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Bully Boys

November 20, 2020

My daughter had ‘odd socks day’ at her nursery last Monday, symbolising support for difference, which marked the first day of an anti-bullying week. All students, from nursery through to year 6, had a brief to complete, and ours was a poster. This ignited a process of reflection on this theme (for me) and brief questions and exercises (for my children) to discuss the meaning of ‘bullying’ and how can we resource ourselves to respond to a bully, to ally with those being bullied. 

I’ve been pondering the myriad of forms ‘bullying’ can take, from discrimination and institutional racism to workplace intimidation, and more manifestations in domestic abuse, like gas lighting, shaming and punitive punishments for children, whether at home or school. What’s the line between abuse and bullying? The cliche of the playground bully is limited, when we know of cyber bullying, and the impact of social media on us, particularly children and adolescents. Maybe all abuse involves a bully, though not all bullies are abusive; can you bully someone without abusing them in the process? 

I am also with how wider families, friends, neighbours, even health professionals, often resist calling-out abuse, for fear of breaking-up a couple and families. Or worse, that this abuse rears its ugly head in their direction. Often, abusive patterns that are anchored in power imbalances are so much part of a culture- be this any family’s unique ‘culture’, wider regional, national or religious cultures- that even well-meaning people struggle to recognise potential injustices at play. It is part of a ’normal’ spectrum that can leave individuals, families and communities complacent in their silence. This is enough to turn a blind eye, to swallow down your intuition and to assume it is none of your business. 

Someone being bullied and abused, particularly by a loved one, may struggle to see this as such and will assume that they, the victim, is somehow deserving of this mistreatment and often find ways to excuse their partner/ parent/ school mate/ aunty or family friend. Fear of being punished, shame and even embarrassment that they are ‘making a fuss’ can all muddy the waters, so a respectful, firm and holding intervention becomes a necessary resource for them. This can take the form of simply making a private, quiet space to ask how the person you are concerned about is doing, listening to their experience, holding back on judgement and sharing your concerns. Finding words to affirm their experiences and emotions can help them validate their diminished sense of self, which often is the first element that takes the biggest bashing. If this is an adult, then it is more complicated, though not unreasonable to be direct in your confrontation, if you have witnessed what you know (in your heart) is not acceptable. I’d like to believe, if tested, I’d take the risk of getting it wrong, be corrected, even told off, then risk allowing a husband to bully and shame his wife. If it’s a child, then it absolutely is your duty to call this out. 

Even professionals, like nurses, health visitors, doctors, child and couples therapists are often misinformed on abuse and what it entails. Maybe they are afraid on a deeper level, to name what they suspect. I know, from experience, couple therapists who will do all they can to avoid sharing their opinion, so as not to be called in to bear witness in court, risk being sued or worse, risk placing their professional reputation at the stake. In fact, some believe that couples therapy can do more harm than good  as the premise is grounded in mutuality, which has systemically fallen apart in abusive patterns. The Family Courts are rife with silenced abuse, protecting an abusive parent’s right to see their children (changes are slow but imminent here), known cases where rape victims face their perpetrators to give evidence in court. To me, this is forms of bullying on a wider, structural level, that leaves us all, as a society, complacent.

Child abuse cases where social workers, teachers, emergency care nurses and doctors assumed the incident was an accident, assumed the child went to school, chose to assume the parent or ‘auntie’ is benign at best. No one wants to cause trouble, to ruffle features, to stir the water, to risk a backlash… and sometimes it is our duty, as a fellow human beings, to check-out if someone is really OK. On a smaller scale, if a mother has to consistently manage emotional abuse from her partner, to meet his anger when her infant cries or justifying herself to his reprimands, to live with perpetual anxiety and fear, how can she be fully present for her children?

A bully doesn’t need to use bad language, to physically hit or even to raise their voice. Some bullies actively derive their power from their anonymity and invisibility, in the case of cyber bullying, or from skilfully masquerading a warm, charming persona to all, except a reserved few. Often, cold, manipulative anger is a dish the more refined bully likes to serve his chosen victim/s. If these victims have an Allyship to help hold them when they are more vulnerable then they will survive to better recognise and call-out bullying. 

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