In Defense of Bullies

by Thomas Gilleece, Guest Contributor


The word itself started out innocently enough. Believe it or not, it originally meant “sweetheart,” and was probably derived from the Dutch word for lover, “boele.” It was used as a synonym for “brother” and “fine fellow” and even as a term of praise (as in “bully for you!”). Around 1700, and possibly in connection with the ornery ovine we call ‘the bull,’ it was used to describe a “protector of a prostitute.” From there it soon took on its present meaning of a “harasser of the weak.”

Bullies are in the news constantly. There are anti-bullying laws cropping up in every state. Every act of intimidation – from loud speech to aggressive sportsmanship, is decried as another example of bullying. Under this new definition, baseball chatter is an unfair act of coercion, Peeping Tom (who dared to peek as a naked Lady Godiva rode by) was just another ruffian, and the boy who dipped the cute girl’s pigtails in the ink well would be the biggest bully of all.

Bullies have become the scapegoat for a wide range of society’s ills, from teen suicide to school shootings. They’re a convenient target, and knee-jerkers always seek out the simplest answer to complex questions. Remove the bullies and the problems affecting our children will magically disappear. “Ban a Bully, Save a Life” seems to be the simplistic rallying cry.

But is this sensible? Is it even necessary? More importantly, is it even good policy?

The need to blame a bully has become so prevalent today that it has even led to false accusations, overreactions, and blatant distortions. The most egregious example of the latter is in the Tyler Clementi case. Tyler was an openly gay student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. One night his roommate accessed his webcam from another location and saw Tyler embracing another man. He invited a handful of his Twitter friends to watch the following night. Nothing ever came of it because Tyler, once aware of the spying, found the webcam, unplugged it, and then he and his male friend had “a good time,” according to Clementi. Shortly after this incident, Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. School officials quickly denounced cyber-bullying and the national calls for harsh punishment were immediate. Ellen DeGeneres cried on air while falsely claiming that Tyler killed himself because his roommate had “outted” him as gay. Ignoring the concept of due process, some gay activists demanded the roommate be expelled immediately and charged with murder. New Jersey legislators ultimately passed the nation’s most comprehensive anti-bullying law and named it after Tyler Clementi.

Where was the evidence of bullying? The answer is that there was none. Lost amid the coarse cries for the roommate’s head were the facts: Tyler was openly gay. After the webcam incident, he had written on a gay website that, aside from being a jerk on occasions (specifically referring to the webcam incident), his roommate was basically a decent guy. Tyler made no mention of the incident in his brief suicide note and there was never any concrete evidence that it was the incident that drove him to commit suicide.

Not long ago, I heard the story of seven teenagers arrested for bullying a 13-year-old classmate. They dragged the smaller boy, tried to stuff him in a tree, and then hung him by his jacket on a wrought-iron fence. This sounds a lot like an episode of “Freaks and Geeks” or a plot point from “Revenge of the Nerds,” but these teens, aged 13 to 17, were charged with kidnapping, aggravated assault, criminal restraint, terroristic threats, reckless endangering of another person and conspiracy. Yes, their behavior was bad and yes, they were definitely bullies – but kidnapping and terroristic threats? Conspiracy? Let’s be realistic. These are, for better or worse, kids being kids.

So, with bullies now under attack from every corner of society, who will come to their defense? More importantly, do they even warrant defense? Shouldn’t we just let their hulking, threatening presence fade quietly from our landscape?

I say no, and, if popular culture is any gauge of society’s needs, the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ Think of all the great films that hinge on bullying behavior. Imagine “Back to the Future” without Biff. “A Christmas Story” sans Scut Farkus. Imagine “Mean Girls” without … well, the mean girls. What would “My Bodyguard” be like without Clifford Peach’s obsessive need for a bodyguard? The list of films with bullies is practically endless: from “Heathers” to “The Karate Kid.” From “Full Metal Jacket” to “Stripes” and “An Officer and a Gentleman.” (Yes, drill sergeants are often THE quintessential Hollywood bully.)

Bullies have been featured in books and comics, ballads and Broadway plays. Every drama needs conflict; every protagonist must have his antagonist. The world of entertainment would be sorely diminished if bullies were made to disappear.

What about the real world? Do bullies serve a role in our society? Would we lose something vital by removing the bully from our schools and our workplaces? I believe the answer to both questions is yes.

Understand, I say this not as someone who was once a bully, but as someone who was the victim of a bully’s wrath on more than one occasion. I still remember the fear I felt some mornings just going to school. I remember the dread with which I approached certain classes. I vividly recall riding my bike as fast as I could to escape some thugs in high pursuit, bent on my destruction.

But even more vividly, I recall the pride I felt in outsmarting some of these Neanderthals; the satisfaction in outracing them to the safety of “my property.” More than anything, I remember the joy I felt when I finally stood up to them – when I stared them down or fought them off. In some crazy way, those bullies had served their purpose. They made me sharper, faster, stronger, smarter … and better.

In movies, as in real life, we cheer when the wimps finally overcome their oppressors; when the nerds finally get their revenge; and when the good girls finally upstage the mean girls. Sometimes, without the bad guys to push us, we never know how resilient we can be. Without someone to pick on us, we may never know how much we can endure.

Now, I’m not endorsing public humiliation and beatings. I’m just saying that a certain amount of aggression – with an equal dose of opposition – has a place in our society. I truly believe we remove it at a cost.

Many will say, “But what about all the suicides, depression, and school shootings?”

To them I say this: Bullies have been around for as long as there have been human beings. What we are seeing today – the teen suicides, diagnoses of depression, and school shootings – is relatively new.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.

When you “ban” all forms of aggression from healthy young boys, when you modify competitions so that everyone is a winner, when you downplay and minimize masculinity, and when you remove tag, dodge ball, and playground equipment – there will be consequences. Boys will channel their natural tendencies into other outlets.

When you medicate children with psychotropic drugs to make them more docile and controllable you invite all kinds of dangerous side effects: from depression and suicidal thoughts to violent acts of aggression.

And when you take away adversity, conflict, competition, failure, humility, and, yes, a little bullying, you will end up with kids who are completely unprepared to handle the tougher aspects of life.

This is, ultimately, bad for them and bad for society.

Bullies indeed serve a purpose. They push us to test our limits, they challenge us, and they force us to confront our fears. Ironically, we remove these purveyors of pain at our own peril.

One thought on “In Defense of Bullies

  1. While I respect Mr Gilleece's main points, I dissent on others.There is a difference between normal adolescent aggression and the modern version of bullying.Today, bullying is often associated with strong-arm robbery in school corridors, sexual assault, and grievous bodily injury.The infamous school bus incident could well have resulted in death.When bullying results from the inherent disrespect of others' basic rights,we do favors to neither the victims nor the bullies by excusing it.One incident that I know of involved a girl who complained to teachers of dangerous bullying.The teachers were actually afraid of the bullies!Only when a parent threatened publicity did the school call in law enforcement to prevent a potentially tragic escalation of the violence. Finally, when the bullies, and THEIR PARENTS, were confronted with the real consequences, including criminal penalties and civil lawsuits, was there an enlightened attitude on the part of all concerned.I agree with Mr Gilleece that normal instances of adolescent aggression must be handled in a sane context.School administrators are only too willing to expel a six-year-old for playing with a one-inch toy gun.But genuinely destructive behavior must be countered early and decisively.

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