I’m not a psychiatrist but I am a student of human life and motivations, and I’ve been thinking about bullies. Who is guilty of abusing power and using it to diminish others? Surely not just the bully, but also those who prop him up and cheer him on.
We’ve all seen bullies at work in schoolyards. They feed off the fear they can produce in others. They’re emboldened by both the cheering crowds that stand around egging him (or her) on and the silent ones who only stand and watch, saying nothing. They don’t care about doing good for anyone, but only in propping up themselves by diminishing others.
Bully-followers enable the bully’s abusive behavior and, even worse, echo and amplify the nastiness he or she employs. We often give the followers the benefit of the doubt by attributing their behavior to fear and weakness. But for some I think it may be more sinister than that. For some it isn’t just cowardice that keeps them supporting the bully. It’s complicity in the meanness. There is something about seeing others bullied while they remain “safe” and unassailed that I suspect satisfies their own lust for the same kind of power. Watching a bully diminish someone else makes the followers feel less small, more powerful themselves.
It’s possible such followers don’t see their own sin. It’s all too easy for us to compartmentalize our behavior and not see the repercussions of it. But even if our blindness is from ignorance, we have a responsibility to examine and own up to our part in supporting bad behavior. If we don’t see because we don’t want to see clearly, we bear the greater responsibility.
I once worked with a woman who would commiserate with me about two people who were bullying me with false complaints and nasty words. When they criticized and complained about me to the management, she joined them in their accusations and complaints. Then she’d come to me privately later and, in an aggrieved way, ask me why I lumped her in with them – how could I do that to her? So one day I told her: I don’t lump you in with them. You do that when you join in their criticism and complaints. She seemed genuinely surprised. She thought that if she supported me behind closed doors it somehow erased her publicly siding with them. It didn’t.
Whatever the motivations of bully-followers – weakness, cowardice, love of vicarious power, or their own need to diminish others, to stand tall on their pain – I believe they carry the same guilt that the bully does. Whether with cheers or silence, they are supporting the abuse of power that ends in the damage of others, and it’s reprehensible.
These days, we have a bully in the White House and bully-followers in the Administration and Congress. It’s time they were dispossessed of their power.