Beware the intellectual bullies – all around us

THE EDITOR: I don’t know Dr Rufaro Celestine but it must have taken some courage and grit to expose a situation that, as a medical chief of staff of a hospital, she was concerned about.

To fire her, as I read in the newspapers, because she “created panic” raises questions about the kinds of institutions that we uphold and the alleged cover-up of inefficiencies, mismanagement and corrupt practices that continue to persist because we don’t expose them.

What’s the story here that has not been revealed? Who is the real victim in this scenario and who is the bully in the room?

When we think of a bully we usually associate the term with children, perhaps on the playground, teasing and mocking another who is weaker and who has some disability or insecurity; others laughing or looking on as the taunts are made, not wishing to be the target of the bully’s jibes or opposing them as they too could easily become the subject of mental and emotional abuse.

There is, however, a more insidious and manipulative kind of bullying that is lesser known – intellectual bullying, which is the emotional and psychological harassment of others by people who are knowledgeable in a certain intellectual field and usually may have a high IQ.

According to author and psychologist Leon Seltzer (2017), “these persons carry a sense of entitlement and are dismissive, mean, and disrespectful to others. Their insecurities and fragile egos are usually masked in large words, loud behaviours and aloof, arrogant sentences and their offense consists of a belief that they are smarter than others, especially those persons whom they see as the competition. They enjoy making others feel inferior.”

What is interesting, the writer notes, is that many of these intellectual bullies lack empathy and have come to rely on their cerebral gifts to feel better than others. They do not view their condescension as intentional and therefore the behaviours are relegated to interpersonal insensitivity and social obtuseness.

Over time, this type of bullying becomes firmly rooted in the very tissue of their personality and is seldom likely to change even with well-meaning interventions.

How many of us know people like these intellectual bullies, whose intention is to always point out the errors and shortcomings of another without ever looking in the mirror at their own failings and insecurities? How many of these people have affected how you cope and even made you feel lesser than them? What have you done about it?

Over the last weeks I have noted the highlights of many important people, men and women, who made sterling contributions to our society. This is evidenced by the tributes and accolades paid to them.

The stories that are hardly ever told are about those people who have been on the receiving end of their sarcastic jibes and ill-intentioned remarks who continue to be affected by barbs spoken long ago – affected people who will never have the courage or the grit to speak up and out about issues and who continue a culture where people who speak up are sidelined, further berated and not supported by colleagues and/or friends.

In my opinion, if you don’t speak up about injustice and unfair play, you become an accomplice to it.

For your own mental health and peace of mind, the following are suggestions of what you can do when confronted by an intellectual bully in the workplace, in your family or in social situations:

* Ignore inappropriate behaviour. They hate to be ignored. After all, are they not important people?

* Do not respond defensively, even if you are offended. Walk away and respond when you have cooled down.

* Take action. Document the bullying and save a record of the comments. Take these to the proper legal authorities if you have to.

* Involve other people. Insist that people confirm what they have witnessed. Note however that many people prefer not to be involved, even if they are your friends.

As a society, our motto of tolerance must not extend to people who are mean and disrespectful to us or to those whom we know. An intellectual bully is a bully. Just another bully.


clinical and educational psychologist


"Beware the intellectual bullies – all around us"

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