Mediation, bullying and how it leads to adult violence

A still from a TV soap, showing a white man with dark hair wearing a blue shirt holding a woman's face (mostly off camera) up by the chin, talking at her with a clearly threatening look on his face.A week or so ago, I found a link that Karen Ingala-Smith, a prominent British campaigner against violence against women, posted about an ‘experiment’ in Harrow, north-west London, in which victims of domestic violence will discuss their abuse “face-to-face with the perpetrators” in an effort to “break the cycle”. The experiment is based on an American model and will be run by psychotherapists and counsellors from the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships. A local councillor is quoted as saying that “if the abusers understand the impact their behaviour has on their family, we hope they can change” and that the experiment would be combined with a campaign to encourage victims to come forward. The article quotes Karen Ingala-Smith and another anti-violence campaigner, Sarah Green of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, who said:

The assumption in such couple counselling approaches tends to be that both parties must be at fault and they simply need to learn better behaviours. Domestic violence is about bullying and control, not misunderstanding. It is a choice, and it is deeply related to power between men and women.

The scheme immediately struck me as similar to an idea which has been popular in schools for some time, called “circle time”, in which bullies and their victims are encouraged to ‘discuss’ their issues and the impact the bullying has. I never experienced circle time as such but there were efforts at my school to get these matters discussed in the open but which were often unsuccessful. One reason is because we did not want to have to ‘discuss things’; the problem was obvious and we just wanted the adults who ran the place to make it safe. Another, which people who work in institutions have to understand (but often fail to) is that the weaker parties will be unwilling to talk about their abusers in public because they, and not the outsiders trying to counsel them (or, say, coming in to run creative writing sessions), will have to deal with the bullies or abusers later. The same will be true in houses where there is an abusive spouse (or, say, older sibling). At my school, when people complained about bullying and were then asked to talk about the matter in public, they often fell silent, and staff reacted as if they had been complaining about nothing. One of the senior staff, a man known for using violence, more than once complained that I would “clam up” in front of him, when he had used violence against me personally and was known for throwing people around and bellowing in boys’ faces.

A further problem is that abusers often know that their behaviour hurts; that is why they do it. (The same needs to be borne in mind when using empathy to educate people against any form of violence, be it bullying, domestic violence or even rape; there are those for whom hurting another is not a drawback, but an advantage.) There is a difference between unreasonable behaviour, which could be amenable to discussion and counselling, and deliberate bullying in which the abuser aims to coerce, injure or humiliate their victim. A victim might not want to have to explain why what the abuser did hurt them; they might not want to show weakness in front of them. Finally, there is the danger of victim blaming: the victim being told he or she is “provoking” their abuser, when in fact these “provocations” may be exceedingly trivial, or not even provocations at all, just pretexts. Such attempts at mediation can easily be a means to dispose of a problem without really getting the abusers to change their behaviour. They are, by definition, tougher nuts to crack than the victims are.

A few weeks ago a feminist I used to follow (I still come across her from time to time as she is friends with a lot of my disability activist friends, but away from them she advocates separatism) made some tweets on the “waste of energy” of educating men about violence against women:

I don’t agree that educating men and boys is the route to liberation. That is what liberal feminists believe.

Radical feminists do not waste our limited energy and resources on teaching men anything. We focus on women.

Why should I decide what happens to boys and men? I would rather just focus on women.

Every boy is brought up knowing that rape is bad. Yet women are raped. Why is this? All men know that battering women is wrong. Yet women are battered. Why?

But it’s not only necessary to teach boys that ‘rape is bad’ and that ‘battering women is wrong’ — and not just in that rape means more than the stereotypical scenario in which a ‘respectable’ woman is attacked as she goes about her business. The notion that men should not hit women, and boys should not hit girls, was common currency when I was a child; the idea that small boys had a right to a life free of violence wasn’t. We do not consistently teach children that hurting people is wrong, that you cannot use violence to get your own way or in response to trivial personal slights and get away with it. It starts with parents hitting their children in response to trivial things like not liking their tone of voice (and such parents will always tell others — maybe they believe it themselves — that they only hit when “at the end of their tether”). But the place where most people learn these negative lessons is at school. A few years ago, when gun and knife crime were in the news a lot in London, one common scenario was where someone shot another because of “disrespect” — an offensive remark or even just a dirty look. This took me back to school, where boys were assaulted on regular occasions, even by staff, in response to trivial personal slights, sarcastic remarks and so on.

The school I went to was a pro-bully school which had an unstated but fairly consistent policy of using flattery, appeasement and victim blaming to “deal with” the rampant problem of bullying. It was a small school, so I know I can’t judge the whole school system by my experience (the comprehensive school I went to the year before was not like this; I do not recall any staff violence and hardly any bullying by older pupils), but I’m sure it was not unique in fostering some of these behaviours. (The law is very clear on the use of violence by teachers and care staff now: it is illegal. This was not the case in private schools in 1989.) The behaviours included:

  • Telling off boys who had been bullied or assaulted for “mouthing off” or swearing, in front of the aggressor
  • Telling a boy who had been bullied that staff could not handle a particular bully (despite that being their job), and therefore he should not annoy him in any way, again in front of the bully
  • Repeatedly making excuses for serious assaults
  • Taking no account of proportionality in terms of violent reaction to insult or a minor assault
  • Responding to complaints of unfairness by smaller pupils with “life’s not fair” or “you cannot expect us to fight all your battles for you” type platitudes
  • Staff using bully language, e.g. calling victims “mouthy” or accusing them of “mouthing off”
  • Staff responding with fury at “bad manners” when boys complained of being bullied (or of staff inaction or violence) and were angry, which deters victims from coming forward in future
  • Staff flattering or showing favours to bullies in front of their victims
  • Expecting weaker pupils to cave in to the demands of bigger ones to “keep the peace” or because it’s easier than to stand up to the bully
  • Giving positions of power (e.g. as prefects) to known bullies, and then doing nothing when they use violence

(I refer to boys in this list because the school I went to was a boys’ school; I am not saying girls cannot be affected by this behaviour as well.)

I was going to give a couple of specific examples, but decided not to as people might think them petty when their implications were not; I’ve written about what sort of thing went on at my old school before on this site. The point being that young people need to be taught that bullying is not acceptable, that hurting people is not acceptable, and that you cannot get your own way by using threats or force, but teaching these things in words is not enough if adults’ behaviour in the event shows them to be untrue; they must be taught through actions. If young men come through school having seen bullies lord it over everyone else and those unable to stand up to them being told to buckle under to keep the peace, and seeing that if you’re popular enough then you can do what you like, then it is no surprise that they turn into domineering, callous boyfriends or even rapists — especially if they came from an environment where “woman” was used as an insult. If they are taught that some people deserve respect while others invite violence by simply opening their mouths, this lesson can easily transfer to women later on. If we teach young people that if someone annoys them it is OK to thump them, we cannot expect them to show self-restraint in the face of provocation, or when someone refuses to do what they want, as adults. And do we look at young people’s characters before allowing them onto sports teams where they can distinguish themselves with inconsequential physical feats? We know some American schools do not care if their athletes are rapists, let alone school bullies.

It’s not the only reason, of course, but attempts to explain why some men rape or abuse women always seem to focus on their attitudes to women and where they learned them. Why does it more often focus on the supposed fact that a boy got to go and play while his sister washed the dishes at home than on the very likely possibility that, as a 6ft tall 16-year-old, he was popular and praised despite (or because of) the fact that he bullied and assaulted 11-year-old boys who were much smaller than most adult women, for trivial reasons or just for fun? Yes, of course, in the adult world, people are sometimes successful despite callous or even criminal treatment of others, but young people should not be given the impression that this is how they can or should behave. No amount of moralising to teenagers will have much effect on their behaviour as teens or as adults if they get away with hurting and oppressing others, or seeing others get away with it, time and time again.

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