and ability to abuse others. He may be right in some instances, but there are plenty of stories where taking on bullies has backfired badly. There is no magic response; power dynamics and surrounding circumstances all matter. What we need are more people who oppose bullying and abusive leaders, thereby creating a broader and deeper cultural norm that does not tolerate such mistreatment as a matter of course.