Dilemmas: Rip off the bully's whatsits, or quit the job

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Bullying is an emotional subject, but when a reader wrote in about his friend Alex, who was being bullied at work, I wasn't prepared for so many men writing in so passionately and aggressively.

It is one thing for parents of bullied children in the school playground to recommend their children hit back, but suggestions that Alex should beat his tormentors to a pulp were a surprise - although I found it refreshing after so many answers to problems in the past recommending 'reasoning', 'frank talks' and 'counselling'.

Many felt playground tactics should be met with playground tactics. Punch him on the nose] Rip off his whatsits] I'll getcha]

'Get fit, take self-defence classes; when you are ready, wait till another incident occurs and then, outside working hours and not on the work premises, beat the crap out of them,' recommended A C Daddow of Bristol. 'I am a committed pacifist who had to learn the hard way. Bullying ruined my life for 12 years.'

Simon of Plymouth was also of the fisticuffs camp, suggesting that Alex should follow his example. 'I grabbed one of the bullies by the throat and kicked the shit out of him. I told him it was his privilege to dislike me, but my possessions, my person and my privacy were sacrosanct. I don't get any shit from him now.'

A rather more sophisticated - and more socially and legally acceptable - version of the same thing came from John Smyth of Shooters Hill, London. He recommended a martial arts course for Alex - 'not to belabour his ignorant and stupid workmates with death-dealing blows, but to change his own mental attitude to coping with aggression . . . No one bullies a man who has the confidence that comes from self-esteem and the knowledge that if he is pushed past a certain threshold, he is capable of retaliation.

'I have practised martial arts for 11 years; during that time I have never struck anyone in anger. You don't have to hit someone to convey this, you don't even have to threaten, you just have to make it implicit in your bearing towards fellow workers . . . by giving the message that the bullies are not safe when they attack you.'

Andrea Adams, author of Bullying at Work (Virago), writes: 'He could go to the welfare or personnel officer or union route, but he'll worry that if he does, it might get worse. And it might. It's only his word against theirs. He might be accused of being a troublemaker by management or a whistle-blower by the bullies, and he might get the sack. Also, we're brought up in this country not to tell tales. Even with a sympathetic firm, he might only be offered a move. But why shouldn't the bully be moved instead?

'Alex should remember that most gangs of bullies usually contain one ringleader, and most people in the gang are joining in the bullying to prevent it happening to them.

'I would recommend that Alex identifies the ringleader, and then gets very angry. The worm should turn, telling the ringleader he's bloody furious. It is often quite effective, particularly if the bully is as he is because in his past he has been constantly humiliated, blamed or shouted at. We all take with us to work the legacy of past relationships, and you will often find a bully shrivel at the sound of an angry voice.'

Why should Alex get angry or assert himself? asked Anne Cattermull of London SW11. 'Deeply embedded in the British character is the belief that you should always stand up for yourself against the bully. We have been reared on tales of Tom Brown's Schooldays, with a firm conviction that the plucky individual who stands, after all, on the higher moral ground can fight back and see the bully off.

'Sadly, all too often it isn't true, particularly when the bully is a group of people rather than an individual. The urge to search for a self-generated solution should not necessarily be seen as the best and most dignified way of dealing with the problem.'

She says that unless fate takes a hand - a new manager arrives or the main bully leaves - the only solution may be radically to change the situation yourself by quitting.

Certainly when Stephen of Wimbledon was bullied, he left. He was bullied by a group of women under him. 'Bullying from women is quite hard for a male to handle as there is a natural reluctance to fight back. I found it particularly difficult because I had worked successfully with women before, in teaching and publishing. On many occasions I cried on my wife's shoulder when I came home after another burning confrontation.

'Perhaps Alex should also ask himself why he is being bullied. It appears the group regards him as a threat because he is different - bright, intelligent and hard-working.'

Envy was quite common among the bullies, it seemed. One correspondent, from Kingston upon Hull, Humberside (who advised leaving), wrote that he had been the victim of psychological abuse because workmates became jealous of a small amount of money he had inherited (the amount was greatly inflated through rumour). 'A handful of jealous workmates made my life a misery, with whispers of sexual deviancy, my work sabotaged and work tools hidden or stolen. I was almost driven to suicide.'

Dignified quitting seems an attractive option. Why is it, then, that however much Alex tells himself that leaving is what Anne Cattermull describes 'as an act that takes considerable strength of character and is the ultimate act of self-respect', he will probably find his head flops down every time he tries to hold it high?

Perhaps it isn't a simple case of hitting or quitting. If Alex decides to leave anyway, he has nothing to lose by trying to meet the bully's aggressive behaviour with more of the same before he throws in the towel. He should psych himself up, find the ringleader, catch him alone and, with all the fury he can muster, yell: 'You bastard] How dare you]'

If that approach fails, he can leave with his pride intact.

Dear Virginia,

I have an elderly friend who has been like a mother to me ever since I can remember. She is a splendid, entertaining woman who has survived many dreadful crises and led a full and creative life. Now, at 75, she finds she has cancer. I have spent a lot of time with her, driving her to hospital and so on, and visiting her, but she has bouts of terrible pain and weeping depression, and she is going rapidly blind. She says life is not worth living. Quite frankly, looked at objectively, it is not. The doctors are hopeless. Some say she might live another couple of years, others say she won't last longer than a few of months. Intellectually, she is very strong and she argues forcefully in favour of taking her own life. She dreads the idea of the cancer going to her brain, or dying in a hospice, away from her home. She has written off for various books about euthanasia, but the print is so small that she relies on me to read out passages about what she needs to kill herself. She says she can trust no one but me. But I feel very uneasy. How far, morally, should I go in helping a woman I love to die?

Yours, Patricia

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