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Is It (Ever) Okay to Bully the Bullies?

Is It (Ever) Okay to Bully the Bullies?

The nation has been abuzz with the story of Phoebe Prince, the teenager who was bullied so relentlessly by nine of her classmates that she committed suicide.  On an evening in January, Phoebe, a recent émigré from Ireland, was found hanging from a rear stairwell in the apartment she shared with her parents in western Massachusetts.  This came after Phoebe suffered, what was by all accounts, a day of incessant, unendurable taunting and physical threats.  Apparently Phoebe’s ‘crime’ was a brief liaison with one of the male (alleged) perpetrators, after which he, two pals, his sometimes girlfriend and five of her posse embarked (allegedly) upon a campaign to make Phoebe’s life a hellish misery.  Six of the nine students involved have now been indicted on felony charges that range from statutory rape to civil rights violations to criminal harassment.

As the identities of the accused were made public, several websites appeared urging revenge against Prince’s tormentors.  When I first heard about these attempts to bully the bullies, I have to admit that, for just a moment, I thought, “Yes!  That’s exactly what they deserve!”

There are few things, to my mind, more despicable than bullying.  (Okay, animal torture, mass murder, environmental exploitation, war-mongering all meet a higher—or lower—standard.) Bullies, whether on the playground or in the boardroom, prey on the vulnerable, the weak, the ‘different,’ the relatively defenseless.  Bullying is about power and control: bullies gain status through inflicting pain (psychological and/or physical) on others, and they can bestow a kind of reflected power on those who either follow their lead or condone the behavior by mute compliance.  When the news reports came in of the accused bullies complaining about how ‘unfair’ it was that they and their families were being targeted by cyber-vigilantes, I admit I found it pretty darn hard to sympathize. 

But is it ever okay to bully anyone, even those who bully others?  I’m the coauthor of a book on anger – in one chapter we address the causes of bullying and offer some strategies for combating it.  One characteristic of bullies is that they lack empathy; their ability to intuitively ‘feel’ what others experience is diminished or even nonexistent.  Wouldn’t this deficiency—of emotional sensitivity or experience—suggest that offering bullies a ‘taste of their own medicine’ might be just the wake-up call they need to change their loathsome ways?

When Prince’s death was announced, at least one of the accused reportedly said she ‘didn’t care’ that Phoebe was dead.  In light of that kind of callousness, it’s hard to know what might make these young bullies remorseful.  Is it facing the dire consequences of their actions (i.e., now their lives are completely screwed)?  Could some kind of moral awakening naturally occur as one grows out of the pack mentality of adolescence and into some sort of adult wisdom?  Or do they need to actually experience for themselves the pain and humiliation they were so willing to dish out?

Of course there are other disturbing questions in this tragic tale: Where were the school administrators? Where were Prince’s parents?  Where were the freakin’ adults??  Unfortunately, adulthood doesn’t automatically bestow good judgment—not all bullies grow up.  Our national scene is rife with them: among the hordes Limbaugh, Coulter and Beck, Sarah Palin, maybe, to be fair, even Rafe Emanuel (although I have to admit that one person’s bully is another’s forthright advocate).  Dick Cheney is the über-bully.  Go to practically any town hall meeting about health care reform and take your pick.  Bullying tactics seem to control debate, which has now deteriorated into a contest where the most strident voice prevails and where nuance and the acknowledgment of ambiguity are hallmarks of weakness.

The research I’ve done suggests that one of the most effective ways to combat bullying is to refuse to stand silently by.  Bullies thrive in a context of alliance; their promise is: Support me, join me or don’t confront me and I’ll include you in the sphere of my influence.  And in all bully-follower relationships, the hanger-on usually finds it the easiest way to go.  But easy comes with quite a price.

As much as part of me would like to see the bullies of Phoebe Prince suffer the same agonies as she did, I can’t bring myself to advocate ever bullying a bully.  Stand up, yes; fight back, definitely; but don’t sink to bullying—it’s a poison that makes no distinctions.  ’Righteous bullying’ is no different, ultimately, from bullying in order to control and torment.  For whatever reason one bullies, one will become corrupted by the act.  Causing pain for the pleasure of it (even if that pleasure is rooted in justice) will destroy the power of compassion that, at our best, makes our nature slightly closer to the angels than the devils.

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237 comments

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4:17PM PDT on Sep 17, 2014

I vote yes. As for my reasons behind this, I kept it as reasonable as possible, at least in my books. I'm not an actual bully(although I wasn't the nicest person at the time, I never bothered with the whole "picking on people" thing), however during my high school years when I see bullying in front of me, I tend to end it. As to how I end it, I tell them in a firm voice to "cut that sh** out or we got a problem". Did I inflict any physical pain on them? Not at all, I was pretty physically built/athletic so my words were good enough. Had they needed to get a physical treatment, I wouldn't mind doing so. As soon as they've given me their words and know better than to do it again, then the problem is resolved. I never make it an effort to keep up the bullying act, just long enough for the bullies to learn that it sucks to be bullied.

6:28PM PDT on Aug 19, 2014

Voted yes.

7:47PM PDT on Apr 14, 2014

No, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, to quote Ghandi. And because if you do not know the full situation and push someone hard enough, you might get your skull bashed in. It doesn't pay to be passive aggressive, don't assume everybody is mature enough or on the same mental level. You need to confront people when the issue arises.

3:21PM PST on Nov 10, 2012

Sad.

3:16PM PST on Nov 10, 2012

Sad.

3:15PM PST on Nov 10, 2012

Sad.

1:57PM PDT on Jul 10, 2010

I believe they should be punished for this and shown exactly how it feels to be bullied.

5:47AM PDT on May 16, 2010

I thought it was a good article until this part:
"Limbaugh, Coulter and Beck, Sarah Palin, maybe, to be fair, even Rafe Emanuel (although I have to admit that one person's bully is another's forthright advocate). Dick Cheney is the über-bully."
Are these people going around harassing others? No. You don't have to listen to talk radio or tv. Dick Cheney isn't heard from much, and what is an uber-bully? I can think of infinitely more liberals that are bullies then this group. An unbelievable amount of bullying went on to force the health care bill through. So I conclude that this Peaco Todd person feels that anyone who doesn't agree politically is nothing more than a classroom bully tormenting a girl to suicide. I didn't bother to read past that and anything written by this person in the future is of no interest to me.

7:55AM PDT on May 15, 2010

Beverly - Why are you waiting for the school to issue the consequences for behavior away from home that you find unacceptable? Do it yourself. I'm not understanding your position of helplessness.

5:25AM PDT on May 13, 2010

I voted yes simply because kids are not kids anymore. They (not all) have the upper hand in what adults do and say. They go to school with some huge nasty attitude knowing full well the teachers cant do a thing about it. Teachers cant teach. My son gets away with just about every thing in school. I have called them and told them I want the consiquences and they just wont do it. Everything is so mild. Children can do no wrong??? Their(school) attitude has put a huge strain on our relationship at home. I make him tow the line and they have NO line to tow...

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