Let’s call a spade a spade

Margaret Rossiter
Sometimes an overdose of motherhood and apple pie can be sick-making. The notion of all-pervading niceness and non-judgemental understanding may have its place, until it comes to something as cruel as bullying.

Sometimes an overdose of motherhood and apple pie can be sick-making. The notion of all-pervading niceness and non-judgemental understanding may have its place, until it comes to something as cruel as bullying.

And listening recently to Emily Logan’s (the Ombudsman for Children) comments on her commissioned report on bullying amongst young people, there seemed to be too much of the mammy and the pie.

The Ombudsman was talking in the aftermath of the suicides of two young girls, arising, it was said, from being bullied by their peers. Let’s look at the bullies, she implied. Let’s see what’s happening in their lives. Why are they doing what they are doing? Is there something going on at home?

It all seemed as if the balance of sympathy was passing from the victim to the perpetrators; as if the victims were the justified receptacle for whatever frustrations were going on in the lives of their persecutors. Re-align the focus of blame, put the pie in the oven, put the kettle on, draw up the chairs, and listen to the perpetrators. Let’s not be censorious or disapproving. After all, their mothers may not have loved them when they were five-years old. And their older siblings may have been given nice new shoews when they had to make-do with hand-me-downs.

Why do we accept this psychobabble, this namby-pamby twaddle, when it comes to such calculated bloody-mindedness as bullying? Why, nowadays, do we give a veneer of justification to such cruelty by searching for a pseudo-cause? What has happened to old-fashioned responsibility; to the acknowledgement of right and wrong and the acceptance of blame and guilt?

Bullying is probably as old as the emergence of humankind in the process of evolution, from crawling out of the primordial slime to climbing up the trees. It has always been there, but the gradual development of a consensus in civilisation encouraged us to try to live together in some sort of harmony.

The fragility of that consensus, as revealed in the recent tragedies, was, therefore, shocking to most ordinary people. But not surprising. And neither was it surprising that girls are very particularly, and very nastily, good at it. It often has a group dynamic: an alpha girl and her willing satellites. While it can be a very small group, it can be disruptive and intimidating in a school classroom. Bullies can bully, not only their peers, but their teachers.

According to an American expert on the subject, once identified, bullying has to be confronted immediately. The old idea that, if it is ignored it will go away, is mistaken. Modern studies have show that, in fact, it gains momentum. It is a calculated sourse source of pleasure and power to the bullies. And while the Ombudsman for Children advocates a softly-softly approach in probing the reasons why bullies bully, the immediate imposition of sanctions (where these can be imposed) is recommended. This would now appear to be all the more urgent when it becomes a threat to life.

While bullying is not exclusive to schools, the recent tragedies have located specific incidents in that area. So, it has to be asked, if the existing sanctions are adequate. It is now a fact of life that a child is entitled to an education, even if it does not want it, and does everything in its power to circumvent it. Thus schools have their hands tied when it comes to any policy on bullying. Indeed the policy may be no more than an attractive collection of words and aspirations.

Exclusion, be it for a few hours or a few days, is circumscribed by so many rules and regulations, that it is difficult for any school principal to impose this sanction. Permanent exclusion, or expulsion as it was once called, is almost impossible and can only be taken after very careful consideration by school management boards. If such a sanction is imposed, it is the duty of the board to find another school where the offending, and often very troubled child, can find accommodation. In other words - the buck has to be passed on.

The development of bullying in modern technology - cyber bullying - is, as yet, without any sanction whatsovever. The most grotesque comments can be conveyed via the computer, which, if published in the print media, would result in convictions for libel. Hideous personal comments can be made, which if verbally repeated, could be treated as racist slurs, yet white-on-white on the computer, they have, apparently, become commonplace. Clearly, there is now a serious lacuna in the law which allow for such anomalies and for which legislation is overdue.

Of course, neither sanctions nor legislation can obliterate from the human psyche something as ugly and entrenched as bullying. But while there might be something to be said for probing the reasons why bullies bully, no excuses can be made for the always harmful consequences which their behaviour imposes. It is a behaviour which can only be described as a particularly cowardly form of wickedness.

And if, as a society, we have a duty to try to prevent continuing tragedies, we must be vocal in our condemnation. Let’s not dress-up our words. Let’s call a spade a spade. Bullying is wicked!