Why we stand up to bullies


Bullies succeed by making their victims fear them. The bully may be stronger than the victim, but he does not constantly use force against them. It is the fear of violence or humiliation that makes victims act in the way the bully wants them to. Once it has been established that the bully can hurt the victim, the threat is enough. Maintaining that threat is relatively cheap for the bully and for a sadist this may seem like a good deal. This might also seem cheaper for the victim, because the costs of direct confrontation may be very high.

When we tell children to stand up to bullies we do not expect that they will turn out to be stronger or more popular than them, though this is what usually happens in fiction. We assume that standing up to a bully will cause the victim to be hurt or humiliated. But it does make it more expensive for the bully to maintain his power over the victim.

Standing up to the bully means that his actions may not have the long-term effects that make them profitable. And it is good to have a general social agreement that bullies are bad, and should be stood up to. It discourages people from trying the tactic in the first place.

Terrorism often operates in the same way. Very few terrorists could ever hope to win in a full-scale war against their victims, so instead they do shocking, frightening things. Yesterday’s attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices was a very significant example of this, because the terrorists’ apparent goals (‘avenging the Prophet’ for blasphemous cartoons) seem ridiculously trivial compared to the lengths they were willing to go to to achieve them.

It is now clear that Western journalists who blaspheme against Islam may be murdered where they work. And most Western journalists don’t really want to blaspheme against Islam anyway. It’s rude, and it’s rude against a group that does not have much power in the West.

What’s more, that kind of wilful rudeness may drive moderate Muslims away from Western liberalism towards Islamic extremism. On the other hand, I’m not sure a person whose respect for free speech ends at a blasphemous cartoon was much of a moderate to begin with.

But if a bully tells you not to do something, sometimes you should do it even if you didn’t really want to do it anyway. Defiance of the bully is very important to rob him of his power over you, and – just as important – to show to others that bullying is not effective.

Simply talking about how unafraid we are of terrorism is an empty, weak reaction. Cartoons that show the power of pencils are worthless. No Jihadi is disturbed by any of this. What disturbs them is to show in our actions that they do not have the bully's power over us. The cost of rudeness is real, but it is insignificant compared to the cost of letting bullying work.