Wednesday, September 03, 2003

On Bullying

I was going to write my piece on religion today but watching Breakfast this morning I saw that the government is launching a new initiative to tackle bullying so I thought it would be a good time to talk about that instead.

I was bullied while I was in junior school and for the first three years of secondary school as well. It was never anything too serious; verbal, mostly name-calling, rather than physical, which is a lot less than some kids I knew got.

At junior school I was called 'Posho', primarily because my parents had had the gall to teach me to speak properly (i.e. without dropping my t's and h's), which just wasn't the done thing in Stevenage even twenty years ago. I don't think the bullying there lasted through the whole four years I was there but I don't remember when it stopped. I do remember getting upset about it when I was at home but I kept fairly tight-lipped about it even there. I'm sure my parents knew something was up but exactly what they knew, I can't say.

The reasons behind the bullying at secondary school were different, largely because the school was on the other side of town and only one other kid from my primary school went there too. There the reasons were that I was one of the most intelligent boys in the year and at the same time utterly unable to deal with being bullied, probably because of what had gone on before. The kids looking for some reason to feel superior to me therefore turned to bullying. Again, it was mainly name-calling and in time I developed rudimentary ways to cope with it. I began to bottle all my feelings up inside until I could contain them no longer and they all came out in a mass of rage. Often that happened at home.

Obviously, this didn't really work too well. I was still unhappy, at times mildly depressed, and on top of that I was getting angry on a regular basis. Then, one day in my third year, I noticed that the reason I was being bullied had changed. Or at least had evolved into something else. No longer was it just because I was smart. Now it was more because they enjoyed seeing me bottle it all up and then explode.

It was a revelation to me. I finally had a way out. All I had to do was stop reacting and it would all go away. That may sound easier said than done but I did do it. Initially I was still bottling it up but my new-found knowledge stopped me from losing my head, at least at school but as the bullies lost interest in me it got easier and easier until finally it went away altogether.

Since then I've found out that I don't need to bottle anything up. If someone says something about me that I don't like I just ignore it. Let them say it. What harm can it do me?

In general, bullying is a tough nut to crack. It's done for all sorts of reasons, by different types of people and to various kinds of victims. The fear and shame of the victim often keeps it secret and even if someone is told it can't always be proven and dealt with. It's also an issue with a lot of grey areas. How do you define bullying accurately? Is it when the actions of the bully are intentionally malicious, even if the victim doesn't see it that way, or is it when someone feels victimised, even if the 'bully' didn't mean it like that. Or is it something else entirely? At what point does a fun nickname become the tool of a bully? When does friendly play-fighting become physical abuse?

And that doesn't even begin to address the problem itself. How do you get a victim of bullying to open up and admit it? How do you then stop the bully from doing it? I rarely admitted it to anyone at the time and found my own way of dealing with it but then I wasn't bullied in any serious way. What do you do if the victim is seriously depressed, even suicidal? What if it’s physical as well as mental abuse? What if they are an adult rather than a child?

There are so many questions and, it seems, too few answers. I just hope that if my children are ever bullied, I will notice that something is wrong and be able to take steps to put it right.

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