Friday, 18 October 2013

Anatomy of a tragedy: Victim Factoring in the suicide of bullied children. 14.10.13

This week saw yet another child suicide in the UK, with an 11-year-old boy killing himself allegedly as a result of on-going bullying[1].  This is not an isolated event, being part of what is being presented as a near-epidemic, with children allegedly living lives of quiet desperation[2].

When I read this kind of article I feel incredibly sad and angry, although, as per usual, for all the wrong reasons.  Yes, it is tragic that a young child is gone forever.  What is equally tragic for me, however, is the underlying cause of the tragedies.  If you dissect the events into their core components, it wasn’t bullying on its own who killed these children.  It was powerlessness – that of the children, of their parents, of the school, and of their communities.  It is a systemic powerlessness, all-pervasive, because, as a culture, we choose to look at childhood bullying completely the wrong way round.

Whenever something like this takes place, the general response seems to be to become collectively horrified and demand that bullying be eradicated, usually via legislation or education.  From a certain point of view that makes good logical sense.  If bullying did not exist then bullying-driven suicides would also not take place.  I have only one problem with this vision, and it’s the fact that I don’t see it becoming a reality anytime soon, if ever. 

In our culture, we treat bullying as an aberration – but is it, really?  It seems to me that bullying, regardless of the fact that we consider it unpleasant, unfair and socially unacceptable, is a natural human behaviour.  It is a dominance game, much like those played by other mammals.  A certain profile of human, in certain types of circumstances, will seek to increase his/her social status by lowering that of somebody else.  I am not saying that we should learn to just put up with it, but that we have to admit that it dwells within us, particularly when we are dealing with amoral beings – and by this I don’t mean criminals. 

Children, particularly young children, are little savages, born with very little in the way of innate values.  Morals are neither universal nor inborn, which is why as parents and as a society we spend so much time inculcating our morals into our children.  If you disagree with me, just consider how the children of Sparta might have been brought up to view bullying and conflict in general.  What, they were “wrong” and “uncivilised” and our point of view is much better?  Do feel free to believe that.  The reality is, however, that children’s minds can and need to be moulded.  You cannot rely on being able appeal to children’s morals because they are still busy forming them.  A moral campaign against bullying may work, in time, but does nothing in the short-term to help the children suffering now.

The flipside of children’s amorality is that, by and large, “-isms” are not the real reasons for victimisation.  Unless they have been indoctrinated by adults, young children’s harassment is not motivated by underlying ethics.  Children will pick on people for two simple reasons: because they can and because they want to.  The “reasons” for picking someone are nothing but excuses, although they do focus on differences.  The reason for this, though, is that doing that is easy.  Whether the focus is skin colour, a disability, the clothes you wear, your smell, your habits, it does not matter to them.  If they want to harass you, they will find a “reason”.  Dubbing playground bullying as “racist” and so on is disingenuous.

As adults, we forget all this.  We live in a world where we are guided by what is “right”.  Bullying is “wrong”, so we approach it as a moral crusade, a social issue, rather than a personal problem.  The problem is that bullying is, in essence, a form of abuse, which is not a crime that strikes at random.  Not everyone has the exact same chance of becoming a victim of abuse, with a number of physical, psychological and social factors contributing to one’s chance. 

The bottom line is that bullying is a relationship between two parties.  Both parties have to be suited to the relationship.  Bullies will not tend to pick on unsuitable victims – and, if they do, the targets’ reactions will thwart their aims.  The bullying relationship will only become established if the target is a suitable victim.  This does not mean that the victims are “to blame” for being bullied, but it means that there are Individual Factors that increase the risk of somebody becoming a victim of bullying. 

The concept of “Victim Factoring”, as opposed to “Victim Blaming”, was recently introduced to the self-defence world by Erik Kondo in one of the most helpful blogs I have read in a long while[3].  What it boils down to is that for non-random crimes we can look at the Individual Factors that increase or decrease our chances of becoming victims.  If those factors are under our control, we have the ability to decide whether we want to alter them.  This will decrease our Personal Risk of becoming victims of a crime.  Reducing the Societal Risk (the average risk of being victimized) requires us to change the world we live in.  Reducing the Personal Risk requires us to change ourselves.

As a society we focus on stamping out bullying.  This, if it worked, would reduce the Societal Risk of a child being affected.  Unfortunately, it has not worked yet.  It may not work within our lifetimes.  While we are campaigning for it, if we want to protect our children our only option is to try and reduce their Personal Risk, and that is where we seem to fail spectacularly, for two main reasons.  Firstly, we seem to be unwilling to admit that Personal Factors are in play and that they can or should be altered.  Secondly, we value peace, love and understanding. 

If we analyse some of the recent tragedies objectively, we can identify a number of Individual Factors that contributed to the creation and continuation of the bullying relationship:
·         The victims were identified as “different”.  They stood out, sometimes admittedly in ways that could not be helped, such as race.  However, being different on its own doesn’t make you a victim unless other factors are in play.
·         The victims did not have the personal skills to protect themselves from the bullies.  As a consequence, the bullying relationship was successfully established and maintained.  There was no mention as to whether the victims had any hopes to be able to end the relationship, but their decision to end their lives instead seems to suggest that this was not the case.
·         The victims lacked sufficient social support in their schools or amongst their peers.  They did not have a “tribe” behind them, or the tribe they had was unable to protect them sufficiently.  This may be because the victims were new to the area or because they had just not managed to bond with their peers.
In essence, the victims not only stood out, but they stood alone and unprotected.  These factors are largely personal, rather than societal.  Yes, it would be lovely to live in a world where they would not make someone a likely victim.  Unfortunately, we don’t.  If we want to avoid being targets, the only likely way in which we can hope to eliminate them as factors in the short term is to change ourselves.  By learning how to be assertive and increasing our social skills (which is not the same as “blending in”) we can decrease those factors. 

Self-defence training can be a part of this, but it can also miss the point altogether unless it is the lack of actual physical skills or of confidence in our physical skills that is at the root of the issue[4].  Being able to thump people into the dirt may work short-term, but it is a strategy with serious limitations and repercussions.  The sad truth is that by being well-liked, well-connected people we can decrease our chances of being targeted, and it is up to us to develop the skills to achieve those results whilst maintaining our individuality.  We cannot change the bullies, but we can change how they see us. 

There is another significant factor, though, which is both personal and societal.  The adults responsible for the victims’ welfare were also powerless to help them.  According to the reports, the parents’ response was generally either doing nothing or limited to reporting the situation to the authorities.  The authorities were unwilling or unable to resolve the situation.  The victims were left to deal with the bullies, again, alone and unprotected.  Not only that, but they were forced to continue to go to the same places where the same people would torture them in the same way.  This, to me, is monstrous, but it is a result of the type of society we have created. 

What tools do we give the parents of bullied children to protect them?  They cannot opt for avoidance.  Even if they were happy to deprive their children of the public schooling that is their right, they cannot just keep them at home.  It’s not legal.  Home-schooling arrangements are not simple to make and, for working parents, can be simply impractical.  Parents are forced to send their children into the fray, regardless of how unhappy they know they may be.

The schools ought to be able to protect all pupils, but they can only use a very limited set of tools, and often counterproductive tools at that.  For instance, whereas detention has a chance of working directly on the kids[5], sending them home from school only works if their parents become engaged in the disciplinary process.  Unless that happens, suspension is less of a punishment and more of a holiday.  Shock, horror, but a lot of children would rather be at home in front of computer games than at school.  Furthermore, schools can only protect the children whilst on their property and under supervision.  They cannot do a single thing about bullying to and fro school.  They can also do very little when there are no supervisors around, as intervention then relies on someone reporting an incident.  Given that being a “snitch” is often sure-fire way of losing friends and alienating people, it doesn’t work that well as an anti-bullying strategy.

As a society, we have completely taken out of the equation the right of parents to confront the parents of bullies or directly confront the bullies.  I am not advocating physical violence here, but the establishment of the fear of repercussions.  Bullies are far less likely to target you if they fear that there will be hell to pay afterwards, whether from your parents or their own.  And again, I do not mean violence here.  We used to be able to discipline children, as parents and as members of a community, without beating them – what happened?  If we let the bullies carrying on unhindered, fearing no significant repercussions, why should they stop? 

The sad truth is that we have rendered ourselves, as a society, powerless in front of the bullies.  We value tolerance, harmony, altruism and co-operation, which is great.  Unfortunately the bullies don’t share our values – or they would not be bullies.  We also value the right of people to be just as they are and not have to change to suit the people around them.  At the same time, we expect the bullies to change because they don’t fit our view of how a society should function, which shows a degree of inner contradiction.  The bottom line is that we are so protective over our values that we have grossly restricted the range of tools we allow ourselves to use[6].  The ones we have left only work if the other party plays according our rules and values, and bullies – again – just don’t do that.  While we are busy feeling good about how good we are and campaigning for societal change, they are left to operate largely unhindered.  If I wanted to be melodramatic, I would add “…and children are left to suffer and die.”

Sure, we can educate and campaign.  We can strive to evolve, as a culture and as individuals, to a point where this issue no longer presents itself.  Until that point, however, if we truly want to protect our children all we can do is give them the tools they require right here, right now, to protect themselves.

[2] The repeated “allegedlies” are, unfortunately, a necessity.  The papers seem to be struggling to report these facts with any degree of accuracy.  The recent death was hailed as “the youngest” of the kind.  This strikes me as bizarre, since last February a victim who was two years younger was labelled by the same paper in the same fashion.  I appreciate that the word “allegedly” gives you an element of wiggle-room in your reporting, but I still can’t find it in my heart to exonerate them.  The death of a child seems to me an event tragic enough without needing to hype it up with lies
[4] The spread of zero-tolerance policies in schools makes self-defence skills even less user-friendly for the victims:
[5] Provided that it is made a chore, not a fun place to hang out with other like-minded individuals, as it often is.

[6] The proliferation of zero-tolerance schools, where all parties involved into a physical confrontation are punished, seems to me the extreme manifestation of this phenomenon.  I personally find it terrifying, as what we are doing is adding an extra layer of fear to that already experienced by bullied children.  Not only do they have to worry about bullies, but also about societal retribution if they need or choose to defend themselves.  If I were in that position, I would be experiencing abject terror.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

My Martial Art is better than yours, and that's FINAL. 31.09.13

"Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own"
B. Lee

Once upon a time I had a little pony called Bob.  Bob was, obviously, the best little pony the world had ever seen.  He was friendly, kind, determined and brave.  He was “the little engine that could” and always did his very best for me.  He was, however, built like a normal horse that had been left in the heat so his legs had melted, with most of the mass ending up in the hooves.  He looked more like a hippo than a thoroughbred.  As for his gait - you know how certain horses seem to glide above the ground, only putting their feet down to pay lip service to the law of gravity?  Well, Bob didn’t do that.  Bob stomped.  When Bob put a foot on the ground, the ground knew about it.  Clomping his ginormous hooves, my little pony carried me towards many fine adventures.  Rather unsurprisingly, however, none of these adventures involved winning any races.  Dressage and show jumping rosettes never graced his stable.

The horse was built like a tank and was just about as graceful.  I loved him to bits, but I knew his limitations.  Would you try and teach a hippo to tap-dance?  Had I pushed him into disciplines to which he wasn’t suited, he would have been unlikely to succeed, however hard he tried.  He would have been soundly beaten by horses better built for that particular activity, who could achieve more with less effort.  Happily, being a chilled-out kind of individual with no aspirations beyond his home comforts, he would not have cared in the least.

Why am I prattling on about horses in a blog mostly about self-protection and interpersonal conflict?  Because what’s true for good ol’ Bob is also true for me.  I am as graceful as a sack of potatoes, although marginally less co-ordinated.  My body shape is more suited to carrying a small pig under each arm than to ballet.  I am, most definitely, built for comfort, not for speed.  If I cut weight I don’t look willowy; I look ill, and my friends grow concerned and bake me pies.  Yes, with dedication and determination and a hell of a lot of training and effort I could change a lot of that, to a certain degree, but the bottom line is that I’m made the way I’m made.  The way I’m made makes me more suited to some activities than to others.  Realising this, I grow mightily puzzled by a lot of self-defence and martial arts debates.

So many people seem completely immersed in endless arguments about how their art or system is the ultimate, final and best answer to the problem of violence.  Their art is THE best.  All other arts are inferior.  I don’t get it; I really don’t.  I have dabbled here and there, and what I have found is that – shock, horror – some arts just suit me better than others.  I found them easier to pick up and I could achieve a degree of competence in less time, because they play to my strengths.  Conversely, I know that in some arts I could never hope to be more than passable, however hard I tried, because I’m just not made for them.  Putting in the same amount of time and effort, I could be half decent at Wing Chun or Krav Maga, or terrible at Tae Kwon Do or Karate.  What matters, the “universal” best or what’s best for me?

Now, it’s possible that I’m missing a trick and I’m an inferior human being.  Maybe everybody else has the ability to learn whatever they want at the same speed and with the same ease.  Maybe everyone else is limitless.  Unless that’s the case, though, a lot of the debates are incredibly short-sighted, because they are effectively comparing apples and oranges.  People seem to forget that the systems have to be actually learnt and used by people, and not all people are created equal.  The best move in the world won’t help you a bit if you can’t learn it because your body won’t allow you, or if, once you’ve learnt it, you can’t use it effectively because of your size or shape.

Let me present to you an extreme example: my mother.  She is elderly, unfit, barely over four-feet tall and has severe osteoporosis.  Now, is the system that is “the best” for a tall, fit, strong man in his twenties going to be the best for her, too?  She can’t kick as high as most people’s knees.  Hard impacts cause her to break.  She also has a deep aversion to any kind of violence and faints at the sight of blood.  Ok, so most systems aren’t designed for people like her[1], but that’s the point: they are designed with a certain type of person in mind.  Just because they suit that type, it doesn’t mean that they’ll suit another.

It’s not just about physical limitations, either.  Different systems cater to different personalities.  This becomes painfully evident when you spend enough time people-watching at martial arts conventions.  If what you are studying doesn’t suit your personality, there is a greater chance that you will not be able to use it effectively when you need to.  For instance, if you have a dread of injuring people too much it is utterly and completely pointless to learn a lot of ├╝ber-brutal moves that you would never apply – and a lot of people feel like that.  It would be far more constructive for them to learn a “less effective” art that they would actually put to use with no hesitation if needed.

Furthermore, some systems take a long time and a lot of effort to give you functional skills, whereas other systems can give you something within a very short period of time.  Again, who are you teaching?  Will they be sticking with you for the length of time that it takes to master that killer move?  Because, if that’s not the case, you should be asking yourself what you are sending them home with today.

I am very fond of the British expression “horses for courses”.  It comes from the horse racing world, where it is widely believed that some horses race better on certain courses than on others (e.g., damp vs. dry).  The expression means that it is important to choose suitable people for particular activities because everyone has different skills.  It seems to me painfully obvious that the opposite is also true: that it is important to choose suitable activities for a particular person.

There are arts and systems out there that are clearly bogus and only survive through refusing to be tested against people who are not indoctrinated into believing that they work.  There are also a lot of instructors in a lot of arts who really aren’t up to standards.  I am fully behind spending time and energy in fighting these charlatans, partly because the public could do with the help but also because, let’s face it, it’s fun to make them eat crow pie.  As for all the systems and arts that have something that can be of use to somebody, though, how about we left them alone?  Instead of trying to prove how our system is Ultimate Best Devastating Martial Art System Ever, we could spend more time learning from and helping each other, regardless of our allegiances to an art.  Instead of being defensive of our arts, we could be open to learning where their shortcomings are so that we can overcome them.  We could focus on working out what works best for us and help others learn what’s best for them.  Hell, we could just spend more time training, because smacking stuff is fun...  With all that free time and energy, the sky’s the limit.

[1] If you think no system could help her or anyone like her, check out  No, I’m not on commission.  It’s just the best I found so far for someone who simply can't do 99% of the physical stuff.