Caitlin Logan: Anti-bullying Week is a time to reflect on the politics of hate

CommonSpace columnist Caitlin Logan says bullying among children can't be tackled while adults continue to treat one another with deep disrespect

"YOU tell your kids, don’t be a bully. You tell your kids, don’t be a bigot. You tell your kids, do your homework and be prepared. And then you have this outcome and you have people putting their children to bed tonight and they’re afraid of breakfast, they’re afraid of, how do I explain this to my children?"

These were the words of Van Jones, CNN commentator, as Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election became clear last Tuesday night. This week, as organisations across Scotland and the rest of the UK raise awareness for Anti-Bullying Week (14-18 November), there couldn’t be a better time to consider these words.

When we think of 'anti-bullying', the setting called to mind for most people is a school, the subjects children and young people. But bullying and prejudice (two closely interlinked issues) know no age limit, and sadly the behaviour and language which would be unacceptable in a classroom is commonplace in certain spheres of politics, the media and social media.

Read more – Anti-Bullying Week: Groups across Scotland come together to urge action

If we are to sincerely address the issue of bullying among children and young people, we need to acknowledge that they do not exist in a bubble but are a part of the society which we are all shaping. 

Lessons are not only taught by teachers, but through every source of information, every word, and every experience available to children.

The Scotsman reported last week that submissions to MSPs from academics and the Educational Institute of Scotland indicated a rise in racist and xenophobic incidents in schools since the vote to leave the EU, and suggested that language used in tabloid media put some children at a greater risk.

This reflects a similar trend in the USA, where organisations such as the National Education Association (NEA) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) argued that Trump’s candidacy led to increased incidents of racist bullying. According to the SPLC, teachers reported children taunting minorities with statements such as "Build a wall! Build a wall!".

Many have been horrified by the way in which Donald Trump’s offensive and inflammatory language has been normalised, but here in the UK, tabloid newspapers which enjoy large readerships have been presenting similar attitudes for years. 

In fact, a quick scan of some of the best-worst headlines from The Sun, the Express and the Daily Mail could have saved the Trump campaign whatever effort they put into writing his speeches.

If we are to sincerely address the issue of bullying among children and young people, we need to acknowledge that they do not exist in a bubble but are a part of the society which we are all shaping. 

"Migrants Take ALL New Jobs in Britain"; "One in 5 Britons Will Be Ethnics"; "4,000 Murderers and Rapists We Can’t Throw Out... And yes, you can blame human rights again"; "Time to Silence EU Exit Whingers"; "How old are they REALLY?" (with reference to child refugees).

These were all real headlines from British tabloid newspapers over the past few years, and they exemplify the vicious mean spiritedness which forms a part of the daily diet of far too many people in our country.

In this culture of dehumanisation, how do we expect children to treat those they perceive as different?

Research from LGBT Youth Scotland (2012), Stonewall Scotland (2013) and the Tie (Time for Inclusive Education) campaign (2016) has revealed that LGBT pupils are at particularly high risk of experiencing bullying and that the problem is not improving.

Formal rights for LGBT people in this country have improved dramatically in recent years, but homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes are still very much alive and to suggest that this is primarily a problem for schools is to gravely miss the point. 

An analysis this year by the think tank Demos found that, over a three week period, the words "slut" and "whore" were used 10,000 times by UK Twitter users in "explicitly aggressive" tweets aimed at 6,500 users.

A number of studies have indicated that LGBT people still experience high levels of hate crime and that these incidents are under reported.

It was only last year that the Daily Mail wrung its hands over the notion that three year olds would be branded as bigots for using homophobic language, and this year that it labelled HIV medication as a "promiscuity pill" for gay men which would (outrageously) delay funding for other NHS treatments.

Transgender people have fared even worse, with the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Mirror reporting of "fury" (theirs, apparently) at a CBBC show about a transgender child. 

Similar alarm was expressed in the tabloids at the notion that transgender children’s charity Mermaids UK had received public funding and was linked to by the NHS. This comes just three years after a transgender primary school teacher committed suicide after the Daily Mail named her and questioned her suitability to be a teacher.

With all this concern about the adverse impacts of LGBT equality on children, it’s a hard battle for those who want to teach children to be accepting of their peers.

And this is before we even take into consideration the misogyny and sexism which has been far from eliminated in our society. Scathing commentary on women’s appearances, from politicians to celebrities and those who happen to be in relationships with celebrities, acts as continuous headline fodder for the UK’s tabloid - and sometimes not so tabloid - media.

Should we be surprised then to learn that the same Educational Institute of Scotland submission to the Scottish Parliament said that words such as "slut" and "whore" are commonly used by pupils against their female peers and teachers?

An analysis this year by the think tank Demos found that, over a three week period, the words "slut" and "whore" were used 10,000 times by UK Twitter users in "explicitly aggressive" tweets aimed at 6,500 users. Suffice to say, a large portion of these Tweeters would have been adults, who are supposed to know better.

Should we be surprised then to learn that the same Educational Institute of Scotland submission to the Scottish Parliament said that words such as "slut" and "whore" are commonly used by pupils against their female peers and teachers?

We now have a man, Donald Trump, who has publicly and frequently called women pigs, dogs, fat, ugly; who has rated women by appearance; who has used social media to target women from the Miss Universe winner, who called out his bullying behaviour, to the Fox News host who dared to challenge him on his sexist language; and who has boasted of behaviour that amounts to sexually assaulting women. 

After months of intense media coverage of this behaviour, this man has been elected president of the most powerful Western democracy in the world. So how do we look young people in the eye and say that people must be treated with equal respect, irrespective of gender?

When the people who run our country, our world, and those who are meant to inform us about it routinely use this kind of rhetoric, how can we seriously say to children that this language and treatment of others is not acceptable? The sad truth is that many people do accept it as a matter of course.

When the people who run our country, our world, and those who are meant to inform us about it routinely use this kind of rhetoric, how can we seriously say to children that this language and treatment of others is not acceptable?

Without oversimplifying the issue, when this strong sense of animosity and division exists in society, it’s inevitable that this will impact on children and young people — both those who might be targeted, and those who might do the targeting.

So what can we do about this? When it comes to media coverage, support can be given to campaigns like Stop Funding Hate, which asks advertisers to pull their support from the Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express in light of their treatment of immigrants and refugees. 

Refusing to buy newspapers which promote bigotry and misogyny, and raising awareness of this point for those who might not have considered it is an important step.

It might be dreaming big, but my hope for Anti-Bullying Week is that this could be a time of reflection for people across our country, and across the world, to consider how they treat others, and whether they do enough to challenge behaviour in adults that they would not wish to see mirrored in children.

For those of us who already know this, perhaps the best that we can do is to never stop telling the children in our lives that bullying and bigotry are not okay - no matter who it comes from. 

If we respect children and young people, and expect them to demonstrate respect, the first step we need to take is to lead by example and respect each other.

Picture courtesy of Sergejs Babikovs

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