This type of bullying first becomes a serious issue when young people emerge from the relatively sheltered environment of elementary school into a much larger world rife with insecurities about social status. Middle-schoolers need badly to feel that they belong, that they have value and respect within this new social hierarchy. In order to establish their own power and importance, bullies identify and then harass their victims (the losers), thereby elevating themselves as social winners. Through physical and psychological persecution, the bully off-loads her own shame and fear of not belonging. In the process, she deprives her target of social membership, making the victim feel that she has no standing within their world.
Hazing employs similar tactics but presents them as the price of admission into a winners club. Fraternity and sorority pledges, rookies in the armed services, and new recruits in professional sports must often undergo shaming or humiliating rituals, but submission gains them entry into an elite world. They also earn the right to shame and humiliate those who will follow. Those who defend hazing as a rite of passage insist it toughens character and builds camaraderie; critics argue that it promotes mistrust between current and new members who may feel angry or resentful about being hazed.
The recent suspension of Richie Incognito from the Miami Dolphins highlights the complicated relationship between hazing and bullying. Locker-room hazing is an NFL tradition; but among other abuses, Incognito allegedly called Martin a “half-n**ger,” proposed defecating into his mouth, and threatened to track down and harm his family members. On Sunday, Incognito defended himself, arguing that his relationship with Martin had been misconstrued, but it’s hard to see how such treatment would make Martin feel that he belonged. His abrupt departure from the team on October 26 suggests just the opposite.
Incognito has a long-history of disturbing and aggressive behavior dating back to his college years at Nebraska, where he was suspended from the Cornhuskers for recurrent violations of team rules. As an NFL player, he has repeatedly been flagged for unsportsmanlike behavior and was voted the dirtiest player in the league. Only last week, not long after the Martin story broke, he was charged with molesting a female volunteer at a charity golf tournament.
Incognito was bullied himself as a child. The mother of one of the Florida girl's alleged bullies was arrested and charged with child abuse not long after her story broke. Lance Armstrong was abandoned by his biological father and regularly “paddled” as punishment by his stepfather. Bullies, like narcissists, don’t emerge from happy childhoods, secure in their parents’ love and imbued with a sense of their own worth. As they grow, they find ways to compensate: they shed fear, shame, and self-doubts, forcing them onto the losers they persecute.
In other words, we can best understand what unconsciously drives bullies by understanding the ways they make their victims feel. For the bully, the victim is what he fears that he himself might be: a loser.