Bullying and the tyranny of mediocrity
A personal story of UNICEF Representative in Kazakhstan Arthur van Diesen
Bullies have a tendency to pick on children that stand out in one way or another. Children who look, speak, act or even think differently. In my village school in the Netherlands, I stood out for doing well academically.
I was one of the more advanced pupils in the class and while that should have been a cause for celebration, it actually got me into trouble with the bullies in my school.
It led to name calling, humiliation, and on some rare occasions physical violence. The bullies also picked on me for standing out in a physical way – I was a rather podgy child and a notoriously poor performer in any form of physical activity. This led to more name-calling and body-shaming. The jibes directed at me would be around being fat, clumsy and clever.
There is no doubt in my mind that what I experienced at my primary school was a very mild form of bullying compared to the terror that others are exposed to. But nevertheless, the had a profound impact on me. What I remember most acutely is the strong urge the bullying gave me not to want to be noticed, not to stand out, to essentially just be ‘part of the furniture’. The perverse effect of the bullying was that I actually started purposely underperforming in the classroom, both when asked questions by the teacher and in tests. I remember how my heart used to race and my cheeks would glow when asked a question by the teacher, and how my mind would work overtime to give an answer that was sufficiently off the mark to be wrong, without being suspicious. All this in an effort to be more like the rest, in order not to be noticed.
I carried this desire not to stand out, to be unremarkable, for decades. I would hold back, even when I had a great idea or thought of a different approach.
I would lie low.
Sit in the back.
Be in the shadows rather than in the spotlight.
It is only in my forties that I started feeling at ease with being the centre of attention, being noticed, being different or even unique. And even now, I am sometimes not as bold as I should be. If a relatively mild experience of bullying had such profound effect, I dread to think how debilitating the more extreme cases are for the children who live through them.
By focusing on what is different in a child, bullies try to brutalize their peers into ‘normality’. The lowest common denominator becomes the ideal. The mediocre becomes desirable. And where, for whatever reason, children can’t comply with what is seen as ‘normal’, the bullying experience becomes extremely alienating.
This while we should be teaching children the value of diversity. While we should be encouraging children to embrace their uniqueness and empower them to be bold and creative, without fear of being judged.
Let’s make schools kinder places that truly embrace diversity. The bullying has to stop.