It’s as British (for that read English) as drinking warm flat beer on a summer afternoon, while watching cricket on the village green. Bullying is deeply-ingrained in the cultural psyche of this nation. It’s institutionalized in the nation’s public schools where it was once called “fagging” and because of the seamless transition from the public school to Oxbridge to the Palace of Westminster, the baggage of bullying is carried from one place to another. It becomes the norm. Nicholas Ridley, the architect of the Poll Tax and the closure of the nation’s coal mines, went to Eton. His fag was the future Labour MP, Tam Dalyell of whom he is reputed to have said “I wish I’d have beaten him more”.
As late as the 1950s, senior boys in public schools were entrusted with beating their fags. John Betjeman, at Marlborough in the early 1920s, described the horror of Big Fire – where 16 senior boys sat in huge armchairs beside a roaring fire or played indoor hockey, while the fags, Betjeman included, sat on benches around a smaller fire.
Once they’d finished their game, the fags picked up the senior boys’ scrap paper, apple cores and darts, and put it in the bin. Whenever a senior boy shouted “Fag”, a fag ran to their study to make them toast, and woe betide you if you messed up. Then you were “basketed” – stripped to your shirt and pants, stuck in a huge wastepaper basket, had ink and treacle poured on you, and strung up by a pulley system to the ceiling. Even in his mid-50s, Betjeman remembered the pathetic sight of the basketed fag staring down through the slats of the basket at his tormentors below.
At Westminster, it was the particular duty of the most junior fag, nicknamed “Light-the-Fire”, to get up at 3.30am, to light a fire, boil a kettle and wake the senior boy every half an hour until he chose to get up; like a mini-alarm clock. What a blessed relief for Louis Theroux, me and a thousand other modern fags that these rituals gradually faded away, at Westminster and other public schools, through the 20th century. What’s left – the fag-end of fagging – is fairly harmless stuff, a watered-down version of Light-the-Fire; or Wake-the-Clegg, as it is now known.
The system of fagging encouraged boys to see the world in terms of slaves and tyrants (Nash, 1961). We should also remember that bullying is an accepted part of prison life and is tolerated by staff as an unofficial means of discipline.
But there are other criticisms of the prefect-fagging system
whose implications are more serious. For example, although it
admittedly produces competent leaders, they are leaders of an
Those running the country went to such public schools, they emerged from them safe in the knowledge that they were destined to rule (this is where colonial administrators went to school). For them, bullying is both a means of getting things done and keeping people in line. Manifestations of this Tory-led government’s bullying includes but are not limited to, getting the those in work to attack those on benefits (which also include those in work). Telling those who own their own homes that those who rent are less deserving. Announcing that council housing will no longer be for life, removing security of tenure. The use of phrases like “hardworking families” is designed to create an artificial distinction between those people who earn decent salaries and those that rely on benefits to supplement their meagre incomes. When the coalition took power in 2010, they immediately set about pitting private sector workers against public sector workers.
When Diane Abbott told the world that “divide and conquer” was the common tactic of white people, she expressed this point inelegantly. Divide and conquer is a tactic that is taught at public schools; it is the way the British ran their empire and we still suffer from its consequences. The Middle East is the best possible example of how the British, along with their junior partners, the French, carved up vast swathes of land along ethno-religious lines. We continue to live with the prospect of the Middle East going up in flames because of Britain’s penchant for divide and conquer.
Flogging was once a common punishment in public schools and was replaced with other forms of punishment in the 20th century. The fagging system remained more or less until the 1980s. The punishment regime has been transformed into other forms of punishment: the removal of benefits, forcing the disabled and long-term sick into work (some of whom have died as a consequence) and taking away workplace rights.
But bullying isn’t confined to those who went to public school, it has percolated through the layers of British society where it finds expression in the shouting of abuse at red-haired people or the mocking of the disabled on street. You can see it in the so-called comedy of Ricky Gervais and his “Derek” character, whose feeble defence was “it’s just comedy”. Channel 4 liked it so much, that it commissioned a series but then C4 knows all about bad television.
These are woeful times for the disabled in Britain – 20% mandatory cuts in disability living allowance, government plans to coerce disabled people to do unpaid work, a 75% rise in disability hate crime between 2008 and 2009 (the last year we have data for) – and the satire of Ricky Gervais.
Satire, my arse. It’s a form of abuse. She continues,
But the real evidence against Gervais’s satire is what he says when he is not being satirical, or speaking to journalists. Consider his infamous stand-up routine in 2010, where he talked about Susan Boyle. “Look at Susan Boyle,” he says, “if you can. I don’t think she’d be where she is today if she didn’t look like such a mong.” He then inserts a fictional critic: “He said mong! You can’t say mong.” “You can,” Gervais comes back. “It’s easy. It’s one of the easiest words to say. You just needs lips. Even mongs can say it.” Back comes the critic: “Why does he get away with it and no one else can? Ban him from the telly!” Gervais smirks, “good luck”, and that bellicose child is, I think, his dominant self. He apologised later; of course he did.
You see, Gervais believes it is perfectly acceptable to refer to someone as a “mong”. In September, Gervais was accused of Internet bullying when he asked his followers to troll his critics. New Left Project has other examples of cruelty as comedy here.
Thanks to Britain’s culture of bullying, cruelty has become the new comedy. No more do comedians attack the powerful, it is much easier for them to attack those who are under increasing attack from this government’s cuts. Gervais and those like him, work as proxies for the bullying politicians at Westminster. They help to circulate notions of Otherness and perpetuate the cruelty that has become such an integral part of British culture. By using the disabled, for example, as butts, Gervais helps to legitimate and rationalize the cruelty as ‘humour’. “What’s the matter? Ain’t you got a sense of humour or something”?
Comedians like Gervais can dismiss criticism of their bullying with a simple “It’s a joke”. The Tory politicians who inflict misery upon the poor and the disadvantaged have no such line of defence.
Workplace bullying has also become, sadly, all too common. With the government removing the right of workers to take their employers to court for unfair dismissal, it is unlikely that bullying will be fully eradicated from the workplace. Indeed, it will become more entrenched.
Essentially, we have a situation where the government see themselves as prefects and the rest of us as fags. The only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them, for underneath all that bravado, they are nothing but cowards.
Nash, P (1961), “Training an Elite” in History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Mar., 1961), pp. 14-21 Available via JSTOR.