I have often marvelled at how a classroom is in so many ways a microcosm of a country. This is probably because I am an educator and I spend the great majority of my days with high school students.
At the beginning of every new academic session, I ask my class the following question – “What is something about India that personally bothers you and that you would change if you could?” Hands shoot up and the answers come thick and fast: inequality, pollution, dirt, poverty, corruption, lack of education, regressive mindsets, etc. I then write down their answers on the board and ask them, “So how do these problems manifest themselves in your class? And what do you plan to do about them?”
The penny usually drops at this point, and the students realise that the problems which exist on a macro-level in India also exist, in some form or another, at the micro-level of the classroom. The point is made that one of the best ways to tackle the problems of the country is to begin tackling them first in one’s own class. Building a better and happier nation begins with building a better and happier class.
One of the ‘national problems’ I have seen students bringing up more and more in recent months and years has been the hate and bigotry they see around them. In a way, it is heartening to see that this ‘otherising’ of others bothers them. It shows that beneath their oft times cool exteriors, adolescents do in fact have a strong sense of right and wrong. It also reaffirms the fact that hate is unnatural and does not sit well with most people.
Bullying and the ‘otherisation’ of citizens
I have found that one of the best ways to help students think about this phenomenon is by helping them co-relate it to the bullying that so many students, unfortunately, face in schools. The similarities between the bullying that goes on inside a classroom are actually very similar to the increasing demonising of Muslims, Dalits, and so many others over the last few years.
Bullying is essentially a form of dehumanisation. It reduces a human being or a group of people to an object of ridicule and violence, verbal or otherwise. It usually starts when a group that considers itself as the “in” group gangs up to ostracise or hurt those whom they consider to be part of the “out” group. This is true in the classroom and society at large.
It is worth noting that bullies find their strength in groups. Rare is the bully who operates alone. Bullies always hunt in packs. You will seldom find the lone student picking on another, just as you will seldom find the lone vigilante terrorising someone. The bully always has a backup.
Then there is the matter of “passive bullying”. Just as there as students in a school who stand by and laugh when someone is getting bullied, or simply look the other way, even so, there are those in society who participate in the act of hate by not actively resisting it and speaking against it.
What is truly interesting, though, is that the dehumanising of others actually emanates from a deep insecurity within the self. It is the unhappy who make others unhappy. Those who are not at peace with themselves tend to inflict maximum pain on others, and it is the insecure who find their ‘security’ in putting others down.
The psychology of a bully and a bigot
Bullies are usually dysfunctional people with plenty of pain in their own lives, and as the old adage goes, those who cannot transform their pain, end up transmitting it to others. This is true both in schools and in society, at large. School bullies more often than not come from broken families and dysfunctional backgrounds. Bullies in society are not that much different.
Bullies really are cowards. This is more than a truism. Bullies are fearful people. This is true in school and it is certainly true in contemporary India, where so many have actually fallen for the “Hindu khatre me hai” fear-mongering. The majority actually believes that it is in danger from the minority.
So how does one tackle the menace of bullying?
In the case of the classroom, while it is imperative for the bullied to stand up to the bully and for the bystander to get involved – show solidarity with the victim and also stand up to the bully – the onus for dismantling the culture of bullying in the classroom and replacing it with a culture of care and empathy actually lies with the class teacher.
As the Israeli psychologist Haim Ginott, speaking as a class teacher, once said:
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element (in the classroom). It is my personal approach that creates the climate. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanised or de-humanised.”
It is only when the class teacher makes it absolutely and abundantly clear that bullying is unacceptable, will the bullying actually stop. The teacher then initiates a dialogue within the class where the topic is addressed in clear and unambiguous terms. The teacher warns the bullies to stop, gives out consequences if needed for any misdemeanours, encourages the bullied to stand up for themselves and instructs the bystanders to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.
Most of all, a wise class teacher focuses on having regular conversations and dialogues that help to build empathy amongst the students.
A new headmaster for the class of 2019?
Now imagine a class teacher telling the worst bullies of the class to go ahead and pick on the weakest and most vulnerable students while promising the bullies complete immunity from any consequences or repercussions. If this were to actually happen, not only would there be rampant and utter chaos in the class, the teacher in question would, before long, most certainly face the wrath of the parent community and get into legal trouble for actually encouraging a culture of hatred and violence.
Surreal and ludicrous as that scenario sounds, this is exactly what has happened to India these last five years. Applying the metaphor of the class to the country, the bullies in India have had free reign and have been given a license to ostracise, hurt, defame, ‘otherise’, and even kill. The ‘class teacher’ in this case has looked the other direction while the hatemongers have had their way.
And while each of us has the moral right and responsibility to stand up to the bullies that have been unleashed upon the land, it has now become imperative for the emotional and physical well-being of everyone in the ‘class of 2019’ to oust the ‘class teacher’ that has failed to be the mentor, protector and guide that he was supposed to be.
And for those who still want the current dispensation and its leader to rule the land for the next five years, please ask yourself – would you want your child to study in a class where bullies are given a free hand and where violence is tolerated and encouraged?
If not, then why do you want to subject your country to a similar fate?
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.