The helpless nature of a victim of bullying

Comments on Bullying

With the deepest of respect to Mr Middleton, the statement – “So, please, don’t waste time telling me who you blame. Don’t even tell me what others must do about it. Just tell me what you personally are going to do about it (without bullying me or anyone else)” – is in truth a redundant and ineffective response to an issue containing a systemic set of biases which continually favour the perpetrator while ignoring the plight of the victim. There is a whole literature of empirical evidence which points to the helpless nature of a victim of bullying: the very reason they continue to be the subject of abuse is because, simply, they cannot “do anything about it” themselves. Their tormentor preys on them ceaselessly because they have been identified as an easy focus of attack unlikely to respond or fight back. It is why bullying is such a cowardly act: picking on those identified for some kind of disadvantage or apparent weakness, but which is ultimately merely a societal difference.

The statement also contains an implied prejudice inherent in the victim, as if to suggest it is they who are somehow in need of correction, not the bully. It implies to some extent that the victim must change in order to appease their bully, or conform to the bully’s behavioural paradigm. To investigate what the victim is to do to avoid being bullied one must first ask why he or she is being bullied to begin with. Therein lies the true nature of bullying, just as it does with any other form of prejudice or discrimination. Often in school scenarios, a bully will identify a victim based on a set of perceived “differences” between the mainstream social modes of behaviour and those of a subset who are singled out as being somehow “different.” Unfortunately, in this country we have a destructive mentality of alienating and victimising diversity as opposed to embracing it which is, after all, a core principle of democracy and a free society. If we extrapolate the school yard bully onto the socio-political landscape, is it any wonder why as soon as anyone challenges authority or poses a set of ideological principles which diverge from the established mainstream rhetoric, they are immediately shut down, attacked, oppressed … bullied? We have a huge issue with dismantling patriarchy in this country and our region: the strongman mentality brooks no challenge because its power domain rests in suppression and the cancellation of opposing (often better, more articulate) views.

That poor kid in school is being bullied because for some reason the toxic sensibility which has for so long dominated our ways of thinking have deemed and adjudged that there is something just a little bit different about this particular peer and difference to such a mind-set is perceived as a threat: it is seen as weakening the entire structure upon which a sense of dependence is based. So to eliminate the threat, they seek to subjugate the bearer of the threat, the victim. It is ostensibly a method of passive elimination.

Make no mistake, when it gets to this point, the victim cannot “do anything about” what is happening to them. Psychoanalytic reportage of victims points overwhelmingly to a behavioural pattern of trying to pacify and resist attack, rather than seek or provoke it. The principle of mutual respect is a noble one, but in practice seldom works. Victims often go out of their way to show deference to their attackers simply as a means to try and placate them, to keep the peace, but this is interpreted as a further sign of weakness and so the degree to which the power-dynamic between victim and bully exists is only further degraded. Victims will therefore try to adapt and change their core self or learn to modify or censor their behaviour so they can be seen to “fit in” which is tantamount to a kind of self-oppressing act. What mutual respect is there to be found here when one person is forced to be someone else simply to “respect” the shared turf on which both parties must exist and operate? The old school notion of “fighting back” is also largely proven to be a myth; it invariably only leads to an escalation of hostility.

No, the very best response to overcome a culture of bullying is for parents and schools to work aggressively to teach tolerance, respect and acceptance for difference and diversity, and to actively create environments where inclusivity is widely and unashamedly practiced and recognised to the degree where the concept of “difference” is sublimated into a new order of what is regarded as being an egalitarian acceptance of people for who they are, not for what separates or differentiates them. If we can teach our children this vital lesson in the home and in schools by putting into practice what is preached, by actually showing what true tolerance is rather than just mentioning it as some abstract ideal, then we stand a chance of growing a nation which is accepting of differing political ideologies, of advancing social cohesion and unity, which does not seek to abuse citizens’ rights simply because their views and opinions may pose a challenge to authority or established belief.

Finally, some people have posited the idea that “it happened to me and made me stronger so it’s fine” but this is an outright fallacy which only further cements the toxic notions we have in this country about “toughness” and “strength.” Any genuine victim of bullying or abuse will never tell you that they are better off for being the subject of some other thug’s barbaric behaviour. There are lingering and lasting effects to being subjected to such abuse – whether physical or verbal – and no society is ever made better or “stronger” by subjecting a certain proportion of its people to the horrors of such behaviour.

Dr Neal Hovelmeier

Robert G. James Fellow

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

Harvard University

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