2016: The Year of the Bully

A lot has already been made about what a horrible year 2016 has turned out. Looking back, I can see many highs, but many, many, many more lows in 2016. I’m not here to complain. Instead, I want to try to make sense of it all: why was 2016 so bad?

There were a lot of great things that happened to me and even in the world, however, I will always remember 2016 as “The Year of the Bully.” 2016 was the year that uncivil, unreasonable, and unconscionable behavior flourished as accepted, mainstream and was often even lauded. It was a year with people who had overbearing confidence, although little competence, seemed the most successful.

A bully is someone who sees their power over you as a right to make you weaker. Bullies lack compassion and reason. They also have an innate feeling of superiority and seeming confidence, but the confidence is really a mask for their fear.

Bullies are often physical, emotionally, and verbally violent, but that’s actually not a pre-requisite for a bully. Whether expressed as anger, through a pervading sense of superiority, or both, at its core, bullying is really about fear: fear of difference, fear of losing power, fear of becoming irrelevant, fear of looking foolish, fear of being hurt. So the bully puts the person or people s they fear on the defensive as a way to make sure their fears do not come true.

In 2016, we saw the King of the Bullies crowned President of the United States, we saw the Czar of the Bullies help a prince of bullies slaughter civilians who opposed their will. We witnessed religious bullies run down, gun down, and blow up people in public spaces, hoping to make them fearful as well. We also saw religious bullies pass and enforce laws to deny their fellow citizens basic civilities. We saw trolling bullies belittle people who dared try to entertain us, because the entertainment was not to their taste. We witnessed friends bullying friends online in arguments over the bullies.

I know this did not happen all of a sudden. Bullying tendencies have been festering for years. But 2016 felt like the year in which the chickens finally came home to roost. It was the year the very confident seized power from the merely competent at the behest of the “common people” who were afraid of losing their cultures. It was apparent in online trolls who hid behind anonymity, afraid of loosing their past. It was apparent in our politicians for whom compromise is a loss of power, something they are always afraid of losing. Most notably, it was apparent in individuals who fear losing their privileged place in society.

This was not only true in the public sphere but also in my own professional and private life. I encountered many bullies this year who cost me dearly. I came up against people who seemed to think that reasonable settlement of disputes was unacceptable. I cannot say whether this was just my bad luck to encounter these people, or whether this is the result of the general trend in World Culture — bullying is not an uniquely American trait, I’m sorry to say — but the demeanor of more and more people I interact with is that “might makes right.”

And now my confession: I am a bully, or at least I am not immune from bullying other people from time to time. I had always felt the victim of bullies in my young life: the chubby kid everyone picked on for being different, weird, a bit slow. Then in eighth grade, a new kid joined my K — 12 school.

He was a bit plumper, a bit sheer, and was at my private school on scholarship. I was afraid of being bullied, so I bullied him for almost an entire year. Made fun of him, belittled him, and generally made his life difficult so that I could feel better about myself. I wasn’t the lowest on the totem pole anymore. I wasn’t the least athletic kid in a school that prized athleticism. I wasn’t the most awkward kid in a class full of overachiever.

Then one day I was walking down the hall and did something mean to him (I think I shoved him), and he said ,“Why do you do this to me?” and I had to stop and think, and it came to me almost immediately that I was doing to him what I hated others doing to me: I was the bully. I’m sorry, David.

I spent the rest of that year trying to make it up to him, and we ended up becoming good friends. He is wicked smart, and I like wicked smart people. But all through my life I have kept a careful eye on myself to make sure I don’t fall into that trap again. Unfortunately, I still fall for it from time to time.

That’s why it’s all the harder to see the destructive behavior of bullies all around me. I’m not sanctimonious about it, it’s natural human defense, but one that we should grow past as a species.

So what am I doing to make sure that 2017 isn’t the Year of the Bully, Part II?

First, is mindfulness. I’m practicing mindfulness meditation and I am amazed by how much this has helped me clear my thoughts and see clearly.

Second, have hope. I’ve put together a list of 17 songs to help me with hope in 2017. I recommend you make your own list, not of “favorite” songs, but songs that make you feel hopeful rather than afraid. If you do, let me know. I’d like to hear them.

Third, I will not tolerate intolerance. I know that sounds strange and counter-intuitive, but the one thing I’ve found cannot be tolerated is people’s intolerance of others. Have whatever opinions you want, whatever ideas, but do no harm to other people with your opinions.

hope 2016 is a year we look upon in the future as a turning point in how we perceived attitudes of fear, intolerance, and bullying. I hope we get past thinking that people with confidence are better than people with competence at leading us. And I hope you have a year full of hope and fulfillment in 2017.