On Having a Backbone
We think of bullies as Kobra Kai thugs in skeleton costumes, or that kid with yellow eyes forcing you to say uncle. When we tell ourselves we’d stand up to injustice, that’s the situation we picture. Of course we’d stand against that, we tell ourselves, it’s easy!
Unfortunately, real life bullies are rarely Johnny from Karate Kid or Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story. In the situations that render us unable to fight back or withstand peer pressure — maybe the most important ones — they are colleagues, acquaintances, possibly friends. People who have earned some degree of respect or deference from you. People who will persuade you in such subtle, seemingly friendly or positive ways that you won’t really know they’re trying to get you to do something you don’t want to do. Maybe you’ll feel nothing beyond a small, nagging discomfort. Maybe it’ll grow, but you’ll still ignore it, or forget it over a little bread and a circus or two.
Dave Eggers’s “The Circle” talks about it more eloquently than I can. Not everyone liked the book, but one thing it did spectacularly well was portray a young, innocent girl as she’s slowly and very softly bullied by her friends and coworkers into doing things she doesn’t want to do until she practically becomes the Darth Vader of a dystopia, and helps eradicate privacy entirely. Beyond a “growing feeling of darkness” that comes over her at times for reasons she can’t explain, she has no idea she’s doing anything remotely wrong.