Dave tells me that Mr. Midshipman Easy by Frederick Marryat, written in 1836, contains a passage that refutes the saying “All bullies are cowards,” noting that, in fact, bullies usually possess considerable physical courage. I’ve only just skimmed the book and I can’t find that passage, but it’s certainly consistent with the character of Vigors, the bully, whom Easy beats to the point of bloody unconsciousness in their first fight, yet nevertheless fights Easy once more later in the book, knowing fill well that he is hopelessly outclassed.
In all societies, however small they may be, provided that they do but amount to half-a-dozen, you will invariably meet with a bully. And it is also generally the case that you will find one of that society who is more or less the butt. You will discover this even in occasional meetings, such as a dinner-party, the major part of which have never met before.
Previous to the removal of the cloth, the bully will have shown himself by his dictatorial manner, and will also have selected the one upon whom he imagines that he can best practice. In a midshipman's berth, this fact has become almost proverbial, although now perhaps it is not attended with that disagreeable despotism which was permitted at the time that our hero entered the service.
The bully seldom needs to physically coerce the victim; the dominance has already been established. After that, everything turns on the humiliation of the bullied victim.
It’s there where the saying “All bullies are cowards” then becomes true. A bully may possess inordinate physical courage, but he will fear humiliation above all other things. This avoidance, in fact, if often the greatest driving force in his life. The butt is his reassurance that he is not, in fact, the most worthless human being alive.
Physical confrontation is rare for us middle-class folk; it’s usually seen as a lower class vice (or virtue, in the case of military service). The middle class tends to be more abstract in everything, including its bully tactics. Real lashing becomes “tongue lashing,” berating and verbal diminution, in other words, though none the less destructive to self esteem, given the proper upbringing.
Several years ago I worked for a time managing a small second-hand thrift store for a non-profit. It was sited in a “rough” area, on a busy street connecting Berkeley and Oakland, near both residential and commercial/industrial neighborhoods. The residents of the area were a mixed group, in almost every conceivable way, and there were quite a few of the homeless scrabbling for existence on the street as well. It took a while for me to become properly attuned to the aura of submerged violence and occasional physical intimidation that permeated the area. Some people are oblivious to it; others overreact. There was one person who was also employed by the non-profit who once came scurrying across the street because she thought that I’d just had some sort of confrontation with a couple of young men who were, shall we say delicately, of a certain color. In fact, they had politely asked me for directions and I had politely given them. An entirely friendly encounter, in other words.
There were other times when the encounters were not quite so friendly. Though I myself never had any trouble, I was witness to one incident of verbal abuse leading to a drug store security guard calling the police. On another occasion I saw just the aftermath of something that resulted in a guy just sitting on the curb with blood dripping down his face. I also once sold a golf club to one of the homeless men with a solvent abuse problem (we never sold him any used paint thinner, just as a matter of policy). I’m pretty sure he kept the golf club in his sleeping bag for self-defense. He carried it around like a cane.
I myself have always been pretty hard to physically intimidate, even before I learned Aikido and bulked up to over 170 pounds. And I have enough education of the right sort to be hard to intellectually intimidate as well.
But we’re all susceptible to social intimidation, insofar as so few of us are at the top of our local social pyramid, and even then, if we stray into someone else’s territory, suddenly we’re not top of the heap, and some local bully may decide we qualify as a target on that day. There aren’t that many of us who never have to deal with the DMV or the passport office, and there are very few who begin their careers as boss.
Bullies fear humiliation, and it’s humiliation that makes bullies, I think. But I have to reflect a lot more on the difference between humiliation and mere embarrassment before I get a better handle on what that means. I do know that, in a country where bullying is usually abstract, there are fewer empathetic links to those for whom humiliation is a heavy physical presence. The broken links are found near such scattered phrases as “Well, why doesn’t he just…” without the subsequent insight that he can’t “just…” There’s a bully keeping him down. But when that pressure is released, watch out. Because when the worm turns, it doesn’t stop until the bird is dead, and the worm has devoured him.