I love the Olympics. I tell myself I don’t care but it grips me. Partly it’s the black and white nature of sporting success and failure, the distillation of the human condition in microcosm. But it also brings to the fore a dreadful human trait – bullying. The criticism levelled at Simone Biles for stepping back from her sport, the stories told about body shaming of female athletes, the stupid gibes at Tom Daley for knitting while watching his fellow competitors; all examples of bullying.
It’s not just at the individual level that we see constant and egregious bullying; it has a long history. I’ve often wondered at the way the world is set up and the conflicts inherent in it. History, power, colonialism, they have all had a part to play in the dominance of nations and nation states in the current construct. Stemming from the idea of the balance of power following the gradual collapse of the empires that dominated Europe before the eighteenth century and formally embodied in the concept of the United Nations post WW2, we live in a world where control is dictated by and between Nations. And what we see is how power is everything, and when it is out of balance – which it always is – we see bullying.
Sometimes there is a breaking down of the barriers put up by nations – in the EU for instance – but the more some barriers shrink often the greater the call for a new set of powers and controls, just with a wider set of boundaries. You can look at, say, the collapse of Yugoslavia or the re-absorption of Crimea into Russia or the struggles of the Uighur in China, the Rohingya in Burma, Belorussia and see what happens when one piece of land, one group of people want to distance themselves from another group and either float free or attach themselves to another piece or group – and the violence and conflict that then ensues.
And then again, we see and hear tales of violence and hurt levelled at one group by another but about which no one can do anything for fear of ‘interfering in the internal affairs of a nation’. And even when, sometimes, something is done to address a level of egregious behaviour the consequences can be dire – the dismantling of Iraq and the subsequent rise of IS or the cruel interminable devastation that is Afghanistan’s lot come to mind.
This is bullying on a international scale. This is bullying of vast numbers of people and about which we stand by, powerless to intervene. It may be carried out by those we believe corrupt and evil, or by those who we naturally assume are democratic and caring. Those who saw globalisation as a new dawn, a future where a common standard would be accepted, or maybe imposed, when some supranational body might take on the role of the World’s policeman – they have been sorely tried and tested and found short of ideas. The UN was never fit for that purpose – arguably never fit for any purpose. There have been some successes in chasing out the exploitative but for every Tunisia there is a Libya (and recently one must wonder at the success that was Tunisia and indeed question how successful the democratization of Hungary really is) – any successes are often fragile and few and far between. Still better something than nothing.
As an individual it is possible to look on and despair at the narrow views expressed by the world’s political leaders – who necessarily reflect the thinking of their peoples. Those destined to keep or lose power at the ballot box often feel they cannot spend precious hours on ‘bigger pictures’ when there’s enough at home with immediate impacts to keep them engaged. Why would anyone worry about a small group of beleaguered people many miles away and over whom one never has any control? Politics are the art of the possible after all.
But globalisation has done one big thing; it has shown us the damage caused in other nations, in other parts of the world. Moreover, it has shown us how our indifferent bullying of our own planet has created a potential time bomb that, while perhaps miles away is capable of exploding on all of us. This is no more apparent than with climate change. We know of the danger of climate change even if we fail yet to know, and can still argue about, what the consequences will be. Somewhere, in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, a land of plastic floats together, grinding itself into a granular soup of unnatural polymers. Today we watch the 24/7 news that brings details of extreme weather events in places and with a regularity never seen before. This is our fault, all of us who use plastic, who throw away serviceable ‘stuff’. The sea population is gradually being infested with the residues that are a necessary spin off from this churning gurning world. And one day that will come back to haunt us. But will anyone do anything about it? Is there anyone with the time, energy, money and capacity to care? Will the climate conference this year in Glasgow make a difference? In my view, while the world is dominated by nations and nations states that are in constant competition with each other, the answer is probably not quickly enough. If we can’t have perspective over the immediate need to vaccinate the vulnerable around the world in the midst of a real, terrifying pandemic , how confident are we that we will force up household bills to ensure we heat/cool our homes in ways that do not continue to add to the problem?
On the 27th January 1859 Frederick Wilhelm Victor Albert of Prussia was born. He was destined for greatness, the grandson of Queen Victoria, the second in line to the German Empire. But he suffered at birth and that suffering led to an unhappy childhood. By all accounts he blamed his mother and, by extension, the British. For many such an antipathy would mean nothing but for a man who would lead such a powerful group that was never going to be the case.
If you read about Wilhelm’s young life he was clearly bullied in ways unlikely to be tolerated today. He was, despite a severely withered arm forced to learn to ride, shoot, sword fight. It appears to have been a cruel lonely youth. It clearly traumatised him and led to certain personality traits developing. This young man was in charge of a powerful nation, one he and those behind him wanted to be better than other similar nations. That competition became conflict and he would eventually lead his nation into a bloody conflict that killed millions and shaped the world of the twentieth century and beyond.
Am I making too big a link between the self-centric world that crystallised post WW1 with, first, the League of Nations and then the UN as a supra national body reinforcing the dominance of the nation state and some cruel behaviour inflicted on a young man that was probably pretty common in the nineteenth century? Perhaps. Probably. The point is though that deliberately cruel behaviour, bullying behaviour especially directed at the young can have long term devastating consequences on not just the individual bullied but on a wider group that the individual concerned. And when those consequences impact not just at a domestic level, as bad as that is, the results may be truly horrific. And while we fight between ourselves rather than fight together it will stay that way.
But it doesn’t have to be thus. It doesn’t have to always end badly. Not only shouldn’t we tolerate bullying in our world but not in those micro ways that are commonplace. We shouldn’t stand by. Never. Call it out.
I watched with open-mouthed admiration the skateboarders. The skill, the dexterity, the courage, they were all present as in so many Olympic sports. But what stood out was the almost heart rending camaraderie between the competitors. They gloried in the others’ successes and commiserated their failures with genuine heartfelt compassion. It may not be unique but it seemed that way to me – you only had to watch the patent antipathy between the members of the Jamaican 100 metres team to know this fellow feeling is not universal, even inside teams let alone with other countries. The difference? In one case the competitors were mature adults, well versed in international competition and the cut throat nature of coming out on top; in the other the combatants were still children or at least only just teens, loving doing what they do for the essential joie de vivre. It meant everything and nothing.
This year the Olympic motto: higher, faster, stronger has had a fourth component added. Together.
Yes, if we did things together, even when striving to be the best rather than in a one eyed way, wouldn’t things be so much better? Easier? I don’t really do words of the year, but maybe mine, in a year when my family is to be intertwined with another should be ‘together’. After all if we allow such behaviour to pass, whether through indifference or in our name, we are part of the problem. Since Homo Sapiens became the dominant species on this little lump of rock, we have bullied our environment and each other. But bullies thrive in the dark corners, in the secret places.
Let’s find our inner child and work together on making it better.
PS I still want Team GB to win loads of medals…