John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Bullies just do it because they can

John Key would like a nationwide conversation about bullying. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Key would like a nationwide conversation about bullying. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A few club friends were sitting yarning after tennis on Wednesday night when the conversation turned to bullying.

Why do they do it, somebody asked. Because they can, another answered.

"Come on," I said. "Not every kid who is big enough to be a bully does it."

"Okay," he replied. "I was only a teacher for 23 years, what would I know?" The rest seemed to think that was a fair point.

A little later he said school bullying was all about establishing a pecking order.

"No it's not," I said. "The most dominant kid in class is not a bully, it's some loser who would like to be him."

I said it with vehemence and a finality that defied anyone to argue. Nobody did. I felt pretty good about that, and then I didn't.

Looking back I don't know why I did that. Competition perhaps. Distaste for the subject possibly. I know it was nothing personal.

The Prime Minister wants a "nationwide conversation" about bullying and has ordered school boards to review their policies for dealing with it. The conversation had already been started by YouTube clips that may not be typical but reminded everyone of what happens in the child world.

The subject is every parent's anguish because they cannot do much to help. "Telling the teacher" does nothing for an adolescent's standing or self respect, and can make things worse.

Encouraging retaliation lowers the victim to the bully's level of civilisation.

It also risks equal punishment under the "zero tolerance" policy that all school boards will declare to John Key.

It became apparent in the conversation this week that they mean zero tolerance of violence, not of bullying, which is much harder to define and deal with.

School principals who joined the conversation report that bullying is getting worse and they blame the standards of modern society - you and me, or maybe the media.

It is my impression society is more considerate on a personal level today than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The presence of women in the workforce is probably the main reason. Women may be capable of verbal bullying but generally they don't. Their conversation is less competitive and their dealings more sensitive.

General discourse has become so gentle these day that even strong but fair and reasoned argument is sometimes called bullying by those who cannot answer in kind.

Likewise, I imagine that in school playgrounds many a sheltered child needs to learn how robust a fair contest can be.

School policy statements cannot teach the distinction between considerate, civilised argument and brute use of an advantage, but adult models can. Parents, teachers, politicians, media, are more impressive when they operate on a level of human respect.

Adolescents might not be able to explain the difference between Paul Holmes and Paul Henry but they can see it.

Speaking of bullying, can anyone explain why Phil Goff has been pilloried over the past fortnight for the sins of Darren Hughes? Reading and listening to all political commentators on the subject, I'm missing something.

All have pronounced Goff guilty of an error of political judgment because he kept the police investigation secret for two weeks.

Why was that unwise?

Because, they say, it was bound to come out and when it did it would be worse for Goff and the Labour Party.

Why would it be worse?

Because he had kept it a secret.

This can do your head in. It is unfair and oppressive of reason, like the demands of a gang in a schoolyard. It is also as cowardly. Goff is not polling strongly and unlikely to get much public support. I doubt they would run this nonsense at Key.

The press gang feels justified in collective bullying because a party leader is supposed to be able to stand up to an ordeal no matter how unfair.

This was a little test. Goff failed it miserably. He backtracked three times and conceded he might have made mistakes or could have handled things better. He should have stuck to his guns.

He was not going to make public something personal to an MP that he had been told in confidence while it was under police investigation.

"Call it a cover-up if you want," he could have said. "I call it natural justice."

Of course that is easy for me to say, I'm not carrying the slim hopes of a major party into an election in November. Leaders in a weak position play safe, conceding something to the critics and hoping they will back off.

They won't. This ordeal has been fun and there will be more. If the hounds smelled blood before, they smell it stronger now.

My tennis mate was on to something: bullies do it because they can. I wish I hadn't jumped on him.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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