16 Jun Five interminable, humiliating and painful minutes (ZYGMUNT BAUMAN)
Thomas Leoncini: The first testimonial comes from Michele, who’s now thirty years old: I still have nightmares. I was very shy and solitary. Three of my classmates locked me in the toilets and started to beat me up, first with their hands, and then with brooms and anything else that happened to be in the room. Five interminable, humiliating and painful minutes. While two of them laid into me, the other one undid his trousers and pissed on me. Even today, I start crying when I think about that day, not only because of my humiliation at the time, but because the next day, together with my father, I told the head teacher what had happened. He put his hand on my shoulder, though, and said that these things happen, that unfortunately today’s boys are like that, but these situations don’t last, and I shouldn’t worry because everything would be better in the days to come (one of the three was the son of a well-known doctor, a very wealthy man in the city). But obviously the bullying didn’t stop there and it continued for the rest of the school year. Michele’s story reveals the double-edged sword of bullying: the same blade that makes the first, deep wound then inflicts new pain, as if the first were not enough, when it is withdrawn from the flesh. The head teacher of the school (who does not understand what Michele is suffering) then causes the boy’s social exclusion. Have you ever been bullied?
Zygmunt Bauman: In answer to your question: yes, I was. Permanently, daily. Throughout my schooling in Poznan, Poland, until my escape from my hometown at the outbreak of war. In the company of the other two Jewish boys among the pupils. Obviously, I wasn’t then a trained sociologist, but I remember understanding quite well that being bullied was a matter of exclusion. You are not like us, you do not belong, you have no right to join our games, we won’t play with you; if you insist on sharing in our life, don’t be puzzled by all that beating, kicking, offending, degrading and debasing.
Much later I understood, once I started reading sociology books and learned to think sociologically, that the exclusion of three Jewish boys in the several-hundred-pupil-strong school was, for our persecutors, the flip-side of the coin of their self-identification. Somewhat later still, I followed the novelist E. M. Forster’s advice – ‘only connect’;5 it dawned on me that appointing an enemy and proving his inferiority, by hook or by crook, was the inseparable second face of the self-identification coinage. There wouldn’t be ‘us’ were there no ‘them’. But fortunately for making real our wish to stay together, to like each other and help each other, there are ‘them’ and therefore there are – there need to be – ‘us’, manifesting our togetherness in word and deed and never tiring of reminding ourselves of it and demonstrating – reaffirming – proving it to others around. For all practical intents and purposes, the idea of ‘us’ would be meaningless if not coupled with ‘them’.
That rule, I am afraid, does not bode well for the dream of a world free of bullying.