A short piece on bullying

08.25.11

First published on The Vine, April 5, 2011.

As happens on occasion, there has been a bit of an uptick in interest around the idea of bullying recently. Driven by the senseless and sad footage of an older child hurling a younger child who had been punching him to the ground – and breaking the younger child’s ankle in the process – the conversation surrounding the incident has by and large descended into the usual array of well-meaning platitudes accompanied by a fair serve of mindless vitriol directed at the assailant, age 12. From the YouTube comments: “Sorry to anyone but i seriously think some one should kill that little fuck and skull fuck the shit out of him.”

Quite.

I finally broke and watched the footage last night. Truth be told, it unsettled me. It’s so easy, so tempting to see it and grin triumphantly, the indignities of your own adolescence overcome in this brief, vicarious moment of retribution. But bullying is about more than the intersection of two adolescents the Lord of the Flies-esque containment unit that is your average high school. It seems to be hardwired into the very process of becoming an adult, acting out the simplistic, Crayola-tinged outlines of how we’ll live when we’re grown up. It makes us queasy as adults to look on these casual torments, incapable as we are of remembering the social impulses of the teenage life, but it achieves little to try and implicate these children within our own moral landscape.

By many measures I had a reasonably shit adolescence. Stricken with cancer a semester into high school and reinserted into my year group a year later, temporarily both bald and in a wheelchair, I spent most of my high school years on the perimeter, desperately lonely and prone to periods of verbal and emotional abuse. The line “Hey Ryan, go back to hospital” is seared into my mind for any number of reasons. While much of that was a function of those generally despicable years in a human’s development between 12 and 15 – and so, largely devoid of moral content – it’s hard to look back upon those times with anything more than a twinge of sadness and unease. I was merely fortunate enough that my family life was so enduringly warm and welcoming, my older brother’s post-school life in particular serving as a reminder that something better lay on the other side of this abyss.

And yet, and yet. What are we except the sum of our experiences? These unthinking cruelties crafted me, drove me, pushed me to become better. In my more honest moments, I can see that the unpleasantness of my adolescence acted as the generative impulse for what I have now become. Similarly, I have a circle of exceptional friends doing exceptional things, all seared with ambition and making their mark on the world, and yet, almost all of them would probably renounce their adolescence, given the chance. Well, would do if it wouldn’t mean that they had to give up the life they have subsequently made for themselves.

In his autobiography, Moab Is My Washpot, Stephen Fry talks about the experience of being caned at school. Perhaps better considered as an act of culturally sanctioned, yet generally extreme bullying, he wryly points out that despite our being so aghast at the prospect these days, our generation is still in all likelihood the first generation in the history of humanity that were not beaten by as children. And so he writes “I find corporal punishment as of no greater significance than bustles, hula-hoops, flared trousers, side-whiskers or any other fad. Until, that is one says that it isn’t”. That is, for Fry, the act of beating a child seemed to have little impact upon the production of functioning adults until the point when it was decided that it did, that children should be spared this nastiness due to its impact upon their development. It’s an interesting rhetorical flourish and one that sticks in my mind.

So far, this sounds like some grand celebration of the formative powers of abuse and I assure you I intend it to be nothing of the sort. I am intensely glad for the absence of beatings from my childhood, although, like Fry I cannot comment as to how things would be different had they been a feature. Similarly, I cannot know how things would have been different had my adolescence been a little more carefree and easy. But it all comes back to this strange moral cul-de-sac that is the life of the adolescent and the accompanying truth that those years are the site of the most blindingly felt kindnesses and cruelties of our lives. That for all the moments of abject sadness and fury, there are moments of such blisteringly exultant joy that they too remain burned into your memory for the rest of your life. The surge and swell of first love, the exhilaration of disobedience, the consuming comfort and solace of friends: very rarely will these extremes of feeling be seen again.

And so to bullying. There’s no doubt it’s a vile practice and no doubt that adults should make every effort to prevent it and to instruct children in the consequences of their actions. That is, after all, one of the less acknowledged but more crucial goals of receiving an education. But these moral panics, these portraits of winners and losers, the naming and shaming of offenders, do little except to turn generally off-hand events into potentially deeply damaging ones. For all parties. But we, as adults, cannot help but see bullying as belonging to a simpler moral existence, to cast it as a well-defined practice with obvious outcomes and definite solutions. But a war on bullying is probably as winnable as the ones on terror and drugs, and its prosecution just as futile. It’s a social process and one unlikely to go away while adolescents retain undeveloped frontal lobes. Hell, some people seem to carry it on into adulthood without too much effort.

But it’s not about teaching children to just “deal with it”, or to fight back against their oppressors, but to perhaps admit that adolescence brings with it sadness and unpleasantness and confusion and loneliness and anger but that this extremity of emotion – and our learning how to cope with it – is so vastly instrumental in the construction of ourselves as humans. After all, the bullied have no monopoly on teenage misery. We should offer support to all who need it, to those who require the promise of a better world outside the school they’re trapped in, and of course we should foster conversation about the rights and wrongs of human interaction amongst children of all ages – schools would be arguably better places were this a more acknowledged part of the curriculum. And there surely must be ways of avoiding this grim affair; violence is the least of all the answers. But I cannot help but feel that the way we react to bullying these days – the accusations of its increasing prevalence, the smile of self-satisfaction at well-placed revenge, the characterisation of all parties in the moral lexicon gifted to us by adulthood – cannot comprehend or assist those who might be suffering, and may actually be harming those who need it least.