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Inside The Head Of A Bully: “Those Words Still Haunt Me At Times”

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By Akhil Kumar:

‘He bullied me so much that my mother sent me away to a school in Arunachal,’ confessed a teary eyed school classmate in my room in Delhi, where some friends caught up over drinks. I shrugged it off with an uncomfortable laugh and changed the topic, unable to decide how to react to this sudden and unpleasant reminiscence of the past. I had never imagined how I could have affected someone’s life in such a way. Those words still haunt me at times, sending me back to the days when I used to be an entirely different person than I am now, and force me to ponder on the emotional trauma I might have caused to many more people.

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I was born and brought up in a small town in Bihar, and was raised in a very conservative patriarchal social setup (I added the word ‘patriarchal’ deliberately, as aggression and our perception of gender roles are interlinked). Returning back to the classmate in question, he suddenly stopped coming to school. I had no idea where he was, neither did I bother to find out as there was no dearth of people to pick on and I was busy basking in the glory of the ‘cool guy’ image that many of us subconsciously attach with bullies, even if we would hate to admit it.

The sudden realization of what I had done, hit me hard and made me reflect on the consequences of my action, and more importantly, what made me act that way. I thought about the very violent childhood I have had, and also how people treated one another in my family. Could it have been because my father was violently aggressive and it moulded my behaviour? Children don’t listen to you as much as they observe and follow your behaviour. Was it because my father often beat me up badly to vent out his frustration and the insecurity of losing power over those he thought he was entitled to have a dominant control on? Was it because I had been bullied in the past as well and the shift of power gave me an opportunity to mask my own insecurities and fears by appearing aggressive and dominant? Was it a form of an illusory sense of retribution for the humiliation I had suffered, both at home and otherwise?

The more I thought about it, the firmer I became in my belief that it is a structural and social problem that can’t be solved unless we don’t start seeing it as a collective problem rather than that of an individual. The social dynamics that enable this behaviour need to be analyzed, understood and reformed. How we, as a collective, encourage, accept, normalize and tolerate this aggression needs to be put under scrutiny. Corporal punishment, ostracization and the ‘othering’ of the children who bully isn’t a very effective way of reforming them. I say this from personal experience. I was beaten up at home after complaints from school, wasn’t allowed to join a very coveted school trip to South India, and parents wouldn’t let their children anywhere near me, let alone be friends. It wasn’t a deterrent; rather it made me more aggressive as I felt alienated and craved for recognition and acceptance.

Interestingly, the gradual change in my behaviour happened when I was removed from the environment I grew up in and was exposed to an entirely different world. I left home after 10th grade and landed in Rajasthan, among people from very diverse backgrounds and with no sense of security of being near local guardians or familiar faces. Nobody knew me there and fortunately I was privileged enough to have a fresh start in life, without the need to live up to a reputation and also removed from the inherent violence (both physical and emotional) of the regressive familial setup I was raised in. Not to say that the sudden change in my immediate environment was the only thing that changed me, but it definitely was a major catalyst in the transformation. The popular perception that such a significant behavioural change requires a lot of time, and can only happen gradually is something I would disagree with. I felt vulnerable and lost in the anonymity that a big city provides, the enablers of the aggressive behavior disappeared and it was sudden and unexpected (I was all of 17 back then). Bullying is a socially constructed behavioural trait and when the social enablers are taken away, the developments can be unexpected. Not to say that it is a general rule, and might not be valid for every case, but it happened with me. I never wanted to go back home, and was glad that I had the chance to escape. The fact that I don’t like to think of, or visit, the place I was born and brought up in (it has been 4 years since I visited last) speaks volumes about the psychological effects bullying has, even on the one who once bullied others.

We need to stop looking at the children who bully as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ or treat them as criminals. Rather we should come together as a community to make them understand why it is wrong to bully others. They need help and affection, not punishment and ostracization. Justice should be reformative, not retributive. When we, as a society, have contributed to the development of a child, it is our responsibility to share the blame if they are in trouble and help them reform their behaviour. When people punish children for what we taught them to become, it seems to me, as Chester Himes once said in a similar context, “…as wrong as if they had hung the gun that shot the man”.

This is a personal narrative and my observations are out of my own experiences, they may or may not resonate with everyone, but I felt it was important to at least start a discussion on bullying, its consequences and possible approaches to deal with it. I believe that we need to take responsibility, as a community, and work together to find the right approach to deal with this problem. With time, the nature of our social interaction and relationships has undergone a significant change. With the rapidly changing socio-economic dynamics, we are increasingly witnessing an individualistic deviation in our interaction with our society, and this will inevitably lead to the subconscious ‘othering’ of people when the pressing need is to come together and invest more time to really understand the structural setup that facilitates and causes this kind of behaviour.

Punishment and retributive justice wouldn’t change what a certain kind of social conditioning caused. As a consequence of bullying, all of us suffer, and it has a long lasting impact on the psyche of all the parties directly or indirectly involved – those who bully, those who are bullied, those who are bystanders, those who intervene to help, and also those of us who judge and dole out ‘justice’. I hope we try to actively engage with this problem, for it was devastating for my tearful classmate, and my uncomfortable dismissal of the issue wouldn’t stop it from haunting me.

This article is a part of Amnesty International India’s ‘Proud to Be Indian’ campaign.

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  1. Babar

    A bully might feel guilty later on about the people she has hurt, but it does not change what she has done. Besides, to say that punishing a bully is not a solution is incorrect. Not everyone has a chance to escape their hostile environment, and blaming your behaviour on surroundings, upbringing, or parents does nothing to change the fact that people know right from wrong, but choose not to behave accordingly. There are countless people whose grow up in hostility, but are kind to others. Please stop with the blame game and giving excuses for unacceptable behaviour. To add, films like Mean Girls, Mean Girls 2, and Cyberbully provide good insight into the issue. Thank you.

    1. TheSeeker

      ‘She’ has hurt? Wow, babar, what a subtle way to show that you only blame girls for bullying. Both boys and girls are accused of bullying, okay? That too EQUALLY. But of course you won’t realize this. In my school days, it was usually the boys who used to tease, hit and shame other students in public. Girls too, but MUCH lesser than boys. I’m sure other schools are also like this. But anyways, the point is not whether it is boys or girls bullying students, but the issue of bullying itself.

    2. Jayaprakash Mishra

      That’s an inclusive ‘she’, that also includes ‘he’.

    3. Babar

      Why is it acceptable to use the word ‘he’ but not ‘she’ when talking about bullies? It shows your inherent sexism towards men.

    4. Kitty

      very funny to read ,,, this article says abt the bullying effect that a guy caused to his friends …. but why do you have to comment saying SHE …. and talk abt movies based on female roles …..

      WHy dont you use the word ,,, HE/SHE or SHE /HE …

      WHen the autor is clearly talking abt him being a bully..??????

    5. TheSeeker

      Because 99% of the time, ‘he’ is the word that always includes both male and female. It’s basic English. So why change the gender now? I think you just want to imply that females are the ultimate bullies. Just calm the fuck down. I am NOT sexism towards men.

    6. Soumya

      ummm, Mr Seeker, I will have you know that the universal gender is now ‘she’ because she has a ‘he’ as well. So unless you know what you are talking about, shut up with half baked knowledge.

    7. TheSeeker

      First off, I’m a woman. 🙂
      And are you sure about ‘she’ being gender neutral? Because from what I’ve been reading and seeing in daily life, ‘he’ is the term used to denote both the male and female genders. In fact I have never seen ‘she’ being used neutrally. This is not even sexist; it comes from centuries of habit. I’m quoting this from wikipedia: “masculine pronouns have been used in cases where the referent or referents are not known to be (all) female”
      You may be right, but ‘she’ is definitely not popularly used.

    8. Soumya

      I think I am pretty much sure because that is something that has been going on in a lot pieces. Maybe you would like to add a few topics to your reading list? Apart from this, the reason why it is not used popularly is because of the gender hegemony in linguistics. It is definitely NOT gender neutral, but it is inclusive of both man and woman because s+he=she. And may I add, popular doesn’t always equate with being right, and wikipedia, no offense, is often bullshit.

    9. TheSeeker

      Well, the day ‘she’ would be commonly used in all texts will take decades to come, maybe then you’ll be right. Writers are starting to use ‘she’ mainly because of the rise of feministic beliefs (which I am against) and to seek attention, so yeah, you may be right about that one :). But there’s a fine line between logic and routine, my friend. Anyways, this can go on forever, so I’m signing off here.
      P.S. I doubt using ‘she’ can curb the sexism in English. We need another neutral pronoun, in my opinion, like French.

  2. Soumya

    While this piece reminds me strongly of Frankenstein at places, which also spoke of alienation and isolation, I do have a few questions.
    1) While I do agree with this piece in general, but it does sound in places that you have tried to shift the weightage more to the social paradigms rather than your own state of mind. I personally know of a friend who came from an exceptionally privileged household, and in order to remain so in her position she beat up other girls for fun as well as those who did not listen to her. So I also feel that children who have had no exposure to criticism are also at a risk of bullying.
    2) Bullying, at a very basic level, and to a certain extent is not a criminal activity. But adolescent agnst, in a lot of cases, have been observed in juvenile delinquency.

    The major point, however, where I agreed with your piece was how alienation and ennervation is not a part of corrective measures when dealing with bullies.
    It leaves a mark in the child’s mind where it never really fades. I also like that you’ve placed two aspects of your adolescence, one where you were the bully, and 2nd where you were alone, making a fresh start.

  3. Anshul Jain

    Usually we read stories of people who have suffered from bullying. But this is the first time, I could imagine (though vicariously) about people on the other side of the equation.
    I couldn’t agree more with your take on retributive justice. I would like to see changes in our moral education system. There are many countries where primary education mainly deals with morality. And my point is not limited to bullying.

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