There was an incredible air of shock in the room, clouding the story of Felix Alexander’s tragic suicide, following his experience as a victim of over a decade of bullying.
It sounds like a cliché but I’ve really never heard a silence like that. A kind of mournful silence that makes you rethink every action you’ve ever taken and just how that may have impacted everyone around you. It makes you want to go back and ask yourself lists of questions about what you did or why you did it.
I’m not saying that we’re all bullies. But, as the discussion that followed our assembly unfolded, we all seemed to realise that there’s a far thinner line to cross than we had thought. In reality, everything is up for debate: the difference between banter and abuse; the culpability of the supposedly “innocent” bystander; the progress that can and needs to be made in every aspect of our society, including, of course, schools.
In my own upbringing, I was taught both at school and at home that bullying constitutes a certain behaviour (whether it be physical or verbal, in person or online) that someone is hurt by, and it must happen repeatedly. And it was always accompanied with an picture of some variation of one child crying on the floor, while a crowd of three or more bigger, stronger, angrier looking children towers over them, laughing and pointing. It made the idea of bullying seem so simple to spot, forcing every situation into a one-size-fits-all image — though, as we know now, it’s nothing like that.
Nowadays, kindly poking fun at your best friend is nothing more than a sign of your love for them; there is no malice intended, and they know that. To an outsider, it might look concerning, but the both of you love it — maybe it’s even the highlight of your day. Then what if someone else notices your method of showing affection and decides to try it with their friend? And all of a sudden their friend suddenly feels victimised on a daily basis, suffering under the violent pokes of fun from whom they thought was the person they could trust the most. Does that make anyone in the situation a bully?
In my younger years at school, we often wouldn’t even be given an answer. Our genuine questions would be rejected, or labelled as “trying to be smart” and even “talking back”, as though there is something so disrespectful about these very possible situations requiring nuance. And all because teachers were so reluctant to continue the topic of conversation so they could just move on already, instead of allowing us to learn to understand one another, as a society.
Thankfully, that wasn’t what happened at our assembly.
I, along with many others, I’m sure, experienced for the first time an open conversation, where everyone was allowed to share their opinion, able to debate and share unique ideas. We were presented questions, actually given time to contemplate, and then discussed our answers.
But, even after a respectful and enlightening conversation, I still can’t shake the feeling that bullying is a long way from being completely eradicated from schools today.
So many things — race, religion, sexuality, gender, ability — still appear so easy for some people to mock, and very little is done to stop anyone. Moreover, it’s becoming increasingly easy for people to share their raw and unforgivable bigotry under some thin (and frankly pathetic) veil of “freedom of opinion”.
I won’t be littering this piece with the obscene slurs and insults that I’ve heard carelessly flung about in every school I’ve been at, but rather I’ll focus on one single, less crude example: homophobia. While, of course, any homophobia is unacceptable, the word “gay” is obviously not a slur, because it is simply an expression of sexuality.
In our discussion, we were asked whether homophobia is a type of bullying, and, thankfully, the whole group unanimously agreed that, as a form of hate targeted at a specific type of person, it should be considered under this umbrella — although, because it is a crime (while some other forms of bullying are technically, though problematically, not), it should be treated with particular gravity.
So why is it, then, that I still hear lines like “what, are you gay or something?”, or “that’s so gay” flying around, almost every time I leave the house, both at school and in public? And, while I often confront the people that say these things, my lack of any real authority may as well provoke some of these people to continue their behaviour.
The answer is simple. So deeply rooted in our society is the idea that the only thing that is “normal” is the cis-het, white, able-bodied person, that so many therefore think there is something “abnormal” about anyone who does not conform with these things, and so is something to point out, and be amused by.
Bullying isn’t something that just happens in the playgrounds at school, and is not a result of social media — bullying is a fundamental part of our society.
We’ve built out lives around the idea that, if we make the image of one particular way of life so undesirable, people will be forced to push themselves out of that lifestyle (as though aspects like race, sexuality, gender or ability are a choice) and try to be more like something we are comfortable with. It’s worth pointing out that the identities we have been indoctrinated to desire or envy the most in this county are those of the cisgender, heterosexual, white, able-bodied Christian males — the “founders” of society, that believed they are truly the best type of human being, so much so that they even went to other countries and claimed them, merely because they thought they deserved them more than those who were indigenous to the land, who were in some way different from their colonisers.
But, in these modern times, bullying is less about political domination, draining of wealth and the constant threat of annihilation, and rather centres the idea of finding one’s own amusement at the expense of others.
And, yes, I know that it’s not just these people that are bullies in our world: I’ve often been challenged with the question, “Well, what about girls bullying other girls? Cat-fights are not men’s fault.”
Except…they sort of are.
Every time I’ve heard a female (or female-presenting) peer crying in the P.E. changing rooms or the toilets at school about how some other girl has said they’re “fat”, or “ugly”, or has commented on their private relationships, I can’t stop my mind from being drawn back to the same stereotypes that men who have dominated our society have established for the women in it: the idea of being tall, skinny, flawless, pure, quiet, submissive — it all comes from men. And those women who pressure each other to please men are so crippled by these archaic conventions that it has even impacted their own independence of mind.
Even in the case of racism, we can find examples of hate between groups, sparked off by the privileged White people in charge — between 1948 and 1994, the National Party in South Africa governed a strict apartheid, meaning “apartness”, in which White, Black, and “Coloured” people were completely separated in society. But this wasn’t just an act of sheer racism: it was tactical.
The system meant that it wasn’t just White and Black people hating each other. Rather, the White people discriminated against anyone who wasn’t “pure” in their heritage; “Coloured” people would try to fit in with the White people, while also trying to deny any Black part of their identity, and hate their similarities to the Black community; and anyone who was Black would likely be resentful of those who could fit in more with the White people (if their had lighter skin, or straighter hair, for example), and be offended by those who wanted to distance themselves from the Black community.
Again, all because of a system put in place by Hendrik Verwoerd, a White, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied man. And it’s clear that he didn’t really care about anyone too different from him.
There are times when I find myself wishing someone would explain to me what is so funny about being gay, or trans, or disabled, or an ethnic minority, or gender-neutral — until I realise that that would be a pointless, dead-end conversation, since, of course, there is no answer.
Not a single thing about any of these aspects is remotely funny, in any possible way, so I’d say it’s probably time to grow up and move on to humour that’s a little smarter and sharper than that.
Some people seem to believe that, if we can’t enjoy some light humour about the people around us, then the world is truly doomed to become some P.C., ultra-woke, constantly-serious hellhole. But I just think that, if your sense of humour relies on some form of bigotry and bullying, perhaps you’re just not that funny.
By Sarah Clif, student