Picture a drearily common situation in an intellectual’s life: a meeting. With a barely perceptible swagger, a decidedly unlikeable sort with a fang-bearing sneer walks in the room and immediately chooses the highest seat, preferably located at the head of a table. As the meeting gets under way, our friend affects a bored look, picks his nose or digs out some earwax when a perceived opponent is speaking. If a serious proposal comes forward that runs against his opinion, he or a lieutenant interrupts with a snide comment or simply cuts the speaker off. An evident disdain, a voice that is sharp and menacing, an assertion of power … meet the bully.
For some reason bullies are like flies on shit in academic life. Perhaps it is the self-perpetuating bureaucracy that attracts them, perhaps it is the opportunity to lord it over snivelling students, perhaps it is the unrivalled possibility of cutting people down.
The bully’s real approach to the world is more like a dog-pack or a shrewdness (yes, a shrewdness) of apes. He assumes that he is top dog or silver-back, full of barking, snapping and hairy chest-beating. In other words, bullies effortlessly blend an unhealthily high opinion of themselves with a sneering dismissal of the no-hopers around them. Of course, our irrepressibly endearing character usually feels that she or he is upholding the true values of the intellectual life dog-pack and that those who do not meet such high standards are no better than curs and strays.
The only friends a bully has are those who assume his view of world, which of course has him at the top. The jump at his bark, quaver at his jungle yell. A slavering pack of doctoral students perhaps, a collection appointees who know who’s boss. Everyone else is a victim who needs either to be brought to heel or dispatched to the outer darkness.
The bully’s creed is: denigrate, intimidate, isolate, and crush. Jokes are shared between the bully and his underlings, always targeted at their victims. Passing a victim in the corridor, the bully or one of his attack dogs lets slip a whispered comment, ‘what idiot let you in here?’ They love to pass on innuendo and rumour, the more personal the better: ‘did you hear that Joe’s PhD was written by someone else’; ‘wasn’t that the most useless paper you’ve ever heard?’; ‘you know, Jim’s a member of a weirdo cult’; ‘Bill has bleeding haemorrhoids and leaves rings on seats’; ‘Mary drinks metho in between class’.
The bully works behind the scenes to isolate an apparent danger to his own fiefdom, blocking involvement or promotion, removing that person from supervision, neglecting to mention staff gatherings. Rules? They are merely tools for asserting power. A bully loves to use a faceless and opaque system to his or her advantage. Institute a review of a victim that takes forever, don’t pass on any detailed information, order an underling to send regular messages saying the review is ‘serious’ but that it will take time to complete. Organise a meeting to discuss, but then delay it once again.
Yet you may wonder: a nerdy intellectual as a bully? Come on! One usually associates the bully with a football forward, ice-hockey thug, a colourful crim or the odd burly cop. Yet, a bully with half a brain is arguably more dangerous than one with none at all – although the stress falls, it must be said, on the half, and that’s being generous.
But let me shift the metaphor: the bully delights in identifying those who seem to fly higher than he is able. Recalling the old saying – occasionally eagles can fly lower than hens, but hens can never rise to the height of eagles – the bully sets out to clip the eagles’ wings and keep them on a low flight path.