On Bullying

I’ve read a few interesting and intelligent posts in the last week or so about bullying. And so I thought I would comment on the topic, because obviously the blogosphere is waiting for my opinion.

I want to talk not about being bullied, although like most lefty artist types I have, though never as hurtfully as some other people.

But I want to talk about being a bully.

The truth is there are a thousand different forms of bullying, and a spectrum of levels of bullying, and they’re not all obvious or quantifiable. Especially as we don’t have access to the heads of other people and can’t see the damage that is done.

The truth is that most of us have probably been bullied at some point, and most of us have probably been bullies ourselves.  And like most things in life, most of us are more open to recognising the sins against us than we are our own flaws. Life teaches us to imagine ourselves as the protagonist, after all.

Let’s look at this part of the definition wikipedia offers:

This isolation is achieved through a wide variety of techniques, including spreading gossip, refusing to socialize with the victim, bullying other people who wish to socialize with the victim, and criticizing the victim’s manner of dress and other socially-significant markers (including the victim’s race, religion, disability, etc). Ross[11] outlines other forms of indirect bullying which are more subtle and more likely to be verbal, such as name calling, the silent treatment, arguing others into submission, manipulation, gossip/false gossip, lies, rumors/false rumors, staring, giggling, laughing at the victim, saying certain words that trigger a reaction from a past event, and mocking. The children’s charity Act Against Bullying was set up in 2003 to help children who were victims of this type of bullying by researching and publishing coping skills.

When you put it like that, I can’t think of anybody I know who hasn’t been a bully at some time or other. Can you?

Of course, there are differing levels of bullying. Nobody’s saying that giggling is the same as beating someone with an iron bar. At the same time, it’s tempting and easy to think of our own actions as relatively harmless and natural, while the same action, perpetuated against us, is intentionally cruel and harmful.

TV of course teaches us that bad things are done by bad people, and therefore, as the protagonist of our life-story, and subject of our empathy, it’s hard for us to see the potential for harm in ourselves.

I remember in grade three, pushing one of the kids into a hole in the ground in our primary school playground, because he was slightly overweight. We told him he was Jabba the Hutt and it was the Sarlaac Pit. At the time, it never occurred to us that it was hurtful. It just seemed funny. He grew up to be an excellent swimmer and have a much more successful life than me. Good for him.

Most adult bullying is more insidious and harder to recognise.

Here is how it often works. Someone tells you something that pisses them off about a third person, and then you tell them something that pisses you off about that same person. You feel closer to the person you’re talking to, through this shared bitching. It makes you feel good to be liked more than the third person. It makes you feel good that the person you’re talking to is not bitching about you. Over time, bitching about the third person becomes a way of affirming your friendship with the person. It becomes a fallback conversation that is comfortable and easy.

Maybe after a while you discover other people who have the same view. Suddenly there is a group of you who are bonded by a shared dislike of one other person. It becomes an in-joke, and you feel good about being part of a group who can make each other laugh and bond over the shared dislike.

At what point does it become bullying? When the first comment is made? When it becomes a group? When the person notices? When it starts to hurt them (and how would you ever know when that was)?

Does it matter whether the intent is cruel or just lighthearted? Does it matter whether the victim is a good person, or truly unpleasant? Does it matter whether they notice or care?

There have been plenty of times in life when I’ve realised that I was part of something that felt wrong, that felt unkind, but didn’t know how to disengage with it without losing the people I was close to. There have been times when I wasn’t sure, whether I was over-reacting and being overly analytical toward what was just natural human behaviour. There have been other times, conversely, where I laughed off something and then later wondered at my own insensitivity. Times when I’ve cringed to think how badly I acted, how little I was aware, how little I was willing to see, the power of the group I was part of.

There’s a tendency, especially among those of us who didn’t grow up popular, to see ourselves as permanent underdogs; to fail to recognise the times when we have power, the times when we might abuse that power. In our minds, we are always the downtrodden, clawing our way and shouting against the dominant forces. One of the hardest things to recognise is the moment we step over the line and become the bully.

It’s hard, too, to stop. Because being part of a group, even a group of two, is a drug. We want, even those of us who are used to not being “cool” or “popular”… perhaps especially us, to know belonging. We want to feel close to people, and in a society where *most bonding* occurs through the medium of bitching, it’s really hard to find a way to be close to people without getting dragged into nastiness. And it’s really hard to extricate ourselves from that without being seen as aloof or judgemental, without having to worry that by leaving the room we easily become the subject of the bullying ourselves.

Fear and loneliness are the training wheels for learning to bully. Discuss.

It takes courage to not be part of it. It takes self-awareness to recognise and stop yourself from being part of it. And it takes imagination to find other ways of bonding, other ways of living that don’t fall into the patterns we see all around us.

It’s not enough to look around us and point the finger. We have to recognise the seed of cruelty inside ourselves. Meet the bully. Love the bully. And let him go.

There was another kid, in primary school, who was five years older than me. Every lunch time he would find me, in the playground, and he would make me punch him, in the arm. He never hit me, he always made me hit him. I was scared, though I wasn’t sure why. It never quite made sense to me.


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4 Responses to On Bullying

  1. Mary Victoria says:

    This is a great post, and you’ve put your finger on several very important things – notably the tendency to cross the line from bullied to bully, and back again. Thanks for having the honesty to say these things!

    • Ben says:

      Thanks Mary 🙂 And yes, I think it’s important to recognise that it’s possible to be both bully and bullied, in different situations in our lives.

  2. jentbrave says:

    i’m going to get you for saying that … *shakes fist*

  3. Mr Vampire says:

    Hey everyone! Lets all point and laugh at Ben for being so emotionally articulate.

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