On Bullies, Power, and Politicians

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Some years ago I was walking in the park and met a group of children from a local nursery. One of them looked me in the eye and said, ‘You are wee-wee and poo-poo’. I confess I did not have an adequate reply to this; I was struck dumb by a combination of surprise to be so accosted, and the dawning revelations that followed on the nature of insults and their function in human relationships. The impasse was broken by one of the nursery staff who remarked, accurately, ‘That’s not very nice, Leon,’ and led him away.

Forgive me if I write a post that looks rather political, and therefore off-topic. Though it’s really about trying to understand human beings, and to process some things I’ve learned through the process of the UK’s recent general election. Helping us harmonise in the wider sense, so to speak.

I found the election campaign quite horribly hysterical, with its combination of vitriolic personal rudeness and wild bribery, and much of the prevailing narrative seemed largely impervious to the introduction of facts.

The latter feature came into focus for me when a friend shared this article the day after the election. Emotional commitment to a cause, it seems, actually prevents us from rationally processing information that might lead us to question it.

And it made me reflect: the manifestos are supposed to be a big part of this whole process, but in reality people don’t actually read them. That’s why the ‘vote for policies’ quizzes have been so interesting. They strip out party affiliation to present the actual content and thus reveal that the detail of people’s political opinions are quite often quite at odds with their usual political affiliations.

It strikes me that a lot of voting decisions are made on very immediate, emotional grounds that we then seek to back up by reason. We look at the picture of the candidate on the leaflet, and our visceral responses to like them or not shape how we read the text.

And if this is the case Ed Milliband never had a hope of becoming Prime Minister, notwithstanding the positive polls, because he had been so thoroughly set up as an object of derision in the weeks and months and probably years leading up to the election. Looking back from the other side of the election, it looks very like a sustained campaign of bullying, and whilst Milliband’s coping strategies were much like the ones I used to use to deal with bullying in school, they didn’t and couldn’t work to win an election.

My introductory anecdote about Leon demonstrates in a very pure way how insults really aren’t about the insultee. I was, and am not, wee-wee and poo-poo; these were clearly just terms that a three-year-old had discovered had the power to evoke a response. His purpose was to exercise power over me, and to the extent that he stopped me in my tracks, he succeeded.

As children get older, they learn to target their insults more precisely, to customise them to their targets so as to create and maintain insecurities that permit a more continuous exercise of power over them. Geek, weirdo, fatty, ginger, goody-two-shoes, keeno, slag, poofter are not that much more subtle, as insults go, than wee-wee and poo-poo, but they are used most effectively by children against each other in the interstices of school life to jostle for social position. It is all very nasty and can make the recipients’ lives quite miserable, and that’s why any humane school needs a decent and effective policy on bullying to mitigate its effects. I’m not sure you can prevent children bullying each other, but you can nip it in the bud so that it doesn’t become an endemic part of a school culture.

If you are on the receiving end of sustained bullying, you may find yourself adapting your behaviours in response. You may try to mitigate the differences you are being mocked for, changing your accent, vocabulary and body language, dressing differently, hiding your academic success. This won’t fool the people who started the bullying, but the protective colouration can prevent others perceiving the differences and so limits the bullies’ opportunities to recruit others into your persecution.

You may seek out and develop other social networks separate from the one in which you are bullied. One of the tough things about school is that you don’t get to pick your peer group; one of the empowering things about extra-curricular hobbies is that you do. The validation you get from having nice normal friends who like you provides great deal of resilience as it undermines the bullies’ capacity to give you a negative self-image through their insults.

If you’ve ever watched footage from a debate in the House of Commons or - worse - Prime Minister’s Question Time, you’ll have been struck by all the jeering and yah-booing and how the communicative tone is basically a lot of grown men* sticking their tongues out at each other. It’s basic primate jockeying for status at its ugliest and least civilised - macho bullshit posturing. I suppose they must think they’re impressing somebody, but I can’t regard it as a very edifying display.

And in this context, a lot of the election campaign against Labour looked like a sustained personal attack on Ed Milliband for being a bit weird. In the absence of a decent national anti-bullying policy, the press and the electorate were all recruited to mock him for having had an awkward moment with a sandwich one time when a photographer was present.** People didn’t get as far as considering policy, they never got past that visceral and ambivalent mix of revulsion and pity we feel when we witness the bully’s victim.

So all this was nasty and I feel sorry for Ed to have been on the receiving end of it. But I also think he made a strategic error in using the kind of coping strategies that involve trying to counter the accusation of being weird by trying to make yourself more normal. In both personal presentation and to an extent in his political discourse, he played down his differences and thereby let his opponents define the ground on which they fought. This buys you a quiet life at school while you develop your real interests elsewhere, but in the arena of your primary interests, it is a strategy that concedes power. It is a losing strategy.

It was the political equivalent of responding to being told you’re wee-wee and poo-poo by saying, ‘No I’m not, no I’m not, well you are too.’ When what he needed to do was stand his ground and say, ‘I may be poo-poo, but this shit is good shit, it’s hot shit, and you, my friend, can eat my shit’. (Pardon the language. I had thought Leon’s example was going to stay safely childish, but apparently a position of power produces more adult vocabulary.) If he had embraced his differences, both personal and political, in the face of the bullies, he may have been in a better position to stand his ground and not spend so much of the campaign on the back foot.

Anyway, the political conclusion I draw from this is that we could so do with a healthier political discourse and culture in this country. There’s going to be a lot of pressure for electoral reform on the cards, and one of the things I would like that to deliver - as well as more representative election results - is a system in which politicians get to interact like rational adults rather than petulant children.

The life conclusion to be drawn is that next time anyone says anything that feels like a personal insult, remember that it is nothing to do with you as you actually are, they are just trying to make you feel like wee-wee and poo-poo in order to make themselves feel powerful. You don’t have to help them by taking it to heart.

*This is both a statistical generalisation (there are depressingly few women in the House of Commons, even now) and a comment on behaviour patterns (as you listen, the jeering comes over as primarily masculine in register).
**This wasn’t the only thing he was mocked for, obviously, but it came to represent the archetypal example of the personal traits to be mocked.

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