It’s a memory that hadn’t surfaced for years. It came up when I read a recent account by a Vancouver Sun staffer about her bullying in primary school—by a teacher.
My case involved a Grade 8 math instructor in a ’70s-era classroom in Delta. He tried to convince me that two plus two equals five. “It’s not, I remember replying. “It’s four.”
“No Geoff, you’re wrong,” he insisted. “The correct answer is five.”
The other students fell silent as this bizarre exchange continued for several minutes. “If you want to believe it, I’m not going to argue with you,” I muttered, praying the interrogation would stop. His intent, he explained to the class later, was to demonstrate how quickly people submit to authority against their own convictions. For whatever reason, he chose me as his guinea pig.
In my college years, I would discover George Orwell’s novel 1984. Using creative methods of coercion, the state torturer O’Brien convinces the hapless prole Winston that two plus two equals five. The math teacher was playing O’Brien to my 13-year-old Winston, with no indication to the class of the fictional source. He was a “cool” teacher who affected a drawling, hippie patois, and his “lesson” had absolutely nothing to do with teaching math. From my angle, it was bullying of a very precise and peculiar form, and the only time he selected me for punishment.
I may have forgotten my trigonometry, but not the gut-level theorem that there are many kinds of bullies and bullying in our culture, both overt and covert.
Mass media plays a bigger role in promoting this than it did when I was young. Violent videogames and bloody, mixed martial arts caged fights are going gangbusters. A new extreme sport called Ultimate Tak Ball involves players zapping each other with Tasers. NHL punchups are more violent and frequent than ever, and the aging blowhard Don Cherry continues to flog his violent “Rock’em Sock’em” video series to a new generation of wannabe-goons.
There is also an endless round of reality television shows that feature Survivor-style elimination rounds, in which deceit and lies are commonplace. It’s cutthroat office politics as spectacle: a sublimated form of Lord of the Flies, with bigger production values. Donald Trump, who enthusiastically yells, “You’re fired!” to the castoffs in his show The Apprentice, went from a dodgy New York real estate mogul to a self-inflated television fixture to a flash-in-the-pan, wannabe Republican presidential candidate. And we wonder why some kids think might makes right—or at least pays handsomely?
It’s more of the same in the international arena, with Canada a junior partner in the so-called “war on terror.” Linda MacQuaig’s 2007 book on U.S./Canada relations, Holding the Bully’s Coat, addresses the delusional idea that we can force foreigners to accept a culture-bound, historically contingent idea of democracy at the barrel of a gun. Behind the disingenuous claptrap about freedom from our leaders, it’s really all about energy and empire—just a more sophisticated form of stealing another kid’s lunch money.
Closer to home, Premier Christy Clark prides herself on her anti-bullying initiatives in B.C. schools, yet she held a position as education minister in the cabinet of Gordon Campbell, a man who ripped up legally binding contracts with public sector workers. If that wasn’t a form of bullying, what is?
I can remember the ’70s as a time of casual racism and blinkered sexism. From my perspective, some things have improved since I was a kid—some other things not so much. On the plus side, any teacher attempting an Orwellian shtick with a kid today would likely have an angry parent on the phone, and risk a black mark on his or her record. On the minus side, we now have a government that officially endorses torture, in a nation where innocent people fear their own police forces.
In any case, children are sensitive instruments—seismographs for adult hypocrisy and cant. Recognizing double standards, they know how something condemned on the playground might be cheered on the peewee hockey rink. They know two plus two does not equal five, and never will.
Crazy-making, mixed messages for our kids about bullies and bullying; that’s the discussion we adults need to have.