There is a song that makes me choke back the tears every time it plays on the radio. I love the song and am tempted to buy a copy, but I’m not sure that I actually want to listen to it very often. Called “Caught in the Crowd”, by Kate Miller-Heidke, it’s about bullying. Not about being bullied, or doing the bullying, but about standing by and letting it happen. Most of the song talks about a friendship developing between the singer and another student.
“Well he was quite a big guy, kinda shy and quiet
When the kids called him weird he didn’t try and deny it”
The singer gently develops the friendship, and it’s not until the last verse that you find out the reason for the song:
“Three guys I knew pushed him into the cement
Threw away his bag and said he had no friends
He yelled that he did and he looked around
Tried getting up but they pushed him on down
That’s when he saw me, called out my name
And I turned my back, and just walked away.
Yeah I turned my back, and just walked away.”
I was bullied at school. Nothing physical – there was rarely so much as a hand laid on me – but nonetheless vicious and with lasting impact. The overwhelming emotions associated with those times were shame (what was wrong with me?) and incredible loneliness. I felt completely isolated by the fact that no-one stood up for me, and no-one took it seriously. At worst the teachers assumed I had brought it on myself. At best they said it was “kids stuff” and I should just ignore it. It was pretty brutal on a teenage psyche.
And yet, there’s a bright side. As a result of that, I have a fierce anti-bullying obsession. I think I am physically incapable of seeing someone being bullied without trying to rescue them, and it’s been very interesting learning the most effective ways to defuse bullies. There is a reason that effective anti-bullying programmes in schools enlist all the students, by teaching them what bullying is, and building a culture that doesn’t tolerate it. The secret lies not in direct confrontation with the bullies themselves – that can be dangerous and can make the situation dramatically worse. Instead, the secret lies in supporting the victims.
Bullying works by singling out a vulnerable target, isolating them and making them miserable. At its worst, it cuts the targets off from any means of support, sometimes with threats:”If you tell anyone about this, I’ll kill you.” And sometimes more subtly. This makes it impossible for people to defend themselves effectively, and access the support they need to rebuild their self esteem to the point where they can overcome the bullying.
Which means, of course, that the best way to stop a bully is to support his or her victim. When a mean comment cuts them down, make a nice one and build them back up. When they think they are alone and friendless, make it clear that you care and will support them.
As the haunting chorus shows, this can be hard to do when you’re young.
“I was young and caught in the crowd
I didn’t know then what I know now
I was dumb and I was proud
And I’m sorry
If I could go back do it again
I’d be someone you could call friend
Please please believe that I’m sorry.”
Anti-bullying programmes in schools have come a long way. I am closely involved with two schools where, although bullying arises from time to time, it never lasts, because the school culture simply doesn’t give it house room. Sadly, many schools have yet to get the message. But it’s not just schools where bullying is an issue.
There are many levels of bullying – from aggressive shoppers shouting at sales assistants, to drivers running cyclists off the road. From kids acting out their aggression on the playground, to everyday bullies who cut people dead with a snide remark.
We all see minor acts of bullying from time to time. Sometimes we witness major ones. It’s tempting to pass by on the other side of the street and avoid the issue. No-one wants to draw a bully’s attention to themselves. But that’s the beauty of using support as an anti-bullying weapon. Because if you’re supporting someone else, you are a team. And bullies hate teams.