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.