Bullying, practical jokes and the abuse of power

Bullying, practical jokes and the abuse of power

There’s been a lot about bullying recently and I’m both glad and sad that this is the case. Glad because it needs bringing out into the open, sad that it should need to be addressed at all.

When I was a kid bullying was seen in very black and white and utterly simplistic terms. A bully was a figure of almost comic book stereotype, the brute who menaced others with fists and overt physical strength. Bullies were easy to spot in those days (I jest a little here) because they were seen as big, rather stupid and easily dealt with by applying a bit of detention, the judicious use of martial arts and running away very fast. So it was not until I was in my thirties I really began to understand that bullying is not the simple thing depicted during my school days. It took even longer to accept that my own youth had been made pretty damned miserable by a subtler, less obvious form of bullying.

You see, back then, things like name calling, merciless teasing and the like were all part of the jolly japes of learning to get on with people. Girls teased other girls because that’s what girls are like, or because they were a bit jealous….and it was all seen as part of growing up. You were told to “just ignore it” and do your best to placate the popular girls(and boys) so you could be a part of the gang. If they weren’t hitting you, it wasn’t bullying. If they weren’t extracting money from you by menaces, it was all part of the rough and tumble of school life. If they were reducing you to tears most days, then it was your fault for being a softy and you should know they don’t mean it or you should be less thin-skinned. Constant exclusion meant you weren’t trying hard enough to fit in. You get the idea.

In the end, I ran away. After a particularly difficult morning I left school premises at lunchtime, supposedly going home for lunch as usual and never got there. I walked for hours, toting both my hated athletics kit and the mangled looking fruit flan I’d made in home economics. I wasn’t to know till later the alarm had gone up and the police were out looking for me. I was 13 at the time. I finally phoned home and was collected in a police car. I stayed off school for a week after that; my form tutor came to see me. I think he knew what had been going on, but you didn’t tell teachers unless you could show actual bruises. He arranged for some of my class mates to come and see me before I came back. He thought he’d chosen my friends but he wasn’t to know that all but one of the girls he brought round were the very ones I’d been in conflict with. Looking back, I am sure they didn’t realise that their behaviour had been making me that miserable. How could they? They, like me, were just teenage girls trying to make sense of the world and keep their own heads above water. Three years later, one of the worst of the bunch cracked up under exam pressure and attempted an overdose in a phone box. She did eventually sit 3 of her O levels, but not the expected 9. I never talked to her about what happened, and I’ve not seen her for more than 30 years. I wonder now if her constant bitching at me for being a swot was as a result of her being terrified that she was not as clever as her older sister, and since I was an easy target, she vented her insecurities on me.

However you define bullying(and believe me, the definition is much broader and more sensible now than it was when I was a kid) bullying is about power. It’s not about lunch money or anything tangible. It’s about someone who feels the need to make themselves feel powerful by making someone else feel powerless. Whether in the workplace or the home, at school or at college, or even on social media (where bullying is rife and impossible to pin down) bullying is a form of terrible emotional abuse that needs fighting.

I’m maybe going out on a limb here but something that I feel falls into the bullying camp is practical jokes. I know plenty of people may disagree with this and tell me I have no sense of humour but the vast majority of practical jokes are about the exercise of power of one person over another. Even the crude, basic ones like the whoopee cushion are about someone reducing another person to a figure of fun, to be jeered at. They’re often about the humiliation of the victim. Just as rape is not about sex, practical jokes are not about humour.

Practical jokes tell the victim: you’re not as smart as me or you’d never have fallen for it. They tell them you’re stupid and gullible and worthless. If you get upset about one, the recourse is the same: you’re stupid because you don’t have a sense of humour and you take yourself too seriously. Practical jokes are generally about an exercise of power, an abuse of relationship. The more elaborate the joke, usually the more venom is behind them.

During my school days, I was a part of a couple of practical joking campaigns, swept along by the will of a whole class led by a few ringleaders. One was against our German teacher, who, while being a nice person was, indisputably, a very poor teacher. The will of the class was to try and get rid of her so we could have a better teacher. The other was against a history teacher who replaced our previous inspirational and much admired teacher. It was a war of attrition, of undermining his tenuous authority, by lessons where a subtle hum was started that continued almost subliminally for over an hour, despite his increasingly apoplectic shouting. Each lesson some new trick was tried, until he could cope no more and called in the head of department who we were all genuinely scared of.

I am to this day ashamed that I did nothing to object to these campaigns against people whose only crime was to be less than brilliant teachers. My German teacher moved schools. My history teacher left teaching. That’s what bullying can do, even when it is hidden under the guise of practical joking. At the time, aged about 15 I was uneasy but I did find it funny. Some teachers were seen as the enemy, and oddly enough it wasn’t the strict ones who we were scared of. I wish I could apologise to the two people we hurt. The only excuse I can offer is we were all too young to really know better.

Maybe I am a humourless, over-sensitive sort of person but to me practical joking is too often a way of getting away with bullying another person and buoying up a very skinny, undernourished self esteem by making someone else feel small.

7 thoughts on “Bullying, practical jokes and the abuse of power

  1. I know what you’re saying about practical jokes. There is actually a very fine line between what is acceptable in a concurring group, (eg: scouts at camp agreeing in groups to play jokes on each other, to be adjudicated by leaders) and what is bullying, by singling out one person for humiliation. The difference seems to be in the ongoing relationship between the people concerned: if there is a deep core of friendship then a joke is fine, practical or verbal, but without that relationship, it really ISN’T funny.
    And by the way, I happen to know that you do have a very fine sense of humour, Viv. 🙂 x


    • You make some excellent points here, Kate, and I’m glad you did. I was victim to many rather awful jokes played on me by a family member who did things like put loaded mousetraps into my bed, and what you say about ongoing friendship is so relevant here.
      I’m glad you like my sense of humour…


    • I was just writing somewhere else that practical jokes are bullying/power games but that within a friendship group they can be fun and Kate you’ve said perfectly what I was grappling around with in many less words
      “The difference seems to be in the ongoing relationship between the people concerned: if there is a deep core of friendship then a joke is fine” and also the point of a concurring group.

      I was bullied through school form the age of 9 to 16 [it was ok-ish in 6th form]. But also in ballet school – that became full time at 18. then at college [my first year of art school near home was amazing] then in work. The most confusing bullying was within an art group that included people who were respected for inclusiveness, looked up to etc. It was only a year or two later that I was able to pin point it – because I was talking to someone who did not know me or the group personally on his first meeting with us all, and had noticed the dynamic and asked his girlfriend of the time what was going on [she shrugged it off]. When he mentioned the word bullying it was such a relief because my feelings then had a name. And actually I could put the feelings aside.
      During school years I became very ill in the 3rd year I missed huge chunks of school. The pain was real but it was due to the social situation: head & stomach pain.. And the teachers were crap at dealing with it. My father requested of a teacher in charge of welfare that she keep an eye out at particular times and places to catch it happening – verbal & physical. He also said not to do/say anything until she was witness to it. You probably can guess what happened next,,,


  2. Yes. There are so many ways we can conspire to humiliate or belittle others. And as you know, the effects of these efforts last a VERY long time. I’m so sorry about what happened to you.

    In hopes of combatting this tendency, I wrote about this on my professional blog a while back, about how often we create “games” that are designed to humiliate youth (or other people in church). Here’s the post, if you’re interested:



  3. I agree that a lot of practical jokes are about belittling the victim. You also reminded me of something that happened in school. We had an unpopular teacher and our class did the humming thing. I was about 12 at the time and remember pretending to go along with it so I wasn’t picked on, and bullies rely on this, that other people will be so grateful that the spotlight isn’t on them they’ll join in or ignore what’s happening.
    This particular teacher left teaching too and I still feel bad about that 30 years later.


  4. Yes, I’d forgotten about the whole go along with it until today and I saw various tweets reporting being berated for not keeping the twittersilence.
    The thing to remember is we’re adults and we have minds and voices and choices of our own. Bullies seek to take all those away from us.


  5. Excellent post, Viv. I remember being encouraged to recite ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. Might have made sense if it was true. Entirely agree about ‘practical’ jokes, including the ‘gotchas’ that appear in FB videos. As you indicate, it’s all about self esteem in the end. Those whose self-esteem is damaged set out to empower themselves by damaging others.


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