How to understand who is really being ‘bullied’ in Kansas Legislature debates

"We cannot allow the business community to bully the women and girls in Kansas," said Rep. Barbara Wasinger, utilizing a psychological tactic known as DARVO. (Dec. 7, 2020, photo by Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

There’s this weird phenomenon in politics where people in power do things that hurt other people and then complain about being “bullied” when the opposition expresses its feelings in the strongest possible terms.

We’ve heard it a lot in Kansas lately, especially during long and ugly debates about legislation using transgender kids as cannon fodder in Republicans’ latest culture war. These are actual children in our state, who, by all reasonable understanding, are at greater risk for bullying than, say, straight white cisgender sports stars. That’s why school districts in the state have worked to prevent discrimination against LGBTQ kids.

In response to this civil rights progress, conservatives co-opted the language, claiming they were the ones being bullied into, say, giving up their religious freedoms. Now, it’s Republicans — who hold a 29-11 majority over Democrats in the Senate and outnumber them 86-39 in the House — who are whimpering about being victims.

When they passed a bill to ban trans kids from playing sports — and subsequently faced the threat of boycotts by entities such as FIFA and the NCAA — Senate President Ty Masterson and Sen. Renee Erickson said the NCAA was “using all-too-familiar bullying tactics.”

“I don’t like being bullied by anybody either. But there’s serious risk if this thing gets passed into law that we will lose the NCAA March Madness tournament in Wichita, Kansas City, other parts of the state,” said Rep. Mark Samsel, a Republican from Wellsville, in floor debate.

“We cannot allow the business community to bully the women and girls in Kansas,” added Rep. Barbara Wasinger, a Republican from Hays.

This is not what “being bullied” means. What Masterson, Erickson, Samsel and Wasinger were describing is “consequences.”

But because nothing makes sense anymore, I asked an expert, A. Abby Knoblauch, who teaches rhetoric in the English department at Kansas State University.

“From a language or rhetorical perspective, there are lot of ways to think about it,” Knoblauch said, and ticked through some options.

It’s “sort of” victim blaming or gaslighting, she said. There’s also a logical fallacy known by the Latin tu quo que, which is basically the “I’m rubber you’re glue fallacy,” though she said this was a “flip” of that. It’s also a reverse kind of projection, she said.

A. Abby Knoblauch is an associate professor who teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in rhetoric and composition in the English department at Kansas State University. (Submitted)

“Rhetorically, there’s a way it functions as a ‘pathetic appeal,’ ” she said, meaning not that the Republican argument is lame and ridiculous (which is what I’d call it), but rather that it’s an appeal based on pathos, or emotion. Which is interesting, because Masterson keeps telling us not to get emotional.

“If you can get people to believe you’re the one being bullied or discriminated against, it can garner sympathy for you,” she explained. “Instead of putting you in that bad guy position, you become that victim.”

But the best description of the rhetoric we’re hearing, she said, is “rhetorical dissociation.”

“Basically, that’s the process of redefining a term,” Knoblauch said. “In this case they’re dissociating the idea of bullying from the definition of ‘misuse of power,’ or ‘abuse of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group,’ and redefining it, with bullying being made to do something you don’t want to do.”

By that definition, she added almost as an aside, “all parenting is bullying.”

Knoblauch said my question made her think of the psychological tactic known by the acronym DARVO: “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender.” For a deeply academic example of this concept, she pointed me to the esteemed rhetorical and philosophical theorists at “South Park”:

Which seemed an entirely appropriate method for deconstructing the discourse of the Kansas Legislature.

“One of the things that’s happening here is an attempt at ‘identification,’ ” she said, citing the influential rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke.

“They’re rallying people who feel similarly,” Knoblauch said. “If you don’t want to feel racist or classist, but you get to see yourself as being bullied, you can feel victimized. It can make you feel you’re in the right and that other people are being unfair to you. Other people can say, ‘Yeah I’m being bullied too!’ ”

Bingo. The politicians who were pushing the anti-trans bill said they were “insulted” when opponents accused them of supporting legislation that could prove deadly to little kids.

“So they get to say, ‘No we’re being bullied for our beliefs, and bullying is bad, we’re actually the victims here and are fighting heroically,’ ” Knoblauch said.

Bingo again.

“Republicans in the Kansas Senate will not cower in the face of such intimidation and inflammatory rhetoric. We will not back down in defense of fairness in women’s sports,” Masterson and Erickson said. “We will continue to engage in this debate with scientific facts, civility, and respect.”

But this was no longer a claim of being bullied. It was just bull.