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Lucy Mangan: "We live in a culture of bullying"

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"I have a friend who is still, despite my urgings to take up something easier and less stressful – mining, perhaps, or heifer-slitting at an abattoir – a teacher. At the moment she is trying to mount a defence against a wave of bullying that seems to have begun without any readily identifiable cause and is breaking over several year groups at once.

Because it is not stemming from a handful of wrong ’uns who can be caned, talked to severely, counselled, sent to the Priory or whatever it is they do to wrong ’uns these days, and the few individuals they have found seem to be bullies in one group and victims in another, the teachers are trying to deal with the school’s problem en masse – assemblies devoted to discussing the issue, and whole lessons spent trying to explain Why Bullying Is Wrong.

The main problem the teachers have, my friend explains, is that there is no example of how things might be done instead. At first, I didn’t know what she meant. Adults don’t bully each other as a matter of course, do they? Except for all those times at work when a boss exerts their control unfairly or too extensively over their underlings. Or those in abusive relationships that begin with what you might call bullying and end, generally, in physical or mental violence. Apart from them.

When you take a step back and look at the wider culture, it rapidly becomes clear what my friend means. Bullying abounds – with the recent trolling horrors on Twitter and the stories of persecutions ending in suicide on Facebook and other social networks – in cyberspace. Much of television, too, depends on bullying for its LOLs and ratings. It is the lifeblood of shows like Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity... Gordon Ramsay, the king of the playground, is back soon with a new f****** series – need I f****** say f****** more? Gregg Wallace and John Torode shout the contestants down on MasterChef (listen, darlings – if you don’t feel it’s macho enough for you, go and present something else. Or join the marines. Just stop aurally assaulting me). And of course anything Simon Cowell touches depends on the exploitation of weakness and vulnerability in others – he gets paid around £60m a year for doing so.

Our legal and political systems are both open to domination by bullies

The tabloids bully famous and not-so-famous women about their looks, legs and body fat percentage incessantly. And our news programmes aren’t much better – when interviewing an expert, presenters rarely seek to elucidate but prefer to treat the interaction as a chance to take him or her down a peg. Rare is the interviewer who seeks to mine his guest for further knowledge and advance our collective understanding of an issue instead of undermining him/her at every turn so that the presenter gets to ‘win’ an argument they set up and which should never have existed.

But of course this set-up only shadows that of our legal and political systems – adversarial both, and therefore open to domination by bullies rather than the most-informed or best-prepared visionaries. The current government is led by a bully. Even if you didn’t know Cameron’s nickname is ‘Flashman’ (after the bully in the Victorian classic Tom Brown’s Schooldays) you can tell by his readiness to deliver personalised put-downs during Commons debates. And he has presided over a deliberate change in policy and attitude towards all those more vulnerable than his ilk. Cutting benefits to the disabled and labelling people ‘scroungers’ – without evidence and in contradiction of his departments’ own figures – is bullying on a grand scale.

The writer George Saunders gave a commencement address recently to the University of Syracuse’s graduating class urging them to fly in the face of the dominant cultural mode of address and be kind. Not nice, which is just another ego thing, designed to make people like us and ensure an easy passage through life, but kind – to be someone who not only gives but gives up things to help others. It says something about us all that such an exhortation makes him sound not just naive, but weak. We need a giant national lesson to remind us all not just that Bullying Is Bad but also that It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way.”

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