State Bullying and False Sense of Security

Think of bullying and what comes to your mind – a bigger, meaner person towering over and waving a fist in the face of a smaller, apparently harmless figure. That is what the traditional concept of a bully is – an individual thwarting other individuals. But there is – and has always been – more to the nature of bullying: we have collective bullying that operates on a scale much wider than usually acknowledged.

By definition, bullying is the use of force or threat to persecute some, usually a weaker person, and often to make them do something. Following this lexical meaning, if we think of states and governments, they pretty much fit in the defining frame of a bully. Kingdoms and monarchies – and many countries still remain so in name and effect. They have been known for centuries to intimidate their citizens into respecting and following policies and decisions that the masses otherwise would either ignore or actively refuse to accept.

Protection Poster: False Sense of Security.
Protection Poster

Interestingly, dictionaries unanimously define the noun “bully” as an individual: “a person who hurts, persecutes, or intimidates weaker people; a hired ruffian; a procurer; pimp,” and so on. Collective bullying is ignored in lexical definitions so that the meaning would include a “person or a group.”

What is obvious though about the issue of bullying is the implications for one’s sense of security. When a teenager or a bigger, meaner child threatens a weaker teen or kid, the victim’s sense of security is challenged. He/she feels vulnerable and tends to comply with the bully’s orders so as to prevent harm, physical or otherwise, to him/herself.

This feeling of losing security is, in broad terms, the foundation for state and state laws. Would a state, or its law, exist if it loses control over people because of lack of sufficient force or means of intimidation to make its subjects follow its rules and policies? If such a state exists, it’s referred to as a “failed state” – and in today’s world, there are examples like Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, and others where the major problem is keeping peace. States fail if they can’t bully hostile forces into submission.

But does having a sense of security thwart the intentions of a bully? States, generally speaking, promise us security, creating that sense of security. So how could the state then qualify as a bully? The answer lies in the distinction between true and false sense of security. To be truly secure, an individual or group of people need to be able to defend themselves and confidently reject the bully’s orders because they know they can beat the bully on their own. On the contrary, a false sense of security lies in relying on others for protection.

This point is illustrated cogently in the short film Protection (2015) by Joe Costa. The film shows the invasion of a software developer’s life by a group offering protection against a threat created by the same group. Unable to fight the group on his own, the man has to pay the group to keep himself safe. But soon he find out that the sense of security is false and he is constantly being bullied into more and more by those selling him his protection. Ultimately, he ends up doing to himself what many victims of bullying do – suicide.

Coercion or threat is usually beatable by two means: counter-coercion and escape. To counter the coercion, one needs to be able to exhibit at least a proportionate, usually bigger force or threat that can thwart the bully’s own; or else, one can run away and get out of the range of the bully’s force. In either case, one has to be aware of the threat’s presence, and in case of state or collective bullying, the awareness includes distinction between true and false sense of security.