On bullying

This blog post is a long time coming. What has provoked me to write it is the astonishing media frenzy around a confrontation between two kids in a school playground… and some cartoons.

I’m a fan of Judy Horacek, and one cartoon of hers really struck me today. I can’t reproduce it here, but it’s over on her site – third one down. The character is wondering how the postmodernists get in, absolute gold. I think the video footage of this bullied child snapping is quite astounding in a postmodern way – it must have a huge number of readings for different adults that watch it. Many of us jumped into the socks of one of the characters in the story.

I was bullied throughout my school life. Relentlessly. I’ve always had a feeling that I brought it upon myself, that somehow it was my own fault. I was a little bit fat, more than a little bit short and unfit, but more importantly a little bit odd. When someone hurt me, I’d commit the cardinal sin for a male child in a school – sometimes I would cry. When I was intimidated, I’d provide a response. I suppose that for bullies, I provided an excellent return on investment.

First Dog on the Moon wrote a comic on the topic of bullying, which I thought was excellent. (I think it might be paywalled.) In my experience that cartoon is absolutely right. Some people did try to help, but the reality of incessant physical and verbal attacks persisted and there was very little effective help from anyone.

I’ve only been comfortable talking about this since last year – in my case the bullying got so bad that I developed a nervous tic. My lower facial muscles would pull back into a ghastly rictus as if someone had stuck a pencil horizontally between my lips. I was not consciously aware of this contortive effort.

Response to this development from family and friends wasn’t great. Perhaps you can imagine that it’s a little bewildering to be stared at for something you know is happening by report, but not by physical sensation. Eventually, the tic would go away only when the bullying moderated, only to come back again. That little pattern of reappearance made me terrified to think about it, lest it resurface – even into adulthood.

It’s only recently after receiving professional advice that a reappearance is very unlikely that I’ve felt able to discuss it.

All of this is a long way of saying that when I viewed that video, I felt a lot of empathy for that bullied kid. I’ve snapped in a violent way as well. It was unequivocally not a good thing to do. Yet it’d be the easiest thing in the world for me to imagine myself as the older kid, and defend his actions to the hilt.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking on my experiences as a bullied child. I know that a few of the kids bullying me had pretty awful home lives. I can empathise with that, and I don’t blame them. They were just surviving as well. They were kids as well.

Queue the point of this blog post – my disappointment. There has been a lot of labelling and a lot of finger pointing, and lot of wilful forgetting of the fact that we’re talking about children.

Some in the media referred to the bullied, older child as the ‘fat kid’. Those words are loaded; use of them implies that on some level the kid made a choice and brought his situation on himself. He was fat, beat him up. He was different, beat him up. If you don’t want to be beaten, don’t be fat. Don’t be different, don’t make yourself a target.

The vile commercial television networks dumped money to polarise the story, ensuring that there were two juicy sides. I don’t know anything about the younger kid, but perhaps there is a reason he needs to strike at others.

What we should do is step back and have some compassion. Children under stress lash out. Let’s ask why they’re under stress and try to help with that. Let’s provide a safe space for children who are being bullied and suffering violence at home or at school to seek help. Let’s make that request for help truly confidential. Let’s give children safe recourse from bullying teachers.

Let’s stop looking for conflict which we can explain in terms of right and wrong, and remember that all children need help, safety and care.

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