Outreach blog: On the matter of bullying
by, 1st May 2011 at 04:42 PM (682 Views)
There's a sort of received wisdom that psychological bullying is the lesser cousin of physical bullying. Being beaten up, that's actual bullying. Anything else is just name calling, and can be easily ignored. A while ago, I was debating the subject of homophobic bullying, and a number of people refused to consider the possibility that anybody would commit suicide as the result of psychological abuse. Physical abuse? Sure, they could understand that, but nobody, they claimed, would ever consider ending their lives as a result of psychological bullying. It just wasn't in the same class. Today, I want to challenge that notion.
When I was eleven years old, about a month after I started secondary school, I was standing at the bus stop, waiting for the bus home, and a boy of fifteen came up behind me and used a cigarette lighter to set my hair on fire.
I don't actually remember much about it. One of the things about your hair being on fire is that you're not immediately aware of it. You can't see it and for a while you can't really feel it either. All I can remember is confusion. As it turned out, I escaped any lasting damage. But although it shook me up at the time, do you know what the strange thing is?
When I think of all of the times when I was bullied, I don't really think of that incident. If I was to write a list of the various unpleasant things that have been inflicted upon me, that would probably be the item that stood out the most, but it's not something that I've ever had much cause to dwell on. It was a random act of cruelty, an empty gesture. It's had no impact on my life.
To me, bullying was more of a sustained campaign of psychological torture, an effort to undermine any sense of self-worth that I had and remind me daily of my many weaknesses. The old "after school special" portrait of bullying is being cornered behind the bike sheds. A sort of... private thing, just you and the bully, and maybe some of his lackeys. But for me, it was all about public humiliation, a parade of indignity that everybody present can laugh at. I always wondered why you never see this sort of bullying depicted, and I think it's because it undermines the simplistic "bullies are bad" message. If the incident is in public, witnessed by a group of people, all of whom could intervene but choose not to, that makes everybody in the room complicit. The truth is that at some point, probably all of us have been in a situation where we've opted to laugh with the bully rather than call them out. And that's regrettable, but it's also a product of negative reinforcement: school usually isn't an environment that rewards acts of conscience. It also makes for a narrative far too complicated for any after school special: that bullying is something that happens because we allow it to happen.
And most bullies aren't the cartoonish cliché that we imagine. Most of them are relatively ordinary, and while they must be aware that what they're doing is morally wrong on some level, I usually get the impression that they're genuinely unaware of the impact that their actions can have. In their minds, they're not bullies: bullies are like the violent fat kid from the after school special. From their perspective, their campaign of abuse might just be a couple of comments and taunts every day. Certainly not anything sustained. But to whoever's on the receiving end, it is constant, because the effects are lasting and a new humiliation could come at any time. Sure, you'll be home in a few hours, but guess what? You'll be back again tomorrow and forced to endure it all over again.
When you're young, school stretches out in front of you for what seems to be an interminably long length of time. It's easy, as an adult, to forget this. When every day equals misery and your despair is met with mocking indifference, it's easy to see why some kids are driven to extremes, be it self-harm or even suicide. We, as onlookers, shrug off their misery as "just part of growing up" and are then surprised at the ultimate results of their anguish. And rather than confront the horrific reality of what we've allowed, by inaction, to happen, we absolve ourselves by announcing what we think the victim should have done.
"They should have told somebody about it." Plenty of people knew that I was bullied. It didn't make the bullying stop. Just because people know that's happening doesn't mean they have the ability or even the inclination to make it stop.
"They should have stood up to the bullies." When the abuse you're suffering is coming from many sources and seems to be reinforced by your environment, how exactly are you supposed to stand up to it? To the bullied, it feels like a force of nature. You might as well go out into a storm and try to fight the rain.
I'll talk more about this reprehensible "blame the victim" mentality in a future post. For now, I'd like to offer words of support and encouragement to anybody being bullied right now, but having been there myself, I can't say that I was really helped by platitudes coming from adults who felt a million miles away from my problems. Just... try to remember that you're not alone in your suffering, and that most of the people around you aren't making you miserable on purpose; they're just very, very stupid.
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