What to give a fellow who's asking for it

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The Independent Culture
IT STARTED with sniping comments in the dormitory, and soon, within a couple of weeks, the comments had snowballed into a whole culture of cruelty: long-winded, elaborate jokes, mock-trials into the small hours, physical torture. It was pitiful to watch. But the guy was asking for it. What was it - nihilism, self-hatred? Or an urge to avoid ordinariness? It was the things he said; it was his demeanour, it was something about him that was different. I can't remember ever discussing it. When someone is bullied, people don't sit around and talk about why he's being bullied. They just get on with bullying him. There's nothing rational about it.

I really didn't want anything to do with it. I had nothing against the guy. In a way, I admired him for going against the grain. Naturally, I never said so - not out of cowardice, but because it would have done no good; it would only have been construed as another, perhaps more imaginative, bullying method. When a group of people hits a bullying jag, it's unstoppable. And the victim gets more and more twisted, loses his grip on his own identity. He makes people want to bully him more.

I never joined in; I'm not like that. In reality, I'd given myself a set of guidelines - I wouldn't initiate the bullying, or insult him to his face, or join in with the violence. But I laughed about him behind his back. Boy, did I laugh when people told jokes about him. Not out of a sense of self-preservation, though, but because the jokes were funny. Of course they were funny; we were experiencing an intense, pathological situation. We'd never seen anything like it. This guy was going mad - he'd started to do strange things, like leaving desperate notes lying around. He was starting to come out in boils]

The taunts turned into violence pretty quickly. We'd all be in bed, 20 of us in the room, and he'd be lying there, in the end bed, wondering what form it would take this time, to what extent he should try to repel it. Somebody would say his name, and then say: 'Are you awake?' He wouldn't reply. Then they'd say: 'If you don't say: 'I'm awake, John' in three seconds, we'll all throw our alarm clocks at your head. One, two . . .'

'I'm awake, John.'

'Good. But you lied. And lying is perceived in our society as a bad thing. I'm going to go round the dorm now, and ask everybody their opinion on lying. Naturally, if people think lying is a good thing, this will go no further. Otherwise, we'll have to take another vote; it will be our duty to award a punishment.'

And when it came round to me, what could I say? I would say: 'Yes, on the whole lying is a bad thing.' I would think: 'I won't have any taunting in my voice. I won't enjoy it.' But was that true? Was it true?

1992. I'm on a late-night radio talk-show, and the studio guest is Neil Lyndon, and I'm in my bedroom; the radio station has woken me up, inviting me to talk to him. Lyndon is being bullied. The callers are laying into him, using everything in their armoury: sarcasm, innuendo, crude logic-chopping. I think: I don't really agree with everything this guy says, but I admire him - he's gone against the grain. He's written a book called No More Sex War; the subtitle is 'The failures of feminism'. This is a guy who says feminism's a failure. Right. It takes a while to mull over the implications of that. Feminism a failure? It's like saying you think that black people are no good with money. It's the unsayable.

He's asking for it, this guy. This is how he describes feminism in his book: 'that towering edifice of bullshit, that Babel of intolerance and casuistry which has cast a murrain on the life of the West in the last quarter of this century.' A murrain? That's begging for it. That's not just having an unpopular opinion, that's having an unpopular opinion and going around in a silly hat.

It's my turn to say something. Here I am, back in the dormitory. The telephone line crackles. I say to Lyndon: 'I see what you're driving at, and I think it's a good point you make about paternity leave and all that, but . . . what is it that makes you so angry?' You should hear my voice. Like, what's wrong with you, pal? It's an unstoppable force, dragging me down. I don't mind the guy. He doesn't offend me. There just seems to be no other way to talk about him in public. It would seem undiplomatic to do anything else. The point is: we're not really discussing why he's wrong. We're not wasting any time doing that. We know why he's wrong. He's wrong because he's wrong. It's not his facts that are wrong. It's, it's . . . him.

I mean, he makes this point: a woman can quite easily say, 'All men are Idi Amin,' but a man can't say, 'All women are Myra Hindley.' Naturally, not all women go on child-murdering sprees and get visited in jail by Lord Longford. But then again, not all men round up their rivals and have their dicks chopped off. But you can say what you like about men. That's the convention. All men are slobs. All men are greedy. See. We don't mind. Like, I'm not sensitive about being white. Of course, I'm missing Lyndon's point. But that's the point.

The guy in the end bed started getting worse. You would see him walking around, oblivious of convention, carrying strange combinations of objects: alarm clocks, sports equipment, empty milk bottles, blankets. His boils got bigger, more serious. He started ranting, almost not speaking English any more, all his social skills slipping from him one by one. One of the boils on his face grew and grew, a large lump on his jaw, with a bright yellow head that made your flesh crawl. One day, moving erratically, as he had taken to doing, he fell face-first into the sharp edge of a door, and the boil burst, covering one side of his face with custardy pus, and then blood. He lay on the floor crying, while we all looked down at him in fascination. He left at the end of term, and never came back; nobody talked about him much after that. He was just the weird guy with the amazing boil. -

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