Kids are kids

Editor-At-Large: Our bitching and bullying is a form of class warfare - Janet Street-Porter, Commentators - The Independent

Yesterday, this article by Janet Street-Porter on the depressing saga of the boy who represented the UK at the Beijing Olympics last year but faced only teasing and bullying from the inadequates at his school appeared in the Indepdent on Sunday. The boy has now been removed from the school after the riff-raff, who had been inciting younger boys to join in their campaign, threatened to break his legs.

Street-Porter reckons the explanation is a British class system with which we really feel comfortable:

Our natural tendency is to belittle anyone who doesn’t conform to our particular little group’s idea of what’s acceptable. Damian McBride practised that tactic - when you don’t like someone, tell a lot of half-truths and cut them down to size. Look at the patronising way Simon Cowell and co described Britain’s Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle. A female writer on the Independent thought it acceptable to call her ugly, which I found shocking. Amanda Holden, hardly the Einstein of social engineering, patronisingly whinged that she didn’t want Susan to change the way she looked, because “she was so normal, just like someone down the street”. Now Susan has spent £35 and had her hair de-frizzed, and another £5 taming her eyebrows, and The Sun fears it may be the beginning of the end. Will Susan still be our pin-up if she has the temerity to spend a bit of time on her appearance? She’s hardly demonstrated that she’s a slave to the fashion pages, even if she has now been signed up by Primark.

The reason why the class system is alive and thriving in Britain, is that we secretly want it to stay. We love our petty divisions, our little uniforms and our divisive culture. The treatment of Susan Boyle and Tom Daley shows the darker side of our nature. Put simply, if there was an Olympics in sneering we’d take gold, silver and bronze.

This may be partly true, but when this happens to children, the nature of children comes into it as well. Children, and even teenagers, are immature and particularly prone to ugly aspects of human nature such as cliqueishness and envy, which is why they need adult supervision. It’s very easy to fall outside the bounds of what is “acceptable”, which may not be what adults consider acceptable — often, it is precisely the opposite in fact, and it differs from group to group. A child can be frozen out for being too rich or too poor, the wrong colour, too bright or not bright enough, wearing the wrong clothes (be they the wrong style or from a no-name label), listening to the wrong music or any other reason. In one terrible case, a girl who had saved her sister’s life with a bone marrow donation committed suicide after being bullied for it.

Children who are singled out as high achievers are at particular risk, and more so when there is a culture of low achievement in a particular community. Of course, it’s possible for the victim to alienate his or her peers by giving the impression of despising them, but people who have no interest in knowing or achieving much and scorn those who have such an interest are easily — and rightly — despised (this article has some insight into the culture of consumption and resentment which is behind a lot of the violence we have seen among young people in the UK recently). In some places in the UK, sixth-form pupils and university students are the targets for harassment in the streets by drop-outs. Schools are meant to be places of education, and it’s the job of the staff to make sure that those who actually want to learn are able to do so, and protected from those who do not if they are a threat.

Back in Februrary, there was a discussion on Izzy Mo’s blog about skin colour and beauty, and I had a disagreement with Aaminah Hernandez over whether white children would be excluded in a predominantly black environment, as is often the case with black children in mainly white environment. I personally know of a case where this has happened (the black children in question were Somalis), and the motive does not have to be racism; it can simply be a case of children finding an odd one out and excluding them.

Kids are kids, and I do not believe that this characteristic is in any way uniquely British or related to our class system or anyone else’s. I suspect that our way of separating children from adults and forcing children into each other’s company makes it a whole lot worse. However, if we are to prosper as a society, and not just those with access to élite education, we must make sure that young people are not afraid to achieve, and combat the anti-achievement culture which thrives in some sections of our society.

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