It's a Guy Thing

Beating the Bully

By Ian Kirke / @ianjkirke 

My first recollection of the term ‘bully’ was from the pages of The Dandy, my must-read childhood comic. “Bully Beef and Chips,” created by Jimmy Hughes, first appeared in 1967 and reflected the story of two boys in seemingly constant conflict – the aggressor, a pudding basin haired brute called Bully Beef, and the victim, a wilier, and to me, more appealing character, Chips. 

I can still remember the name of our primary school class bully from all those years ago, albeit it would serve no purpose to blow the whistle on him now since I understand he has gone on to live a fulfilling life. Evidence perhaps that bullies can find redemption, and that for some, such behavior may only be a passing phase. To be fair, I can’t recall him ever harassing me. Rather, he had a reputation and menace about him. I do recall kicking him hard in the butt in the playground once when his intimidation had, no doubt, encouraged me to react. He was much chubbier than me, and as I was wearing sandals at the time. I knew that I could run the fuck away should I need to with the reasonable assertion that fat boy couldn’t get me in the short-term. I was certainly more aligned to “Chips” and although the thought of being punched was always a real and present danger, I just assumed that our version of “Bully Beef” was thick. This notion was also backed up by his dire performance in any school activity bar lifting heavyweights. 

On leaving mainstream education at eighteen after a disastrous college campaign, where drinking and trying to date the opposite sex became my preoccupation (I was damn good at the former), I entered the rat race, joining the police a year later. My early recollections are very much framed around Maslow’s hierarchy of needs insomuch as my primary goal was just to fit in. The prevailing culture was indeed very hierarchical and I immediately knew my place. As head teaboy, I eagerly looked forward to the arrival of the next recruit so that I could hand over the teaspoon baton and inch my way up the pecking order. On night shift I remember being put on trial for making shite tea, found guilty and sentenced to clearing the stray dog compound out for a week. That was literally a shit job! As I recall those halcyon days, I cannot help but smile. But could this requirement have been interpreted as bullying? My instinct at this juncture is to say no, but later I will test this assertion. Before I do, I recall a more 

obvious example of bullying, which I handled without resorting to physical attack, and one that I look back on with a degree of pride. 

Summarising a somewhat unusual situation, later in my career I started a business and worked part-time, reducing my hours by twenty percent. Although both were compatible and permissible, it was nonetheless rare and at variance with Maslow’s assertion of ‘belongingness’. In other words, to some, I had stepped outside of the cozy status quo. I was a rebel. After my promotion to Inspector, my immediate boss was on holiday and I decided to be proactive and create a shift pattern that would adequately meet my various duties. Having been given, amongst other responsibilities, the role of Identification Officer (managing the picking out of suspects in a lineup) which was a full-time position on a comparable and neighboring police area, I was already juggling a demanding workload. 

The Chief Inspector had a previous history of being a control freak although I was somewhat taken aback by his phosphorus posture upon his return. He dissed my schedule and demanded that I work day shifts from Monday to Friday. Given that I thought that most civilian witnesses were unlikely to want to attend a police identity parade during their working hours, this suggestion seemed no more than an arrogant expression of power. Furthermore, as operational cover at weekends was one of my primary responsibilities the plan was pure bollocks. Having had the foresight to manage the inevitable adrenalin rush that can often accompany a difficult conversation by engaging in deep breathing, talking myself up and imagining a successful resolution in my favor, I was remarkably calm. These simple techniques lessened the immediate likelihood of capitulation and allowed me to steer the conversation – something bullies have difficulty handling. Their plan A is to conquer from a position of power. In this case, my would-be tormentor had more pips on his epaulets than me (organizational confidence). I doubted that he had a plan B and in my more relaxed manner I put this contention to the test. “Being an Inspector isn’t in my happiness top ten,” I said in the most delicious tone of defiance. The stunned look on his face was evidence that he clearly had no backup. I then started to have a little fun with my less than cerebrally endowed colleague. “Working that schedule would make me unhappy. I was content as a Sergeant. How about you demote me?” He cleared his throat and replied in astonishment, “That’s never happened!” Trying to disguise my smile I went for the simple tap-in – “Let’s make history then.” After a few more verbals we agreed to trial my roster for three months. Surprisingly I never again spoke to him about this matter. 

So, are bullies as thick as mince? I was rather surprised to learn that this wasn’t typically the case. Jennifer Hancock, author of The Bully Vaccine, points out, “Generally speaking no. They tend to be of normal or high intelligence. They bully because it works as an adaptive strategy to help them get access to resources and status within a group. It takes a lot of talent to bully and get away with it.” But perhaps her last sentence held a clue to one method of neutralizing a bully – not letting them get away with it. My tactic with my former line manager may have had some merit. Writing in Psychology Today, Professor Preston Ni, of the faculty of Communication Studies Department at Foothill College in Silicon Valley, California, validated my stance – “Keep your cool and avoid being reactive.” Certainly, my pre-prepared stress management script had met his learned test and seemingly the second – “Bullies win when you’re upset,” adding, “A common characteristic of bullies is that they project their aggression to push your buttons and keep you off balance. By doing so, they create an advantage from which they can exploit your weaknesses.” 

Reflecting upon my brushes with other bullies in adult life I have found that making them accountable for their behavior, by simply asking open questions – the antidote to many Bully Beefs – has a significant success rate. Calling upon the power of Rudyard Kipling, in his prose, “I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.” Some of my favorite weapons of mass disruption include, “What do you mean by that comment?” and “What information are you basing that comment on?” But is there a potential Achilles heel to this robust remedy? Remember the wise words of Jennifer Hancock – they aren’t necessarily thick. 

One of the things that galls me the most must be the bully who positions themselves as the victim having been confronted, or at least seen it coming. Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley identifies the “cry bully,” describing their modus operandi as “driven to dominate and control every situation, this type of bully will often spend their time and energy convincing themselves and everyone they know that they are the victim and not the bully.” Consumed with self-pity, justification, and self-absorption “their sense of being a victim becomes a crutch and a reason to justify future cruel behavior.” This grim scenario is addressed by the forthright journalist Julie Burchill who describes the same sinister character as “a hideous hybrid of victim and victor.” Citing various convincing examples her autopsies of cry bully celebrities Jeremy Clarkson and Perez Hilton are the most illustrative of this cowardice – “Jeremy Clarkson is a prime cry bully, punching a producer and then whining in The Sunday Times about ‘losing my baby’ (the baby being Top Gear). Perez Hilton, recently of the Celebrity Big Brother house, is a good example too, screaming abuse at his wretched roommates until they snapped and hit back, at which point he would dissolve into floods of tears and flee to the Diary Room to claim that he felt ‘unsafe’.” 

Having become acquainted with such a shape-shifting creature amid a madding crowd in plain sight, the need to adhere to the principles of bully management are vital, and the sharing of this intelligence with those that orbit these hollow souls, deficient in decency and adept at clever manipulation is crucial. As the nineteenth century, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.” As arguably one of the wisest sages of all, Mahatma Gandhi pondered too, “Bullies are always to be found where there are cowards.” 

But perhaps Karma has a habit of keeping a check on bullies. In July 2020 Kevin Blatchford assaulted his former bully in an unprovoked attack in Exeter, fifteen years after leaving school. Acknowledging the history, the court imposed a suspended prison sentence prompting other victims to pen their cathartic reflections. Author Petronella Wyatt recounted the sweet repose that flowed from turning a previous tormentor down for a job following a call to her office – “It was you, dear bully. You were polite. You asked me for a drink. I decided to lay you to rest once and for all, and agreed to meet you. You were unemployed and asked if I could get you a job, or recommend you to another publication. Oh, bully. Had you ever said a kind word to me, I might have crawled over glass to help you. As it was, I suggested you try to find work in a charity shop. It was a moment of exquisite satisfaction.” Television presenter Rebecca Wilcox composed a more compassionate testimony to her oppressor – “Do you regret your behavior and tell your own children to be kind? It’s what I always say to mine. It was you who taught me that, so I guess I should thank you. Because being kind and finding kindness in return is why I have achieved so much happiness in my life — my life after you, that is.” 

But what of my early life in the police? Did the expectation that I should kowtow to the shift elders and make tea, often on-demand, constitute bullying? Various definitions exist but most reflect the necessity of repetition of unwanted behavior that is intended to hurt either physically or emotionally. Having thought long and hard I do not believe that I was the victim of bullying and in any case, no one but me knew what I often added to the mugs of some of the more sarcastic colleagues that gave their brew a very special zing! 

© Ian Kirke 2021