Sunday 25 September 2022

Let’s put an end to all political bullying in schools

This article first appeared in Malta Today

There are some who feel that Michelle Muscat was ill-advised to draw attention to the bullying of her children at an expensive private school, which she claims, did nothing to protect them.  In the interview she gave recently, she spoke about them being excluded from parties and other children passing derogatory comments about Panama and Egrant at the height of that scandal. One has to bear in mind that we are talking about some two years ago, and that the girls were around eight/nine years old at the time. 

Now, let’s face it: there were adults who barely understood what the Panama Papers and secret offshore companies were all about, so I can hardly imagine that young children could grasp the concept.  So for little kids to go around picking on the Muscat sisters could only mean that they were hearing similar things at home, and I am pretty sure that what they were hearing was not exactly complimentary. This begs the question as to whether children should be exposed to political discourse among adults.  I am of the opinion that the answer to that is no – there is plenty of time for that later on. I know mine is probably not the most popular view, but I believe children should grow up with their minds free of brainwashing and political prejudice so that they can form their own beliefs when they get older, rather than blindly voting the way their parents and their grandparents have done for one generation after the other.  I realise that would seriously impinge on the databases of the respective political parties who seem to keep track of how each family in a particular neighbourhood votes, but I yearn for the day  (probably not in my lifetime) when everyone can break free of these family shackles and votes exactly as they damn please.  

But back to the Michelle Muscat interview. I read comments to the effect that, “She has exposed them to more bullying” and “it was not fair to give a bad name to the school” and even more mind boggling, “what did she expect when these children were given such unusual, distinctive names and are always in the limelight?”.  When you see bullying being practically condoned and justified like this, it is no wonder that this type of mindset has filtered down to the children, who simply parrot what they hear at home. 

Frankly, I do not see how remaining silent and not speaking up about this important issue is the best option, especially in an age where standing up to be counted on a plethora of topics is not only encouraged, but applauded. Should her admittedly privileged position as the Prime Minister’s wife mean that her children (who did not choose this life) have to just take it on the chin, and grin and bear it?  I find it sickening that there are those who still insist on dragging children into this politically-charged atmosphere which continues to be perpetuated by some fanatics whose obsession with spreading hatred and malice verges on the pathological.

As it turns out, however, Mrs Muscat’s decision to highlight what happened to her children seems to have turned on an invisible tap and a stream of other stories are now emerging. We are finally discussing what many of us knew about but has rarely been mentioned in public:  how children of (usually Labour) politicians have had to suffer the consequences of their parent’s decision to entire the public arena.  The children have to put up with it in silence, even in cases when they have been kept out of the limelight because, let’s face it, in Malta, we all know who is who. I do not wish to mention names in order to respect their privacy, but offhand I know of at least six cases where being related to a Labour politician, or even having an immediately recognizable surname, has meant that these children spent their school years at the receiving end of taunts and insults. 

Let us not forget that there used to be a time when private or Church schools ensured a built-in segregation (as it was mostly PN families who could afford them), so the few children from Labour families were unfortunately easy to pick on and many were eventually taken out and sent to state schools instead. But these days, anyone can be drawn in the lottery for Church schools, while the upward mobility of middle-class Labour families means that many have opted for private education.  This means that the opportunity for politics to infiltrate the playground has grown because old social class prejudices run very deep – after all, many of today’s parents were children during the hot tensions of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, we have now learned that politically-motivated bullying is no longer restricted to just one side of the fence. For, on Friday, Nickie Vella de Fremaux, the wife of Opposition leader Adrian Delia, uploaded a passionate, lengthy status describing this disturbing trend which has affected one of her children. He too has been deliberately and spitefully excluded from parties, and what is worse is that this behaviour is originating from mothers whom she once considered ‘friends’, and who are now using the division within the Nationalist party to prevent their children from socializing with Delia’s son.  I am trying to understand what possesses people to act like this, and just cannot wrap my head around it. How do you live with yourself when you are teaching your children to be nasty towards their own friends by excluding them over something so petty as politics?   How can Maltese mothers from a certain social circle, who normally pride themselves on being good role models determined to raise their children in an exemplary manner, even begin to reconcile what they ‘preach’ with their actions, when everyone knows that actions speak a million times louder than words?

Even more crucial to understand when it comes to this topic is that the cycle of bullying doesn’t just stop at childhood. You find it among adults, at the workplace, and even in social situations among people who really should know better.  What is bullying anyway?  If we had to throw around a definition it would probably be the attempt to gang up on someone as a group, making that person feel isolated, alone, humiliated and ostracized.  It is that feeling of being made to feel different, but most of all that you do not belong because you are for some reason unwanted and ‘inferior’. The specific nature of bullying is that there is strength in numbers: you see it clearly in cyber bullying where a group of like-minded people swoop in like vultures, egging each other on to attack, pick apart and ‘destroy’ the person who is their target.  They do not stop until the victim is metaphorically torn apart limb from limb – it is, I need not tell you, an ugly thing to see, or in this case, read.  As we know, there are teenagers who have been driven to self-harm, and even suicide, because of the relentlessness of those who have made it their mission to crush them.

Bullying can take all forms and usually leads to the victim becoming a perpetrator himself because the behaviour tends to have a domino effect: a bullying headmaster (for example) can push the teachers who are his subordinates over the edge so that they end up taking out their frustration and suppressed rage on their students, and so on.  It’s like that well-known cartoon where the boss yells at his employee who goes home and yells at his wife who then yells at her child who then kicks the dog.   The result is that you have a sequence of people all taking out their negative feelings on the next person down the line, multiplying the amount of misery, and leading to a situation where we all end up lashing out at each other.

Nipping it in the bud, especially in schools, requires a collective effort and that is why it is a good thing that the spouses of both party leaders have now both drawn attention to it.  If I were them, I would put aside all political differences, and launch a comprehensive media campaign together, driving the message home that just because we do not agree on politics does not mean we need to hate each other on a personal level, and it does not mean that we need to tear each other apart.  I realise that this would stick in the craw of those whose only idea of politics is cruelty and ridicule, but I think it is about time that the grown-ups grow up, and set a real example to the children who are witnessing this behaviour. 

Otherwise, today’s children are doomed to repeat this bullying, in the same way as their mothers are repeating the ‘mean girl’ hostilities which they grew up with as well.

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