Springtime for Bullies

Ophelia Benson

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.

King Lear has bullying at its heart. Lear at the outset bullies his three daughters by demanding that they compete in their expressions of devotion to him. The elder two comply with such blatantly exaggerated claims that only a fool could take them seriously, and Lear is that fool. The youngest daughter pays him the respect of a rational reply, expressing affection without hyperbole, and his response is a candidate for the most repellent display of bullying in all of literature. It’s a story from fairy tale, but Shakespeare develops it into something profound.

Charles Dickens repeatedly wrung his readers’ hearts with stories of bullied children, usually orphans; the appalling Murdstones in David Copperfield make Goneril and Regan look like Girl Scouts. Dickens was obsessed with the subject, and yet he was a bully himself. His wife bore ten children; he blamed her for the pregnancies and eventually ditched her, after writing disparagingly about her in his own magazine, Household Words.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre starts with bullying: the odious rich cousin of orphan Jane seeks her out to bully her for reading one of the family’s books. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a whole symphony of bullying, with every character bent on tormenting every other. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn? Packed with bullies—Pap, the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, the Duke and the Dauphin, Colonel Sherburn, and at the end Tom Sawyer himself, who keeps Jim locked up so that he can play out some elaborate adventure fantasy.

It’s a subject that seems to haunt us, but at the same time we’re drawn to it—we fear it, but we get bored without it. It’s a truism of literature, drama, journalism, reality TV—of storytelling in all its forms that conflict is what gets people interested; peace and love are a snooze-fest. I’d like to express snobbish incomprehension at this point and say that I really cannot for the life of me understand why people are addicted to watching real or fictional characters quarrel, compete, gossip, and jockey for power, but I can’t—because I know damn well that I’m addicted to it too.

Conflict is not the same as bullying, but the two are pretty intimately connected. Conflict entails a desire to win, and it’s hard to try to win anything without resorting to using some kind of power advantage; a power advantage always has the potential to feel like bullying to the losing party. The concept of human rights has given us a tool that helps us separate legitimate competition from bullying, but meanwhile social media have given us expansive new tools to make bullying easier, safer (for the bully), and more communitarian. Affinity groups that can survive for years form around bullying campaigns. Some such groups now have representatives working in the White House—in particular, Steve Bannon of Breitbart.

Social-media bullying has been given the more jolly name “trolling,” which is meant to indicate that it’s all a joke—and don’t you have a sense of humor? Andrew Marantz wrote a piece in the New Yorker titled “Trolling the Press Corps” about a blogger named Lucian Wintrich and his debut at a White House press conference. His what? How did that happen? Marantz explains:

Last summer, at a Gays for Trump party at the Republican National Convention, Wintrich met several of the country’s most effective right-wing propagandists, including Jim Hoft, a fifty-six-year-old blogger who lives in St. Louis. Since 2004, Hoft has run the Gateway Pundit, whose posts are often picked up by the Drudge Report and distributed widely through Facebook. Recent Gateway Pundit headlines include “Feral Muslim Migrants Shout “Allah Akbar’, Attack Police in France” and “Breaking: Creepy New Video Released of Joe Biden Groping Little Girls.” During the Presidential campaign, the Gateway Pundit received more than a million unique visitors a day, roughly on a par with The Weekly Standard.

The two struck up a friendship, and Hoft invited Wintrich to write for the Gateway Pundit. Soon after the inauguration, the new administration granted press credentials to Wintrich. Marantz hints at their seriousness of purpose:

[Wintrich] reviewed a draft of a contract formalizing his employment with the Gateway Pundit. In a previous version of the contract, he said, “there was a sentence about “Employee must maintain professional behavior at all times.’ I called Jim and asked, “Does this mean I shouldn’t troll liberals anymore?’ and he went, “Oh, we’d better just take that line out.’”

Everyone is taking that line out.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).

“We think of bullying as something children and adolescents do to each other, but really it’s pervasive.”

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