Apples and oranges

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by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

There is much being pondered lately about bullying, largely in the context of school children, though the concept of bullying has even been attached to world renowned figures like Hitler and even to entire nations. I rather suspect that most of us at one time or another have been the object of some unpleasant behaviour. I recall being punched in the stomach when I was about five or six years of age. That however does not likely qualify as bullying. Random acts of brutality or name calling are pretty much just part of the wear and tear of growing up. What I think distinguishes bullying is its repeated occurrence at the hands of the same person (or their lieutenants) and usually with the same theme and with the intention of causing emotional or physical harm. There is almost always an imbalance of power. While it is customary to describe bullying as harassment or assault, it can also involve the indirect pressure of social exclusion, isolation and public embarrassment.

It may surprise you to learn that the United Kingdom has no legal definition of bullying, and it is only some of the United States which have such a definition. Currently the Ontario legislature is struggling to formulate a definition of bullying but is encountering considerable resistance from unanticipated sources such as human rights groups and civil libertarians who view the broad proscription as having the back-fire effect of limiting free speech or religious rights. The debate about the topic has assumed giant proportions as it morphs into an unforeseen battle about having a single school system so it is highly politicized.

While it is a thorny issue, my interest in the subject is less about the legal sanction of discreditable behaviour and more about the causes of bullying in the first place. While there is considerable thought that bullies are in many instances people who have themselves been abused or who act out of jealousy, I am inclined to the less psychological view that bullies are simply people who prefer apples to oranges, people who haven’t learned to accept that all people are not cast from the same mould and who cannot accept that being different doesn’t entail being radioactive. Characteristically the male perpetrator tends to physical aggression whereas females tend more to exclusion and mockery. One is the attempt to extinguish the perceived threat; the other to distance oneself from it or disgrace it.

It is not unexpected that the bully often enjoys a prominent social standing whereas the victim is frequently socially marginalized. It is as a result of this disparity that some researchers have even argued that being the victim of bullying can teach a person how to manage disputes and boost their ability to interact with others. Such reckless views are however considered in the minority and the consensus is that bullying as a form of abuse is wholly negative. Still the question remains, “Why do they do it in the first place?”

Bullying, because of its customary incongruent elements (big vs small, strong vs weak, capable vs incapable, popular vs lonely, etc.) has the appearance at least of being little more than the attempt by someone (the bully) to make himself or herself taller by stepping on others (the victim). It hardly ever seems to be a true competition whatever may be the goal. Given the weighted odds in favour of the bully, one has to wonder wherein lies the victory, unless it is nothing more than the wicked and base pleasure of pulling the wings off flies. The deliberate and frightful side of bullying is enhanced by current technology which permits anonymous texts to be sent by a spineless bully to the victim at any time of day.

I have always subscribed to the theory that criticism is the best autobiography. As such it is fairly effortless to extrapolate that the bully sees in the victim shortcomings which he or she sees in himself or herself. My suspicion however is that the bully, if confronted with such a proposition, would be loath to accept it, not because of its revealing conclusion but because of its utter improbability in the mind of the bully. Don’t for a minute let us ever imagine that we know ourselves better than others! Indeed the opposite is often the case. The behaviour of the victim, howsoever inconsequential to most, may set in motion in the mind of the bully a maelstrom of conflicts, conflicts which are so deep-rooted and overpowering as to cause the bully to use to his or her perceived advantage any superior powers he or she may have to quell the haunting anxieties. One begins to wonder who is the real victim.

Certainly some of the causes for bullying are little more than lack of education. Our inexperience with people of different races or religions is a case in point. Frequently what little we do know of people from different cultures is already corrupted by past disputatious and generalized events. If there is no meaningful attempt made to cross the borders, then not much will develop to anaesthetize the pain which exists.

The herd instinct is of course alive and well. This unfortunately means that many otherwise innocent bystanders are swept up by the frenzy of intimidation and abuse. From the vantage of the victim it presents a sea of adversity from which it is highly unlikely that there will be anything extended by way of support. Thankfully the current talk about bullying has included an emphasis upon the need to react to unfavourable conduct, either by direct contradiction or by reporting it to superior authorities.

Given the bad publicity which bullying has recently attracted it will no doubt become unfashionable which of course is the death knell to those who seek the popularity of their peers. And if the proposed Ontario government sanctions become legislation there is a very real threat of the bully becoming the one who is ostracized. Some will no doubt argue that the proposed legislation gives too strong a weapon to those who allege disadvantage. Yet if you are a parent of a child who was driven to suicide by bullying behaviour, the sympathies are less than debatable.