The Seduction of Demagoguery (Bullies)


Vaclav Havel, the former poet president of Czechoslovakia, said that politics is the art of the impossible. In the current climate of hate, fear and violence dominating this electoral year, and leadership rhetoric throughout the world, we can say that politics is becoming the art of the demagogue.  This is the leader that declares the road to safety, power and wealth through bigotry is a justifiably moral position.  There has been considerable focus on the demagoguery of the current Republican nominee in this regard, yet there has been little reflection on what moves people to follow him.  The way we live in our bodies, or not, may be a clue.

I know a little bit about bullies.  Our family moved every year, once it was twice a year, which made me the perennial new student. This came with a wide range of responses, from a warm welcome, to dismissive silence, to suspicion and mistrust, to catcalls and shoves.  I could walk away from name-calling, but if pushed I would push back which turned into a tussle of some sort or another.  Bruises, cut lips, or torn clothes meant a trip to the Principal’s office, which had my mother tight-lipped with the thought that she had raised a bully.  Mostly, I was afraid but if a punch were thrown I ‘d throw back.  I don’t say this with pride or touting a skill, but it was a response that was paradoxically taught and justified by the men in my life.  My Father and uncles were peeved at me for getting into trouble at school, cautioning me to stay out of fights; at the same time they demonstrated a subtle, chest lifting pride that I had fought back, and that maybe I had even bloodied a nose. This became a kind of lab, or maybe a rough road is a more apt metaphor, to study aggression, bullies, and their followers.

A reliably reoccurring theme that was both magnetizing and tranquilizing for the bullies’ followers was the narrative of the Other.  A manly voice with unquestionable certainty, confident, without question declaring that the enemy is here and victory is near.  I was the Other; therefore the enemy.  I was either too smart, too dumb, too little, too big, too ugly, too pretty, too big for myself, too something or another that made me different, therefore a threat, and the bully was the masculine embodiment of certainty. Bully was certain he could bend the world to his will; he would vanquish the Other.  

Certainty is ground zero of bullies.  This is the hook that reeled in the bully’s followers; and he always had a posse, a small knot of boys who nodded affirmatively at everything he said and relentlessly encouraged him towards more and more aggression.  Why certainty?  Who stands in front of the mirror in the morning and says, “What a great day to be uncertain.  I so look forward to the helplessness and vulnerability of being in doubt.”  We crave certainty, knowing what’s next, believing in the plan, sure that our road leads to dignity and safety.  The shadow of this is well expressed by Mike Tyson’s well-earned aphorism, “Everyone has a plan until they’re hit.”  

Certainty cuts out the gray zone.  It produces clarity and a well lit path.  Except life is not like that-we live in multiple contradictions, foggy bottoms, pesky flights of mind, the changing social landscape.  “I’m afraid, but as a man I’m supposed to be fearless.” “Omar is my best friend but he’s a Moslem and he’s supposed to be my enemy.” “I’m married but I desire other men.”  I would argue that the more somatized we are, that is, the more we live fully in our own skin the more room we have for these contradictions to co-exist; perhaps not always peaceful but less likely to leak out as aggression and violence.  This is a step in dignifying our vulnerability and fear.  By identifying these sensations and emotions in our living tissues we can be accountable for them instead of projecting them out on the Other.

When we’re not somatized we don’t feel, think, perceive act, from our lived experience; we live from symbols, icons, and dogma, concepts that radically limit our holistic life to this or that. In this narrow constraint of imagination certainty becomes the closest refuge from the complex world of contradiction and polarities in which we live. It’s then a short step to identify the Other; the enemy, the stranger, the anomaly, the outsider.  Ahh certainty.

However, in the world that we live we’re constantly encountering an expanding landscape of uncertainty.  A catastrophe halfway across the planet reaches our living rooms in seconds, we’re suddenly let go of our jobs, a loved one unexpectedly has a heart attack, our partner has an affair with the neighbor, a plane falls out of the sky.  I’m suggesting that a somatic education would make room for people to more skillfully hold contradictions and the paradoxes of living rather than follow a bully, any demagogue that promises the good life by eliminating the Other.  Our institutions have failed to teach us how to navigate the unending paradoxes of life.  Somatic practices are one of the medicines that can tame our aggression and thirst for an enemy.

The Woodstock of the bully is trapping the Other with his posse while he taunts and humiliates (the bully is never alone).  This way he gains power and possible new acolytes who are drawn to the flame of certainty (does this sound familiar with our GOP presumptive candidate?).  This happened to me behind one of the temporary classrooms tucked in a corner of the playground and it illustrates another theme of bullyhood-when confronted they will lose steam.  There were non-Bully followers present that day who, along with the posse, trotted out supply-side logic: It’s not up to us to step in because the odds are wrong; we’re simply the spectators in the Coliseum.  It’s not our business and we’re only here to be entertained.  This is the oratory of the “I won’t get involved fable so I won’t be dominated and ridiculed like the Other, but I will stay for the entertainment value.” This standing back is a vote for the bully.

Leroy Bolger was his name and he was in my face and bumping my shoulders with his.  Leroy was beefy, strutting like a pullet and he already had the faint whisper of a mustache.  By this time I had already started taking judo classes and while my insides were quivering I had gained enough presence to be still and maintain the right distance.  At some point he dismissed me as a wuss for not taking him on and he pushed one of his acolytes towards me, instructing him to take care of me.  The crowd was screaming for blood. I could see this boy lacked the confidence that Larry had, but he was on the spot and determined to earn his stripes.  As he moved forward to push me with both hands I pushed them apart, stepped in, grabbed his shirt and threw him in a Yama-Arashi to the ground.  He landed with a flop like an omelet in the pan.  There was a moment of deafening silence as the world swelled and my vision tunneled.  It was the judo throw that we had been practicing daily in the dojo.  I kneeled down and configured my hands into a chokehold with his shirt lapels as I had been taught in class and then released my hold and stood up.  He lay there for a moment stunned, his eyes wide as bicycle tires, shaking his head.  I was stunned too, not really knowing what had happened.  Leroy stepped toward me and I turned towards him with adrenaline surging through me like a wild river and it seemed as if the turning of the entire world swirled solely in that compact knot of boys.  He put up his hand, signaling me to stop.  I stopped.  It was over.  The circle dissolved slowly and I felt hands pound my shoulder.

This is not a story of any great proficiency or courage or a plug for aggression, but that when confronted Bullies are required to re-shape themselves from a boorish obstinacy to a compromised diplomacy.  Somatic practices can awaken us from the seduction of the demagogue who promises certainty through hate and fear; and we can learn how to take a stand for a world that embodies respect, interconnection.  A world in which the Other is not the currency for violence and bigotry.

 After that Leroy would nod to me in the hallways, sometimes even mutter hi, but never blocked my way again.  After our family moved a few times I returned to the same city and was again in Leroy’ class. Leroy and I ultimately developed a relationship of sorts that allowed me to see the person behind the bully and I learned through this connection that all of us can change and transform so it was a sad moment when I heard that he stepped on land mine in Quang Tri Province and disappeared in a fountain of red dust and fire.  His death another form of demagoguery.  

It’s up to us to clean up this mess and set ourselves free from the tribalism of the stranger as enemy.


Richard Strozzi-Heckler

Take it Easy But Take it.

3 thoughts on “The Seduction of Demagoguery (Bullies)”

  1. Beautiful statement: “I’m suggesting that a somatic education would make room for people to more skillfully hold contradictions and the paradoxes of living.” I’m interested in what makes people want this, ready for it…thinking in personal terms that it is only when one realizes the futility and suffering that comes from Sartre’s thinking, “Hell is other people.” Thank you for tying in the frightening prospects of the current campaign, with the devolvement to certainty and “other.”

  2. Thank you for this important reflection Richard. It strikes me that the remarkable capacity to “abstract,” which differentiates us from other animals, is both a gift and a curse. In the industrial age we have wielded this gift in order to compartmentalize the world.

    “Otherizing” is as ancient as tribes, but layering it with a compartmentalizing paradigm that lives in disembodied abstraction, we become able to take “otherizing” to the n’th degree. Our emotional development is stunted in the process. Abstraction gives us a place to hide, even as we are building ever more impressive things. Our technological prowess grows but our souls are diminished. We deny ourselves of the growth that happens here, as bodies in real relationships with one another.

    We become capable of material impact that supersedes our soul’s maturity.

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