Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Peter and the Wolf



One of the gifts of longevity is that it brings perspective. Not that I am an old man, of course. Not yet. But I've the benefit of nearly a half century of experiences. Experience, as I have said before, is what is left behind as we live, a bit like ashes after the fire.

Friday night, I was out for a quick drink and dinner with my wife; en route, her mobile rang, and she took the call from a friend. Her son and ours were these past couple of years classmates and friends at the same school. Our son this year, entering grade seven (the dreaded middle school), has moved to a new school, leaving behind the old one and some old friends.

Our son is a bit of an introvert - quiet, introspective. He's always preferred books to sports. He's cautious - eyeing the other kids and studying them - until he can sort who is who, and upon gaining some level of familiarity and comfort, makes a small number of friends. In some ways, this marks him as other in his cohort, and on a couple of occasions, has attracted the attention of bullies. Bullies in the classic sense, mind you. 

I personally hate bullying; I hate it at an intellectual level, and I despise it at a visceral one. 

The purpose of the call Friday was that Alastair's friend (the son of my wife's friend) has become the target of bullies back at his old school. The school was woefully impotent in dealing with the harassment when it was focused on our son; in this case, they have taken some steps to deal with the problem. The other boy's mother was calling to report the improvement to Jennifer.

I'm happy for this other boy of course - he, like Alastair, is a bit other, and that makes something of an easy target. Now that my son is gone, the wolves have found him.

I'm pleased that the school at least makes an appearance of intervening.

My wife and I, over drinks, were talking about this case, specifically, and of bullying more generally.

Why, we discussed, did it seem that these kids who last year took on our son, so conveniently turned their eyes to the next "weakest" kid in the class? Why him?

We read a lot these days about "bullying," whether it's the president engaging in infantile wars of insults with Hollywood celebrities, or executives belittling employees in companies, or teen girls shaming or excluding each other - the "mean girl" syndrome made famous in a movie of the same name?

The common "wisdom" is that bullies are internally conflicted - themselves vulnerable, weak, and insecure - and that their aggression is a defensive reflex. 

Honestly, as I get older, I find this excuse less and less persuasive.

In Japan, there is an expression, "弱肉強食" - weak meat, strong eat. 

I find this much more aligned to what my eyes see and my ears hear.

There is a new movie just released called "Wonder," where a congenitally disfigured little boy who for the first few years of his life is home-schooled; the parents, reckognising that they cannot shield him from the ugly truth of life forever, enroll him in a private school for grade five, and the boy (named "Auggie") of course encounters some rough sledding. I've not seen the movie, but I'm connected to an ex-teacher (who I had for both sixth and eighth grades) who did see it today, and has given high praise.

One comment of hers that struck me was this:
You also could see that bullies are really the insecure people.
Now, my former teacher has had far more direct experience with kids than I have, and I give a great deference to her wisdom here. But again, I am a sceptic at this point that this is the truth behind bullying.

Weak meat, strong eat.

We live in a society that likes to pretend that it is more refined than it really is. We believe that, if some bad guy tries to break into our house, the cops will get him. Or that white collar crooks who game the system can be constrained by ever more “regulation.”

We pretend that the veneer of civility is thicker than it really is. 

I don't believe it. It is denial in the extreme. RULES and enforcement are not what cause crooks not to break car windows, Wall St crooks not to use crooked, illegal deals to get rich, or bullies not to hurt other kids. There are just not enough police, enforcers, or teachers willing and able.

Bullies seek out perceived “weak” kids because they have been re-enforced with the knowledge that they are going to get away with it. 

For all of our rules and our therapists and our technological wonders, we are not so removed from what we have always been - human beings are tribal, violent creatures who over millennia have evolved skills to kill or be killed.

We live in a world of predators and prey. Kids can sense this.

I’m nearly 50 years old; I was not bullied terribly as a kid, but I had more than one incident, starting in kindergarten. I remember the names and faces of the kids, and the attacks, 40 years later. 

If you were ever bullied, I am sure that you do as well.

Thinking back 35 or 40 years ago, I was not big enough nor popular enough to be one of the predators. Thank God I was not considered odd or weak enough to be one of the prey, either. Spend ten seconds recalling your youth. If you were a bully or one of the bullied, I am sure you can remember, even if you've tried to forget. And if you were, like me, in neither camp,  I am pretty damned sure that you can name a couple of your former classmates who were.

From time to time, I think about them. I wonder where they are? What's become of them?

One of the things I sincerely regret from my youth was that when I was young, I knew that what was going on was wrong, and yet I kept quiet. It was mainly because of fear - the predators saw the kid on the playground whose leg was lame, and they were all over him. If I had said anything, it might have been me. So I kept my mouth shut. 

Chances are, you did, too.

I would like to think that, if I had the chance to be 11 again, I would stick up for the weak, but I know it's not true. 

The funny (and also, sad) thing is this - the bulk of the kids on the playground standing by the swings watching, hoping that they don't catch the eye of the wolf over by the jungle gym together could easily stop the bullying. But they don't. As an adult, this is obvious. As a kid though, it's one of those matters of faith that parents telly you, but you just never accept.

So we keep quiet.

Parents as well - the mother of the girl who desperately wants to be friends with the queen bee mean girl pretends that it's OK because it's not her daughter. The father of the boy not quite "cool" enough or good enough at football who encourages his son not to sit with the "Melvin" at lunch - enable this. Our kids watch what we do, and they respond. 

I'm no psychologist, but I honestly think that bullying weaker kids is the way that the strong ones express their dominance. We're not so different from gorillas; we just have fancier toys.



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