John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Recognize the inner bully


Never mind that Romantic era and Victorian gush about the innocence of children. I have been convinced for years that on any given day any given group of children is thisclose to Lord of the Flies.

You might want to consider the nine students at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts who face criminal charges over a relentless campaign of harassment that led fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince to hang herself.

No, children are not civilized human beings, and it takes a great deal of effort over a long span to bring them to that point. Judging from the behavior we can witness on the Internet and in public discourse, the process has been incomplete for a substantial segment of the adult population.

I am not speaking from a platform of moral superiority here, and I suspect that most of us have reason to feel shame in recollecting our childhood and adolescence. Though I was, as a bookish, nearsighted teacher’s pet, occasionally bullied in elementary school, I sometimes took the other side.

Children have a feral gift of identifying the weak in the pack and turning on them. There was a girl in elementary school in Elizaville, Kentucky, who was cross-eyed and slow-witted, and some playground genius recognized one day the phonetic similarity of Margaret and maggot. I’m not sure that she was ever taunted to her face with the word, but I can’t rule that out.

I said nothing. If you ally yourself with the weak, you too step forward to be attacked.

There was a boy in my class, until the year he failed to be promoted to the next grade, who was short and wizened and quiet. I remember mocking him one winter because he wore a red jacket with a hood. (I no longer recall what led me to single that garment out.) As an adult, I realize that he, like most of the class, was a child of farmers of limited resources, and any clothing he wound up with he was doomed to wear. But, as usual, compassion arrives late in the day.

It appears that the teachers and administrators at South Hadley did little or nothing to help Phoebe Prince, and I doubt that there are many places where anyone would. In the first place, it is extraordinarily difficult to govern the behavior of children and teenagers. In the second, there appears to be a widespread belief that, like puberty, enduring bullies is a necessary part of adult formation, the toughening required for a harsh world. And in the third – you have probably known them – there are people who appear to have gone into teaching because they like to push people around and children are available for it.

I have no remedy. I would like to think that those of us who aspire to be civilized can take a hard look at the bully who lives within us and keep him in restraints, modeling better behavior. But it’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work.






5 comments:

  1. RE: "Children have a feral gift of identifying the weak in the pack and turning on them."

    When, in "Animals in Translation," Temple Grandin says "What's unique about language is that the creatures who develop it are highly vulnerable to being eaten," I immediately thought--wow--now I think it is not that wolves/dogs followed humans around when we were evolving side-by-side; it's that humans followed the wolf packs in hopes of surviving better. Later in the book she puts forth that same idea, and somewhere in there she talks about how we learned social behavior FROM dogs (other primates have fewer kinds of social bonds, mainly, or only, mother-child).

    Packs attack weakness. Strong and immediate physical correction is used in training (mother to pups).

    In David Wroblewski's "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" a mother slaps her grown son and it seems a perfectly normal natural correct thing to do given what he had just communicated.

    In today's society, however, it would be deemed a crime if he had decided to report it to the authorities.

    Are we attempting to lose what we evolved to have and failing miserably at it? Or will we eventually be successful? Evolution takes a long, long time. And I wonder if it's really possible to choose what direction your species is going to take in evolution. If it is even possible, are we using the wrong methods to rid ourselves of violence?

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  2. My brother has a heart condition and is easy to pick out in a crowd of his peers. But what he lacks in size he makes up for in charisma: Early on he befriended the biggest and strongest boys, who didn't mind being suspended for protecting him from upperclassmen.

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  3. In one of her Amelia Peabody books Elizabeth Peters states "Most small boys are barbarians. It's a wonder any of them live to grow up." The sad fact of the matter is, we as a society have come to praise the strong and ridicule the weak and different. We have allowed ourselves to believe that "children will be children" and that it is "all part of growing up." What a sad day to have to admit that we as adults are making children face things on their own that they never should have to. If we expect our children to grow strong through being pushed around by others, then we should be there to help them through that, so they can grow into mature, civilized, human beings.

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  4. These days a mom could probably be arrested (or reported to CPS at the very least) for spanking her six-year-old in the grocery store.

    Does anyone see a correlation here?

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  5. Patricia the TerseMarch 31, 2010 at 1:20 AM

    If any nonsense happens on school property, teachers and and administrators can and must do something about the behavior of teenagers and children. That locker rooms, classrooms and other empty, tempting places where brutes can be brutal are left open and unattended after school hours is dereliction of duty. I'm sure those in authority are afraid of being sued by the parents of the creeps. Let them sue. That is why you have legal counsel. Better to be given bad publicity for having done the right thing than for having done nothing. That child could have been protected, and no one did. One news report said the Massachusetts legislature is working on a bullying bill, but the proponents are having trouble getting it passed. Small wonder, if the worthies in state government are as cowardly as are the ones in education. Add: Has anyone read "The Turn of the Screw" lately?

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