Tactics of Intelligent Bullies

Intelligence is wonderful. It can challenge us, impress us, seduce us. It comes in all kinds of forms. It is easy to believe that if a person is intelligent that they will excel at everything. But intelligence alone is not enough. By itself it cannot make a compassionate or ethical person. That’s what I want to discuss – Intelligent Bullies. I hope to show you how to recognize when an intelligent person is being a bully and what to do about it.

It is important to remember that many people who are being harmful are not fully aware they’re doing it, or that it is wrong, even highly intelligent people. Sometimes it is because they aren’t emotionally intelligent or don’t have the awareness to realize how their actions are affecting others. Others may actually believe they are the one being attacked and are merely defending themselves. Many intelligent people were outcast and bullied as children and may even continue to be outcast and bullied as adults for being different. It can be incredibly lonely and isolating having a higher level of intelligence than those around you. Just because someone is intelligent in one or more ways doesn’t necessarily mean they have the emotional or interpersonal intelligence to relate to others in healthy ways.

Why am I telling you this? One reason is to give you a glimpse into why an intelligent bully might be acting the way they are. They may have developed their bullying tactics as a defense mechanism against a world that has been very cruel to them. Chances are they aren’t necessarily evil or intentionally being unethical.

However, this does not excuse cruel or nonconsensual behavior. Using intelligence and deliberately confusing, insulting, or gaslighting other people is unethical, and likely even more dangerous than when the average person does it. An intelligent person can hide these tactics really well, and can use gaslighting to convince you or the people around you that you are the one that is being a bully, being unethical, or doing the gaslighting. An intelligent person will be able to rationalize their behavior more quickly, and find more plausible reasons for explaining away their actions. They will also be better at distracting you and pulling you off topic. They may even be so experienced with button-pushing as to be able to goad you into acting or speaking more aggressively or unethically than you normally do, thereby giving more justification for the image they try to paint of you as illogical, hypocritical, or dangerous.

In some ways, Intelligent Bullies aren’t any different from run-of-the-mill bullies. Ultimately, bullying is about devaluing another person and putting oneself in a position of power and control over that person rather than communicating on an equal, person-to-person level. A bully will be more concerned with “winning” an argument rather than reaching an understanding as part of a discussion. A bully will find a way to paint you as a “bad,” “stupid,” “selfish,” or “unreasonable” person rather than addressing concerns with you in a productive and compassionate way.

The intelligent ones can just be trickier to spot and defend against.

I’m not saying I have all the answers. I’m writing this because I believe I’ve encountered a number of these people, and I see the damage they can do to others, themselves, and communities at large. I don’t know many good ways to defend yourself from them other than to stay as far away from them as you can if you see signs of them behaving in these ways. However, sometimes you’re already in too close to escape without fallout by the time you figure it out. The best strategy I’ve come up with so far is just to get out as soon as you can as fast as you realize it, and to stop engaging with them no matter how tempting it might be or how frustrated they manage to make you. Don’t allow them to inspire you to act in ways you’re not proud of. At this point in time, many communities don’t have an infrastructure to recognize and deal with adult-on-adult bullying, especially when one or more parties is highly intelligent. I hope that changes. In the meantime, you may need to be prepared to end up dealing with bullies alone without the aid of the people in charge.

Hopefully at some point in the future, I will be able to create a post to detail better ways of neutralizing bullying and protecting oneself and others when it happens.

The following list is in no particular order. Some of the concepts may overlap a bit. I actually may come back and edit this at a later date and I welcome feedback as far as things I can add or strategies I can share with others to deal with bullies.

-An Intelligent Bully will speak in snarky, sarcastic, or condescending tones intended to make you feel stupid. I do not believe consent culture has reached a point of explicitly dealing with this sort of interpersonal violence being considered a consent violation yet, but I hope that it does someday. Dynamics of emotional consent and emotional violence are going to be even harder to clarify than physical ones, so it may be a while. (Note for this and all other points that some adults may agree to engage in these dynamics as part of a mutually consensual power-exchange relationship. I am not talking about those people here. All of my points are meant specifically to address behavior that is not consented to and that the recipient doesn’t want.) The important thing to remember is that you have a choice in the people you will engage with, always. If someone is speaking to you in a way you don’t like, you have the power to walk away, and I encourage you to do so regularly. Whenever you let someone talk down to you or be intentionally insulting toward you without calling them out on it or stopping the conversation immediately, you are teaching them that they can get away with treating people (specifically you) like that. This bullet point includes cruel or disparaging jokes directed at you, labels you may identify with, or even labels they apply to you without your agreement. It can also include other signals like sighing, rolling their eyes, or making overly dramatic indications that you are trying their patience or that things “should be obvious.” These are devaluing tactics, something I talk about in my post about toxic relationships. If you notice this happening, the best way to deal with it is probably to immediately stop and walk away from a conversation if someone refuses to speak to you respectfully. Tell them you will readdress the conversation after an hour, a day, or a week if and only if they are willing to treat you with compassion and as an equal.

-An Intelligent Bully will rapidly shift the topic of conversation, often reversing concerns about mistreatment back on you without ever addressing your initial concern. For instance, you might say, “I really don’t like when you talk to me like that, can you please use a more respectful tone,” they might respond immediately with, “Why are you trying to control the way I talk? If you can’t take the heat, then maybe you’re not cut out to have discussions about difficult subjects.” Notice that this puts you immediately on the defensive, and does not try to relate to you about your concern. Bullies are not interested in relating to you as a fellow person. They are invested in doing whatever they want with no consequences. Learning a little bit about argumentative fallacies can help you here, but this often happens too quickly to pick up on in the heat of a conversation. Straw men, red herrings, missing the point, and moving the goalposts are all really common tactics and pretty hard to call out in the moment. They keep you constantly on the defensive, and will quickly move away from anything that challenges their superiority or “rightness.” If you notice this happening, the best way to deal with it might be to reiterate your initial point, and then refuse to discuss anything else until they explicitly address your point. If they seem unwilling to do this, or start trying to paint you as stubborn or irrational, leave the conversation. This may be very challenging to do in the moment, but it is generally never too late to walk away.

-Similarly to the point above, an intelligent bully can be well-versed in consent culture language, dynamics of abuse, and politics of oppression. They may very well use their marginalized identities against you and create situations where nothing you say is “right” or “valid” because you are in a position of privilege. BE CAREFUL HERE. Don’t get caught in the trap of defending your own privilege. Instead, make sure to acknowledge your privilege and understand the increased challenges that people in marginalized positions have. Make sure you are not leveraging your privilege and that you are legitimately allowing the other person time to speak and express concerns. However, your privilege doesn’t take away any of your fundamental rights as a human being. If someone is being disrespectful to you, shouting you down and not allowing you to talk, or talking down to you like you are stupid, this is not a healthy situation. It may very well come out of their own pain, trauma, and lack of resources, but it does not mean that you need to allow them to take their frustration, pain, and rage out on you. Please remember that most people with marginalized identities will not use those identities as a power play. The most common way that I have seen this, however, has very little to do with marginalized identities and a lot more to do with the language of consent and abuse. Intelligent Bullies will be adept at treating boundaries you set as attempts to control them, and will subsequently make you feel as if you are the one violating them by daring to ask them to stop. Intelligent Bullies will make you doubt your own perception and intelligence, and when you call this out as the gaslighting that it is, they will tell you that isn’t what they meant, it’s not their fault you’re too stupid to understand, and now you’re the one gaslighting them by projecting intent they didn’t mean into their behavior. This is an EXTREMELY delicate point. Be mindful of the boundaries the person you are talking with sets, even if you think they are only doing so out of spite or to make you look like the bad guy. The fact that they may be unreasonable with their boundaries (intentionally or not) it is not an excuse to violate their boundaries. Walk away. Admit that perhaps the two of you are incapable of having a productive or ethical discussion with one another. You don’t owe anyone conversation. Make sure to talk with other victims of abuse or marginalized people to check your privilege and behavior following the conversation (if they are willing to engage you) to figure out if you were contributing to oppression or doing some bullying yourself. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be careful when dealing with suspected bullying based on marginalized identities. It will likely be up to others with similar identities (read: not you) to call them out. The best you can do is walk away.

-On the opposite end of the spectrum, an intelligent bully is likely very aware of your own socialization and oppression, and can use their privilege or power over you in social settings much more fluidly and invisibly than their less intelligent counterparts. They may go out of their way to be incredibly respectful and clear-speaking to people in power around you or your friends, and only use aggressive, confusing, or devaluing techniques when the two of you are alone. They may pull other people into the conversation to gang up on you if they know your philosophy, identity, or concerns aren’t things that your local community knows how to deal with or is actively uncomfortable with, and use this situation to leverage respectability politics against you. In other words, they may frame you as being disrespectful or troublesome because something you believe is not consistent with the predominant view of your social group or community. Bullies that know how to do this are very dangerous, because they often know how to craft a strong position and be a well-respected person in a given social group. This makes it infinitely harder to call them out on unethical behavior, especially since other people have only seen them at their best. Unfortunately, at this point, I don’t know any way of dealing with this technique other than to cut and run away from the social group entirely. If a bully is able to triangulate successfully, and is intelligent enough to manipulate social dynamics to do it, there are very few people at all, or even leaders, who have any idea how to spot this or protect people against it. If you are willing to take the risk of being outspoken about your experiences with the bully, you may eventually act as a beacon to others who have had similar experiences, but that is a risk you will have to decide whether to take on your own.

-One way that Intelligent Bullies confuse their targets is by intentionally using jargon, extremely high-level vocabulary, specialized language without defining or setting the context, or using inside jokes that require a lot of context to understand. Now, as someone who has occasionally been teased for “using big words,” this isn’t always a bullying tactic. Sometimes intelligent people get passionate and don’t realize they’re going over someone’s head. The important thing to pay attention to is not that they use hefty vocabulary, but how they behave when you ask them to clarify. An intelligent person who is invested in communicating with you should be able to simplify, define, and clearly explain what they’re talking about. They may have to drop some breadth, depth, or nuance to do so, but they shouldn’t act as if it is shocking and unacceptable that you don’t already understand, or start treating you as if you are too stupid to get it. As I said above, disrespectful tones or trying to make you feel stupid should not enter the exchange. A good defense I’ve developed for this is to very clearly ask someone to “explain it to me like I’m five years old.” If they seem unable or unwilling to do it, this is probably a conversation you want to discontinue.

-A similar tactic to the vocabulary one above is that some Intelligent Bullies will type up mountains of text or craft long-winded and artistic-sounding responses that ultimately don’t have a lot of quality content in them. It might sound or look pretty, but it is either vague and confusing to follow, or it doesn’t arrive at a point. Give a real effort to understand what they’ve said or written, but don’t be afraid to ask them to give you their summary, “bottom line,” or to explain to you what the goal or point of the communication was. They should be able to do this. You may also be able to say things like, “I didn’t quite follow what you meant by ‘quote quote quote,’ would you be willing to try saying it in a different way?” If they seem unable or unwilling to do so, it may be a sign that they either don’t understand themselves exactly the point they were trying to make and have trouble articulating it, or they are deliberately trying to confuse you. I highly recommend avoiding people who find themselves completely unable to explain themselves clearly and in plain language. These habits can serve as an intimidation technique as well as being used to confuse others, and helps to keep Intelligent Bullies safe from being called out by most people.

-An Intelligent Bully is not interested in cooperative communication. This means that no matter how many times you try to correct for your wrongdoings, they may refuse to acknowledge, address, or repair for any of the harm they have done. They will be unwilling to work toward a mutually beneficial repair, and will keep all of the negative attention on you while making it all about their needs and their desires. If you admit to doing something incorrectly, they may cling to that and use it as a weapon going forward, or they may find something else to berate you about. They will not acknowledge the strength it took you to apologize, nor will they likely take any notice of or comment on anything positive you’ve done in the conversation. Even if you concede to absolutely all of their points, they may take this as an opportunity to gloat, make fun of you for being “stupid,” or proceed to completely ignore you instead of thanking you for acknowledging their points. This is again another situation where the only real solution I have is to walk away. If you point out that they are not contributing anything cooperative or positive to the conversation, or admitting any of their own wrongdoing, they will point out that they don’t owe that to you and then reframe the focus again on what you’ve done wrong and how you’re the one attacking them. Intelligent Bullies are “bad winners” and are unlikely to leave you a graceful retreat even if you admit to wrongdoing.

-An intelligent bully may apply a label to you that you don’t identify with, and they may use disparaging stereotypes of those labels or labels you actually identify with to devalue you. Overgeneralizing is an unethical tactic, and an intelligent bully may use it to reduce your identity and position to a straw man in their head or for the people around you, which they then make fun of or tear down and refuse to acknowledge any of the nuance in your position. You may be able to combat this by repeating something akin to, “That’s not what I believe,” over and over again. My experience, however, is that even if they concede that you don’t believe that, they may argue that most [people of X label] believe that or “real”[people of X label] believe that, and will likely continue to use the straw man stereotyping in future conversations, even if they stop for the one you’re currently in. Again, the best strategy upon recognizing this pattern is just to disengage and avoid, although you may have some success if you can manage to get them to agree to not use certain buzzwords or labels.

-An Intelligent Bully may get a rush out of causing frustration and anger, and may intentionally push others’ buttons just for the thrill of it. One of the ways you may be familiar with this behavior is through the idea of a “troll.” Bullies of this kind often announce themselves, and are proud of this as a sport. This is not ethical behavior. If a bully is doing something to you that pushes your buttons or triggers you even after being asked to stop, then refuse to converse with them after that point. Once they figure out a way to push your buttons, it is incredibly easy for them to re-trigger you and incredibly difficult for you to get out of the emotional rut caused by this interaction. This is, in my mind, the worst kind of bully (intelligent or otherwise), because they are literally getting pleasure out of the (nonconsensual) misery that they cause for others. There may still be insecurities and defense mechanisms running under their motivation to do this, but instead of their harmful behavior serving only a defensive purpose for themselves (and causing harm to follow), they also take pleasure in hurting others. Run like hell, block them, do everything possible to not engage with this person again. My experience of people with this tendency is that they usually eventually do it to everyone around them, and they are generally human wrecking balls of drama, but they get to seem cool as a clam while everyone around them is triggered and furious. People who hurt others, against their consent, simply for their own pleasure or amusement are the worst kind of toxic person. People are not toys. Don’t let anyone treat you like a toy. They may defend their behavior by telling you that you need to “get a sense of humor,” “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight,” or “need to stop being so sensitive.” None of these things are valid excuses or justifications for treating you in ways you have asked them to stop doing. This is a consent violation. Full stop. It may mean you need to avoid engaging with them, even if you see them doing it to other people that you would wish to defend. That sucks. It really sucks. However, you need to make sure to take care of your own mental health before doing battle with bullies. If a bully is picking on someone you care about, it can take a great deal of self-control not to get sucked in yourself. Obviously, standing up and calling things out is a good way to stop bullying, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of your own mental health or safety.

-Just like with any other type of bully, an intelligent bully is also likely to make threats. Within alternative communities, these can take the form of threatening to reveal someone’s identity or “out” someone against their will. They can also take the form of threatening to spread rumors (true or not) with the intention of turning your friends, partners, or community leaders against you. I don’t have too much to add on top of this general idea that threats are bad and indicate that you are dealing with a bully. Intelligent Bullies are likely to just be more sophisticated with their threats, and more likely to be able to behave in ways that are harder to prove or trace back to them.

-Intelligent Bullies know how to make it look like your boundaries are unreasonable. They may act in friendly or familiar ways after treating you horribly, and act shocked and dismayed when you are no longer interested in being around them. They are able to appear to “take the moral high ground” of “they’ll come around when they’re ready,” to people who ask about it, but they won’t usually be willing to discuss real repair or acknowledge the harm or hurt they’ve caused. They will expect you to forgive them or to believe that their actions were justified (thus, you have no right to be angry) without them doing any work at all.

-One of the things an Intelligent Bully will often do when you try to set boundaries with them or leave an abusive conversation is to insinuate that you are a coward for not wanting to speak with them. They might indicate that your silence or lack of response means they are “right,” and that if you really had a valid point, you would be willing to keep engaging with them. They will use your boundaries as an excuse to call you a bad communicator or pick on you and make fun of you for “not being able to take the heat.” They will always find a way to have the last word, even if you have asked them to stop politely. They are doing this to keep you engaged, and the only real defense against it is to let them have the last word and not to re-engage. The above-mentioned button pushing will probably be used in these sorts of situations in an attempt to get you to respond to them. It can be incredibly difficult to ignore, so if you want to, you may have to take to the extremes of blocking or completely avoiding this person.

-On the flip side of the previous point, Intelligent Bullies will often also accuse the people they are arguing with of “trying to get the last word” even when they themselves continually rebut. I almost never see someone who is actually in an argument use this phrase who isn’t themselves interested in having the last word. This is a way a bully can shame you into silence, by making you feel as if you are unreasonable to keep discussing with them. And then they very may well use the point before this one to shame you for your silence as well.

Many of these points are difficult to remember and enact. Intelligent Bullies don’t want to make it easy to get away from their sphere of control or to set boundaries with them. Many of the tactics have roots in valid ideas about communication. For instance, it is probably a good idea to avoid someone who always stops a conversation dead in its tracks the minute challenging topics come up for them. However, the consent-based response to that is to simply stop having conversations with that person. The bullying response of teasing them, insulting them, or intentionally pushing their buttons for leaving conversations is not okay. Bullies will use the social stigma against “drama” and cutting people off to make you look like the bad guy when you avoid them or relate your experiences with them to others.

These are not things most people are trained to deal with, including many community leaders. Often, someone who is the target of bullying will get fed up with trying to play fair and start using unethical tactics themselves in a desperate attempt to regain some control. This almost always works to the bully’s advantage. They’ve been doing it longer, they’re better at it, and they know how to spin it to make it look like you’re the one guilty of treating them horribly and that they are just an innocent victim. Even if you don’t lash out or behave unethically in response to them, they may still manage to spin the situation in their favor in a given social group. I cannot stress enough how important it is not to stoop to a bullying level yourself.

It’s entirely possible I’ve used some of these tactics myself when I felt threatened. As a matter of fact, I know I have started engaging in some of these behaviors when I’m confronted with another bully, because it is very tempting to fight fire with fire. Maybe many of you have as well. My intention with this post is not to demonize people, but to recognize unethical behaviors and find ways to start eradicating them from our personal spheres. Sometimes that is really difficult. Managing to stay engaged ethically while being mindful of one’s own mental and emotional health is not an easy task. It is very tempting to punish those who have harmed us, even in small ways. It is my belief that this just perpetuates the cycle of harm, though. I’m not perfect at this yet. I still sometimes get triggered and behave in ways that I’m not proud of. I’ve done it to my friends. It is important to hold ourselves and one another accountable, and to be willing to see where we might be doing harm. It is good to be able to distinguish between someone who is a bully and someone who is slipping up. Someone who is slipping up is able to correct and repair for what they’ve done wrong. Someone who is a bully will not have any interest in this.