The subject of Villains is usually a person or an organisation that has a mission to abuse basic rights from behind the protective gloss of religion. In this piece the subject is more amorphous, although the parallels are obvious, and the column is about the organisations that can help protect against this spectre. The subject is the bully.
The bully is a staple in the life of every school kid. And being bullied is an experience everyone goes through in one form or another – from run-ins with the boy who has status issues in the schoolyard through to the mainstream gay press telling you just what it means to be a ‘proper gay’. (The celebrity bully is another subject altogether. The influence that pop stars and actors exert on the developing mind is incalculable. Bullying through a calculated use of the tabloid media as proxy is, sadly, rife in Western culture.)
One of the odd ways that language is used in English speaking countries means that, as a rule, bullying applies to the child and harassment to the adult, whereas in fact they are one and the same thing. Bullying sounds like a rite of passage, and harassment more serious.
Semantics aside, the internet has introduced a new level of bullying because it can be practised anonymously. It can take the form of abusive email; attacks in chat rooms and through instant messaging; text message abuse; use of personal information, and the setting up of profiles on social networking sites to mock people. Compared to traditional forms of bullying, cyberbullying proves more insidious and damaging. In 2006 a Harris Interactive survey found that 43% of US teens had experienced some form of cyberbullying. A UK government survey in 2007 found that more than a third of 12-15 year olds had experienced virtual bullying.
The week of November 16th is the UK’s anti-bullying week. The informative, if not wholly appealing, website http://www.antibullyingweek.co.uk/ has been set up to outline the events of the week.
To coincide with this week, the organisers of the UK LGBT History Month are holding a pre-launch event for February 2010 at the British Museum in London on November 19. The LGBT History Month site is a superb resource for information on what to do when faced with homophobic and transphobic bullying. The recent case of the transphobic bullying of a 12 year old in England only goes to show how important this work is. The newspaper reports of the case highlighted the extent to which journalists need to be educated on the use of acceptable, up-to-date, and non-pejorative terminology. Whether the editorial policies of the Sun and the Daily Mail would incorporate this is, of course, another question. (And in the case of Jan Moir, it would probably more of a case of reindoctrination. She is after all the passive-aggressive bully of the Daily Mail.)
The UK government’s Cyberbullying website is unequivocal in its advice: “If you encounter any other forms of cyberbullying, especially those that use racism, religious hate, homophobia or threats of actual violence, tell your parents, a teacher or – if you think that the content is illegal – the police.” The difficult question of what to do if people are using religion to justify their homophobia is not touched on. Living in a secular democracy that has developed out of a Church-led culture is always going to be tricky.
The point to all this is not that people need to necessarily understand the issues at hand, but that they learn to accept them. I do not need to understand what it is like to be a 12-year-old transgendered child to be able to accept the situation and let people who are qualified handle it. The bully is the person who steps in and imposes their rule as the rule, and thinks that opinion is enough to dictate policy. This is what we call fascism but what the Daily Mail no doubt calls business-as-usual. The internet age of Web 2.0, in which website users are encouraged to comment on whatever it is they are reading has only spurred on a culture in which we back into our respective corners and raise our hackles for the fight. The opposite to the bully is not the pacifist but the person who understands the value of empathy, and does not think that their way is the only way. From the playground bully to the popstar bully we need to take a stand, and it needs to be done effectively. And that means looking to the experts, and learning how to handle it rather than simply reacting against it.
Links & Further Reading
LGBT History Month
This excellent resource is a great place to start in understanding how to counter the effects of bullying.
Another really excellent resource brought to you by the team behind LGBT History Month.
The official UK National Anti-Bullying Week website
Resources on the problems of bullying, and information about Ant-Bullying Week 2009, the theme of which is cyberbullying.
Stop Cyberbullying website
This is a really well laid-out and instructive site on the impact of cyberbullying and exactly what to do about it.
The Wikipedia page on cyberbullying
As always with Wikipedia, there is some contention about this page. It has a strong North American bias. (And be warned, the Wikipedia police seem to have the mind of petty bureaucrats when issues get complicated.) But it is interesting nonetheless.
Act Against Bullying website
The official website for the charity Act Against Bullying.
Government anti-bullying website
Another good resource, and a well organised site.