Springtime for Bullies

Ophelia Benson

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In March 2017, John Rayne Rivello was arrested for sending a tweet to journalist Kurt Eichenwald that induced a serious epileptic seizure. He was charged with one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, with a hate-crime enhancement. Eichenwald, a Dallas-based journalist who writes for Newsweek and Vanity Fair, said in December 2016 that someone had tweeted a flashing animated image at him that had triggered the seizure. The image included the message, “You deserve a seizure for your post.” The tweet was sent the same night Eichenwald had appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, and the two had argued fiercely about Donald Trump.

We think of bullying as something children and adolescents do to each other, but really it’s pervasive. It’s just that we give it more dignified labels when adults engage in it: class warfare, the struggle for dominance, social stratification, cruelty, torture, oppression. The American and French revolutions can be seen as (radically incomplete) rejections of bullying as a basic principle of governance. As Samuel Johnson rudely pointed out, that was absurd coming from people who owned slaves, but that’s reality: nobody is immune from being a bully to someone.

Much enduring literature is about bullying. The Iliad begins with it: Achilles is in a rage because Agamemnon has bullied him, high-handedly taking Achilles’s slave woman for himself. Neither of them pauses to recognize the enslaved woman as bullied; they brawl over which of them is entitled to bully her. This is Johnson’s point: Achilles and Agamemnon are very indignant over what they perceive as injustice to themselves but blind to injustice they are committing.

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