I wish I could turn back the clock to 1966 and act upon second thoughts with regard to the worst bullying I ever took part in. In my heart, I did have second thoughts – but was too much of a coward to do the right thing.
Have you ever hit another human being? Felt your fist connecting with living flesh? Felt your fingers tangling, with vicious intent, in another woman’s hair? Seen your boots imprinting themselves deeply in another’s vulnerable abdomen? Seen blood following your assault?
Have you ever jeered and sneered, cat-called and teased, enjoyed your power over a weaker member of the tribe?
Enjoyed it? Felt release, relief, revenge, righteousness?
Condemned violence in other colours, creeds, countries and sexual orientations?
Have you ever wanted to hurt another physically – but held back because you know that violence is never the solution? Or lashed out when temper’s in the ascendant and then regretted it hugely?
I think our responses to physical acts of violence tend to be pretty straight-forward. There is no ambiguity involved: A punch is a punch. It leaves bruising and blood and pain. A beating breaks bones and skin and sheds blood.
Seeing the never-ending televisual evidence of graphic violence, most of us are shocked and horrified and would swear, in a Law Court if necessary, ‘I could never do that!’
Is this the honest truth, though? I hit a girl on the nose with a maraca when I was about twelve. She bled like a stuck pig. I knew it was wrong. I knew it would solve nothing. I knew I would be punished. Yet, just before the guilt and concern and regret set in, there was the tiniest flare of a kind of sick joy: A sense of dreadful power over another person. It frightened me. It did not last. But it was there.
I hit her because I wanted to. I had a clear choice. No one stood behind me and forced me to take that musical instrument and wreak havoc with it.
Emotional and mental violence is not so easy, is it? It is a shifting line in the sand to many – and far easier to slide out of with ready excuses. After all, no evidence remains on the skin, does it? It is their word against yours!
The worst violence I was involved in happened when I was at primary school. I was eight or nine. I did not lift a finger – but I was there; I was complicit and I did absolutely nothing to stop the escalating situation. Again, I knew it was wrong. I hoped we would be stopped. But I lacked the guts to stop it myself. I feel the burn of shame and remorse still.
There was a little boy in my class at school. His name was David. He was the Simon and/or Piggy of the group. Physically not quite right (he had an undescended testicle which, in the way of small children, we all knew about) and he was fragile, shy, inarticulate, struggled academically and never fought back. He was the archetypal victim.
He was treated with casual cruelty every day: Pins were placed on his chair; he was kicked in passing; he was sneered and jeered at by the leaders of the gang. He must have dreaded every moment.
Why we collaborated on this one particular day I now have no idea. My guess is that the plot was hatched by the Jack Merridew and Roger combination – who ruled the roost with violence and intimidation – and that the rest of us followed along like sheep because we were afraid of the consequences if we did not.
It was swimming day. We had a pool at the back of the playground, and a long changing room with boys at one end and girls at the other. Who stole his clothes? His towel? Who hid them down the girls’ end? The identity of the individual is irrelevant. The real question should be, ‘Who stood up for David and said that this was wrong, going too far?’ No one. Therefore, in my mind, we might just as well have held on to his possessions as a class and carried them from one end to the other like that.
The horrible bullying laughter started as soon as this poor little boy, naked and cold, realised that the safety of towel and garments had been withheld from him. His long walk of shame, from one end of that changing room to the other, lives with me still: He was so tiny and goose-bumped and alone, his genitals on full display to all. He made no sound, in my memory, but tears streaked down his cheeks.
Nobody hit him. No one punched or beat or kicked him. Not that time, anyway. But great violence was done to his spirit, his sense of himself as a valuable human being. If we had thrashed him black and blue, I don’t think the ripping of his soul could have been significantly worse.
I felt horror. I felt pity for him. I felt ashamed, deeply ashamed, of my own cowardice. I did not laugh or jeer, but nor did I run up and give him his towel back or whisper a kind word in his ear later.
I was every bit as violent, every bit as much of a bully, as the rest of them – because, even at eight/nine, I knew right from wrong and had the clear physical ability to say, ‘No!’
So, I think we have to be both careful and scrupulously honest when we say, ‘I could never do that!’ because turning one’s back on violence, pretending it is something else – whether it be physical or emotional – is a form of complicity in the act itself. It is no good whining later on, ‘But I didn’t touch him!’ because that is, in every sense, a distortion of the truth: For David, my eyes riveted upon his pale and trembling body constituted an act every bit as violent as the casual jeers and cat-calls.
I feel very strongly that, if we are to stop violence, we need to redefine its parameters. It is not good enough to take the moral high ground by claiming that we would not dream of physically attacking another, if our lives are full of instances of emotional violence.
It is not good enough that the society we live in still depends upon evidence of blood, bruises and broken bones to call abuse a violent act. It is not good enough that children like David still go to school in terror and are bullied relentlessly by their classmates. It is not good enough that we still kid ourselves that joining in passively is, in some way, standing back from abuse: It isn’t.
I agree with the words above, but I would turn them round and take them further because there are those who condemn physical violence – but think it perfectly all right to bully others into silence, victimise them and thrust their definitions of their victims’ lives upon them mercilessly.
Fifty years have gone by. I have never forgotten David. He taught me a valuable and sobering lesson: We all have the latent potential for bullying and violence within us – and it is all too easy to call it something else, refuse to face that part and try to wriggle passively out of deserved trouble.
My most honest answer to the covert question in the title would have to be, ‘But I have done it. I am no better than anyone else on that front. I have violence within me…’