This is a post that I should have written long ago.
About a month or so back, I posted a link to an xkcd cartoon. It was inspired by an incident around that I was going to write about. However every time I tried to write the article another incident came back to my mind, and threatened to swamp the piece I was trying to write. It’s obviously something I need to get out of my system. I keep alluding to this incident time and time again, so I think it’s time I got this off my chest.
I’m going back ten years now. I was a member of an association within the Liberal Democrats aimed at improving the use of information technology and the internet. A key committee member of this group was a problem. The person would respond to any perceived slight against people who lacked IT skills with a level of aggression that was totally inappropriate and out of proportion to what he was responding to. In addition he would be incredibly snide about technically skilled people, seemingly thinking clever people needed taking down a peg or two. I put up with it for a while, but the constant sniping got too much.
Firstly, I tried politeness. I sent a kind and friendly email, pointing out that he was being a bit over the top. I received an unexpected response, “Are you always this nasty”. Shocked that my tone had been so badly misinterpreted, I pointed out, that no, I wasn’t being nasty, I was trying to be helpful. More aggression. I called him publicly on the group mailing list over his behaviour. I was threatened with legal action for standing up to him!
I tried to address the problems directly by writing a philosophical article addressing people’s perspectives toward technology. This was met with public aggression and my conduct was falsely described as abusive.
So I wrote to the chairman of the group, expressing my concerns about the culture of aggression, and disrespect. And was ignored. Friends and acquaintances promised that the problematic behaviour that I was concerned about would be brought up at the next committee meeting. However I never found out if this happened or what action, if any, was taken. I tried to find if there was a complaints procedure for low-level bullying within the Liberal Democrats. There wasn’t.
By now I had a thing about low-level online bullying. I championed the case of a slightly autistic acquaintance who was being given a bad time on a private members forum. Again, the mods I messaged didn’t even acknowledge that I’d contacted them or reassure me that they were on the case.
Things have, thankfully, changed. The Liberal Democrats have introduced new codes of conduct. Not because of me, or anything I have written about here, I hasten to add, but because of more serious incidents of an altogether different nature that have come to light. While the seriousness and the nature of these incidents and complaints was far different to what I was dealing with, the new code of conduct is broad enough to define the sorts of things that I, and those I stood up for, as unacceptable. It also makes it clear that complaints and concerns like mine should not have been simply ignored.
Was the behaviour I stood up to that serious? No, not really. But even though the problem behaviour I experienced wasn’t a serious, it was a real and genuine problem, and I was right to stand up to it. While it was ultimately futile, and has remained with me for far too long, I remain proud of taking a stand.
I had intended this to be “getting the issue out of my system” and to an extent it has. This week I have refreshed my safeguarding training with the Scout Association, and was pleased to see their robust policies regarding bullying. It also confirmed that the behaviours I highlighted in the Lib Dems back in 2005 that went unacknowledged do constitute bullying, at least according to the definitions uses by the Scout Association.
This story is doing the rounds, and as usual has lost something in the retelling.
The version I heard on Radio 2 this morning went like this. Telford Council have come under fire for instructing park staff to challenge anyone who was in the park without children.
Now either you’ve immediately started spluttering about not being able to enjoy your local park anymore, or you’re wondering if there’s any more to it.
What on the surface appears to be a manifestation of the national belief that it’s not safe to let your kids out because paedophiles are rife these days, turns out to have another dimension.
According to the Telegraph the young people who fell foul of this policy were activists handing out leaflets on climate change, not people suspiciously without purpose. In the Telegraph article a former childcare worker is quoted as saying:
“It appears that the council wants to use child protection as a cover for anything they don’t like taking place in the park.
According to an acquaintance that lives in the area, this is not the first time the rule has been used against leafletters, the first person to have done so was a campaigner who wanted to publicise the fact that the council had plans to build on the park. He went on to allege that the policy was invented specifically to justify clamping down on his campaigning, adding that the council had to treat the climate change campaigners in the same way as they were stuck with the policy.
I read a letter in yesterdays metro which totally missed this simple and obvious point.
As I stated earlier, it’s the degree of the individual act of bigotry that makes it good or bad, not the topic of it. The letter said people should learn to deal with small minded abuse and not suffer from it. Which, taken out of context, is good advice. But the letter went on to imply that different kinds of bigotry hold different weights, just because of the topic. This is grade A nonsense.
Patrick Mercer is a grade A twit in condoning racism, but then so are those who are making fun of his statement of fact, that it is no worse to call someone a “black *******” than a “ginger *******”.
It is not the topic of bigotry that makes it acceptable or unacceptable, it is the treatment that results from the bigotry. All bigotry, (excepting of course bigotry against the ignorant and bigoted), is unacceptable, whatever the reason. One shout of “black *******” is not in any way worse than one cry of “ginger *******” or “specky *******”, and anyone suggesting otherwise needs to get a sense of perspective. However one cry of anything can and should be shrugged off. It’s unlikely that the people Mercer was citing as crying racism were reacting to such isolated one-off taunts, but a consistent pattern of abuse.
I find it a bit worrying that some people who have condemned Mercer believe that if you exchange a racial group for a group identified by similar, but no racial, characteristics, abuse becomes somehow less bad. It’s not.
I don’t find Mercers suggestion that the taunts ginger soldiers receive come with greater or equal frequency and vehemence than those directed against black soldiers, credible and sensible, and his suggestion that racism is OK because others are treated equally abusively is abhorrent. Maybe I’m just a soft case who doesn’t understand what it takes to make an army, but if this is what it takes I’m proud to be soft.
The big bother last week was Jade Goody’s conduct on Celebrity Big Brother, and racism. Of course it’s all been blown out of proportion, but that did not stop me being one of the 8 million who tuned in Friday night for some uncomfortable car crash TV.
Jade Goody, made notorious from appearing in Big Brother, and not even winning, was sent back as a Celebrity, clearly a new twist on the Chantel stunt of last year. The saddest part is that despite the opportunities and experiences Jade’s notoriety has given her, she has grown little as a person.
I found the Big Brother footage uncomfortable viewing. I sat and squirmed while Jade tried to explain her actions as it was almost the same as a recent event when a bully tried to explain how he saw my actions as rude and how he was right to bully me.
Having said that Jade was a fascinating proof of my theory that most bullies would be horrified if they could see how they behaved. And contrary to Ken Livinstone’s arguments, I actually think it is helpful for Channel Four to show prejudice as silly and ignorant. I can’t believe anyone seeing Jade’s arguments will see anything other than how stupid and ignorant racism is. The whole fiasco was the best anti-racism message that has been broadcast for years, and will educate many people against racist attitudes.
I don’t believe the actual bullying itself constituted racism, having seen the programme I think there was a personal dislike between the main protagonists, and on Goody’s side it was clearly fuelled by class prejudice rather than racism. I don’t however believe that the label on a prejudice makes it any better or worse.
I also believe racism is overrated as a form of prejudice. Of course it is the most widespread one and has serious consequences that need tackling. However, surely a prejudice is a prejudice, and it’s the degree of the hate, discrimination and victimisation that rise from the prejudice that are the crime. We can’t and shouldn’t police thoughts, but the resultant actions be they written, verbal or physical are real problems.
Is calling intelligent people geeks and dismissing their clear explanations as technobabble any better than calling a Bollywood star “Shilpa Popodum” and making fun of her accent? No they are equally bad and wrong. Is someone who circulated the “Manchester Olympics” joke email any better than someone who circulates an email of “Paki” jokes? Certainly not.
Incidentally Duncan Borrowman has evidence Shilpa Shetty isn’t entirely squeaky clean, having supported the morally dubious Peta, albeit on a campaign that is not as dubious as much of their work. However that tenuous link to such a dubious movement has only slightly dented my image of her.
There’s been quite a bit of a stink in blog circles about an alleged case of bullying. This has reminded me of an article I’ve wanted to write for months, but never took the time to put finger to keyboard over.
It’s a difficult topic. Before I continue, may I make clear, while my past life experience has informed this essay, this is not a cry for help, or a coded analysis of any ongoing situation. Neither I nor anyone I know is currently being bullied. Got that? OK, let’s continue.
A quick trawl of the web reveals many sites supporting children who are being bullied, but few anti bullying sites for adults to speak of. Well OK some unions mention bullying in the workplace, but not everyone has access to that sort of support and adult bullying is not limited to the work
place. Policies on bullying do seem to underplay the fact bullying between adults occurs; the Scout Association policy is worded so as to apply to anyone, but then talks exclusively about young people, failing to take into account bullying between adults is a significant problem.
Bullying takes many forms, and is not limited to those who intentionally treat people badly or sadistically. There is a whole spectrum of bully that begins with simple aggressive or overbearing personalities and ends with those who cause serious emotional hurt and suffering. Many bullies I’m sure would be mortified if they knew how others see them, and the actual effects of their behaviour.
Different people have different ways of dealing with bullying. Some pretend they’re just dealing with a person with a strong personality, unwilling to think of themselves as someone who can be bullied. Others become too stressed to be able to see any rational way out of the situation. Whichever your personality, it is hard when you are an adult to admit to being bullied, and often what you can do about it is unclear. You are expected, I think, to have learned how to deal with that sort of thing, and trying to take action can mark you out as a do-gooder or a whiner.
When you are seriously affected it can be difficult to know where to turn. On a large event I went on the advice to staff was to talk to “someone”, without being clear as to how and where. Attitudes towards those that speak out are also a problem, people don’t want to be seen as weak, or troublemakers, and can often be confused as to whether the treatment they are receiving constitutes bullying or not.
I witnessed one bully threaten a third party with legal action if that third party tried to deal directly with the offending behaviour. If it were me I would have seriously considered plowing ahead with bringing the bully to book, with the evidence to prove my case safely handed to me on a plate by the offending party. But it does go to show that there is a fine line to be trod when reacting to evidence of bullying; malicious accusations can put sympathetic people in hot water, but equally we mustn’t give succor to any bully who has the legal action line in his arsenal. It is difficult when you are being bullied to ask for help, so we should not make it any more difficult than it is for someone who doesn’t know where to turn to reach, as the Americans would say, closure. In short you don’t want to give anyone the impression that in being careful how you respond to accusations you’re being unsympathetic, or you’re giving bullies a weapon that enables them to behave as they wish.
And what if the victim doesn’t want to be helped? What if they think they are big enough and ugly enough to tolerate aggressive behaviour? Some people would feel embarrassed if treated as the victim of bullying, even if to outsiders it is obviously the case. So if you witness an act of bullying, do you stand back and wait for the victim to ask for help, or do you step in for fear someone less able to cope will someday meet with the same treatment?
 Widely publicised late 2006.