“In the old days, bullies were tough guys who picked on wimpy guys, a predictable, archetypal clash that inevitably led to a heroic outcome”

In the old days, bullies were tough guys who picked on wimpy guys, a predictable, archetypal clash that inevitably led to a heroic outcome. Picture the brute kicking sand in the face of the scrawny wimp in the Charles Atlas comic-book ads, inspiring our hero to pump up his muscles and seek revenge. Picture Bluto, Popeye’s hulking nemesis, imperiling Olive Oyl time and again so our favorite sailor man could eat his spinach and save the day. For decades, Western culture treated bullying as an expected rite of passage that tested a man’s mettle, an unpleasant but surmountable obstacle on the path to glory.

As a result, bullying has long been a rich source of comedy, with even its insults and injuries mined for laughs, all the better to set up that final, triumphant scene in which the bully gets his comeuppance.

In the 16th century, “bully” was originally a term of endearment, arising from the Dutch word boel, or “lover,” and broeder, or “brother.” The word evolved into a greeting for a male friend, and from there into a term meaning “worthy” or “jolly.” This positive connotation lived on into 19th-century congratulatory slang — “Bully for you!” — but back in the mid-17th century, an alternate usage, meaning “harasser of the weak,” had already caught on.

Today this meaning is utterly dominant, and antibullying slogans, campaigns and organizations make up a fundamental piece of education culture. My 9-year-old daughter is currently serving as an antibullying “ambassador” at her school, one of a gaggle of fourth-graders charged with (gently) confronting their peers on any and all bullying behavior. According to my daughter, such offenses range from “being mean” and “hurting someone’s feelings” to “teasing.” The linguistic creep evident here has often struck me as troubling, especially as a relatively laughable bully archetype has been supplanted by the specter of mass murder and suicide.

But as the word spreads beyond its original childhood boundaries, it also loses much of its power. Increasingly, “feeling bullied” is used broadly by the powerful and the powerless alike to describe feeling insulted (by a peer), feeling unfairly criticized (by a professional critic), feeling diminished (by commenters) or merely feeling exposed to potential profit losses, ego injuries or points of view that run counter to your own.

This frequent misapplication of the term reflects a larger sea change in the way we view our social positions on an emotional level. These days we tend to see power less as the rightful inheritance of the world’s winners (us!) and more as the end product of a disgraceful cycle of opportunists oppressing their way to the top of the human heap.

Even history’s traditional bullies are feeling bullied these days. The presidential campaign has evolved into an all-against-all dog pile, in which bullies claim that they are powerless to represent themselves against this new bullying mob that bullies bullies.

This twisted perspective has a certain logic in a digital world where, thanks to the distribution of technologies across the populace, everyone has power that they didn’t have just a few years ago. This new order has a way of making us feel more powerful than ever and more powerless than ever in rapid succession. Likewise, our antagonists seem to toggle between invincible, superpowered bullies who could easily crush us and laughably archaic relics of the past.

Heather Havrilesky, “Picked On”, The New York Times Magazine (1 May 2016), 22-23.