[I normally write about politics in my afterwords. But this time I thought I should address a different topic.]
There are movies where the bullied kid gets a lesson in badass from someone and beats the shit out of his tormentor. Afterwards, the tormentor becomes a great friend of his former victim and everyone lives happily ever afterwards. There’s just one small problem with those cheerful movies ...
They’re utter nonsense.
People who have never been bullied rarely understand it. I received feedback from several people who read Science And Sorcery and thought that Calvin was unrealistic and/or the blackest villain. I’m not going to dispute that Calvin went well over the line. I have no sympathy for Moe, if only because I’ve known too many people like him, but for the rest of it? Rape, murder, high treason ... Calvin turned to the dark side, at least long enough to unleash Harrow. His actions were indefensible.
But unrealistic ...?
I’d like to tell you about a guy I know.
He was bullied at school. He spent four years in a school in Scotland, during which time there was hardly a day when he wasn’t attacked by his schoolmates. He was punched, kicked and shoved around, insulted and degraded – it went on and on, with no end in sight. There was no safety, no place he could go to hide. He told his teachers and they did nothing. His behaviour at home worsened; he picked on his siblings until they grew large enough to stand up to him. He found petty and spiteful ways to strike back against his tormentors (destroying their school notes, for example) that did nothing beyond granting him some brief satisfaction ...
The experience left scars on his soul. He was nervous and withdrawn around almost everyone, even after he left the school, for years. Making friends was difficult, almost impossible; he largely withdrew into his own world. Pain (physical or emotional) was bottled up inside. Sometimes, he lashed out verbally or physically at people who had done nothing to deserve it. In some ways, he never really grew up. When confronted with a stressful situation, he almost collapsed.
And this guy was one of the lucky ones.
People have died because of bullying. They become so broken, so convinced that no one can or will help them, that they give up all hope and commit suicide. Or they become convinced that everyone is against them, to the point that they take guns into school and open fire, gunning down their classmates – the innocent along with the guilty. Except, of course, there are no innocent in their minds. There are merely the bullies and those who did nothing to stop them.
I don’t care what excuses the bullies put forward to justify themselves – if they actually bother to justify their own actions. And I simply do not have the words to express my contempt for those who make excuses for bullies. Maybe they have abusive parents. Maybe their elder siblings picked on them. Maybe they were adopted. Maybe they’re on drugs or have ‘conditions’ that make it hard for them to control their behaviour. Maybe they’re simply too young to know better.
One person being abused does not justify them abusing others – and make no mistake; bullying is abuse. Bad lives do not justify making others have bad lives – and make no mistake; being bullied is a bad life. A person with mental problems who cannot help himself should not be left in a position where they can hurt other people. And if they are old enough to bully someone, they’re old enough to know better.
It’s easy to say that the bullied will suffer later in life as their bad habits catch up with them. Someone who is only capable of responding to his peers through violence and intimidation will probably run into trouble with the law. An act that might be laughed off, even tacitly condoned, in a school could lead to arrest or unemployment in the adult world. Sure, there are bullies who grow up to be managers or human resources directors – but most bullies are going to be in deep trouble if they try their act when they grow up.
The problem is that this is no consolation to their victims in the here and now.
Kids – and teenagers - simply don’t have a sense of long-term planning. Delayed gratification is a joke for young children; they don’t really believe that they will ever grow up. I remember being eleven and thinking that sixteen would simply never come – and now I’m thirty. You tell a bullied child that his tormentor will be in jail when he grows up and he won’t take it as any consolation. Why should he? Adulthood never comes.
It is a natural human reaction to side with the strong – or at least to refuse to confront them. That is, among other things, the secret to maintaining a dictatorship. In schools, the bullied child often finds themselves completely isolated from the rest of the children; the onlookers don’t want to be bullied themselves, so they stay away from the one who attracts bullies. Never mind that that isn't fair or right – kids don’t reason that way. The bullied child is a victim twice over, a victim of the bully and of his fellow classmates, the ones who do nothing to help.
Or is he a victim three times over?
If you're being bullied, tell a teacher. Or so a piece of advice went, when I was at school. It was an anti-bullying campaign that included brightly-coloured leaflets, lectures given by cheerful visitors on how the different really aren’t that different after all ... and lots of other crap I have gratefully forgotten. The sad truth is that the bullied child, upon complaining to a teacher, often receives no help – and a reputation as a sneak.
Why don’t the teachers do anything? There are all sorts of reasons – and they are all pathetic. Some teachers may not like the victim. Some may think that the bully is more important than the victim (this often happens in schools where sports are important). Some may believe that the bully has an excuse (see above) and expect them to grow out of it. Some may actually be afraid of the bully – yes, this does happen. Some are afraid of the consequences to their career if they try to stop it.
Bullying is corrosive. It is bad for the victim, who may snap and commit suicide – or carry out the next school shooting. It is bad for the bully, who is learning bad habits that will not serve him well in adulthood. It is bad for the onlookers, who will learn to knuckle under to the strong (“first they came for the Jews ...”). It is bad for the teachers, who will lose authority – and the respect of their pupils. It is bad for the parents, who may do something drastic to deal with the situation.
Every anti-bullying campaign I’ve seen has been an expensive waste of paper, at best. So are most anti-bullying strategies. The messages teachers send are often the wrong ones – “you are both partly right and partly wrong” – and sometimes even serve as a gourd to further bullying. The bullies need strong deterrents to stop them. Those deterrents are rarely provided.
There is no acceptable excuse for bullying someone. Teachers have to make that clear to the students – without worrying about their self-esteem. The self-esteem of a bully does not matter compared to the self-esteem of their victims. Imagine taking a paedophile’s feelings into account when dealing with him. Now why should teachers be worried about the feelings of the bully, who can leave scars that last just as long on their victim’s soul?
Sometimes, you just have to say NO. And then enforce it with as much force as necessary.
Christopher G. Nuttall
Kota Kinabalu, 2013