I bully, you bully, we are victims

Frank Furedi thinks that what was once seen as the rough and tumble of life is now taken too seriously

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Bullying is the latest hot topic for social commentators and is the subject of a new BBC2 documentary series, Bully, that starts this Tuesday. Nothing symbolises the nervous Nineties more than the emergence of the bully industry. As it has become increasingly fashionable to take on the status of a victim, so the concept of "the bully" finds itself in the spotlight. By the time you've watched this series you may be convinced that, since we are all the pathetic victims of bullying, we should be relieved just to have survived. Thoughtfully, the BBC has provided a Bullying Survival Guide, offering advice to "people suffering from bullying, at school or at home, from primary school to old age".

It is not just the BBC that regards bullying as a major issue of our times. The Department of Education has spent pounds 500,000 on its "Don't suffer in silence campaign" and encourages research on the subject. In schools it is not only counsellors and teachers who receive training in "bullying awareness", dinner ladies, too, are encouraged to scrutinise their charges for signs. Union activists are more likely to be sent to a bullying awareness seminar than to a course on wage negotiation.

According to academic experts, bully counsellors and now the BBC, bullying has become a way of life. In their view, virtually every difficult or unpleasant encounter is a variety of bullying. As a university teacher I have become all too aware of the promiscuous use of the term. Those who display their intellectual superiority can now be accused of "academic bullying". A friend's daughter was accused of bullying by her Sussex University tutor because she repeatedly told another student that "you are wrong" during a seminar.

There was a time when bullying was perceived as an unpleasant but unavoidable part of growing up. As children we were "picked on" and "picked on" others. Children can be cruel: they tend to call fat people "Fatty"and acne sufferers "Spotty". I was sometimes called "Jew-boy" - it was part of learning to deal with the harsh realities of life. It was unpleasant but seen as something different from the systematic terror meted out to the very unfortunate by those who felt able to throw their weight about. Parents and teachers and neighbours did their best to protect children from systematic violence. But they also clearly distinguished it from the routine rough and tumble of childhood. It was recognised that part of growing up was to negotiate pain and unpleasant experiences. Perhaps we learn compassion by knowing what it feels like to be at the receiving end of abuse. And kids are resilient - they learn to cope. Today, when we live in a world where children are forbidden to have "difficult encounters", the meaning of the term "bully" has been inflated to encompass a variety of routine childhood experiences.

In the process the perceived danger of bullying has become wildly exaggerated, from being seen as one of the hurtful experiences of growing up, to being represented as a pathology that scars its victims for life. The definition of what constitutes bullying has expanded to include almost every form of negative human engagement. Definitions vary but the meaning of bullying is often reduced to such banalities as "repeated negative action towards another person".

According to a report published by the Barking and Dagenham Education Department, for example, bullying can be anything from name calling, exclusion from groups, spreading nasty rumours to physical violence. One academic has discovered the phenomenon of bullying "by gestures". "Fists and grimaces can be particularly effective, and as they are made in silence they carry much less risk for the bully," he argues.

It does not even have to involve a hurtful act. According to a co-author of one study, "bullying is an attitude rather than an act". Moreover an act can now be called bullying even if no hurtful outcome was intended. A report produced by the trade union MSF, Bullying at Work, how to tackle it, states: "Bullying is defined largely by the impact of the behaviour on the recipient, not its intention." You can bully without even knowing it.

With such imprecision and all-encompassing definitions it is not surprising that the statistics show an alarmingly high incidence. Experts claim that one in four schoolchildren is bullied - but if you consider that much of this is name-calling, it is surprising the figure is so low. Can any of us say we have never called someone an unpleasant name?

Then there is the concept of indirect bullying, such as failure to involve a child in a circle of friends.Social exclusion, or "emotional bullying", is represented as the most painful variety.

This kind of inflation and trivialisation of bullying is gradually turning virtually every human encounter into an experience of abuse. In the past year soldiers, police officers, middle managers and a variety of workers have insisted that bullies have destroyed their lives. A recent study by the psychology department of the University of Surrey has concluded that many "poorly trained" school heads were bullying their teachers. Another report concurred and added that this experience has reduced adults to the "state of frightened children". Once teachers come to see themselves as frightened children, then anything goes. A primary school teacher recently confided in me that in her school she was bullied ... by nine-year-old children.

If work-place bullying is really perceived as such a problem then we should not be surprised that trade unions should be taking an interest, and there have been a number of reports published by trade unions looking at the issue. MSF, for example, whose members include senior managerial staff, claims that 30 per cent of respondents to one survey thought that bullying was a significant problem. But is this a recent development or merely a new set of concepts? What MSF categorises as bullying in the workplace appears to differ little from what used to be called office politics.

Assertive behaviour is increasingly presented as bullying. Personality clashes, in the past shrugged off as petty office vendettas, are today taken more seriously. A variety of other acts - indiscreet behaviour, clumsy management styles, the refusal to ask a colleague for a drink - are all potentially the act of the pervasive bully.

Why are experiences that people managed to live with for centuries suddenly labelled as relations of abuse? Have we really uncovered a human tragedy of catastrophic proportions?

We live in a world where we increasingly identify ourselves as victims. Instead of taking responsibility for our actions we are encouraged to blame other people or institutions for our misfortunes. And everyone can cash in on their victimhood. To say that "I was bullied at the age of four" helps explain failures 40 years later. Whereas once people were expected to draw a line under the past and get on with their lives, counsellors now urge them to relive the problems of the past and encourage the belief that those negative experiences will be with them for ever.

Those who question the basic premise that we are all victims or bullies or both risk the accusation of callousness and insensitivity. There is always some terrible tragedy - the rare, but widely reported, suicide of a bullied child, for example - that can be held up as a totem to demonstrate where such callousness leads. Those who fail to listen must bear responsibility.

But, if we do accept this victim/ bully vision of the world, we are forced to conclude that we humans are so pathetic that we cannot get through life without enlightened professionals to hold our hands. And if every time that someone hurts our pride we reach for a bully counsellor then the line that divides adults from children will become truly indistinct.

Perhaps the biggest casualties of this inflationary logic are those who are genuinely terrorised. For, if everyone is bullied then, in some ways, no one is. It becomes normal behaviour and that really is bad news for those in need of help. Their cries for help are drowned out by the clamour.

The writer is a sociologist at the University of Kent. His `Culture of Fear' has just been published by Cassell.

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