There's a lot of talk about bullying in British schools, but less about the bullies and what becomes of them. We'd like to imagine them poor, broken and repentant, but look around you: our society is practically run by jumped-up, megalomaniac dickheads. Maybe being a bully is good practice for later life?
"Child bullies are sexier, more popular and have more dates than their victims when they grow up," reported the Daily Mail this week, puncturing my schadenfreude. I wouldn't normally rely on the Mail's reporting, but on this topic they're bona fide experts: if they're not belittling women in their "sidebar of shame", they're comparing poverty-stricken migrants to Hitler's Nazis, or bullying a transgender teacher just before she kills herself.
Anyway, the Mail's story is based on two studies published recently in Canada, land of the polite. A criminologist at Simon Fraser University called Jennifer Wong carried out the first study, which found that, compared to other kids, bullies had higher social status and self-esteem, and lower rates of depression. The second was by Anthony Volk, a psychologist and renowned bullying expert at Brock University, who carried out fieldwork in a school in Arizona and found that about 90 percent of bullies showed no real social or mental "deficits". He gave the following headline-writer's dream of a quote to the Mail: "Bullies as young adolescents or as university students are getting more sexual partners and are less likely to be virgins than victims or people who are not involved in bullying."
So does bog-washing children make you more attractive? Let's put down the elastic band catapults and back up a second. First off, there's actually nothing here that says that bullies are "sexier". They may have more sex as teenagers, but that doesn't mean they're more attractive per se, especially in later life. The relationship between sex and attractiveness is a complicated one, especially at 17 (it's been suggested, for example, that more attractive women tend to have less casual sex).
Second, these are pretty tiny studies. Wong's research surveyed 135 kids in one Vancouver school, of which 11 percent were identified as bullies based on their answers to questions like, "How often are you hit, kicked or shoved?"
Eleven percent of 135 is 12, so all this news coverage is based on a study that looks at only 12 bullies in one school in one city in one part of Canada. That's not to say it doesn't have some value, but it's not exactly the slam-dunk result dozens of news outlets have pitched it as. In fairness, Wong admits this and plans to do a bigger follow up.
Volk's finding that bullies have more sex is based on a similarly tiny group, again from one school, and only follows the kids in their teen years – it says nothing at all about sexual prowess in later life.
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So is it all bollocks? Well, actually, no. The studies aren't big, but they fit with a bigger and more terrifying pattern that's emerging from countless other bits of evidence. The idea that bullies are broken people lashing out seems to be bullshit in all but a tiny minority of the more obvious cases. Most bullying happens because well-adjusted kids look at the world they live in, and realise that bullying people is actually the best choice they can make. It's not Nelson Muntz who kids should be afraid of, it's Frank fucking Underwood.
Volk reckons there are three basic and rational reasons why bullies bully: "To get resources (lunch money, for example), to get or maintain dating partners, and to get social power that can be cashed in to get resources, dates or other favours." The victims are chosen very deliberately because of their vulnerability or inability to fight back effectively. Schools provide a perfect environment where bullies can get what they want with very few consequences.
Once you realise that bullying is a rational choice, it's obvious that a lot of the measures adults take to stop it are completely pointless. As Volk puts it, "We're asking bullies to stop using a strategy that serves their interest with few costs." Trading a few detentions for being the most popular kid in the class is a no-brainer, and bullies can easy switch to methods that can't easily be punished – cyber-bullying, for example, or just constant low-level psychological abuse.
In schools around the world, bullying weak people is just a sensible thing to do. It sounds shocking, but then step back and look at wider society – is it really much different? We have whole sections of the media dedicated to identifying and bullying people who don't conform to our specific ideals. Adults harass and abuse people they disagree with online. We treat politicians and public figures with contempt, while politicians in turn enact brutal crackdowns on the sick and the vulnerable. Is it really that surprising that being a bully is a good way to start out in life?
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