Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Different Sort of Bullying

There has been a good deal of talk in recent years about the evils of bullying and what to do about it. Almost all of what is discussed seems to be bullying of low status people by low status people, largely schoolchildren bullying schoolchildren. There is another sort of bullying that is unfortunately common in our society, arguably a more serious problem, and the subject of less, or at least less uniform, condemnation. Some examples are illustrated by two of my recent posts and one older one.

The first is anti-smoking rules carried beyond the point at which they can plausibly be defended as protecting non-smokers. My example is a proposed rule to ban all smoking from my campus. Smoking is already forbidden in buildings and, I'm pretty sure, near the entrance to buildings, so the proposal would have only a tiny effect on exposure to second hand smoke. I am a non-smoker, find cigarette smoke mildly unpleasant, and cannot remember having ever been significantly bothered by it on campus. The document circulated on the ban asserted a number for total excess mortality due to second hand smoke that I argued in my post on the subject was doubly bogus—it misrepresented the claim it was based on, and that claim was almost certainly based on cherry picked data. And, even if the number were correct, it would say little about the effect of the small additional reduction due to the proposed rule.

One motive for such a rule—whether it has passed or will pass I do not know—is probably paternalism, the theory that if you make smoking sufficiently inconvenient smokers may give it up. But I suspect that another motive is bullying. People, unfortunately, enjoy pushing other people around. Such a rule lets people who disapprove of smoking make life more unpleasant for those who smoke,  demonstrating the power of the former over the latter.

My second example is the behavior of police officers. There are obvious reasons why police officers would wish other people to be deferential towards them, since the more extreme forms of non-deference can, in that context, be lethal. If the only people who talk back to them are criminals, mostly criminals about to attack them, that provides a useful signal of when to be on their guard. Making things unpleasant for people who demand a badge number (I once got arrested for assisting someone else to do so), point a cell phone camera at them, or in other ways fail to acknowledge their status and authority, is one way of getting that deference.

There are also obvious reasons why people in general want other people to be deferential towards them, making a profession which legitimizes the demand for deference and makes it possible to enforce it with the threat of death, injury, or prison, attractive to those with that taste. Which I think helps to explain the increasingly common pattern of unnecessary SWAT style raids, kicking in doors, pointing guns at innocent people and ordering them to lie on the floor, shooting dogs. 

I do not think it would be hard to come up with other examples in both categories. People like pushing other people around. Doing so is generally safer and more effective when you have the power of the law on your side. One way to do so is to make rules or pass laws that make life harder for people you disapprove of, whether smokers, gays, or college students who get drunk and have sex. Another is to get a position one of whose perks is the right to order other people around—and, in some contexts, threaten, assault, beat, even kill anyone who objects, with minimal risk of suffering any criminal penalties for doing so. That includes TSA agents whose opportunities are limited to vandalizing checked luggage and ordering people to stand still while being patted down, and police officers with a wider range.


Anonymous said...

One difficulty with classifying a no-smoking policy like this as "bullying" is that at least some smokers seem to support it. My campus recently did this as well. Two smokers that I know of support the ban. The reasoning seems to be that they feel guilty about smoking and welcome extra external pressure to stop.

I don't support the ban, and I would prefer that smokers find other ways to motivate themselves than to support policies that infringe on other people's freedoms. Still, though, it's interesting to me that some people have such a different relationship with authority than I do. I have a knee-jerk resentment of being told what to do for my own good, but not everyone reacts that way.

Kevin said...


Unknown said...

I would be fascinated to read the story of your arrest, if you're willing to share. It takes rare courage to stand up to them.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure there really is any clear difference between paternalism and bullying. Paternalism always struck me as just one type of bullying.
I suppose your reason for distinguishing them is in the motive for pushing others around, but in practice, I'm not sure there are many active paternalists who don't also enjoy tormenting those they disapprove of.

It all comes under the category of dominance and heirarchy, and instinct found in nearly all primates, and whish lies at the root of politics and also contributes to so much else of human society.
It may possibly be the worst instinct we have, but sadly, I don't know of any way to breed it out of the species that doesn't involve paternalistic bullying. And any programme that contradicts its own purpose is probably a horrible idea.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that there is a component of bullying involved in telling smokers that they have no right to create such a vile and painful smell in places I need to be (such as a university campus). Just this morning as I cycled in to work a smoker chose to light his cigarette while standing on the bike path just a short distance ahead of where I was at the time he did it, meaning that it was necessary for me to pedal through the smell of his newly created smoke (it not being possible to pedal off of the path just there). I tried holding my breath as I passed him, yet still was aware of the smell and pain in my eyes from the fleeting moment of passing through. I do not feel that is is appropriate for anyone to cause me that sort of discomfort, ever, and would totally support any ban that means that I don't have to put up with smoke. I don't care how much evidence there may or may not be in terms of possible damage to my person, the discomfort alone is more than sufficient to make me say "NO!" to ever being around smoke, or even incense. What they do in their own homes is their own business, but they have no right cause me pain when I am at work on on my way there.

Anonymous said...

kareina I can guarantee that reading your post caused me more pain than your cigarette incident. I think you should be banned from posting on the internet to protect my feelings.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate that this post isn't really about the underlying causes of bullying and seeking to exert power over others, but I found myself thinking about Eric Hoffer's book "The True Believer" when reading this. I think the main reason that some people are predisposed towards paternalism is because they have self-esteem problems, and are reassured by having other people act the same way they do.

If it's not uncomfortable for you David, I'd quite like to hear about your arrest as well. I don't think you've mentioned that on your (great) blog before.

Fred Mangels said...

Nice post. Many people do enjoy bullying, but only because most don't see it as bullying. They just see it as democracy.

Democracy is just violence via the ballot box. If most of those people had to physically force someone else to stop smoking or some other behavior they see as offensive, they wouldn't, but they're more than happy doing it from the safety of the ballot box.

Kareina's comment above illustrates my point. She doesn't like the smoke, but she's not even going to say anything, much less physically try to stop the smoker from smoking.

So does going to UCSF as we do on occasion where smoking is banned completely on campus.

As a smoker I'll smoke while walking to the elevator. Nobody ever says a thing to me, although statistically one could assume most of those who might see me smoking would object to it. Yet they stay silent, waiting for their next chance to get to the ballot box to attack my freedoms that they would never have the guts to do one-on- one.

Anonymous said...

@Richard Allan:

Let's consider your analogy. I claim that reasonable people may find it difficult to argue that ANYONE would benefit and/or not be harmed in Kareina's circumstances. Consider any cyclist whose lungs are working to supply oxygen to the muscles and ends up breathing polluted air in that example. The same applies if someone threw a lot of rotting garbage on the bike path or had a poorly maintained truck with blue exhaust (usually burning oil) idling next to it. Such things happen relatively often (it's not a far-fetched hypothetical example) and can be reasonably classified as external costs, not external benefits. Now I am not saying this is sufficient to ban those practices but if it's difficult to assign property rights over adjacent air to the bike paths, it is not unreasonable to consider various options like command and control, Pigouvian taxation etc to reduce the occurrence of these practices.

Whereas in your example, I don't think we can argue that reasonable people will have the same assessment about kareina's post. You claim a psychic cost from reading it, I claim a psychic benefit from reading it. There is no clear physiological mechanism that we can apply to all readers. Compare to: respiration of oxygen in all humans, esp. in all bikers. Thus, it's harder to justify that comment as a clear external cost on all readers. Secondly, it's easier to frame Kareina's post under the 1st ammendment, while "the right to smoke/pollute the air next to bike paths" on public property doesn't fit so clearly as a right. And if constitution didn't exist, we could surely imagine why societal benefits of free speech on the internet vs. societal benefits of polluting bike paths are very different.

David Friedman said...

A couple of posters asked about my experience being arrested.

It would have been a bit over forty years ago, in New Orleans airport. I had been at a conference at which I was one of the speakers--the same one at which I heard John Holt speak on education, which was interesting. A few of the students accompanied me to the airport to talk while I waited to catch a flight back to Chicago. It was late evening and the airport was nearly empty.

We sat down to talk outside one of the doors. After a while a policeman asked us to move. Where we were sitting we would have been in the way if a significant number of people had been there, but under the circumstances were not.

We moved to somewhere inside, still near the door (I may be reversing inside and outside in my memory). Looked at the policeman, sat down, he didn't seem to be objecting. After a while he came over and asked us to move again.

At that point one of the students asked him for his badge number, obviously with the implication of complaining. He arrested all of us for disturbing the peace. He only had one pair of handcuffs so put them on me, presumably because as the oldest member of the group I could be assumed to be the leader. Marched us through the airport, eventually to a police car where we were driven to the police station, booked for disturbing the peace, put in a cell.

One of the students, who was local, I think called his father, who apparently had sufficient contacts to get us released. I had, of course, missed my plane, flew home the next morning. A cousin who was a lawyer and lived in Chicago looked into the case and got them to drop the charges.

The interesting part was the attitude of the police we encountered during the process. As best I could tell, the policeman who arrested us accurately told the other police what happened, but the official report claimed (falsely) that we refused to move when told to. The attitude of the policeman driving the car we were in was not hostile, more nearly "if you push us, you should expect to be pushed back."

Unknown said...

DDF said:

"... but the official report claimed (falsely) that we refused to move when told to..."

That is why I can not wait for Google Glasses to hit the shelves. I have been in a similar situation and intend to record all my encounters with these costumed thugs.

Nightrunner said...

I disagree on police bullying. They have a job, they have the rules (a lot of rules which they do not necessarily understand well). They are not super smart but they try to keep the peace the best they can. Of course you can get the bad apple.

William Friedman said...

Nightrunner, the question isn't about getting the bad apple - it's about what happens to the bad apple when he's found. An honest system fires him, possibly charges him with crimes that result in serious punishment. A dishonest system protects him, and he gets away scot free. Based on my father's comments, the system is dishonest. This is, obviously, a problem.

Simon said...

kareina I can guarantee that reading your post caused me more pain than your cigarette incident

Hahaha, that was my reaction, too. I'm still traumatized.

Seriously, Richard Allan has a point, and the point is not that speech and smoke be equivalent. The point is that Kareina's complaint is petty. Externalities range from the substantial and proven to the insignificant and uncertain. Costs at the former end of the range are easier to ascertain and quantify and relatively few; those at latter end are subjective and innumerable. If we set the bar for what counts as damage too low, decisions become more arbitrary and we invite the kind of bullying that David is talking about.

David Friedman said...


As it happens, in a recent post I offered (very weak) evidence for a benefit from second hand smoke.

Unknown said...

Anonymous said...

I think we need to re-jig our way of thinking about government and authority. There's still too much of a hangover from the days of kings (i.e. boss gangsters).

Really, we should be thinking of people in "authority" as being our servants, whose wages are paid by us.

Unknown said...

I'll tell you what causes me pain: inconsiderate cyclists who think that they should be able to cycle where ever they want, including roads that are clearly not safe for cycling, but insist that bike lanes be put there. It causes me pain having to be late for work because of rude cyclists riding on roads that they are in no way capable of keeping up with the speed limit on a bike, causing traffic to back up, wasting my gas, and infringing on my time and wallet by doing so. What really causes me pain is that safety lanes for drivers are being taken out to provide Cyclists lanes, and drivers being demonized for hitting cyclist when in many cases its the cyclists own fault for insisting on riding roads that clearly not safe.