Why has bullying become our favourite sin?

An eager interest in suffering now pervades the media in a way that is quite new
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Did he cry? Were those famous, sightless eyes more red and damp than usual at the emotion of the occasion? Almost certainly, yes. Not since Mrs Thatcher blubbed her way out of Downing Street have the photographers captured a moment of political downfall so perfectly. The front pages of most newspapers have duly provided their readers with that great money shot of contemporary life: public tears.

Did he cry? Were those famous, sightless eyes more red and damp than usual at the emotion of the occasion? Almost certainly, yes. Not since Mrs Thatcher blubbed her way out of Downing Street have the photographers captured a moment of political downfall so perfectly. The front pages of most newspapers have duly provided their readers with that great money shot of contemporary life: public tears.

In these strange times, a law of opposites obtains. Just as an apparently liberal-minded government exudes authoritarianism, and anxiety over healthy eating has heralded a golden age of obesity, so it is that the more we talk about caring and kindness towards each other, the more that something akin to bullying infects our public, professional and private attitudes.

Perhaps "unkindness" would be a better word. Bullying, after all, is a problem that belongs to a different kind of news story. It is what education secretaries vow to stamp out in our schools, particularly when the suicide of a teenager is in the news. It was what happened over a period of years at Deepcut Barracks, what caused a wing commander to be suspended this week, and the captain of HMS Somerset to be relieved of his duties.

Bullying appears to be one of the besetting sins of the age. The events perpetrated at Abu Ghraib prison - and, we can safely assume, in other parts of Iraq and Afghanistan where there were no cameras around - belong to the same family of brutality as the mistreatment of recruits or junior servicemen. At Camp X-Ray, three years of unimaginable deprivation, an existence in two-metre-square wire cages, methods of interrogation involving extreme heat and cold, hour after hour of deafening heavy-metal music or being forced to hold "stress positions" has, in certain political circles, earnt the cheerful sobriquet "torture lite".

The elements that these different forms of bullying have in common - taunting, violence, humiliation, often of a sexual kind - are similar enough to be predictable. But why now? When considering cruelty, whether in a school playground or in Guantanamo Bay, it is worth asking what it is in the modern world that makes bullying such a contemporary issue. Is there something in our new, caring sensibility that has made us more alert to human pain, more easily outraged by the suffering of others? Or are we, simply and depressingly, becoming more brutal than we were 10 or 20 years ago?

An answer of sorts is to be found in the way we now amuse ourselves, and how we treat those in public life. Reality shows, for example, have been evolving in a particularly interesting way. In the early days, it was enough to have the innocent pleasure of eavesdropping on the ordinary, and sometimes not so ordinary, conversations and choices being played out in front of the camera.

Soon, the inherent, peeping-tom prurience of these programmes became more explicit, with producers pandering to the lust of the public by, for instance, filling the Big Brother house with over-sexed show-offs in the hope of some on-camera action.

That was not enough to satisfy the appetites of the viewer. An element of cruelty, of public shame, has now become such an essential part of the formula that any reality show that is not embarrassing in some way now seems tame. There is an unspoken agreement between those who appear on those programmes and the rest of us who watch. They have a shot at fame and the cash that goes with it; we are offered the chance to see them stripped of any kind of dignity as they are terrified, confused and humiliated live on camera for our pleasure.

It is bullying, a coarsening of sympathy. There is less distance between the public desire to see Paul Burrell being forced to eat a kangaroo's testicle on TV and real cruelty in a barracks or prison than we might like to think.

This eager interest in suffering now pervades the media in a way that is quite new, and is reflected in the way that we follow the careers, the marriages, the comings together and the fallings apart of those in public life. This week, a serious-minded but futile documentary followed Ron Atkinson, the football pundit whose career was destroyed by racist comment, as he visited the southern states of America, allowed himself to be sneered at by Darcus Howe, and apologised again and again. "I've had an aberration," he muttered at one point.

The impulse behind the programme was essentially sadistic, an exploration of how far a public figure can fall, and, so in a subtler way, has the coverage of the Blunkett affair - the clammy profiles, the emotional probings, the bitchy, sanctimonious attacks on his former lover.

Cruelty is the flip side of sentimentality. The phenomenon of a public keening with emotion and self-pity, first apparent after the death of Princess Diana and more recently associated with the remarks that landed Boris Johnson in trouble, is directly connected to what may appear to be its polar opposite. Just as a small child may be unkind to a kitten for the sheer pleasure of comforting and making up to it later, so, in order to make ourselves feel more emotionally alive, we become part of a caring, bullying culture.

terblacker@aol.com

Comments