May 14, 2018
Why Do We Reward Bullies?
Arthur C. Brooks
By Arthur C. Brooks
Mr. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute.
May 11, 2018
Do you agree with the author's opinion? Share your opinion. Michael Dreiblatt
I despise bullies. This doesn’t stem from my playground years but rather from a career in my 20s performing with a professional symphony orchestra. Orchestra conductors are notorious tyrants, cruel and demanding, with near-total control over the artistic lives of the players. To consolidate power, they turn players against one another, prey on weakness, destroy confidence. As we used to note, many conductors are evil geniuses, but all are evil.
Over the decades since that time, my position on conductors has softened (a little), but my position on bullies has not. And I believe a big majority of the population shares this antipathy. Witness the box-office success of movies like “Horrible Bosses” and “Revenge of the Nerds,” in which bullies get their comeuppance. Consider also the frequent anti-bullying public service efforts, the latest of which is the first lady Melania Trump’s “Be Best” campaign.
So it is mystifying that the ultimate market-based phenomenon in a democracy — political discourse — is currently dominated by this despised character trait. From television to social media to everyday politics at the highest level, we see the powerful belittling, maligning and mocking those with lower status.
If we hate bullies, why are they rewarded in the public sphere with fame, attention and even electoral success? Why aren’t they repudiated?
There are three explanations. 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.
In the orchestra world, there is a joke about a viola player who for years is singled out for abuse and torment by the conductor. One day, he comes home from rehearsal to find his house burned to the ground. The police on the scene tell him that it’s arson and that there is evidence that the culprit is none other than the conductor. Asked if he has any questions, the violist thinks for a moment and asks, softly, “The maestro came to my house?”
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. Bullies love audiences, and in more than half of the cases, two or more peers were present in addition to the bully and victim.
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.
Adults don’t seem to behave much differently when it comes to political bullying. Whether it is a political speech or comedy routine, egregious bullying is usually met with a shrug. Hey, what are you going to do? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Sticks and stones.
In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Theodore Roosevelt noted, “We despise and abhor the bully, the brawler, the oppressor, whether in private or public life.” However, he continued with this bracing passage: “But we despise no less the coward and the voluptuary. No man is worth calling a man who will not fight rather than submit to infamy or see those that are dear to him suffer wrong.”
Roosevelt was talking about standing up for one’s allies (“those that are dear to him”), not about defending strangers. Fair enough. But ask yourself, who exactly are your allies? If you are friends with someone with whom you disagree politically, is this person not more your ally than some comedian, politician or Twitter troll who shares your politics? If so, shouldn’t you stand up for him or her before a bully, even if that bully shares your political views?
Bullying is a demand-driven and inaction-driven phenomenon: It requires an eager audience or neutral bystanders. So don’t blame the host of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner or the president of the United States. The problem is that we are becoming a nation of cowards and voluptuaries, either egging on or sitting passively as abuse and contempt take over our political discourse.
If you hate it, stand up. I saw that happen only one time in the orchestra. A guest conductor was browbeating us in rehearsal and singling out individuals for abuse. An oboe player finally stood up and said, “With all due respect, Maestro, I think I speak for all of us when I say that the problem is not us, but you.”
The conductor kicked him out of the rehearsal. For the rest of us, he was a hero.
Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing opinion writer.
Do you agree with author's opinion? Share your opinion. Michael Dreiblatt