david on bullying
finally my (David Graeber) bully piece – this took a LOT out of me, somehow, when I wrote it a couple months ago. Left me depressed.
the bully‘s pulpit
There is a tradition of thought—the Lord of the Flies tradition, we might call it—that interprets schoolyard bullies as a modern incarnation of the ancestral “killer ape,” the primordial alpha male who instantly restores the law of the jungle once no longer restrained by rational adult male authority. But this is clearly false. In fact, books like Lord of the Flies are better read as meditations on the kind of calculated techniques of terror and intimidation that British public schools employed to shape upper-class children into officials capable of running an empire. These techniques did not emerge in the absence of authority; they were techniques designed to create a certain sort of cold-blooded, calculating adult male authority to begin with.
Bullying is more like a refraction of its authority. To begin with an obvious point: children in school can’t leave. Normally, a child’s first instinct upon being tormented or humiliated by someone much larger is to go someplace else. Schoolchildren, however, don’t have that option. If they try persistently to flee to safety, the authorities will bring them back. This is one reason, I suspect, for the stereotype of the bully as teacher’s pet or hall monitor: even when it’s not true, it draws on the tacit knowledge that the bully does depend on the authority of the institution in at least that one way—the school is, effectively, holding the victims in place while their tormentors hit them.
Very little of this focus on the role of institutional authority is reflected in the psychological literature on bullying, which, being largely written for school authorities, assumes that their role is entirely benign.
It’s also possible that audiences of grade schoolers react passively to bullying because they have caught on to how adult authority operates and mistakenly assume the same logic applies to interactions with their peers. If it is, say, a police officer who is pushing around some hapless adult, then yes, it is absolutely true that intervening is likely to land you in serious trouble—quite possibly, at the wrong end of a club. And we all know what happens to “whistleblowers.” (Remember Secretary of State John Kerry calling on Edward Snowden to “man up” and submit himself to a lifetime of sadistic bullying at the hands of the U.S. criminal justice system? What is an innocent child supposed to make of this?) The fates of the Mannings or Snowdens of the world are high-profile advertisements for a cardinal principle of American culture: while abusing authority may be bad, openly pointing out that someone is abusing authority is much worse—and merits the severest punishment.
David Graeber (@davidgraeber) tweeted at 4:54 AM on Sun, Feb 09, 2020:
this is how I came to learn that oppression (racism, sexism, class) usually works on a logic of bullying: constant provocation designed to elicit a response that can then be condemned as proof of the victim’s base nature, & retroactive justification. Seeing it happen over & over
David Graeber (@davidgraeber) tweeted at 5:19 AM on Sun, Feb 09, 2020:
anyway the point was, for liberals, it’s all about form over content. But embedded in this is a logic of bullying, you know for those below you, content is what matters, & you take advantage of that, to try to goad them into breaking formal rules they might not even know 12/
lit & num as colonialism/enclosure/control
aka: bullying.. structural violence.. et al
from his anarchy in manner of speaking:
I actually find it quite ironic that a standard accusation against anarchism is that it has a naïve trust in human nature. But starting at least with Kropotkin, anarchists have always replied “No you are the ones who have a naïve trust in human nature. You think you can make someone a magistrate with the power of life and death over other human beings and he’ll always be fair and impartial! That’s absurd. You can’t just give people arbitrary power over others and expect them not to abuse it.”
That’s another point I always say about anarchism and human nature. People will insist, “But some people will always be selfish assholes who just care about themselves.” Undoubtedly there will still be people who are selfish assholes in the world, even in a stateless society, but at least they won’t be in command of armies, which I for one feel is an improvement.
ND: So in this way anarchism is if anything antiutopian?
DG: Yes. It is deeply accepting of people as they are.
*You could also define anarchy as the absolute rejection of all forms of bullying. One of the most difficult things I ever had to write was a piece on bullying for The Baffler—I guess it just struck on very fundamental childhood traumas that I’d largely taught myself not to think about. The ultimate conclusion was that when we look for the critical flaw in human nature, we’re probably looking in the wrong places. You’ll find a million essays asking why people are mean—why do they have a drive to dominate and humiliate others, why they are bullies—but rarely do you see anyone ask why people who are not bullies or sadists make excuses for those who are. Because if you think about it, how many of us are genuine sadists? But even if it’s only 1% of the population that even has the potential to be genuinely malicious bullies, it sometimes seems like 97% of the remainder are unwilling to admit it—at least publicly.
I spent some time going through psychological studies of schoolyard bullying, and what I discovered is that most of us are laboring under a whole series of misconceptions on the subject. First, everyone assumes that if you stand up to a bully, you’ll just get attacked yourself. Actually that’s not true. Bullies tend to rely on the complicity of the audience, but if just a few kids say “Hey, why are you picking on that kid?” or otherwise disapprove, they usually cut it out. Second, bullies don’t suffer from low self-esteem. They typically see themselves as totally within their rights enforcing social norms against weakness, effeminacy, incompetence, etc. (and the fact that teachers let them get away with it, that the school prevents the victims from running away, since you can’t flee school, implies to them that they are). If they act like self-satisfied little pricks, it’s not because they torn by self-doubt but because they actually are self-satisfied little pricks. Finally, what guarantees that someone will be picked on is not necessarily that they’re a nerd or a fat girl—or at least, that only comes later—at first it’s because they resist ineffectively. If they don’t resist at all, bullies will usually leave off; if they hit back effectively, obviously too. But if they make an initial show of resisting then run away, or cry and threaten to call their parents, then they’re marked as perfect victim material.
That latter is crucial I think. I still remember in grade school one nasty kid who’d just continually, endlessly jab and attack me every day in ways always calculated to fall just under the radar of the authorities. One day I just couldn’t take it any more and knocked him across the hall, and of course, as a result, I was the one who got in trouble. The same pattern though recurs on every level of systematic oppression: class, race, gender. Constant tiny jabs, put-downs, indignities, always calculated to be just at a level where if someone objects, you can pretend it’s their indignation that’s the issue.
gaslighting ness et al
It only works though because the overwhelming majority of onlookers let it happen. The psychological studies show that children who are onlookers tend to dislike both the bully and victim equally. That sounds exactly right. The instinct, on witnessing such things, always seems to be to equate the bully and the victim and try to isolate them in a bubble of reciprocated conflict. You see this on social media all the time; I call it the “you-two-cut-it-out phenomenon.” Somebody attacks you, you ignore them. They attack again, you ignore them again. They escalate. You try to rise above. Maybe you even point out what’s happening. It doesn’t matter. This can happens 25, 35 times and nobody else says a word. Finally, round 36 and you answer back, and instantly half a dozen onlookers jump in to say “Look at those two idiots fighting!” or “Why can’t you two just calm down and try to understand the other’s point of view” or even insist that your overly exasperated response is far more objectionable than the original 36 unprovoked attacks.
Obviously this is the whole point of trolling, to play on this sort of response. But it’s essential to bullying.
You can see the mechanism very clearly in the case of wartime atrocities. If some group starts massacring another, there are so many people whose first reaction will be to search for evidence, any evidence, that will allow them to claim the victims are responsible for some kind of atrocity as well. And if you search hard enough you’ll almost invariably turn up something. When I was growing up, we had this friend Harold who had a chicken farm in New Jersey. Harold had been a Jewish partisan in the woods in Poland during the war. At one point, my mother later told me, they’d tried to make contact with the local Polish partisans, but it turns out they were anti-Semites and turned the envoys over to the Nazis. So a week later a few of the Jewish partisans showed up at their town hall during a polka dance and tossed a grenade into the window. Harold didn’t know the details of what happened, but innocent people were surely maimed or killed. Was it an atrocity? Sure. Sometimes people in desperate circumstances do atrocious things. Can we then conclude of World War II that “all sides committed atrocities” and leave it at that? That would be insane. But it’s exactly the approach most people would be taking if these same events were happening today.
For me the essence of bullying is that it’s a form of aggression calculated to provoke a reaction that can then be used as retrospective justification for the initial aggression itself. That’s the real core of the thing. I imagine an anarchist social order above all as one where everyone learns to identify this dynamic from childhood, and is inoculated against it.
from his interview (about anarchy in manner of speaking) – freedom and anarchy:
David: Yeah, I wrote that piece about bullying and then I went to the West Bank shortly thereafter. And I was just shocked by how much it was exactly that logic of bullying applied.