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Bullying as an instrument of government

By Bruce Haigh - posted Wednesday, 24 August 2011

'Is bullying always wrong? Or is it inevitable? Is there a legitimate role for coercion in the world?'

The Oxford pocket dictionary defines bullying as; "Hired ruffian; blusterer; browbeater; schoolboy tyrant and subject to persecution; force by persecution into or out of doing."

The American College Dictionary describes a bully as, "...a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who browbeats smaller or weaker people; a man hired to do violence; to be loudly arrogant and overbearing; a pimp or procurer."


Let's go back to the questions posed. Bullying is always wrong; it seeks to by-pass co-operation and consensus, rational discussion and decision-making. It also seeks to intimidate and deny the intellectual process, basic human rights, including dissent, and the ability to negotiate time and place.

Bullies are, by nature, weak individuals. They lack the strength, intellect, personality and character to bring about the outcome they desire and to assess or reassess the desirability of seeking that outcome. Fear and inflexibility are characteristics of bullying.

Bullying is not inevitable. It is deployed by individuals and groups with power, who fear an unfavourable outcome if one or all of the above, are allowed to come into play. For example, consensual and rational discussion might thwart a desired outcome.

Bullying most often arises when there is an imbalance of power or at least a perception of one. That imbalance can be reversed by acquisition of sufficient influence, perhaps converted into power by the group or individuals previously the subject of bullying.

Coercion might not always amount to bullying. My dictionaries describe it variously as; "constraint into quiet, obedience, forcible compulsion, by law, or authority, government by force."

There is no act of bullying which, of itself, has the prospect of endorsement by anyone but the bully. However, coercion might be employed against a person apprehended for a crime, suspected or caught trying to escape custody. It might be employed by a State seeking to bring about change in another. For example, sanctions against South Africa to end Apartheid.


If some amongst the rich and successful bully, and I am sure there are bullies in that category, they will not remain rich and successful.

Intimidation might be a precursor to an act of bullying or it might be undertaken to remove or reduce a threat, particularly on the part of nation states. However, any act of intimidation is threatening, designed to bring about a favourable outcome, even if that is to reduce a perceived or possible threat.

Intimidation converted into an act to bring about an outcome not otherwise likely to be agreed to, would amount to an act of bullying and unlikely therefore to have been implemented without intent.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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