Why We Pick on the Weak

Bullying is a fairly common topic in education nowadays. Frightened by the events at Columbine and such, many schools have set a zero-tolerance policy. The US Department of Health and Human Services has a Web site devoted to prevention of bullying. Experts from law enforcement and social work offer advice on how to deal with the problem.

That’s all great. I support it enthusiastically.

My purpose here, however, is to focus on “social bullying,” the threat of exclusion from a group, and ask, “What is it about human beings that leads them, within a social setting, to pick on the weak?”

You know what I mean. It’s personified in Stephen King’s breakout novel, Carrie. It’s been treated in countless other novels and movies. It is, in effect, a trope, and that says something about its universality.

The high school setting provides perhaps the most focused example. Nowhere else is such a cross-section of society gathered together in close proximity. Add walls, a ridiculously minute-conscious schedule, and an oppressive (if necessary) layer of adult authority, and voil? —human pressure cooker!

In this vat, bullying reaches its apparent worst. I’d argue, however, that high school is really just a miniature of society overall—that its purpose is not merely to teach content knowledge, but also social context. By extension, I’d argue that the bullying in high school reflects a larger problem with social coercion in society overall.

To put it another way, here’s my theory: There are two opposing forces acting upon every individual in a civilization. One is the force to excel, and that’s the one that gets the most direct attention, with awards given for competitions, financial rewards given for entrepreneurship, power given with political office, and so on. The other, less consciously recognized, is the force to fit in, to be part of the group (the herd), to not rock the boat.

When an individual fails to fit in, whether by excelling or by falling short, the herd instinct is to bring pressure to bear. People who excel learn to do so despite that pressure, but they do suffer ostracism. People who fall short are equally ostracized, but they lack even the compensation of excellence.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that even the kindest of us grow weary of weaklings. And by this, I don’t mean the disadvantaged. Virtually everyone respects the strength of a person who overcomes hardship. But until and unless that strength is evidenced, the instinct is to cut the person from the herd. It is simply a survival instinct: Keep up or die.

I’m not trying to justify that instinct. Rather, it is my hope is that by becoming aware of it, we can civilize ourselves further. Instead of bullying the different into depression and eventual suicide (I point you to the “Ask the Experts” section of the aforementioned HRSA site), we can build a society in which they are better able to contribute. In the end, that is what civilization is really all about.


  1. Hi, Vishal. Your comment doesn’t include enough info for a reasoned response. Do you mean “guardian”? If so, you ought to explain the situation to a counselor at school or church and ask for advice, or talk to someone at your local police department or courthouse.

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Ken.

    However, characterizing some people as wolves and others as deer still seems too easy an answer. That’s the typical “us vs. them” picture.

    Maybe it’s that I’m trying to address a different question: Why does a group of people bully some members within that very group? This isn’t a wolves and deer topic, but rather a wolves culling their own pack or deer culling their own herd. I mention the school yard because that seems to be where this instinctive ostracizing of the weak and different first shows up, but it continues into adult situations like office politics.

    Frankly, I’ve grown distrustful and weary of characterizing some people as heroes and some as villains. That’s all well and good in fantasy fiction, but it doesn’t offer any progress to our civilization. And I do believe humans have progressed from warlike tribes to something more globally familial. If we’re going to survive, that civilizing process must continue. Wrestling questions like this, I suspect, is how we’ll get there.

  3. Hmm, Les, since the body of your blog focussed so much on “bullying in educational environments”, I guess I overlooked the question of implicit guilt in the We in the title. I maintain that the answer is basically the same. Any aggressive action is founded on the idea of getting advantage with minimal expenditure of energy. Wolf packs cull the weak out of herds of deer because they can kill them more easily with less risk of damage to themselves. It’s the same in human society. Human wolves pick on the weak because the cost benefit ratio is better that way. On the other hand, there are some who practice aggression in order to get revenge. That’s what happens when the “weak” pick on the “strong”. Is revenge aggression fundamentally different from other forms of social aggression.

    Maybe the whole question of aggression comes down to human nature. We love to fight, and we continue to find new ways to do it.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Ken. But that’s really not an answer, is it? For one thing, using the word “bullies” sidesteps the issue raised in the title, “Why WE pick on the weak.” I hope it’s clear in my essay that this is a whole-culture phenomenon, not just limited to bullies. Secondly, the question remains: Why does anyone pick on anyone? Focusing your answer just on choosing one target of two possibilities sidesteps that question as well.



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