Taking Exceptions

Two Heads

My daughters’ school recently ran a programme on bullying. Apparently it was the usual sort of thing: talks from teachers, watching videos, having group discussions and doing a bit of role-play. I’m not saying the school shouldn’t make efforts to prevent bullying; of course they should. However there are two obvious objections to the sort of events they ran. The first is that they act as a training session for the bullies: teaching them techniques that may not have occurred to them yet, and demonstrating just how deliciously deep the anguish of their victims goes. The second objection is that it doesn’t seem to actually work.

I’m sure all the children, bullies and bullied alike, sit around at the end of the programme and tell the teacher and each other how terrible bullying is, and how they would never, ever do any bullying themselves. And at the time they mean it. But soon the bullying goes on pretty much as before. And the reason why? Exceptions.

The human brain is amazingly adept at logical reasoning. In fact it’s pretty incredible that we can get to grips with logic at all, because at the same time the human brain is also a mass of contradictions and irrationality arising from evolution. Our minds have evolved to survive in the social tangles of a family-group structure. Logic is just a happy by-product.

So although we each like to think of ourselves as entirely reasonable, in fact natural human behaviour is to make use of all sorts of handy social short-cuts and opt-outs that help to make life easier. We all do this, it’s inescapable, and to keep our rational sides happy we tend to tag the logic on afterwards.

One of the indicators that we are indulging in this sort of behaviour is the exception. For example, little Mary-Jane knows full well that bullying is bad, if done to her or her circle of friends, but fat and stupid and lonely girls deserve to be bullied. I mean, they’re fat or stupid or strange aren’t they, and that makes them different. Not like us. They are the exceptions. The rules don’t apply.

Unfortunately this behaviour follows us into adult life. We just get better at hiding the exceptions from each other and ourselves. For example, we may think that the government shouldn’t set the price of anything we buy (it should be left to the free market) but at the same time the government should set the price of mortgages or electricity, to win votes help hard-pressed families. Perhaps it is wrong to snoop on people in their own homes, except if they’re famous in which case I’ll buy a magazine stuffed with the latest long-range photos of them sitting in the garden. Or maybe we accept that freedom of speech is a vital cornerstone of our overall liberty as individuals in a democratic society, except when it crosses one of our personal bugbears like racism or abortion, in which case the speakers are beyond the pale and must be silenced. And so on.

I genuinely think that if schools spent a bit of time teaching children some of the basics of self-critical thinking, making them aware of how they apply exceptions and why it matters, it would help prevent bullying just as well as some videos and discussion. In fact I’m always appalled that schools don’t teach any logic or rational thinking tools at all, but that’s a whole blog post in itself.

Obviously I’m not claiming to be immune from this sort of thing myself. I can’t bear to be cruel to animals, except spiders which are just freaks and terrify me. I’ll happily kill any large-ish spider I find around the house, but I’ll carefully carry a ladybird outside. I’m just a work in progress.

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