When we hear about school bullying we tend to automatically sympathize with the victim and doing so makes a lot of sense. Most of us are not intrinsically cruel, and when we hear about cruelty against others we empathize and see the perpetrators as villains. This is another example of why learning about Eastern philosophy can help expose some of our own cultural biases and let us see a fuller picture of a situation. Our mentality is individualistic, so we tend to place responsibility for actions squarely upon individuals without considering the vast web of people who are also involved in the action and in fact without whom the action could not occur.
Bullying needs to be judged on an individual basis, but one thing to always have in the back of your mind is that there is a good chance of emotional, psychological, or physical abuse being perpetrated upon our bully by one of his caregivers. He is a victim too in a different space. I said in the last paragraph that most of us are not intrinsically cruel. Bullying is sadistic, and most of the human race is not sadistic, so if we open our eyes we can see right there that an environmental factor is influencing behavior, and that other people share the burden of responsibility for the bullying.
The ‘bully’ and the ‘victim’ are actually both victims and both are in desperate need of help. Suffering abuse at the hands of a caregiver is painful, and one of the common solutions is what the psychologist Karen Horney termed ‘Moving Against’. It is the attitude that the best protection against the world is to strike first and gain the upper hand. The bully is actually utilizing a defense mechanism that feels indispensable in order to protect him against further abuse. This life solution has terrible consequences on happiness and well-being. You can’t ever be happy when you believe everyone is an adversary.
It should be noted that the bully who emotionally or physically humiliates his victim at school probably feels equally humiliated at home. He is reenacting in a position of power what he frequently experiences in a position of weakness. In this sense bullying provides psychic relief because for a brief time he gets to move to a role not charged with unbearable levels of anxiety. As I have written elsewhere, basic anxiety is feeling helpless against a hostile world. The act of bullying provides a sense of efficacy and control that combats deeply painful feelings of anxiety.
We are making a huge mistake when we automatically label the bully as the villain. In some cases he might very well be. He might be a cruel, sadistic person who feels no empathy and never has. But most people are not like that. And we can all cultivate seeds of kindness and compassion, however small they are to begin with. Certainly the school bully has the chance to change the course of his life and discover his true nature, raising his conscious awareness about the forces outside of his control that have led him to act the way he currently does.