John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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 Apologists for bullying

Astonishingly there are those who would actually act as apologists for bullying – ‘it’s part of growing up’; ‘it’s not really serious – a bit of fun, can’t he take a joke?’ At the extreme of this position there is the hangover from the nineteenth century public school where bullying might actually be justified as character forming and developmental for both bully and bullied. Bullying has many forms of expression that makes it difficult to be precise as to the actual level of abuse; what is low-level banter to one is deeply humiliating to another. The casual punch thrown in passing, the intimidation to hand over dinner-money or sweets, the conspiracy of whispering are all manifestations of the denial of an individual’s right to dignity and a life without fear. All too often the bully at school becomes the person who progresses up the motorway by intimidating his way past other cars; it is the casual sexism at work; the patronising voice used to the disabled and the almost nonchalant racism. The five year old bully may well still be bullying at 50 – and after years of practice be very skilled at creating misery for others.


There are many disturbing implications arising from systematic and sustained bullying of which one of the most significant is the loss of the capacity to trust. Trust is one of the great human gifts; it is central to our ability to lead any kind of social life. It is not possible to love, learn or form effective relationships in the absence of trust. Indeed it is probably impossible to live in a modern society without trust – as it was once expressed ‘ without trust it is impossible to get out of bed in the morning.’ Children have a natural propensity to trust – it might be said that they are ‘hard-wired’- to trust. Children enter relationships on the basic premise that the world can be trusted their emotional, social and moral development is posited on trust until that aspect of their world is compromised by bullying.

Bullying has numerous complex permutations; bullies may themselves be bullied, victims may become bullies, those who join in bullying may do so to avoid being bullied. What is very clear is that bullying is learned behaviour that is developed, or prevented, in the early years. What seems to be the case is that bullying behaviour is only possible in the absence of empathy. Empathy is the natural corollary of trust; the lack of empathy opens the door to all of the worst manifestations of bullying.


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