THERE is a sad sort of irony about seeing the hashtag “Anti-bullying Week” pop up on the website that shall not be named during a week (month, year, decade?), when everywhere around us we can see that those with the most power are celebrating bullying unashamedly. 

A horrific story broke this week of a man being set on fire and left with life-altering injuries while sleeping rough under a bridge in Birmingham last Tuesday – a shocking act of cruelty and violence which took place just days after then home secretary Suella Braverman vowed to clear the streets of homeless people’s tents and branded rough sleeping a “lifestyle choice”.

Maybe the perpetrators of this crime never heard those chilling words, maybe they did. What we do know is that words have consequences – a message many children will surely be taught in lessons on stopping bullying this week. And the consequences are rarely greater than when those words are broadcast to millions and spoken by those who, for better or worse, are meant to lead us.

There is a theory, developed by psychologists after the Second World War, that prejudice is a scale that begins with negative language and images about a particular group and escalates through exclusion, discrimination, violence and, finally, to extermination.

The National: Suella Braverman

There have been too many examples of this throughout history to count, and for all the great lessons we are supposed to have learned from the past, we are living through more examples as we speak.

Braverman (above) may have been dropped from her role in government for now, ostensibly for any number of offensive and inflammatory remarks, but her own likely party leadership aspirations clearly had a role to play in her downfall – which means that, like most villains, she might just find a way of coming back.

In any case, any celebration of the government’s decision to backtrack on promises to clamp down on rough sleeping should be tempered by the knowledge that it continues to embrace the dehumanisation of other groups such as migrants in both its language and its policies.  It is frightening to think that, had Braverman’s comments been met with a slightly different public reaction, “tents” could have become the next “small boats”.

The language there is important too, because both instances refer to objects, when what is really being discussed is human life – a pernicious rhetorical device which is becoming alarmingly common among the UK Government and right-wing press.

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Over the weekend, footage was released of Camden Council workers throwing tents that people called their homes into a bin lorry. Real people’s lives, already deeply stressful and challenging, made all the worse by an abject lack of empathy which has been worn as a badge of honour by those in the highest ranks of our government.  Meanwhile, hate crimes against religious groups were up by 9% in the year up to March 2023 and two in five (the largest share) of those were against Muslim people.

The anti-racist organisation Hope Not Hate has recorded a significant increase in far-right anti-migrant activity in the UK. Set against a backdrop of migrant rights being gleefully stripped back by the Conservatives, it is impossible to deny the connection.

Now, amid commentary from our UK political leaders that justifies and even condones the continuous mass slaughtering of Palestinian civilians, Tell MAMA (which records anti-Muslim hate incidents) has noted a 60% rise in reports over the last month compared to the same period last year. As if the government hadn’t already done enough, Tory MP Jill Mortimer asked the Prime Minister just a few weeks ago if he would “take action” against asylum seekers, declaring: “I want these people out of Hartlepool now.”

The truth is, for those intent upon directing their anger and disdain towards those who are struggling, those who are marginalised, those who are different, enough will never be enough. 

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No cruel policy will end the resentment. No harsh words delivered from upon high by cabinet secretaries about how this or that group will be forced to suffer still more for the crime of existing in “our” space will be sufficient for those most appealed to by this kind of hateful rhetoric.

By seeking that goal – simply by entertaining it – we will be doomed to descend further and further down a dark path which will leave us explaining to our own children and grandchildren what we did to try to stop this.  Nor is that a future prospect. History is happening now, and these are the lessons we are teaching the children of today about the value of human life, of difference, of compassion and respect.

How do we begin to explain to young and developing minds the importance of kindness – it was, after all, World Kindness Day this Monday – when cruelty is the order of the day and our supposed political “role models” have built their careers on it?

The answer, I suppose, is to be honest.

We cannot lecture children about bullying without first being honest about how the institutions that shape so many of our lives have been shaped by it – and the work that we must do to try to root it out.  There are children in the UK right now who had to wonder – or were they told? – why a cartoon mural was painted over in the cold “reception centre” where they live alone without families but with other children who are seeking a safe place to live.

The answer: because the immigration minister thought that was too welcoming for children like them.

It’s a story that sounds almost too horrible for a child to be told, never mind to endure, but it’s one that children around these four countries should know about if we want them to understand what happens when bullying is left unchecked.

At the same time, it is estimated that there are more than 120,000 homeless children and young people in the UK, for a number of complex reasons which all point to a deeply unequal economic and social system where not nearly enough is being done to support those most in need. 

Children are our future

At the risk of breaking into song, it is true that children are our future.

By teaching them not only to “be kind”, but to understand what this means in the context of how we distribute power and resources, we might just give them the tools to build a better society.

However, that isn’t a lesson that can be meaningfully taught within the four walls of a classroom alone: it’s one that has to be demonstrated by our actions, every day.

So, I hope that when the topic of preventing bullying is discussed this week, the adults in the room remember their own responsibility to stand up and speak out when they witness cruelty enacted by those in power across our country and our world.