Time To End the Bullying of Politicians
October 19, 2021.
We condemn ‘direct action’, slander and hate comments at school. So why do we put up with it from politicians?
The anti-bullying charity I founded, Act Against Bullying, got registered status 18 years ago today. During that time, I’ve promoted a range of initiatives via schools and conferences against a rising tide of cyberbullying and an erosion of civilised behaviour online. People will now write things they would never have the courage to say to someone’s face. You don’t have to be a big person to threaten someone, you just need a Twitter account. It’s as if social media has fuelled a false feeling of omnipotence. Like a drug, the more reaction, the more they post. But how can we promote decency when now those in influential positions in politics are doing the same?
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The tragic killing of David Amess, whatever the motivation, has opened the debate on abusive and inciteful language used by leading politicians.
As a charity, we work to curb excesses of bullying rather than pretend we can stop it altogether. And that means an honest appraisal of how we express ourselves. What is normal? What is excessive? What is extreme? One message I have put out to young people in school talks is the cause and effect of their actions. Like, ‘Why should you not bully? Because they will resent it. That’s human. And if you are an ambassador or leader and you offend someone, you can start a war.’
About bullying behaviour
There has always been bullying in schools, professions and all aspects of life. It will ever exist when there is authority, a structure based on superiority or because human civilization is competitive. Also, people wish to be seen as better than others. This is because popularity runs with those who are successful. There is a survival issue at stake as well. Since cave days, being “lesser” can lead to you and your loved ones being shunned, disliked and left unprotected.
It’s ok for tennis players wanting to want be number one, footballers at the top of their league and the surgeon about to operate on you being the best in the land. But being number one means someone becomes number two and perceives themselves as lesser. People trying to be better than another will always involve activity which can be perceived as bullying.
However, having everyone equal is an ideal and a fantasy. Behaving as if everybody is the same is a tall card, but a possibility. We can’t recode our DNA. But we can aim to behave better. That’s why examples of civility, decency, and kindness are so necessary and so powerful.
The aim of Act Against Bullying is to help where we can promote solutions to improve society. Unfortunately laws can’t help with this. However strict, they will never cover the scope of intimidation tactics used in daily life. Also, the definition of bullying is that the behaviour has to be intentional and repetitive. That lets most bullies off the hook.
And then there’s tribalism. One group against another. You can’t belong to one without demonising the other.
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Bullying in politics
It’s wrong to draw equivalence between protecting vulnerable children at school and having the same concern for adult politicians. Having been involved myself, I know politics is not for the fainthearted. It is a known battleground where one army of philosophy attempts to demoralise its competition. But some of the recent bad behaviour is being normalised as legit. And that has a knock-on effect for all of us, particularly our charity.
The promoted norm that Tories, simply because they are Tories, deserve “what’s coming to them” is threatening in itself. It’s akin to saying ‘if you think differently to us, you’re fair game.’ Political debate should be about stopping outright aggression, not encouraging it.
It doesn’t help harmonise a community when a former Shadow Chancellor says, ‘I want to be in a situation where no Tory MP, no Tory or MP, no Coalition Minister, can travel anywhere in the country or show their face anywhere in public without being challenged by direct action.’
It has been claimed that Angela Rayner branded all her Conservative parliamentary colleagues ‘scum’ because she’s ambitious, and believes to get on in the Labour Party, she needs to use vulgar language. How does that sit with us as a society? Casual hatred of those who do not share our views is the tipping point of extremist behaviour.
If we want to reduce violence on our streets, bullying in our schools and the frightening and insidious rise of tribalism in our classrooms and on the streets, it has to begin with the measured public language of elected democratic representatives.
Louise Burfitt-Dons is the founder of the children’s charity Act Against Bullying, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate and an author.
© Louise Burfitt-Dons / Conservative Home
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