Politics / January 17, 2024

We Live in a Golden Age of Crybullyism

Those in power, promoting austerity and war, no longer want us to fear them. They demand something much more sinister: that we feel sorry for them.

Adam Johnson

Bill Ackman, chief executive officer of Pershing Square Capital Management LP, listens during a Bloomberg Television interview in New York City, on Wednesday, November 1, 2017.

(Christopher Goodney / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Billionaire Bill Ackman’s multiday social-media meltdown over revelations in Business Insider that his wife, MIT professor Neri Oxman, was a serial plagiarist would not in and of itself be of much note. But the episode illustrates one of the crisis industry’s increasingly grating tactics—that of ruling-class crybullyism. Ackman had spent the better part of two months trying to get multiple university presidents fired as part of a crusade against both so-called “woke” academia and pro-Palestinian voices. Behind the scenes and on social media, Ackman was a central mover in the successful effort to push out Harvard President Claudine Gay under the auspices of plagiarism. So, when reporters did what reporters ought to do—hold a powerful man to his own standards—Ackman resorted to crybullyism; he became verbosely indignant, tweeting thousands of aggrieved words and distracting people from his own, initial, campaigns of intimidation.

Ackman defended his wife’s clear-as-day plagiarism, saying she was a “private person” and an “introvert,” and therefore not fair game for media scrutiny. (Oxman is famous enough to have been the subject of several media puff pieces in recent years.) He then made veiled reference to Business Insider’s reporting potentially driving her to suicide. “I have tragically seen too many suffer and even commit suicide in similar circumstances to the one Neri has experienced. These media tactics have to stop as they can destroy people or worse, well before they have a chance to defend themselves.”

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After spending weeks trying to get several people fired over manufactured controversies and throwing his billions around to discredit powerless campus activists, Ackman says his wife is now the target of a media plot to “destroy her reputation” and drive her to suicide.

Ackman’s naked cynicism should rankle even the most jaded media observer.

The term “crybully” dates back at least a decade and has been used by both the right and the left to criticize a tactic of interpersonal or political manipulation. The concept describes someone who engages in abuse, intimidation, or foul play, and then when that person gets pushback, they immediately recoil into a feigned fetal position of a victim. What’s new is how popular this tactic has become for high-level politicians, billionaires, and corporations. Increasingly, when under pressure from voters, reporters, workers, or activists, those with power look up at us with doe eyes and, as Ackman did, tweet about their hurt feelings.

Our ruling-class crybullies cynically wield the language of therapy to evade responsibility and to reframe the oppressor as the oppressed. They try to show themselves as sensitive souls just trying to make their way through this difficult world. The language of anti-bullyism is even being incorporated by the union-busting corporations, with the worst offender being Starbucks.

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National Labor Relations Board rulings have found that the coffee giant has routinely engaged in worker intimidation, discriminatory rules, and unlawful discipline and termination of union organizers to undermine unionization efforts. Over an eight-month period in 2023, Starbucks lost 16 of 17 NLRB cases. Yet Starbucks has sought to frame union organizers as the “bullies.” According to one April 2022 filing, Starbucks claimed that organizers exhibited behavior that “was reasonably expected to physically intimidate and bully partners and customers in retaliation for their withholding support of Workers United.” That same month, May Jensen, Starbucks’s vice president of labor relations, accused union organizers of “bullying and intimidating.”

Six months later, May would sob to Starbucks employees after an internal company poll found that workers loathed her and her executive friends. “I actually find it heartbreaking that our mission and values are being questioned in the space of labor relations,” she told employees at the meeting. “I really, really want to instill in everyone that we have not lost our way—it’s just really hard right now.”

May, you’re a well-paid vice president working for a $100 billion corporation. Why are you turning a labor-relations issue into a therapy session? It’s manipulative, dishonest, and—perhaps worst of all—painfully undignified.

America’s elites used to loom over large maps, chew on cigars, and plot the deaths and suffering of countless millions to further the cause of General Motors and United Fruit Company. But at least they never wanted to be our friends. These days, electeds and CEOs alike mope, complain, and cry as they play the victim.

Cops and white vigilantes now routinely cry on the stand while testifying about why they killed their unarmed victims. In 2022, when Buzzfeed News unmasked the identities of the founders of the NFT scheme Bored Ape Club, who had recently raked in tens of millions, the CEO, Nicole Muniz gave a softball interview drowning in the language of victimhood and harm. “Releasing their identities,” she told D3 Network’s Laurie Segall, “was very, very dangerous for them and their families.” The interview, filled with baseless fears the Bored Ape team may be killed or kidnapped, was a bizarre sobfest for a bunch of rich party guys who were slightly inconvenienced by the reporting of objectively newsworthy information. Needless to say, two years later, we can safely report the Bored Ape founders have not been murdered or kidnapped.

From Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan to Bill Gates, powerful people have always wanted to be relatable populists who project a salt-of-the-earth image, but emotionally neediness for effect is a fairly new phenomenon. Obama, to his credit, rarely indulged in this whiny posture. Biden has occasionally, but it never seems to stem from him. To the extent that his campaign or administration has responded with feigned vulnerability, it almost certainly comes from his younger media handlers. Trump has avoided this tactic for the simple reason that you need to plausibly have a soul for it to work and Trump clearly doesn’t. This isn’t to say Trump doesn’t claim he’s the victim, but it’s more of an angry white male reflective grievance variety than the precious, Instagram-therapy kind. Obama and Biden’s rejection of crybullyism is certainly not a moral position, but an aesthetic one. They likely saw it as beneath their dignity.

But such constraints do not limit the most recent crop of up-and-coming electeds and their social-media-savvy aides. Nonviolent protests over Israel’s wholesale destruction of Gaza have led several electeds to play the role of put-upon victim. Labor MPs in the UK supporting the carnage repeatedly insist that protests outside their offices make them “fear for their safety.”

After protesters splattered red paint on the office of Jo Stevens—the shadow Welsh secretary and a major voice in support of Israel’s unprecedented war on Gaza––as a demonstration that she had “blood on her hands,” she told reporters these protests were “frightening” and “designed to cause fear and harassment.”

This tactic is just as popular stateside. Pro-Israel Representative Pat Ryan, a Democrat from New York, groused about him and his staff “fearing for their safety” when pro-cease-fire protesters blocked the entrance to an office in early January. Video evidence debunked any claims that it was a dangerous situation—but, hey, what matters is how one of the most powerful people in our society “feels.”

Angry and powerless activists—many Palestinian, watching their loved ones die en masse—crying out to those in charge to stop the killing are presented as gratuitously mean to their delicate elected officials. Actual violence against elected officials, of course, would qualify as crossing a unacceptable line, but politicians are recasting the traditional nonviolent tactics of shutting down buildings, protest graffiti, and sit-ins as forms of “violence” and “harassment”—as if they’re more pernicious than the 2,000-pound bombs these electeds support shipping off to Israel so it can demolish city blocks and refugee camps.

Back in 2021 when he was running for mayor, Andrew Yang was heavily criticized for a one-sided statement on Israel’s bombing of Gaza. In response, he released a 500-word vapid non-statement drowning in touchy-feely platitudes. After having supposedly “spoken with his staff,” Yang said, “they felt it failed to acknowledge the pain and suffering on both sides.… I mourn for every Palestinian life taken before its time as I do for every Israeli.” But the criticism wasn’t only that Yang “failed to acknowledge pain and suffering” of Palestinians, it’s also that he took an actual position supporting Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza. It was a criticism of both tone and substance, but Yang, predictably, ignored substance in favor of simply looking like he felt sad.

With this tactic, what matters is appearing like one cares—not the substance of one’s policy preferences. The US State Department has turned public concern into a cruel artform. The Biden White House and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have supposedly “expressed concerns” to Israel about high civilian deaths in Gaza on October 11, October 15, October 29, October 31, November 3, November 10, November 29, December 2, December 6, December 11, December 14, December 18, December 23, and January 6. Yet the rate of killing has never gone down. In this performative empathy framework, changing bad things isn’t important—witnessing them and feeling bad about them is. So long as the feeling is registered, we don’t have to end the mass killing in Gaza.

But when powerful people are harming others, it doesn’t matter if they’re sad, upset, or worried. It doesn’t matter if they cry. They have immense control over the lives of millions. My request to the powerful is that if you’re going to push war, bust unions, and demand that you remain unchallenged forever, the least you could do is not to use those of us subject to your whims and violence as your therapeutic sounding board.

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Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is a cohost of the podcast Citations Needed, and you can follow his work at The Column.

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