The issue of bullying has been in the news lately and, as we do with everything these days, the issue has been pathologized – turned into a sickness that calls for re-education, the talking cure.
Instead, the study suggests, we should give bullies jobs, and hold them accountable.
It seems strange that jobs, like being a hall monitor, should constrain bullies, yet this is only the outward, superficial way in which we now conceive the problem. What is needed is codes of honour that constrain the behaviour of the would-be dominants to strict channels.
We used to raise young men with a code of honour. My education from the age of six to sixteen was in a light security British prisoner of war camp, called a private school. The whole place was imbued with the spirit of containing and expressing male behaviour in useful channels: sports, cadets, prefects, academic awards. Status hierarchies of all kinds abounded -clubs, “houses” – the artificial division of the class into pseudo-tribes: everything conduced to take the human male and turn him into a useful citizen. Even the teaching was good.
How did the whole system work to confine “bullying”? Bullying was dishonourable aggression against the younger and the weaker. Aggression against anyone in that environment was tolerated up to a very precise point. Beyond that point, you broke the code of being a gentleman. We did not understand exactly what being a gentleman was, but the understanding grew with time into a set of assumptions that you do not oppress the weak; you compete with the strong for honours.
The alphas were confined to a code of honourable behaviour. Picking on the little ones was held beneath contempt, and elicited -if necessary – the violence of the alphas against unauthorized aggression by other alphas, and likewise of violence by betas against deltas and gammas. The life of a flamingly effeminate boy was no paradise, but he was not beaten up. In short, life was no worse than it had to be, even for the omegas.
I am not saying the place was without its tensions. You cannot confine young males to desks and expect them to always behave. Male aggression was in a real sense systemic, but controlled by status hierarchies. The headmaster controlled the place by remote control, and good example. Teachers were masters; they never had to use physical means to control students, who had already been enculturated to obedience. The last grade in which I saw anyone caned was grade 7, at the age of 12. The threat of violence for rule-breaking , once it enters your mind, never leaves.
There was, nevertheless, no bullying in the sense in which we use the term for today’s unpleasant behaviour of the strong towards weaklings. Anyone employing violence against a weakling would be trounced by the other alphas. Competition for status was encouraged. Prizes for this and prizes for that. The top athletes and top brains were made prefects in their final year, and had significant disciplinary power. We did not have a problem with bullies; the whole system was a kind of bully, but a law-abiding one, and at the end we received our prizes, scholarships, and admissions to university. The school did what it could to civilize us, and by and large it succeeded.
In short, I would like to suggest that bullying is the outcome of not sufficiently allowing for, and channeling male aggression into socially useful forms. Our failure to educate the souls of men – their chests, not their heads – is having disastrous consequences for their attachment to work and to society.
Our misunderstanding of bullying is a symptom of a far larger ideological blindness, which is a topic for another day.