The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why People Bully & A Better Way

Fundraising note: we’ve hit about $7,500 and are getting close to the end of the 2020 fundraiser. This puts a little over $500 short of tier 2 in the concepts series:

Three more articles, this set most likely on the conditions that create golden Ages, including one on how to create an ecological Golden Age (what we need next.)

We’re $3,500 from tier 3. It’s an amount we’ve raised in the past, but I know that this year has been very tough for people. If you value my writing and can afford to subscribe or donate, please do, if not, no worries. Take care of yourself and be well.

The Piece Proper:

As a child, when I first went to school and thus first encountered bullying and deliberate meanness, I remember feeling a sort of pure bewilderment, why would anyone hurt others?

I’ve been working thru this problem for most of the rest of the my life. Last year I read a book by the late David Graeber, “Bullshit Jobs.” Graeber was concerned with why people hate meaningless jobs and his theory was based on the human need to affect the world.

Babies, when they realize they can affect the world, even by something as simple pushing something are delighted. They get pure joy from the feeling of efficacy, or, if you wish, power.

Knowing we can change things, that we can affect the world, makes us happy. It makes us feel safe. It is pure, primal pleasure.

Humans are the most important thing to be able to affect. Humans have almost everything we want, especially in a society like ours, where most of us are very removed from nature and primal activities like hunting, gathering, farming and building things.

The easiest way to affect someone is to upset them. Make them angry, or sad, or hurt them. They react, the person doing it feels powerful, and feeling powerful feels good. No matter how shit your life is, if you can make someone else react to you, you don’t feel helpless and you get that little rush of primal pleasure.

(When I’ve pointed out similar things in the past, there’s always someone who writes a comment about how this makes me evil and a bad person and they, of course, never feel such emotions.)

Being mean is a way of proving you still have the ability affect the world and people in it. Bullying them, forcing them to do what you want though they wouldn’t without your threat or violence, is an even purer form of this. Imposing long term fear, so they do it even when you’re around feels even better. (Bullies in the mil-ind-police complex call this “tuning people up.”)

Being mean or a bully has a payoff. You just need to be careful not to try and bully the wrong person.

The problem with bullying is the same as most bad behaviour (long term readers know where I am going and can groan now.) You create bad feelings, and you have to live with unhappy people. Maintaining dominance is stressful, because one of your victims may strike back and you may mistake how powerful or vengeful someone is.

So you become a lord of Hell. You’re able to impose your will, but you make the world you live in hellzone.

There is another route to getting what you want. You can make people feel good and happy, or get them to like you. You can create positive emotions. You can be charming and kind. (I am aware that I don’t always do this, I’m not holding myself up as a paragon of good behaviour, would that it were so. I’m learning and sharing what I learn with my readers.)

If you predominantly act this way and keep would-be hell lords out, you will create a heaven around you: an oasis of positive emotions and happy people. You’ll get most of what you want, without most of the risk.

None of this means that even a heavenly person many never have to use threats or even violence. But that isn’t their go-to: it isn’t their default strategy.

When dealing with a would be hell-lord the strategy is to disarm them; to stop their strategy from getting what they want, and then only rewarding them for using heaven strategies. Like all such re-conditioning it takes time. First you remove their power to do harm; the rewards from being scum. Then you set it up so they can only win by being charming and kind.

This isn’t always possible, we’ve all been in settings where the leadership was so ensconced in their hellish ways that the only way to end hell was to leave. In some other places (one corp I worked for comes to mind) it is possible to create an island of heaven inside hell, carefully choosing who one lets on the island.

All of this scales. The mean we use daily to get what we want create the feeling of the world around us; the means are the end. Heaven is a place where people are kind and good, and hell is a place where people are mean and bullying  and don’t care what happens to other people.

Being selfish and mean is a strategy that works only if not too many people are doing it. If too many people do it, you hit a tipping point where the group or society as a whole turns toxic, and everyone loses. We can see this at the world level today in climate change and ecosphere collapse. When I worked in the US for a month, I saw it in the way people treated each other: scared and defensive and unwilling to trust, because they knew any trust would be abused.

Heaven and Hell are created by nothing more or less than how we treat each other, and how we treat the world around us.




The Fortune of the Commons


Twelve Million Renters To Be Homeless Soon Because It Benefits the Rich


  1. Stirling S Newberry

    It needs to be warmer.

  2. O/T

    Texas is suing Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan in the US Supreme Court:

    Importantly, the Texas lawsuit presents a pure question of law. It is not dependent upon disputed facts. Although these unconstitutional changes to the election rules could have facilitated voter fraud, the State of Texas doesn’t need to prove a single case of fraud to win. It is enough that the four states violated the Constitution.

    I’ve no head for legal stuff, but I think this will all but force the Supreme Court to ignore statutory laws for “safe harbor” deadlines. Even if Jerome Corsi led the charge, he is just one citizen. I would think a US State has more “standing”, even compared to Trump ….

  3. John Emerson

    It’s easier to do harm than good, I think, because “good” is the synergy of many things that all have to be minimally right, whereas harm is the breaking or disabling of any one of the
    many factors of good. So someone who feels powerless to the point almost of nonexistence might do random harm just to show the world that they’re there. This is a factor in crime I believe. Bullying in some cases is a version of this, as are sabotage and assassination at times. (Something like this is a topic in literature, Raskolnikov, and some literary works might be a form of this).

    The fact that there’s as little gratuitous harm as there is is partly the result of the fact that most people do not usually feel that desperate as well as various formal and informal kinds of policing. (The worst harm comes when one person’s or group’s good is based on harm to others, of course.)

  4. John Emerson

    In historical and anthropological literature you do read of societies where suspicion, envy, meanness, and bullying seem to be the norm. They are always relatively poor, static societies, since cooperation is rarely possible — zero -sum “societies of the limited good” where one person’s gain is assumed to be someone else’s loss. Black-Michaud (“ Cohesive Force” ) speaks of “moral scarcity” , specifically in societies organized around blood feud, where individuals are situationally forced to do things that they know are wrong).

  5. Chicago Clubs

    >hell is a place where people are mean and bullying and don’t care what happens to other people

    But enough about the United States.

  6. @John Emerson

    Are you the same John Emerson that used to post at openleft? If so, please consider asking Ian to repost your excellent diary on Karp’s “Indispensable Enemies”. Openleft is no more…

  7. John Emerson

    Yes, that’s me. I’ll try to dig it up though it may have been lost.

  8. @John Emerson

    Cool beans! You are one of the most articulate commenters/posters, ever.

  9. Should the Democrats seize control of the Senate, even 50-50 with Joe Manchin as the swing vote, all the talk in the media will be about potential Democratic “extremism.” Court-packing! (now that the courts are already thoroughly packed with Catholic Illuminati) New states! (eliminate, consolidate the N/S states?) The Green New Deal! (yeah, right, I’ll believe that when I see it)

    There will be armed right-wing thugs rioting in the streets, but we’ll be talking about left-wing radicalism. About {insert scare quotes, creepy type font}Socialism, a-booga booga booga. Caravan of al Qaeda Central American women and children coming to rape all the (white) uhhh … guys and steal all the (motel maid) jobs. Mooslums.

    I remember Indispensable Enemies, Openleft.

    The enemy of my enemy is not my friend.

  10. @John Emerson

    I have a copy (plus copy of comments) if you don’t have a copy, handy. I can send to you via reddit, if you’re on reddit (at least as a comment; don’t know if we can DM). Or email to Ian.

  11. the pair

    as someone who has dealt with bullying types from school all the way to toxic workplaces i can say bullies are the secondary problem; the primary one is people who allow them to bully in the first place. in a workplace environment where the rot extends to the top anyone who otherwise sympathizes with you will nonetheless let it happen because – as muc as they seem to like you – you’re still just some rando who isn’t worth getting fired over. that’s pretty much the idea behind unions and a reason bullies despise them with a passion.

  12. Dan Lynch

    I grew up mostly in a small town i the Mississippi Delta. It was highly unequal, predominantly black, and home to one of the largest racial massacres, the 1919 Elaine massacre. It was a mean town. The culture there was the meanest I have experienced anywhere, and I’ve lived all over the country. I was 8 years old when I moved there and had only a few brushes with bullying up to that point, but in that town bullying was an everyday thing. I learned to be constantly afraid, to trust no one, and I too, sometimes participated in bullying (which haunts me to this day because I have a conscience).

    Why was that place so mean? I think due to the legacy of slavery, and particularly because the slaves outnumbered the slave owners. In order to keep the slaves (and later, the sharecroppers) under control despite being outnumbered, the slaveowners used brute force and terror, hence the 1919 massacre.

    So the blacks had it bad, but the meanness rubbed off on whites, too. People who beat their slaves, also beat their children and each other, because the mentality is that you have to use force and fear to control people. That’s all they know.

    As Ian has said before, the left believes you get more out of people if you treat them well, while the right believes you get more out of people if you treat them rough. That’s it in a nutshell.

  13. Ian Welsh

    “the left believes you get more out of people if you treat them well, while the right believes you get more out of people if you treat them rough” is originally from Stirling Newberry.

  14. Willy

    In my late teens I hung out with guys I’d known in high school. They were intelligent but somewhat confused and directionless. Upon reflective analysis years later, I realized that we’d all had fathers who’d abandoned their families somehow, having died, divorced, or suffered career loss depression. For example, Tim’s father had been a research tech who’d lost that and was now a mailman spending all of his spare time lost in sci-fi paperbacks. When it came to life skills, we were on our own.

    For our group’s activities, I had the wild ideas for brotherly comradery fun but otherwise usually stayed in the background. Mark had played varsity basketball and with a more serious and somewhat practical bent, became our de facto leader. In private Mark would confide in me about a variety of personal problems, including his narcissistic desire to express his teenage angst with violence.

    One day he told us of a party at Mindy’s house. Before arriving, he got himself all worked up about what a “bitch she was”. She answered the front door, saw him, and yelled: “You can’t come in Mark!” Without warning he punched her in the mouth.

    Knowing that nothing good would come from further association, I never called him again. But instead of the group dividing between us, I became the outcast. I only saw a couple of the guys ever again and whenever I did, there was this weirdness towards me as if I had been the wrong one.

    That’s when I learned that personal power doesn’t always come from being agreeable or group-minded. Apparently, “coolness” also involves a willingness to use force against one’s enemies. Maybe that’s the actual appeal of Trump, with his evangelical “Christian love” base.

  15. John Emerson

    I’ve had a fair amount of experience of orchard towns, where a few rich owner families dominate a majority of labor families who are often quite poor and non-white. The bullying there is systematic and can be murderous, almost like lynching.

    I’ve also known people from all-poor communities where fighting was constant and the weak were victims unless they had a protector.

  16. Paul Harris

    Willy, it sounds very much like Mark was a psychopath. As the group leader he would have turned the others in the group against you. You were right to cut all ties.

    Psychopathy is one of the main reasons behind bullying.

  17. Ten Bears

    I was bullied quite a bit when young, till I developed more than just the skills to deal with it, skills that sadly didn’t follow me into college and university, out into the real world. Where I starting letting people get away with stuff they would have never gotten away with in the loggin’ days, or hell-roarin’ up and down the west coast on an old harley, sleepin’ with the angels. And here we are.

    Best way to deal with a bully is bust ’em one in the mouth. Yeah, they’ll run cryin’ to the cops, but that’s not the point. The point is to not let them get away with it. We’re where we are because for thirty years we’ve been letting them get away with it. It needs to stop, the ends justify the means.

    We have to stop doing what we’re doing. It isn’t working.

  18. Willy

    Paul Harris,

    I haven’t thought about that, though I’ve dealt with several psychopaths since. I’d assumed low agreeableness combined with messed parenting.

    Without warning Mark did kick out an antique window at a university hall, and told me he’d once come up right behind his mother with an unloaded rifle and clicked the hammer. Another time I had an out of state acquaintance come to attend my state university. The three of us went to a movie, and while driving back home Mark accused me of “being no fun” in front of the new guy who I’d thought a potentially good resource for us who I was trying to impress. For no real reason or apparent trigger. In hindsight, I’m thinking that Mark was sensing my trepidations about him and jealous of the new guy.

    I’m now curious about what drew me to Mark, back then. Today of course I’d just get the hell away after the first questionable incident. I’m curious because of the power they seem to have over the naive, just as Trump does, after so many red flags.

  19. anon y'mouse

    having experienced worse than bullying–outright abuse and enforced slavery, i’ve had more than a few thoughts about it over the years.

    but in the end, i must agree with your last guest–some people are psychopaths. and many are malleable enough to go along with them, especially if they seem like they are “in control”, and most especially if they ARE actually in control of some resource that the others need. and some of the bullying is ABOUT getting labor or goods out of those one bullies. i am sure it has been around since the days of tribes, but in a tribe that was obviously so anti-social that one had to have been run out of the place before long, or merely abandoned in the night.

    our society is bullying writ large, and as your previous post about psychological investment of the “COVID deniers”, most people simply tell themselves and each other “that is the way it is” or “that is what being an adult is about”. a great many of us have to work to eat, and so it is. we endure. and then we pat ourselves and each other on the back for enduring.

    what is even worse is that now corporations are trying to use their powers of persuasion (pr, management psychology, etc) to make people enjoy all of it and pretend that it is actually pro-social behavior. they have discovered that people want psychological payoffs to continue to extract labor out of them, and are catering to that. hence all of those laboratories of SlyCon Valley, where you could take yoga and get a massage. but it is worse–they are leveraging the power that the Marines discovered long ago–people will endure suffering for the benefit of their group members.

    in this way, the bully even trains the pro-social ones to obey.

  20. Trinity

    A powerful topic, no pun intended. I appreciate all the insights shared here. I’ve experienced bullying all my life. I went from a narcissistic mother (and her minions aka some of my siblings, which continues to this day) to a physically abusive husband who also kept me under lock and key. To this day, I’m not sure which of them was worse.

    Psychopathy is one of the main reasons behind bullying.

    This has been my experience as well. I think (hope) that normal people might bully, but their conscience means they let it go as they grow up.

    I’ve learned that bullying, at its essence, is an effort to reduce or if possible completely eliminate the target’s options. In other words, it’s not just “power over”, but power over with a purpose, a goal to eliminate as many options as possible.

    Reducing our options is pretty much their only goal these days.

  21. Billikin

    Something I was surprised to learn after the Columbine tragedy. Schoolchildren admire the leaders, those who build cooperation. That I knew from years before. But the next most admired children are the bullies. That was a surprise. The rewards of bullying are not just the effect upon those whom they bully, but the effect they have on others, as well.

  22. Joan

    I am sure that bullying can occur even in very small and local contexts, but one thing that strikes me as a lead cause of bullying in America is the over-centralized public schools. My high school was a mix of juvie and a zoo, it was so huge and crowded. In the ten minute passing periods, you had to push through a mosh pit of bodies, and it wasn’t uncommon for girls to get pinched and grabbed.

    After that happened to me, I went to the thrift store and got the ugliest clothes I could find, in hopes I wouldn’t draw attention to myself. Then my mother freaked out, thinking the reason I was wearing cargo shorts and baggy t-shirts was because I was gay. Even after I explained, she didn’t let up. So I had the double-stress of constant anti-lesbian shaming at home and then trying to invisibly slip by on the passing periods at school.

  23. Stirling S Newberry

    The “ugly clothes people” were the most interesting at my high school – almost all of them went to good colleges and some did things. (I was one for the first half of freshman year.)

  24. Plague Species

    Best comment thus far goes to “the pair.” Spot on. That’s it in a nutshell. One faction of those who look the other way when bullies do their thing are the intelligent kids. Intelligent kids are some of the worst cowards I’ve ever come across. You kn ow the type. Teacher’s pets. 4.00 GPAs. Greater than 1500 on their SAT. They’re smart enough to understand the dynamic and like card counters in Vegas, they play the odds and they know the odds better than anyone else. Despicable.

    You can’t take bullies on as a lone person. Why? Because all the cowardly onlookers will not only look the other way and not lend a hand, but will in fact many times, a substantial contingent of them at least, take the side of the bully because they admire the bully or because they’re so scared, they’d rather support the bully than piss their pants. I know of this firsthand on many occasions. It’s similar to domestic abuse situations. You try to get involved and stop the bully, and those the bully is bullying turn against you.

    Speaking of bullies, I left a comment on an earlier thread about Rebekah Jones. Now that the Inside-The-Beltway punditry and political apparatchiks have used her, they have no more use for her so they are ignoring her story. Morning Mika, once again, did not give mention to this story of bullying. They are turning away. Watching it happen. Doing nothing. Death to them.

  25. Ché Pasa

    Most bullies in my experience are stone cowards terrified that they will literally cease to exist if they aren’t able to enforce their dominance over someone else or in some cases many others.

    Most can’t handle outright defiance or mockery. They have no sense of humor and can’t laugh at themselves. When others laugh at them, their circuits misfire, and while hilarity may not ensue, the chaos of the situation rarely advantages the bully. Unambiguous defiance scares them. They may lash out with violence — especially when they’re protected by their toadies — but often enough, they’ll just withdraw into a shell. They are at bottom, frightened and cowardly. Sometimes, underneath all the bluster, they’re not bad people. But their ability to do good, even for themselves, has been stunted. Bringing out their better angels is a difficult and long-term project that not very many want to engage in or have the skill to. But it can be done.

    Bullies, too, represent a tiny percentage of any given population. They often have outsized power, however, because as others have pointed out, they are allowed or given that power by those they dominate. The question is why. Is it an inherent survival tactic? I don’t know.

    What does a bully really have to offer? The appearance of strength? What else? Dominance over “weaklings”? Protection? I don’t know.

    Wisdom? No. Generosity? No. Warmth? No. Loving-kindness? No. In other words, few or none of the qualities we say we value in other human beings. So why do so many follow or yield to bullies?

    I don’t know.

  26. Ian Welsh

    Most bullies, in my experience, bully for the crowd. If there is no crowd around, they become friendly. It’s a social thing.

    The really dangerous people are those who like to bully or hurt people when no one else is around.

    And yes, when possible, the best way to shut an individual bully down in relation to you is to fight or otherwise retaliate. Took me a long time to learn that and get past fear, but once I did, my problems ended rather quickly.

  27. Stirling S Newberry

    “Most bullies in my experience…”

    This does not accord with most people’s experience.

  28. Rebecca Graham

    From David Graeber on bullying:

    “ But if we are ever going to move toward a genuinely free society, then we’re going to have to recognize how the triangular and mutually constitutive relationship of bully, victim, and audience really works, and then develop ways to combat it.”

  29. Ten Bears

    We have an entire culture of bullies, a tyrannical minority that has bowled over the majority, the rest of us, dating at least to the Cheney Administration. A Bull in the China Shop just go ahead on ‘er do what you will acceptability that’s become a cultural, a social, phenomenon. Fascism sneaks in the back door, one just slightly more egregious incremental at a time.

    Having established how best to deal with it on an individual level, how do we take it to the next level? Think ‘corporations are people too’. How do we bust that culture in the mouth, make it back down?

  30. Hugh

    We live in the age of Trump, the bully in chief, which shows both the power and attraction of bullying, and its limitations. A bully can shake things up but can’t fix anything. Trump ranted about China, but not one job returned from there. As with his divisive, non-response to the coronavirus, a bully can take a crisis and turn it into a disaster –Even if this means hundreds of thousands of people die. We can also see how a bully deals with losing: deny it, get their minions to deny it, and basically act like a three-year old throwing a tantrum. Yeah, that’ll make the country great again. You got problems and want to solve them, bullies are the worst way to go. Nothing gets solved, things get worse, and time you can’t get back is wasted.

  31. Willy

    True psychopaths have very low agreeableness and low harm avoidance and low conscientiousness. Assholes without a cause. If they don’t have at least average intelligence, they can wind up incarcerated or worse.

    From that baseline, add introversion (reduce harm avoidance) and add intelligence to that mix and you get what they call Machiavellians. Puppetmasters, manipulators. Those prefer to lurk in the shadows and pull strings to enjoy whatever chaos ensues.

    Trump is more the former, but also a narcissist of the ‘need adulation’ kind. I’ve never quite understood the added special component for that one, but it might involve childhood abuse. Most psychopaths couldn’t care less what others think, beyond their chosen targets ability to be manipulated. But narcissists also want what everybody does, love, but are unable to reciprocate the way more love-needy do.

  32. Ché Pasa

    I agree in part with both Ian and Sterling regarding one’s personal experience with bullies and bullying. There are certain similarities in most everyone’s experience with bullies and bullying, but there are many individual differences as well. And of course people respond differently in the face of bullies and bullying.

    An audience can be helpful to the bully, too, especially one that’s charismatic. With an enthusiastic audience, there’s little to stand in the way of a bully doing and getting away with practically anything he or she wants. Until of course it all falls apart, which it will.

    I take issue with the idea that the bully becomes friendly when there’s no audience around. Friendly? How? With whom?

    What I’ve seen happen is that bullies target individuals and groups for abuse and look to their audience and Authority to go along with it either actively or passively. This is often what happens in schools where bullies are in charge. But it’s not limited to schools. It happens in every walk of life, and schools are the training grounds.

    But still, the question for me is why do people yield so easily?

  33. John Emerson

    I think a social context is missing here. Our society is organized around competition in almost every area, with winners and losers, and most people admire winners and even submit to them. Bullying is a cheap way of putting yourself in the winner category.

    Likewise, “rational self interest” (long term, careful selfishness) is an organizing principle of our society.

    Psychology is downstream
    from there.

  34. Feral Finster

    I was bullied as a kid. I can’t say that I recommend the experience for everyone, but it taught me a few things, such as to not depend upon validation from others and to trust only to my own brain and my own right arm.

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