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?