New study on bullying

My attention was drawn to a recent news story, which reported that bullying can be good for children. Oh, really?

Assuming for a moment that the Daily Fail story was accurately representing the results of the research, I drew a very different conclusion from the one in the headline (and URL).

A study has shown that youngsters are more popular and more admired by teachers and friends if they return schoolyard hostility in kind.

Although the researchers accept that bullying can be damaging to children, leading to depression and anxiety, those who are not afraid to stand up for themselves can benefit from being picked on. [...]

Boys who stood up to bullies and schoolyard enemies were judged more socially competent by their teachers.

Girls who did the same were more popular and more admired by teachers and peers, the researchers found.

The key words here are “admired by”, “judged more socially confident by”. No evidence is given that bullied children are actually more socially confident, more admirable, or in any way better people as a result of the experience. Rather, we’re simply told that teachers and other kids will respect them more if they respond to violence with more violence.

Well, any cynical victim of bullying could have told you that. School has always been a vicious Darwinian zoo only a few steps from “Lord of the Flies”. The only piece of news I get from this story is confirmation that on the whole, the teachers don’t give a shit.

So teachers and other students rate the social competence of bullied kids more highly when they retaliate? Big deal. Why should I value the opinion of people who apparently don’t see the value of protecting others, and who seemingly want violence to continue?

But was the Daily Fail accurate? The Times adds some details carefully omitted by the Mail:

Melissa Witkow, now at Willamette University in Oregon, who led the UCLA study, said: “The children who are not disliked by anybody are the most well-adjusted, not surprisingly.

“However, among kids who are disliked by a peer, our research suggests it may be [helpful] for some young adolescents to return that peer’s dislike than to either not be aware or to continue liking that peer.”

In other words, bullying isn’t good for children at all. The healthiest, most well-adjusted children are the ones who aren’t bullied at all. The study merely suggests that the best option for bullied children is not to be friends with the bully–well, no shit Sherlock?

The Times also mentions a Glasgow study:

Donald Christie, a professor of childhood studies at the university, said: “When we asked them to tell us about the time somebody did something mean or nasty, we had chapter and verse. We couldn’t write it down fast enough. But when we asked them to tell us when somebody did something nice, we had blank looks.

Well, duh. That’s because for lots of children, nothing nice ever happens at school. It’s day after day of violence, meanness and spite, where the most pleasant thing ever directed your way is a good grade. Actual positive interactions with other students are so rare and mild compared to negative ones that it’s not surprising they’re harder to recall.

The New York Times coverage is better than that of either of the UK rags. While both the Times and Mail restrict themselves to heartwarming declarations from bullying victims about how much they gained from the experience, the NYT at least takes a little time to remind people that students sometimes commit suicide because of bullying. It also provides the following revealing analysis:

One reason may be that people tend to prefer symmetry in their relationships, balance in their shared antagonism just as in their shared affection. Growing up is in large part an exercise in self-definition. From a very early age, psychoanalysts have long argued, children develop objects of hatred onto which they can project the traits in themselves that they find most offensive.

The same is true of groups: a shared enemy enhances cohesion and a sense of self-approval. In psychology jargon, focusing on so-called out-group members can strengthen bonds among members of a clique.

So to summarize: Bullying is endemic. The children who aren’t bullied don’t care. The teachers don’t care. Both groups will respect you more if you give in, sink to the bully’s level, and join a clique. It won’t help you be a better person, but it’s the best option you have.

Professionalism

Background: Richard Desmond is the owner of the Daily Express, and publisher of many of Britain’s finest (?) porn magazines. The Daily Express has just switched political allegiance, and is now backing the Conservative Party under Michael Howard.

Desmond wanted to buy the Daily Telegraph, but the price he was quoted was too high. In the mean time, the German Axel Springer publishing group has put in a bid for the Telegraph.

Desmond recently met with the Daily Telegraph’s CEO Jeremy Deedes for a business meeting, to discuss the Eastferry Printing Works which the Telegraph and Express own jointly. Several other members of the Telegraph and Express boards of directors were at the meeting. Now read on…

The meeting started with the directors of the Express greeting Deedes and the Telegraph finance director with a chorus of “guten morgen” and “sehr gut”. A minute or so into the meeting, Desmond put on a mock German accent and asked the Telegraph bosses if they were looking forward to being run by Nazis.

Deedes replied “That’s not very helpful,” and pointed out that Axel Springer’s published philosophy includes a commitment to the state of Israel.

Desmond: “They’re all Nazis.”

Deedes: “That is thoroughly offensive. Could you please sit down so we can start the meeting?”

Desmond: “Don’t you tell me to sit down, you miserable little piece of shit.”

According to witnesses, Desmond then proceeded to launch into a “stream of foul-mouthed abuse, both personal and general”, lasting for several minutes and ending thusly:

Desmond: “After three years dealing with a bunch of crooks I’m starting to enjoy this. You sat down with that fucking fat crook [Conrad Black] and did nothing.”

Deedes once again expressed displeasure at Desmond’s tone, which got the retort “Do you want to come outside and sort it out, then?”

The Telegraph directors decided to abandon the meeting at this point. As they stood up, Desmond ordered the Express board of directors to sing Deutschland Über Alles, and then began goose-stepping around the conference room like Basil Fawlty, complete with index finger above his lip.

An extraordinary performance, the man should be editor of the Daily Mail. Full story is in The Guardian.

Yes, when it comes to grossly unprofessional behavior, Britain can still show the CEOs of America a thing or two…

The paper that backed Fascism

On the plane home, there was only one British paper to choose from—the Daily Mail.

XQ had taken a copy of the Mail with her when she left for Germany; she had wanted to be able to show the German kids what a British tabloid newspaper was like, but had been too embarrassed to buy The Sun. As luck would have it, that day the Mail had had a two-page spread by Paul ‘Why oh why” Johnson, entitled “What if we had made peace with Hitler?” and detailing how Sir Winston Churchill would have been publicly executed as a traitor.

The copy of the Daily Mail I got to read on the plane was almost as frothing. “Plans are underway,” it revealed, “to rebuild Hitler’s Reichstag as the centre of a united Germany.”

Well, not quite. Firstly, the Reichstag was almost entirely rebuilt long ago. What they’re planning is to do something about the glass dome on the roof, which was never replaced after we bombed the shit out of it at the end of the Second World War.

Secondly, it makes as much sense to talk about “Hitler’s Reichstag” as it does to talk about “Thatcher’s House of Commons”; the Reichstag was the centre of German government at least as far back as the nineteenth century. In fact, it was the burning down of the Reichstag in 1933 that Hitler used as an excuse to suspend constitutional rights; the Nazis found a convenient scapegoat and decided he was guilty of arson, although the suspicion is that they burnt the building down themselves.

This twisted little article was only a side-attraction, though; most of the rest of the page was taken up by the story of the Russian journalist who had supposedly found bits of Hitler’s skull in a box in some KGB archives. The Mail was obviously very excited, and included some real big pictures of Hitler, with dotted lines showing which bits had been found.

I found myself wondering what on earth the plane’s German passengers must have thought of the Daily Mail’s articles. The question was answered when I overheard a voice from the next row of seats: “I’ve got a copy of the Guardian here. Who wants to start the bidding?”

I certainly knew when I was back in Britain. We arrived at Heathrow a quarter of an hour early, because German air traffic control had been unusually efficient. We then had to wait three quarters of an hour for British Airways staff to unload our baggage. BA claims that it doesn’t have enough baggage handlers; but curiously, it sacked half of the ones it used to have last year, doubtless so that Lord King could have his golden handshake.

Eventually I collected my luggage. The next day the coach to Cambridge was half an hour late. I almost wonder why I came back.