In comments on my series of posts on insults, it was pointed out that my stance that insults are ‘mere words’ that should be shrugged off ignored a context in which they were more than that and could not be so easily dismissed, and that was when it was used as a bullying strategy.

This is an important point. I had referred to Rush Limbaugh as a ‘bully’ in the first post in the series but did not really elaborate on the theme.

When do insults become bullying? It seems like a necessary condition for insults to cross over into bullying is that the insults be sustained over time. A one-off insult is not usually considered to be bullying. If Limbaugh had used the words ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ on just one occasion, that would have been insulting. But when he came back to the topic day after day, he crossed the line from insulting to bullying.

Bullying also requires unequal power, where the victim is not in a position to fight back on equal terms.

One form that the power differential can take place is in the form of administrative power, which is what happens in the workplace where people in authority abuse the people below them who cannot risk objecting to such behavior without risking their jobs. One sees this in the ways that some people treat workers in the hospitality industries such as waiters, hotel staff, and customer service people.

A second form is intellectual bullying, where people intimidate others with their superior knowledge or rhetorical skills, using these skills to ridicule or humiliate others, knowing that they do not have the tools to fight back. This kind of behavior can be seen in intellectual circles such as academia, where one can observe it at meetings of faculty. One can also sometimes observe it in debates. It is something that teachers have to be very careful about, to not use their superior knowledge to bully their students into agreeing with them.

Another form of differential is where the verbal bullying is accompanied by threats of physical violence by the physically stronger person. This is what one often sees among adolescents in the school setting or in social circles where the use of physical violence is not unusual.

A fourth form is numerical superiority, where many people gang up on an individual and subject them to verbal harassment. In this case, while the threat of physical violence may not be present, there are too many aggressors to enable an effective response against each one. Limbaugh and other media personalities often do this by essentially rallying their vast army of listeners against a single person. This is why the practice of some media personalities of releasing the contact information of the individuals they are fighting against is reprehensible.

The final form of power differential is the one that is also relevant to the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke case, where one person has a much larger megaphone than the other and is willing to use it to demean the other. This is the bullying of politicians, media personalities, and others who have the means to get their words heard over that of others. This can also happen in public forums where the speaker on the platform can abuse their right of having the last word to ridicule a member of the audience.

This is why it is so important for those who have the benefits of power on their side to be acutely conscious of it and make sure that nothing they do or say could be interpreted as bullying.

So how does one respond to bullying? Since bullying depends on the existence of a power differential, one needs to neutralize that. Most institutions have, or should have, anti-bullying policies that enable the victim to neutralize the power inequality by appealing to institutional authorities to redress the balance. But this is not without its risks, since institutions tend to be less than enthusiastic about challenging the powerful people within them. But definitely schools and institutions where children and adolescents congregate must be vigilant in monitoring and enforcing anti-bullying policies since the victims may not have the maturity or the savvy or the internal strength to fight back on their own.

The best ways to combat bullying are informal ones, where bystanders who observe the situation come to the aid of the weaker entity. This illustrates the importance of individual observers not letting things pass. There have been numerous studies of how when even a single person speaks up against the bullying or comes to the side of the victim, other people who had been passive up until then, also speak out. It seems like most people want to do the right thing but do not want to take the lead. Oddly enough, the more bystanders that are present, the less likely that any given person will be the first to speak up. It seems like people do not know what the norms of behavior are and try to get cues about what to do by observing other people’s reactions to the same situation. If no one does anything, they think that the norm is to do nothing and are passive themselves. If one person steps up, others are much more likely to follow. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo discusses this phenomenon in his 2008 book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

This is what happened in the Limbaugh-Fluke case where a huge number of people came to Fluke’s aid and neutralized the power advantage that Limbaugh had become accustomed to wielding like a club. Like all bullies who find that their victim is not as powerless as initially thought, he became deflated and even cowardly, and was forced to apologize.

The internet enables the victims of bullying to rally a much larger pool of allies than were available before and force changes. The situation where a Minnesota school district had to reverse itself and implement a strong anti-bullying policy because of the wide publicity given to the harassment of gay students is a case in point. So is the case of Jessica Ahlquist.

This really puts the responsibility to combat bullying on all of us, to note when it is occurring and to come to the aid of the victim.

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