“For the bullied and the beautiful”: why bullying is a big deal

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“Was this the nastiest X Factor judge response ever?”

Yeah. It probably was.

When X-Factor judge Natalia Kills, backed up by her hubby Willy Moon, harshly criticised the contestant Joe Irvine a few weeks back, social media exploded with criticism and the evening news in Aotearoa was dominated by Natalia’s actions. Many accused Natalia of engaging in bullying behaviour, and by all accounts those accusations where correct. I cringed as I watched this judge’s tirade against Joe, as an artist and writer it was painful to watch another creative being destroyed in public because I know just how devastating those attacks can be.  Even Simon Cowell recently responded to Natalia Kills’ public attack by calling her “mad” and “hateful” and saying he did not think anyone had gone that far on a reality talent show before. Y’all know it is bad when, even Simon Cowell, the original “Mr. Nasty” thinks what Natalie said was pushing it.

Many people, including our own blogger Martyn Bradbury and many on my Facebook feed have rightfully pointed out that there are far worse things to get upset about than some pompous pop stars bullying and humiliating someone on national television and, of course they are right. At least in the grand scheme of things: the 280,000 kids living in desperate poverty in Aotearoa, the fact we are sending troops to war (again!!!), the brutal attacks on workers rights and the devastating effects of climate change. I’ve written about all of these things, marched against them, protested and spoken out against these injustices and human rights violations, but I also know what it feels like to be bullied and humiliated – both privately and publicly. To have my writing and art ripped apart for no other reason than some shit person decided I was fair game, and it was my turn to be their punching bag. It sucks. A lot!

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If you have never been bullied badly, maybe what happened on X-Factor is no big deal to you? Maybe witnessing the artists Natalia Kills and Willy Moon, who have since been sacked by Mediaworks and have returned to L.A, abuse their position of power as judges on X-Factor by verbally assaulting a contestant in a tirade of meanness and accusations of copying  Moon’s style (because, apparently wearing a suit with slicked back hair is super original), didn’t affect you. However, if you have been bullied you know how it can make you feel worthless and like giving up – it can take away your hope. If bullying becomes bad enough it can even take away your will to live.

Whether you think what happened on X-Factor was worthy of the relentless air time it got or not, what is important to note is, Natalia and Willy’s actions speak to a wider culture of bullying in this country. Some of the backlash in response to their actions on social media is evidence of this wider culture. While some used social media to hold these two pop stars who behaved so poorly accountable, it was also used widely with glee by people to ‘take them [Willy and Natalia] down’ reported Catalogue Magazine. Some people even told Natalia to “go kill herself.” Using abusive (cyber) bullying tactics to counter bullying behaviour is a bit of oxymoron – and it is abuse. After all hurt people hurt people, and meeting Natalia’s bullying words with more bullying simply perpetuates the cycle.

natalie kills

So for anyone who thinks what these two did was blown out of proportion, I have to disagree. And this is why:

Every day a large minority of young people and kids are going to school hoping to god they make it through the day without being verbally assaulted, kicked, punched and alienated by their own peers.  My nephew has a stutter, he is 6 years old and he gets teased by one boy at his school who cruelly mimics his stutter in-front of other kids. The acclaimed spoken word poet and anti-bullying activist Shane Koyczan cites in his book, ‘To This Day’ which is based on his poem of the same name, that “85 percent of bullying happens while other kids are watching.” Last year a group of girls followed my nephew around and engaged in similar bullying tactics. My nephew who takes after me in that he never shuts up, now tries hard to avoid speaking. Bullying can devastate self-confidence.

Many in Aotearoa are yet to wake up to, or care about, the desperate poverty hundreds of thousands are living in, but so often we ignore bullying just as we ignore poverty, just as we ignore the effects of climate change.  Whether we turn a blind-eye to bullying in the work-place or the school ground or wherever, bullies often get away with it because we let them. Because we are scared if we step up and step in, they might turn their venom on to us.  Koyczan in his book also points out that “bullying will usually stop within 10 seconds if someone steps in to help the victim.”

For some reason thousands in Aotearoa stood up to bullying a few weeks ago, utilising social media to express their outrage. Maybe this public display of intolerance to bullying (those who used bullying tactics to express their disgust not included) helped to give some kid who is being relentlessly picked on at school a little bit of hope? School zones are battle zones for some kids  I think if you told any child, my nephew included, who is surviving bullying that “it is no big deal and there are bigger issues to worry about such as poverty”, they might tell you it really, really is a big deal to them. They might even tell you they don’t want to live in this world anymore. Heartbreaking.

Laurie Penny wrote last year for the Guardian “there has been a chilling surge in suicide attempts among [young] people with their entire lives still to live, many of them linked to bullying.” Shane Koyczan, the spoken word poet I mentioned before spent most of his childhood being bullied, suffering relentless put-downs and name calling and physical violence by his peers, which ultimately drove him to contemplate suicide. His anti-bullying poem, ‘To This Day’ speaks to the profound and detrimental long lasting damage bullying has on the individual. He wrote:

we weren’t the only kids who grew up this way
to this day
kids are still being called names
the classics were
hey stupid
hey spaz
seems like each school has an arsenal of names
getting updated every year
and if a kid breaks in a school
and no one around chooses to hear
do they make a sound?
are they just the background noise
of a soundtrack stuck on repeat
when people say things like
kids can be cruel?//

‘Kids can be cruel’, is often said in an attempt to brush off bullying as if it is a childhood rite of passage, as if it is something we should expect and acccept. Yeah, ‘Kids can be cruel’ but so often nothing is done about the cruelty being committed and because of this, this cruelty often creeps insidiously into adulthood as the X Factor case has evidenced.  Cruelty often goes unchecked, therefore being sanctioned by default.

Most commonly bullying that impacts adults happens in the workplace. Bill Bradford, a Lawyer who works for First Union recently reported “There’s actually an epidemic of workplace bullying in this country.” From the school ground to the work place bullying is a massive social problem in this country.  A 2012 study by the Work Research Institute at AUT University found almost one in five New Zealanders had experienced workplace bullying. In the school playground Koyczan suggests “1 in 7 kids has either been the victim of bullying or a bully.”

Statistically, bullying gets worse with age.

Just recently protesters picketed Pak’N’Save Rotorua in response to workers speaking out about a climate of intimation. Bill Bradford reported “More than 70 staff had recently joined the union and when a list of members was sent to management ahead of a meeting under the Employment Relations Act, the owner and his management team responded with a campaign of bullying and intimidation.”

So often when kids are the targets of bullies we tell them to “stand up to the bully” (which is a terrifying request if you think about it) and we tell adults who are being bullied to “grow a rhino skin” or use some clinched positive affirmation like “chin up”, these are all a thinly veiled form of victim blaming no matter how well meaning and unaware the gesture might be. We are simply minimising for our own comfort. Thus, telling people who speak out about being bullied that there are bigger problems in the world like poverty (because other people have it so much worse), amounts to minimising langauge.

Telling someone who is surviving abuse – and bullying is a form of abuse and violence – to, “toughen up” or to “harden up” isn’t helpful. The person who is surviving bullying should not have to change their behaviour or reactions to bullying, it is the person engaging in bullying behaviour who needs to be constructively challenged and told to change their behaviour. They are the ones who need to be told to be “more compassionate”, so often our society has it  terribly backwards in response to bullying.

Whether it is politicians, such as National’s Paula Bennett, bullying their own citizens who are living in poverty through welfare cuts and poverty shaming rhetoric, managers belittling their staff members and intimidating them, kids in our school grounds surviving relentless torment by their own peers, or two pop stars ganging up and verbally abusing a contestant on some talent show, ultimately all of these types of behaviour (regardless of the context) are designed to humiliate and dehumanise. It all matters. We should give a shit about bullying, and put our collective energy into eliminating it everywhere it exists, from the playground to the workplace, to parliament.

14 COMMENTS

  1. So well said Chloe!

    I think 31 years of neo liberal free market Milton Friedman style economics has deeply affected our collective values and behaviour in NZ. Its every man (first, then other genders next) for themselves, competition is king, those who get to the top are seen as stronger and better.

    Co-operation, collaboration and compassion are seen as traits and values which are less important, less valued.

    We’ve lost our collective “soul”.

    We desperately need to change our national conversation about what is good towards compassion, empathy and co-operation. Move away from business speak, move towards loving and valuing each other. We need to see that the value and level of support given to the most vulnerable in NZ is the measure of how decent our society is. Today it is disgustingly indecent.

    • 1000% Chloe and Lara,
      we are sadly becoming dehumanised by Planet key, and run as puppets for his tune.

      We do have to plan for humanity and humility to be the lead campaign on the way to the next election.

    • Totally agree Lara. Business speak is all about reducing empathy in society making for a cold heartless society.

    • I think 31 years of neo liberal free market Milton Friedman style economics has deeply affected our collective values and behaviour in NZ.

      Although it has bullying was also a problem before 1984. It’s not something new.

      • yeah it was a problem long before neoliberal policies. Bullying happens on an individual and collective level. Just more and more people are speaking out about it, and there is more research being conducted into bullying, and jus how wide spread it is.

      • I think bullied happens so much and is just so exceped as normal it happens daily to hundreds of thousands of people in this country. And people who stand up against it, are often told they are making it up or, it just isnt as bad as they say.

    • yeah, I agree I think we grow up in a culture that values the individual not the collective. People’s minds are so focused on money and how they can make more, the idea of community and doing things that better it (and probs dont turn a profit) arent high on alot of peoples agendas.

  2. Hear, hear! Well said, Chloe. There is not enough being done to remove bullying from our society, and it needs to change – fast. Once I had to go to a well-known secondary school, where my son was having trouble with – yep, you guessed it – bullying. I got to see one(?) of the assistant principals, as the Principal was away somewhere.
    I was staggered to learn that my son’s problem was entirely his own fault, despite that fact that HE was getting bullied by some who are called “International Students.”
    It did dawn on me. The person behind the desk was an arrogant bully himself. And, they would rather get rid of my son, than the International Students causing the problem, who were bringing heaps of money into the school!
    But I’ve found there is something worse than the bullying that too many of us are familiar with. It is the subtle, psychological bullying that is found in the MSM, and in certain politicians . . .

    If we can’t even stick up for each other, we’re screwed.

  3. Words that needed to be written now that the dust has settled after the X Factor scandal. Bullying is pervasive throughout our society and is very often underplayed as a factor in many social and mental health issues. Wise words Chloe.

  4. Wise words indeed.

    One of the worst things about bullying (or really any form of abuse), is that the behavioral pattern becomes normality to those involved. I was bullied in school, I became a bully myself to others; at the time this seemed just how things were (in a old fashioned boys school). Looking back; it is the bullying that I participated in, that makes me feel worse, than the times I was myself bullied.

    In later years, when bullying has become evident in workplaces I’ve been in; I’ve generally chosen to walk away. But it is difficult to get much of reference for a new job, when that would mean that the manager of the last would have to; acknowledge a problem in a longterm employee, or themself. Easier to disparage those who wouldn’t conform. Fear of; unemployment, and getting a reputation for being “difficult”, do much to normalize the bullying culture endemic in New Zealand.

    • So often we are prepared to except bullying because it is so much easy than having to do something about it. And yes, those being bullied are so often shamed for someone elses shit behaviour. Im kind of a bit sick of that cowardly reaction.

  5. There is one way to reduce one’s likelihood of being bullied by social media – don’t use it! Strange as it may seem to some people, the human race survived before the advent of Facebook, Twitter, text messages, etc.

    • you should not have to stop using social media to avoid bullying, you probably would not tell a school kid to avoid school if they where being bullied, once again avoid places where YOU may encounter bullying does not solve anything. Bullying existed long before social media.

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