Apoll shows that more than half of secondary school teachers say bullying is a problem. This, depressingly, is in line with other data – for instance, from the Rumi Foundation, which holds a yearly survey into bullying and whose latest figures show a growth in online bullying.
It is also worthwhile to think about the lived experience of bullying. This is resonant for me, because I was physically bullied at my school, not only by a pupil but by several teachers, as well as at home, where my elder brother used to habitually indulge in some form of psychological torment or another.
As a former victim (bullying survivor?) I would say one of the most painful things about being bullied is not so much the humiliation and fear – though obviously that’s a large part – but the confusion. Why is this person doing this to me? What did I do to deserve it?
I can see now – finally – that there are a number of motivations behind bullying that I would have been unable to understand as a child and had nothing at all do with me. First, and most confusingly of all, is the fact that some people simply enjoy bullying for its own sake. To exert power and cruelty over someone weaker than you, or different, is a big kick for a certain kind of person, and such people are not particularly rare.
A related point is that bullying is often an activity that is collectively enjoyed. The group – or mob, if you want to think of it that way – loves to find a scapegoat. It doesn’t matter that the victim is innocent – the point is, the person being bullied provides an “outsider” who can help give the group identity. Such bullying happens not only in schools, but also in workplaces, and pretty much any place where you put more than a dozen people together.
What should one do if one is being bullied? There is no easy answer. Grassing up your assailant violates the unwritten pupil code, but it’s a possible way out – or, like the other option of fighting back, it can simply make things worse. Others become jokers or fools. Or you can just tough it out and hope the bully will get bored and move on to someone else.
There is a school of thought that suggests we should have some sympathy for the bully – that being bullied makes you into a bully in the first place. But the idea that bullies have been bullied themselves is largely a myth. According to evolutionary psychologists, bullying appears to be hardwired, and on the whole bullies are socially, that is to say, evolutionarily, successful. Many species bully, and not only primates. It’s a way of riding up the dominance hierarchy or, if you’re a chicken, the pecking order.
So what can I say to console or advise any child who is being bullied? If there’s any positive side to it all, it may be true that it can help build resilience, as many of my parents’ generation believed. But that’s only if, sooner or later, you make a stand against it. And that’s a hazardous option.
Perhaps the solution isn’t really in the hands of the bullied – it’s in the hands of other, often stronger, onlookers, the non-bullying children, who may pretend not to notice, either because they enjoy the spectacle or they are afraid of being bullied themselves.
The most effective solution would be for those children to withhold approval and condemn the perpetrator – and to be encouraged to do so by schools. If children were taught to collectively “name and shame” bullies, bullying would fall. Nothing in the end is stronger than peer pressure – and in that fashion, the same force that often brings about bullying, can also make it cease.
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