A few posts ago, I mentioned that we’d (finally) purchased a box-set of ‘The Wire’, and that we’re slowly working through the episodes. We’re really enjoying them, and I finally understand why the show was so praised a few years back as being the best thing ever made for TV, and all that stuff. We’re still working through Season 1, so we’ve a long way to go yet, but I can already see the quality at work.
Last night, as we watched an episode before bed, I was struck by something which I found important. One of the characters, Major Rawls, was throwing his weight around the workplace and, basically, bullying one of his junior officers into doing less-than-vital work; he was also trying to derail another investigation in favour of his own, and using bullying tactics to get his own way. There was another show on TV here a few months ago, too, where a man in the workplace was mercilessly bullied by his colleagues. The show gave the viewer an insight into how much pain this bullying caused, but – importantly – the bullies got away with it. It was downplayed as ‘teasing’ and made to seem like it was all intended to be good-natured, and that the victim overreacted to some old-fashioned joshing, but – of course – it was more than that. It made me angry to watch it.
I’m writing this post today because, in recent months, there has been a lot of focus on bullying here in Ireland. There’s been a particular focus on the particularly insidious branch of bullying known as ‘cyber-bullying’, where the tormentor uses modern media to attack their victim. In the last few months, three young girls – all of them treasured, cherished and dearly loved by their parents and families – have taken their own lives, apparently because of cyber-bullying. The oldest was fifteen, and the youngest was twelve. Every death has been like a wound across our country, and there’s so much talk about what needs to be done, who needs to take action, what the government needs to do…
The truth is, of course, that this affects all of us, and that action needs to be taken by everyone. I can’t bear to think that a child, with loving parents and siblings, could possibly feel that nobody in the world cared about them enough to help them with their struggles against bullies. I can’t bear to think that they would feel so cornered and afraid that they think there’s only one option open to them – and that option isn’t talking to their mum or dad, or their brothers or sisters, or any adult in their life, but taking that irrevocable step into eternity. Every shred of me screams that this can’t be allowed to happen any more, but – like everyone – I’m helpless in the face of it. What can we do?
The reason the TV shows I mentioned above made such an impression on me was because, in my opinion, the way they depict bullying is part of the culture of our times. The bullies in these shows are seen as nasty, certainly, and horrible; we root for the victim, and hope that he or she will battle through. But, a lot of the time, they don’t battle through – they just take the abuse, and walk away. Their suffering is done away from the eyes of the bully, and away from the eyes of anyone who might be sympathetic. Bullying doesn’t just happen to children – I know what it’s like to experience bullying as an adult in a workplace, and it’s every bit as crushing then as it is during childhood. But children watch these TV shows, and they see bullies being depicted as strong and powerful, tormenting weaker people and getting away with it. They see characters manipulating their way to power, using strong-arm tactics to force other people to do their will, and they see a bullying mindset as being part-and-parcel of a strong character. I know these shows are fiction; I know that it should be clear that they’re not supposed to represent real life, and that people should be able to tell the difference. But maybe they just can’t, or won’t, tell the difference.
A lot of people have experienced bullying, of some sort or another. Nearly every child gets teased while at school. I am no exception, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I suffered badly. My memories of school are largely positive, and most of what could be considered ‘bullying’ happened to me while I was young and at primary school. But, no matter how bad any particular day might have been for me while I was at school, I had the comfort of going home at the end of the day, closing our front door behind me, and being welcomed into the warmth of my mother’s kitchen. I didn’t have to worry about the nasty girls in my class until I was back at school again the following day, facing them once more. There were no Facebook walls on which they could write horrible taunts, and I had no mobile phone, beeping constantly throughout the night, each message carrying abuse and horror. There was no You Tube for them to make videos, visible to the entire world, about how ugly I was or how nobody wanted to go out with me. I didn’t have to suffer any of this, but modern teenagers do. Of course, when I was young, I could torment myself with thoughts about what might have been said or done to me during the day, and I could worry about what might happen the next day, but it’s nothing in comparison to opening a text message and seeing words encouraging you to take your own life because you’re a worthless piece of trash. How could anyone cope with pressure like that? I couldn’t do it now, and I’m a grown woman. I certainly couldn’t have done it as a twelve-year-old.
Bullying among children has been thought of as a ‘rite of passage’ for too long, and it’s often dismissed as something that kids just have to go through. That’s rubbish, in my humble opinion. Children who bully don’t just give it up as soon as they leave school – they can go on to bully throughout their lives. Children who are bullied can internalise all the abuse they’ve suffered, and it can scar them for the rest of their lives. Something does need to be done before the already heavy toll being paid gets heavier, and before more of our beautiful young people are lost. Something that can be done, by everyone, is to make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated in our presence, and that we do not reward bullying behaviour, either among children or adults. We can stop portraying bullies as heroes in TV shows and stories. We can give children who bully the same support as we’d give children who are their victims; children who bully can sometimes be in the depths of emotional turmoil themselves, and they bully because they need to exert some small bit of control over their lives. It’s not always as simple as ‘chastise the bully, and they’ll stop’ – if a child is bullying because they’re being bullied themselves, perhaps by a parent, then punishing them may only make their pain deeper, and they may take that pain out on their victims.
Most of all, we need to watch our children and how they use the internet, and other media. We can’t patrol the internet, and we can’t remove the websites that children are using to bully one another – but, maybe, we can help children to see that bullying is not a mark of a powerful person, but a sign of powerlessness, and not something to be emulated. If we can discourage their need to do it, it’s a start in helping them stay alive and get through their adolescence without suffering so terribly.