We need to grasp bullying by the horns

Whenever I start to research a topic, usually in response to a media request, I look carefully at the language being used. Recently was asked to comment on ways of helping children who were experiencing bullying. As it happens, in the 1980’s I was a member of one of the first Local Education Authority’s anti-bullying working parties. The work we did in Haringey went on to inform a lot of the subsequent Department for Education policy and guidance for LEAs and schools in addressing this topic.

These days all state maintained schools must have a behaviour policy in place that includes measures across the whole school system for preventing bullying among pupils. In addition, various workplace initiatives and recommendations have been made by government such as the advisability of anti-bullying and harassment policies.

There is undoubtedly a much greater awareness abroad and no shortage of on-line advice, textbooks and guidance documents to try and reduce this difficult aspect of human interaction and I do, of course, applaud it. However, I suspect there is a level of institutional and societal bullying that continues and is untouched by the advice and literature. I have a theory that it is because the root meaning and cause of bullying has not really been acknowledged or addressed and the answer to this may well lie in what I discovered when I went back to understanding the roots of the actual word bullying.

The word bullying is derived from the mid 16th century Dutch word boele, which originally meant ‘lover’. Initially it was used as a term of endearment for members of either sex and then later as a familiar form of address to a male friend. According to Skeat’s ‘A Concise Etymological Dictionary Of The English Language’ the current meaning dates from the Low German bollaert, meaning a ‘jester or gyber’ or ‘boisterous fellow’ and the Swedish bullerbas, meaning ‘a noisy, rough fellow’. All of this suggests therefore, that bullying is about behaviour that is noisy, rough and in essence masculine. This isn’t to say it is only something done by males, rather it is viewed as masculine in nature.

In my work with children, young people and adults I have come across bullying in many forms. The current criteria for defining bullying in schools especially, include three main aspects, i.e. that it usually takes place between individuals of a similar age and there is often an additional group dynamic where the bully has supportive and collusive allies, it happens repeatedly over time and, fundamentally, takes place because of a power imbalance.

If we return to the original meaning of the word bullying and the gendered aspects of this it isn’t a huge leap to make to see that those with voice and power might well be termed noisy and rough. I think of government, commerce, finance, law, academia, elite sport and nearly all the other institutions of our times and reflect on the fact that this power imbalance is observed and experienced by our young in all aspects of their lives. It seems illogical, in a way, that the anti-bullying work started by trying to tackle what was happening in schools amongst children and young people when really we should have been grasping bullying by the horns and looking at the ways in which adults operate.

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