From our first day at school – maybe even before that – we are told that bullying is wrong. It’s not difficult to work out morally. When a person is marginalised, abused, made to feel isolated, hurt, it can’t be right. Schools and institutions do their best to eradicate it yet, headteachers admit, it is part of the culture of schools, part of human behaviour. It goes on.
We’ve all been bullied, haven’t we? Sometimes it’s obvious – a gang of kids puts on pressure, or there is name calling, intimidation, attacking. Sometimes it’s less obvious, but just as vindictive, as any child isolated in a playground with no friends knows too well. Sometimes the bullying comes with insidious threats about what will happen if the victim tells someone, which not only prevents a cry for help but also forces the victim to inhabit a place of utter loneliness and helplessness.
We may also have all been bullies. Either deliberately or inadvertently, we have hurt someone or looked the other way when someone is hurt. Perhaps this is the schadenfreude effect, deriving some sort of perverse pleasure from other’s misfortune. Perhaps it’s the human behaviour that Orwell demonstrated in 1984 when Winston said ‘Do it to Julia. Not me!’ If someone else is being bullied, then we are not. Not this time.
I remember flushing a girl’s ham sandwiches down the toilet, my friends cheering me on while she sobbed. I walked away from the act feeling that, in violating another, I had violated myself and it wasn’t a good move to behave this way in order to ingratiate myself with others. I made a point of befriending the bullied girl afterwards, sharing my lunch with her, and it was uncomfortably humiliating to see how quickly she forgave me and wanted to be my friend.
I’ve been bullied, too. Not just as a child, either. I’ve had my share of name calling, rivalry put-downs, being on the end of others’ controlling behaviour. I remember my A-level English teacher at school telling me I wasn’t anything special and I’d probably manage an E grade. I got an A. Nietzsche was right.
So why do we do it? Why is bullying so commonplace? I read somewhere it is an atavistic and tribal thing. The alphas bully the ones they consider rivals or suitable prey, and the masses adhere to the stronger group because it is safer there and prevents them from being victims themselves. So, basically, cowardice sustains a culture of bullying and it’s easier to hang with the perpetrators than defend the weak. Not an impressive bunch of cave dwellers, are we?
It’s quite hard to stop bullies, too. The insidious and repetitive nature of their attacks, not always in the open, not always visible in their needling, makes it difficult to analyse what’s happened after the event. I’ve seen it in the workplace: in schools, defined as the natural corporate fabric of an establishment, used to suppress and deflate anyone who seems a little different to the company norms and certainly anyone who thinks outside the box. Bullying expects conformity, demands it. It goes on unchallenged and that’s why people shrug it off and don’t stand up to it, but accept it as part of the dominant culture
It has even pervaded the media. I’m no fan of Theresa May’s politics. I believe her policies have stretched some of our public services close to breaking point and pushed many people closer or further into desperation and poverty. That said, the glee of the reporters and some of her opponents, in her own party and in others, that her disastrous conference speech, marred by the farcical incident with the P45 and her unfortunate coughing fit was, I think, an example of bullying. By all means disagree with her perspectives and her politics, but to take pleasure in watching someone squirm in the public gaze is a cruel example of schadenfreude. The enjoyment of someone else’s public discomfort, revelling in their humiliation – this is almost the definition of bullying.
Being a bastard when you’re a kid is one thing. As an adult, to take any joy from someone else’s pain shows how little we grown since we left the playground. We can do so much better. We can differentiate between disagreeing with people who don’t share our views or behave how we would like them to, and wilfully wishing them harm. The way forward is conversation, writing, listening, debate, education, joining groups of likeminded people and campaigning for change.
We may disagree with someone strongly; we may even find someone’s views or behaviour (or policies) abhorrent, but the answer certainly isn’t going to be found by flushing away their sandwiches or their self-esteem. Because, if we’re not careful, we may be playing into the hands of another bigger bully with even more malicious intentions and doing their dirty work for them.