Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Bogie Boy (why bullying isn't that simple)


I've lost count of the times I've read that Billy Bunter definition of bullying. You know the one - stealing pocket money, thuggishness and brutish disregard for the sensibilities of others. And, you know that sort of bullying is out there and real. There are people - mostly but not always men - who use their physical power to control and dominate others. So we get this:

If the word ‘bullying’ makes you think of children having their heads kicked in and their dinner money nicked, or being subjected to systematic cruelty, then think again. Self-styled anti-bullying experts have expanded definitions of bullying to include ‘teasing and name–calling’, ‘having your stuff messed about with’, ‘spreading rumours’, ‘verbal sexual commentary’, ‘homophobic taunting’, ‘graffiti’, ‘insensitive jokes’, ‘bullying gestures’ and ‘exclusion from friendship groups’ (i.e. falling out with your mates or being ignored by other kids).

Just as I've forgotten how many times I've seen the Billy Bunter line (usually accompanied with a "stand up to bullies" argument), I've seen the 'I know what it's like to be bullied because I was bullied' argument. Typically the writer describes an incident from their childhood (or maybe from their first job) where some aggresive thug is faced down after a brief (moral) struggle. This is not bullying and the person usually wasn't - like most people - bullied.

Picture this - a boy of 13 or 14 getting three buses to school. On each of those buses that boy is going to be, as the words go, 'picked on'. Not physically (unless you count flicking snot, throwing paper or chucking sweets) but verbally - 'Bogie Boy, Bogie Boy' go the chants as that balled up snot, partly sucked Spangles and chewed paper balls are fired at the lad. To avoid this he takes to walking through the park, avoiding the crowded bus and sitting as close to the driver and the exit as he can.

The problem is that boy has to go to school. And it's there that the bullying - sorry 'insensitive jokes', 'teasing and name-calling' and 'exclusion from friendship groups' - really resides. In the changing rooms the chant goes up - 'snot, snot, snot' and 'Bogie Boy, Bogie Boy'. No-one is hurt, no-one is hit, there's no harm - just boys being boys. Until Bogie Boy snaps and thrashes out at the nearest of his persecutors. This isn't the ringleader- he's fireproof because he's top of the class and good at football (and doesn't get close enough to be hit). The result is that Bogie Boy is in trouble - he's the bully, he's doing the hitting.

That 13 year-old deals with the name-calling, the little sniggers, the exclusion by cutting himself off - there's a couple of other boys who aren't bullies and that helps. He can go sailing - which means stopping playing rugby and cricket, the games he loves - because that's safe. No more going to football because - well - the same boys are there and, outside school, they're worse. No-one has bullied Bogey Boy, if by bullying you mean that Billy Bunter thing about stealing pocket money, but that boy hates school, hates his teachers (who aren't any help and see him as a problem not as someone needing help) and hates most of his classmates. There are days when he sits round the corner from school to avoid the pre-class rumpus - better to get detention for being late than get a load of 'snot, snot, snot' in those ten or fifteen minutes before registration.

So when you read that story about a girl or boy deadened - or even worse, dead - because of bullying, don't get all puffed up with stuff about snowflakes or talk about how it's just words. Day after day, week after week, month after month - the drip, drip, drip of those words, those flicked bits of paper, those snot balls. This is bullying - incidious, persistent, comprehensive, excluding and nasty. Yet we only look at the individual incident - big boy hits small boy and takes his sarnies. Half a class spend a year creating a nasty persona - Bogie Boy - for another child and that, it seems, isn't bullying. Because nobody - except Bogie Boy - has hit anyone.

...Sarah Brennan, chief executive of a charity called YoungMinds, declares that if such ‘devastating and life-changing’ bullying isn’t dealt with, it ‘can lead to years of pain and suffering that go on long into adulthood’.

This is not 'sensationalist', this is the reality of bullying. Actual, real bullying. It's not about fights in the playground, friends falling out or the banter and braggadocio of growing up. It's about a group of people - usually young but not always - targeting a shy or weak or otherwise different person and making their life hell. It's not a mental health problem, the child doesn't need counselling, he needs those who are supposed to care - teachers, bus drivers, parents - to actually do some caring.

When Bogie Boy went to the school reunion, ten years after leaving, one of the perpetrators came up to him and apologised. "We were awful to you" he said. And then paused..."but you were a dork". Bogie Boy was grateful.


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