March 18, 2011

On Bullies and Accomplices

Tom Brown’s Schooldays is not my favourite text, but it is full of educational and relational ideals that seem to endure, especially now, when they are so seldom observed. Not least among its lessons is the attitude towards bullying, a theme that recurs throughout the novel. I’ve been given to turn once again to these pages after having witnessed the video of the Australian bullying and the victim’s rather emphatic response to it. That young man has made something of a name for himself, but his notoriety saddens me to some extent. The idle idiots who shot the video, and who then presumably submitted it to the local news, succeeded in getting both boys suspended from school. And now he’ll spend the rest of his childhood being ‘the fat kid who fought back’. He did the right thing, but it should have been private. He should have been able to fight his own battles and have the satisfaction of prevailing. Now he has lost control. In joining the fray of commentators I realise I’m adding to that loss, but the example – since it is public – must now serve to assist the thousands of others undergoing his torment. Those idle bystanders who have brought Casey Heynes to international attention represent the silent culprits complicit in bullying everywhere. Whatever we think of Heynes and his bully, we must roundly scorn those who implicitly endorse bullying by their inaction.

Let us turn to Thomas Hughes. Tom and East dig in and beat off their assailant (the scene depicted above), but in return the bully Flashman sullies their reputations. The legacy outlasts his presence. It is easier to follow the bully than to strike out for what is right: 
If the Angel Gabriel were to come down from heaven, and head a successful rise against the most abominable and unrighteous vested interest, which this poor old world groans under, he would most certainly lose his character for many years, probably for centuries, not only with upholders of said vested interest, but with the respectable mass of the people whom he had delivered. They wouldn’t ask him to dinner, or let their names appear with his in the papers; they would be very careful how they spoke of him in the Palaver, or at their clubs… But… bear in mind that majorities, especially respectable ones, are nine times out of ten in the wrong; and that if you see a man or boy striving on the weak side, however wrong-headed or blundering he may be, you are not to go and join the cry against him. If you can’t join him and help him, and make him wiser, at any rate remember that he has found something in the world which he will fight and suffer for, which is just what you have got to do for yourselves; and so think and speak of him tenderly.
Not every boy will have the power to overcome his bullies. Sometimes guile must serve in the stead of brute force. Sometimes reserves of fortitude must be drawn upon. But he must give no quarter; must not comply. He must know, deep down, however much it hurts, and however much the fear debilitates, that his tormentor is more afraid than him. The tormentor is the coward, the uncertain, the envious. However unhappy the boy, the bully is more so. The boy must dig deep, for right is on his side. And when he does fight his battles, he should fight them without the world’s attention. But he would be helped if his peers, knowing right from wrong, and being cognisant of his plight, did not follow the bully’s path of least resistance. If I were to suspend anyone in Casey’s case, it would be the girl with the camera on her phone. She had her chance to do the right thing, to do something, and she failed. The bully got what was coming to him, and may have learnt his lesson. That should have been an end to it. But what has she learnt?


  1. Doctor, I see complications here.
    First, courage. Surely, it is necessary to defend oneself. It is also necessary to attack. - Are you really going to make a point about cowardly, scared bullies when your latest object is half the size of the kid he attacked? I call foul on that judgment. But of course, I agree that decency will hold all bullying naughty.
    Secondly, our peers. What is the worth of courage, even in defending oneself, when one's peers stand by one? In fact, if it is just that we hold with the weak, then the weak at least should hold together - and justice and courage will soon seem quite different things. Aloofness and keeping private may be courageous - but then our peers should be held at bay, if necessary. But on the other hand, justice comes up when we make private concerns public...
    Thirdly, fighting. You have to like it to want it to be fair. Do not we hold in contempt those who cannot - or will not - fight for themselves? Probably, because they lack the fighting spirit.
    Let me end in bright spirits, commending you for picking on a girl.

  2. I wish the world could see you winking when you end with comments like that.

    Your point, the first: size is nothing to the purpose. Expectation is everything. The bully expected his victim to be weak. He was not only cowardly; he was also stupid.

    I would not hold in contempt anyone who could not fight. The helpless deserve a different kind of attention. And for those who appear not to want to fight, well, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Fists and brickbats aren't the only way to triumph, although in schoolyard instances they often seem paramount.

  3. Hi Vir,

    Just goes to show that both good and bad come out of Australia...

    It is exceptionally hard to show courage is the sort of environment this young man found himself in. The bully got what he deserved, but I fear without the video and exposure this would have just been an escalation of the situation. The gang mentality would have dictated a serious get-even fest at the next available opportunity.

    What disturbs me about these situations though are those that go along with the micro-culture, as amply illustrated in Lord of the Flies.

    The real courage needed here is from those who are not involved, those who are the majority and actually hold the true power. Those that have the power to neutralise the gang mentality by the sheer force of their numbers and their will.

    Allowing this to continue is everyones responsibility, and it is a shame that a gentle spirited boy needed to act on his own. He was totally justified in his actions, but the shame was that he had to act at all.

  4. Doctor, wishing will not make it so. If we have learnt anything, it is that nothing will. But while the jury is out who will decide this question - there is always a jury these days - we may entertain each other.

    Looking at the dreary picture, I cannot agreeing noticing that the darling scoundrel misunderstood the situation; an error of judgment, but perhaps a lesson in psychology.

    Stupidity is just another name for courage, if belligerence is involved. After all, if you wanted only clever courageous men, you would soon end up with calculated violence, which is quite successful, but fundamentally cowardly.

    Anger, I believe, is that passion which moves us to misunderstand these situations. It focuses us on ourselves and our perceived wrong, which must promptly and properly be righted, to the detriment of judgment...

    When attacking superior enemies, there is great risk involved; when attacking roughly equal enemies, it is something of a coin toss. But it is not merely chance at play; there is also the element of surprise; and behind that - belligerence. This brings us back to courage.

    Finally, let me applaud your generosity and liberality in not contemning the weak and incompetent. Probably, so long as morality holds with such folks, they will not even need to contemplate defense. You are, of course, aware that that will blind them to the nature of anger and violence... I can see you taking up generalship in earnest, now, for weakness is best contemplated from a position of strength - and your professions put you in the market for an army...

  5. Bullying is the past-time of cowards, in my view, who see something in someone else that reminds them of themselves, or at least an aspect of themselves that they find weak, vulnerable, or of contempt. I regret the times that I as a lad either was a bully (rare, thank goodness) or witnessed it in others and did nothing. We are all God's creatures, and deserve respect for it.


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