I Don’t Like Bullies; I Don’t Care Where They Come From.

We all know about the types of dreams that are pretty much common to mankind. The Naked-In-Public Dream. The Alligators-Circling-The-House Dream. The Back-In-College-With-Finals-Looming Dream. The Something-Is-Chasing-You-But-You-Can’t-Run-Away Dream. Actually I’ve never had that last one, though it seems to be the most common of all. But one dream I do often have that hasn’t made the list is the Bully-Confrontation Dream.

I had one of these last night. I was in a department store with my youngest daughter and a big group of her friends. One boy started physically dragging Emilie to a different part of the store, ignoring her protests that she wanted to stop and try on some cute pajama pants and T-shirts. I made him let go of her, then shoulder-bumped him and generally talked him down until he went away. So far, so good.

But that was only the beginning.

Emilie chose some stuff to try on, but she was hesitant to use a fitting room because there was some sort of complicated procedure involved (as usual, the dream left the details vague) and she was worried about whether she’d be able to return the garments to their proper places after trying them on. I told her to just go for it and leave the things she didn’t want at the rack that’s usually provided for this purpose. Then an aggressive woman completely unknown to me butted in and started telling me about the proper use of the fitting room. Her manner was repellant, her facial expression was borderline psycho, and I didn’t care for her interference, so I told her to buzz off. In response she grew even more aggressive and started invading my personal space. So I grabbed her finger, bent it backwards, put her in a wrist-lock, and calmly walked her away from my daughter.

Turned out the woman wasn’t some random busybody but an actual store employee. She soon returned with another employee even taller and more physically imposing than herself. Both women had strong facial features and big hair and were dressed alike in disturbing yellow-and-white polka-dot outfits. Both were maniacally insistent about the complicated fitting room procedure. It was all very annoying and intrusive. All I wanted was for my daughter to be able to go in, try on some clothes, and walk out again.

Then the women told me about the cameras in the fitting rooms. The idea was that once a store patron got her outfit on, she would pose for a picture, which would presumably end up on the store website. My daughter was expected to comply with this procedure.

I was so stunned by the idea of a high-resolution webcam in a fitting room that it took me a moment of horrified silence to amp up my indignation to the next level. During this interval I woke, charged with adrenaline and about ready to punch someone, and realized it was all a dream. I had a good laugh at myself.

My bullying dreams follow a certain pattern. Someone makes an unreasonable demand or imposition, and I confront him head-on with superior reasoning and/or physical force. The overall feel of the dream is positive. I’m confident that I will succeed and I do. I am heightened and alert but calm, never fearful.

I think the reason these dreams are so common for me is that in recent years I’ve become preoccupied with the whole concept of intimidation, by which I mean that process by which people try to get their way with you when they really have no true power over you, whether of authority or superior physical force or even moral rectitude. But they act as if they do. Maybe he’s physically bigger; maybe he has a well-honed sarcastic tongue or an insolent gaze. Maybe she’s a pseudo-intellectual with a knack for tossing out big words and specious arguments, and people are afraid to challenge her because they don’t want to look stupid. I’ve even met spiritual bullies who couch their own opinions in Bible quotes and religious slogans, putting anyone who disagrees with them in the position defying God himself. It’s all a big bluff on the order of the emperor’s new clothes. And most of the time it works.

Bullies of all sorts are used to coercing others without ever having to make good on their implied threats. When you refuse to give in, when you look them levelly in the eye and cordially invite them to bring it, they really don’t know what to do but escalate—loom a little taller, talk a little rougher, bring out some even bigger words. If you again refuse to give in, they will again escalate their intimidation routine. By now things are getting uncomfortable. People are starting to look. And you may feel that by continuing to stand your ground, you are being a jerk. Bullies know this and will use it to their advantage, projecting their own blameworthiness onto you in a sort of “look what you made me do” scenario. But you weren’t the one who brought things to this level, and you’re not in the wrong for refusing to cave.

A few bullies may actually have the wherewithal to deliver a sock to the jaw or a really sound argument or whatever, but I suspect the number of those who do this is far smaller than commonly supposed. People who can deliver don’t generally make a lot of noise about it. I find that intellectual bullies in particular aren’t really all that smart. They’ve learned a few tricks of expression and some Nietzsche quotes, and that’s about it. Dare to poke a finger at their façade and you’ll find it’s about as thick as tissue paper.

“Do you want to kill Nazis?” Dr. Abraham Erskine asks Steve Rogers in CaptainAmerica: The First Avenger.

“I don’t want to kill anybody,” Steve replies. “I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.” Neither do I.

Zero Tolerance. Because Catchy Phrases Are Way More Important Than Stuff Like “Justice.”

Some years back, a man I know—we’ll call him “my husband”—had a run-in with a coworker. It wasn’t a little personality clash; the other party was violating company protocol and trying to get away with it. My husband called him on it and didn’t back down.

An unpleasant scene followed, and after the dust had settled a manager was dispatched to investigate. Greg maintained that he’d been in the right. But management isn’t comfortable with the concepts of “right” and “wrong”—even, bafflingly enough, in regards to defending company protocol. It likes to spread blame around evenly, like so much Nutella on a slice of bread, and hold all parties responsible for keeping the peace. This is called empowerment.

“It takes two hands to clap!” the manager said to my husband. He then perkily clapped his own hands, twice, in my husband’s face.

Yeah, well, it takes only one hand to smack someone upside the head, Mister Manager, and that’s what happened in this particular conflict.

There’s an idea afoot that being involved in any conflict makes you guilty—even if all you did was stand there and get attacked. This is the same jaw-dropping idiocy behind zero-tolerance policies that punish kids for defending themselves at school. It’s also behind the manager-speak spoken to my husband that day. The company had a policy that if an employee assaulted another employee, both would automatically be terminated–and the policy is by no means unique to that particular company. Someone attacked you at work? Well then, you obviously deserved it. Who can argue with that logic?

We can all agree that some conflicts simply aren’t worth pursuing. Sometimes an honest cost-benefits analysis shows it’s better to walk away, to let it go with a smile or even a cold, silent glance. But there are other times when that just won’t work—times when standing down makes you complicit in bigotry, cruelty, larceny, or other serious jerkdom. Maintaining the peace at such a time is tantamount to cowardice.

But decent people find conflict unpleasant. Standing our ground, even when it’s the right thing to do, makes us feel bad. Self-doubt whispers at us, asking whether we could have prevented things from coming to this pass. It’s certainly a possibility worth considering. A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger (Proverbs 15:1). But there are times when a soft answer simply will not suffice. You can reason, you can sympathize, you can cajole, but you can only do so much. Ultimately you cannot climb into the cockpit of another person’s soul.

So how do you tell the difference? There are few hard and fast guidelines, but a functioning conscience backed by moral courage and genuine regard for fellow human beings is quite capable of sorting things out. My concern is that our culture often denies the very possibility of the line in the sand. There’s also a disturbing tendency to urge the more reasonable person in the conflict to be more tolerant. In other contexts, this is called blaming the victim.

“Gentlemen may cry ‘Peace, peace,’” said Patrick Henry, “but there is no peace.” No, not when a hostile force is bringing war to your doorstep.

I’d like to end this on less of a downer, but I’m not sure how, except to say that God cares about justice—and so do most human beings, in spite of the organized efforts of misguided authority to make the whole concept go away. The fight may feel like a lonely one, especially at first, but I’ve observed that once the first brave individual makes his stand, others will often find their courage and follow. So take heart, and remember that justice is worth defending. In a culture where justice is not honored, mercy is emptied of meaning and power.