The recent launch of anti-bullying campaigns in Australian high schools has brought up public discussion on whether or not the use of corporal punishment should be re-implemented in Australian education.
This, as is par for the course in newspapers, is accompanied by a stew of other articles complaining about our youth in decline. Youth binge drinking and violence against teachers are other examples. The Myth of Cultural Degeneracy is unfortunately alive and well, in spite of the fact that there is simply no conclusive proof things are actually worse these days. Really, the news just can’t find something else to panic about so they manufacture another worry to make us watch news reports.
The stabbing of Elliott Fletcher, a 12 year old student at St. Patricks Catholic boy’s school, is an undeniable tragedy, but there is absolutely no reason to believe that it is somehow indicative of a systematic increase in bullying as a whole. Regardless, the incident did trigger Kevin Rudd to speak on the subject of bullying, and the federal Opposition to introduce an anti-bullying policy.
As a victim of extensive bullying, I followed the coverage on the anti-bullying campaign and felt rather depressed. Some commentators (the esteemed intellectuals featured in Letters To The Editor pages) evidently buy into the Myth of Cultural Degeneracy and assume that school bullying, youth binge drinking, and attacking teachers are interconnected phenomena occurring at unprecedentedly high rates.
And according to these most esteemed thinkers, who undoubtedly have seen much of the extensive academic literature on the psychology of bullying (I hope my utter sarcasm is blindingly obvious!), the solution to this modern pathology is simple; Bring Back The Cane! (Henceforth BBTC).
The appeal of this “solution” is obvious; it offers a quick fix.
But the simple fact of the matter is that bullying was rife at schools even when corporal punishment was allowed. But back then, things like “war with Hitler” and “impending Nuclear obliteration” were big problems that people focussed on. The news was too busy dealing with actual threats to western civilization, so school bullying did not make headlines. Indeed, it was treated as an inevitable and unavoidable practice, almost a prerequisite for growing up. It was an institution as much as corporal punishment was.
Now, since Climategate and Glaciergate mean that the media can’t make us panic over alleged Anthropogenic Climate Change, they’ve reverted to feeding the mass market with Plato’s old fear that the youth of today are corrupt. And certain individuals within this mass market have announced their [sarcasm]well reasoned, intelligent and examined[/sarcasm] solution to this corruption: BBTC!
This article will argue that a BBTC approach will not solve anything at all. It will also argue a conclusion I believe will be considered controversial; bullying is not so much endogenous to young people but at least in signficant part a product of the current education system.
To restate; bullying is (at least in significant part) a symptom of an underlying disease, caning is merely an attempt to treat the symptom. And more nefariously, it is the kind of “treatment” that is actually a consequence of the initial disease itself.
The first point that needs to be made is that school bullying today is no worse, indeed it is arguably slightly less awful, than it was in the past. Back in those days, when caning and calculatedly-sadistic forms of subjection were used, bullying was actually arguably worse. The unpleasantries of British boarding schools are well known and are the basis of movies such as “If…” The practice of “fagging” within these schools is well-documented. Indeed, there was a cultural expectation against complaining about bullying to school authorities and parents. This only made things worse.
If anything, it is the demise of this “don’t snitch” expectation that is responsible for making bullying more visible in culture. Now, people will bring grievances. This increases the chance that perpetrators will be penalized. Simple economics; raising the expected marginal cost will lessen amount produced.
So, in the days with caning, there was no less bullying, and there was arguably more. This alone is enough to discredit a BBTC approach.
At least some advocates of a BBTC approach apparently believe bullying is something “natural” to the child. Their view of the child is fundamentally Freudian; they are creatures of excessive “id” (or in Plato’s terms, “appetites”) and insufficient “superego” (or in Plato’s terms, “reason” (ahem)). The role of school discipline is to provide surrogate superego to counteract the excessive id.
This would have much more weight to it if bullying were confined to youth. It obviously isn’t. Militaries around the world are riddled with the practice, often referred to as “hazing” or “bastardization.”
One institutional context where there is relatively little bullying is university. People in university tend to be young; roughly the same age (or perhaps slightly below) as that of many people that first join the military. It is not fair to say that immature people join the military and mature people go on to university; such an argument would not only be hideously elitist but also plainly false.
Perhaps one possible explanation would be similarities between schools and militaries as institutions. Both institutions are heirarchial and collectivist. A pecking order exists where subordinates must comply with demands of superiors, and individuals are encouraged to identify with the group. Quoting Free-Market Anarchist E. S. Raymond’s essay “The Myth of Man The Killer” (2006), “It takes training and intense re-socialization to make soldiers out of raw recruits. And it is a notable point, to which we shall return later, that said socialization has to concentrate on getting a trainee to obey orders and identify with the group.”
Schools are quite clearly the same kind of institution. Pecking orders exist where the students are subordinates of the teachers, are forced to comply with demands made by said teachers, and are encouraged to identify with the school. Or on sports days, identify with the team.
Within the student body, exactly the same kind of structure is replicated. Rosalind Wiseman’s “Queen Bees and Wannabes” is merely one testament amongst reams of books, news reports, movies and even video games that portray this reality. Heirarchies exist, those that defy them are punished with methods ranging from ostracism to beatings, and individuality is disregarded in favor of being assimilated into the pack.
Both the military and the school are heirarchial-collectivist institutions and both harbour bullying.
Universities might be full of people that advocate political collectivism (as well as a significant number that do not), but the character of the institution itself is much less authoritarian and collectivist than either the military or school. Individuals are given more-or-less free reign to come and go as they please and manage their lives according to their own preferences. A university is solely an educational institution, not a socialization institution like school or the military. Universities also contain significantly less bullying than either schools or militaries.
Yes, there are exceptions. Certain residential colleges and student societies (such as fraternities and sororities) often contain and/or practice bullying, some of which is part of the institution itself. But first, these are not the same institutions as university itself, and secondly, these institutions are often heirarchial and collectivist in themselves (although quite a few are not). One is encouraged to identify with the group and sacrifice one’s individuality.
In short, I wish to propose that institutions with heirarchial-collectivistic characteristics are more likely to contain bullying than institutions without these characteristics. I wish to propose the relationship is causative; immersing a human being in an institutional context with heirarchial-collectivistic characteristics is more likely to generate an individual that engages in bullying (which in turn makes other individuals around him more likely to receive bullying).
This requires me to deny the idea that bullying is somehow ‘endogenous’ to the child. Rather, the institutional forces surrounding the child have the potential to turn said child into a bully.
As stated before, the idea that children are wired to engage in bullying presumes a Freudian theory of the psyche; an overactive id and an underdeveloped superego. It also presumes a Hobbesian view of human nature, one where (quoting Raymond (2006)) “we are all somehow murderers at bottom,” where we will lash out at each other to satisfy any desire we feel at any moment, where (to paraphrase Ayn Rand) we are all murderous brutes that will trample over piles and piles of corpses to achieve our own ends, and that we are (quoting Raymond (2006)) “barely restrained from committing atrocities on each other by the constraints of ethics, religion, and the state.”
In short, the view is that human nature is monstrous and that children are “pure” human nature that must be socialized, or tamed, in order to not be a bully. Civilization, according to this mentality, is built on repressing our debased urges.
Needless to say, this view of humanity is frankly misanthropic and flies in the face of such classically liberal concepts as spontaneous order driven by rational self-interest. As a concept of human nature, it was also convincingly demolished by John Locke, who argued (contra Hobbes) that people are sane enough to realize that a war of all against all is in no one’s rational self-interest.
Naturally, the most reasonable argument against my position is that children do not know how to be rational. Strictly speaking, reasoning is a learned skill and humans have no abstract knowledge at birth (conceptually tabula rasa). But this position would imply school bullying is somehow a product of ignorance and devoid of malice; a position that is empirically known to be false. Bullies know what they’re doing, certainly by high school.
However, the fact remains that in spite of humanity’s lack of abstract knowledge upon birth, human beings do seem to have a general set of “drives” that are the result of evolutionary processes. These can be overridden by free will, but the clear fact is that they do exist. One is the “flight or fight” response, which is well-documented across multiple species. Another drive that seems to exist is a remnant from our days as hunter-gatherer tribespeople; “a predisposition to obey the tribe leader and other dominant males” (Raymond (2006)).
This sub-rational, animal drive towards pack heirarchialism is precisely what both military training and school socialization encourage. In the case of a military, this is, unfortunately, a necessity to at least some degree.
But to schoolchildren? I don’t doubt that having a heirarchial pack amenable to social control may be convenient for teachers, but one must look at the cost this form of literal dehumanization (or more correctly, devolution) has on the actual children.
If you divide children up into groups, encourage them to identify with the group (sports carnivals, for instance) and place them in an institutional context where heirarchial relationships are the norm, you have in effect turned them into a pack. Bullying; an activity by which pack heirarchies are established and maintained, is thus an utterly natural result of this.
An obvious challenge one may make is “if the institution is heirarchial, why do subordinates engage in bullying when their superiors clearly disapprove?” This is a legitimate point. However, you’d have to ask the same question of the military. Additionally, as stated before, the underlying pack-drives that are exploited upon to generate obedience create bullying; they come as a psychological package-deal. Look at Milgram’s Obedience Experiment; people will do terrible things on behalf of an authority figure. Finally, when an institution has already normalized heirarchial relationships, to expect people from refraining generating these kinds of relationships amongst themselves strikes as pure hypocrisy.
As one would probably notice by now, the writing style of this piece has changed. At the start it was one of my patronizingly-written mockings of the lowest common denominator from atop my Ivory Tower, and then it actually starting becoming serious. Needless to say I wish to avoid becoming overly academic since academic prose is not always successful. After all, my most successful piece so far was my Channelling-The-Ghost-Of-Ayn-Rand-Angry-Rant against Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen.
As such, I wish to offer the above theses for discussion. In addition, I wish to show my solidarity towards Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) who recently had their network chicken out of showing the Islamic Prophet Mohammed. I wish to express this solidarity by suggesting blog readers to visit this post on Reason Magazine’s blog: http://reason.com/blog/2010/04/30/whats-a-black-metal-band-gotta
Yes. Anti-Islamic Black Metal. Note the distorted samples of squealing pigs at the end of the track. I thought that was a very appropriate touch.
Apologies for the last-minute change of subject. I happen to be posting this whilst sleep-deprived and under the influence of way too much Red Bull.