Bully and the beasts

Anti-bullying initiatives show that schoolyard relations are now viewed through the prism of animal behaviour.

Mark Taylor

Topics Politics

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This week has been the third annual Anti-Bullying Week in the UK. Education secretary Alan Johnson, announcing plans to extend anti-bullying schemes in schools, believes we must all play our part in tackling the problem: ‘All forms of bullying are wrong; it’s as plain and simple as that. I do not subscribe to the view that it is simply part of growing up or just part of school life. It can ruin lives and rob children of a fulfilling childhood.’

How big a problem is bullying? Al Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner, has claimed that there is an epidemic of bullying in schools. Furthermore, he says wider society is in denial about the extent of the problem. Is he right?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a ‘bully’ as a ‘person who uses strength to coerce others by fear’. For most adults, that reasonable definition of bullying means characters like ‘Bully Beef’ from the Dandy comic – big, strong kids picking on the weaker ones. These days, it is harder to get such a clear image of what the bully looks like. He or she seems to be everywhere.

Systematic studying of bullying in school education began in Scandinavia in the 1970s, but it was not developed in England until 1989, well after the intellectual spadework put in by the Dandy. Then, two books were published with a specific bullying focus. Ken Rigby, in his overview New Perspectives on Bullying (2002), traces the lineage back to the Scandinavian research of Dan Olweus. Olweus pioneered the educational understanding of bullying and sourced the term to Swedish work on ‘mobbing’, an ethological term originally used to explain animal violence towards other animals.

Ethology, defined as the study of animal behaviour in its natural context (that is, animal behaviourism), developed from the work of the Austrian Konrad Lorenz on animal aggression. Ethology involves spending time living with particular animals and observing their behaviour. Lorenz’s authority rests on his 1963 study On Aggression and he eventually – rather incongruously you may think – won a Nobel prize for medicine, despite a background in eugenics. As geese, jackdaws, coral fish, night herons and ‘the bloody mass battles of the brown rat’ are not easy sources from which to generate explanations of human behaviour, Lorenz used them to generate cautionary human morality tales instead. Effectively, Lorenz retreated from human explanations of animal behaviour and ended up with animal ‘explanations’ of human behaviour. The stage was set for moral equivocation on human achievements. As Lorenz put it: ‘I believe I have found the missing link between animals and civilised man. It is us.’ (Rigby, 2002: 13).

From this dubious basis in European assessments of animal mobbing, the UK bullying literature has expanded, and there are now over 100 titles in London’s Institute of Education library. Valerie Besag’s Bullies and Victims in Schools (1989) stands out as an early pioneer. Besag is noteworthy for the fact that she stated that her book was exploratory and not explanatory and her observation that bullying is extremely hard to define. In short, from the very start, definitional imprecision was characteristic of the literature.

Besag did attempt to survey quantifications of bullying. She produced a table of 16 previous studies of some sort, none of which came numerically close – even discounting the vague criteria – to an epidemic. Rigby’s later figures are also low, although here bullying is broken down into teasing, name-calling, being left out, being threatened, being hit or kicked. But even these figures are no more than 40 per cent in any category (the rather dubious bullying category of ‘name-calling’) and generally are under 10 per cent. So, there has either been a massive rise in the figures or Aynsley-Green is exaggerating. I favour the latter as an explanation.

From having originally set out the term as based on adult definitions of children’s behaviour, Besag (being exploratory) was necessarily open to wider applications. Perhaps a bully could also be a victim – and vice versa? Thus, she identified – in fact, conflated – a number of different types of bullies and victims: colluding victims; false victims; bully-victims; anxious bullies and racial bullies. This widening has now gone further with the recent American book The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso (2005). Coloroso seeks to make the definition of the bully dependent on what the child ‘thinks’ and ‘feels’, rather than on what the adult observes, and moves even further from a fixed idea of a bully.

Social causation is deemed irrelevant in the face of such subjectless behaviour. Bullying, to recall the animalistic approach of Lorenz, becomes autonomous, innate, and everywhere. This widening of the approach to bullying has now led to a complete methodological inversion. Recent approaches to bullying have understandably (based on highly ‘ethical’ anonymous reporting) ‘discovered’ a hidden bullying problem, and policymakers have responded. Some school policies now define bullying in the widest possible terms.

Bullying is not only defined as physical (punching, kicking, spitting, hitting) and verbal (many forms of gender, ethnic, disability, sexual orientation, religion, appearance), but also as excluding a child from discussions and activities with those they believe to be their friends, damage to property or theft (physical threats may be used by the bully to make things be handed over) and intimidation (gesturing, miming, signals, tone and physical proximity, aggression or threatening looks). Agencies compete to offer advice to the bullied.

The widened application of bullying is crystallised in Rigby’s book. Here, bullying is redefined as the ‘systematic abuse of power’: ‘Bullying is a phenomenon that one can literally find everywhere. It is time that our perspective on bullying extended further afield.’ Rigby, following the logic of the exploratory approach, opens the gates to the ultimate questions for those with any sort of authority and those subject to any sort of authority: Am I a bully? Have I been bullied? Isn’t everybody a bit of a bully?

In a sense, the questions are more important than the answer. They are precisely the sort of questions you would expect from a society that has lost confidence in intellectual authority and turned in on itself. The posing of those questions generates its own type of knowledge, but it is an impoverished knowledge focused on the experience of self-definition – and self-abasement. In short, ethology – a poor man’s science if ever there was one – has traded up and become a study of inner-city children ‘in their natural context’. This asks the wrong questions of children – and their teachers – and encourages a naturalistic interpretation of the playground. Against this approach, humanist educators traditionally encouraged a focus on leading children away from naturalist assumptions about the world. The focus on bullying reverses this achievement and encourages a search for the worst in human behaviour.

Does this mean that there is not a problem with bullying in Britain? No. Bullying does exist, and children will continue to suffer and, in extreme cases, kill themselves. But most teachers – correctly in my view – are sceptical about widening the definition of the term as implied by the new emphasis. Submitting further to this language will further undermine the teacher as teacher and the adult as adult and contribute to the impoverishment of human understanding of the world.

Without claiming that it will stop bullying, genuine teaching supplies numerous instructive examples of the complexity of human relationships. It might be that these human examples of the complex nature of friendship, loyalty, love, hate and violence provide more genuine insights than the reductive diagnosis of contemporary anti-bullying policies: Becket and Henry II, Hooke and Newton, Huxley and the Church of England, Suffragettes and Suffragists, Chamberlain and Hitler, Mozart and his father, Luther and the Church, Turing and the computer, Bill Gates and Apple, Spartacus and the Romans. In order to maintain the complexity and autonomy (rather than spurious ‘authenticity’) of human relationships, without avoiding adult responsibility, we do need to define bullying and deal with it, but it should be done as late as possible, and as early as necessary. Not the other way around.

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Topics Politics


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