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The intellectual bully

Hurtful language has become a trademark of the modern media so it is no wonder kids use words to cause pain, says Libby Purves

Some things are familiar to teachers and less likely to be grasped by the rest of us. Given that schools are a barometer of the wider society (not, as some would have it, the cause of all its ills) this seems a pity.

When I talk to teachers about their day I nearly always come away with at least one unsettling fact. Sometimes there is an inspiring tale, too; but invariably there is one revelation which makes me stare out of the train window on the way home, chewing my fist and muttering sharply from time to time so that other passengers edge away.

It happened the other week. A primary headteacher - nice chap, fatherly and sane - said that one of his greatest concerns at the moment is what he called "intellectual bullying". I didn't get it, for a moment: intellectual bullying?

I had a vision of sneery eight-year-old polymaths pointing and jeering in the playground at the kid who only read Proust in translation, doing Chinese burns on each other over interpretations of Derrida or making the girls cry by chanting "cogito, ergo sum!" behind the lavvies.

No. What he meant, of course, was paper-borne, phone-texted, verbal nastiness. You know - children getting vicious text messages on the phone they were so proud of yesterday, poems about death slipped into pigeonholes, tired little girls opening their school case at home to find a scrawled note saying "you're a minger, you got no friends, everyone hates you".

Intellectual bullying, this head called it, and added with feeling that sometimes he yearned for a simple case of thumping or hair-pulling.

Time rolled back: I winced. It has never been easy to convince children that sticks and stones may break their bones but names will never hurt them. They know better. Words strike deeper than skin and muscle: they go round in your head, hurting as much the hundredth time. Sometimes you would rather be slapped than confidently informed that you are worthless (which is, incidentally, an argument against the smacking ban) my blood runs cold when I hear chilly experts saying that it is better to "withhold approval"

from a tempestuous three-year old or put them alone in a room than opt for a quick slap on the bum (followed by a forgiving hug). Intellectual bullying, whether by adults or children, is very nasty indeed. And by his account, it is growing: texts and emails and poison-pen notes proliferate.

Grim. Far harder to police than the traditional bullying: a physical bruise is at least visible.

And schools are a barometer of society. So where's the intellectual bullying out here? Thirty seconds' thought returns the answer: "Blimey, it's everywhere!" Open your newspaper, especially the celebrity pages, and it pours out at you. Angelina looks fat, Jennifer is sad, she got dumped, ha ha ha. Michael says Brad is stoopid, and ooh, get her, falling out of her dress at an awards ceremony, serve her right for being rich and famous! Kate's got acupuncture needles in her ears, she's a druggy piggy, na-na-na naaa na!

Turn the pages to the book reviews, and one at least will be written with the intention to hurt the author rather than enlighten the reader.

Television and radio critics - with honourable exceptions - would rather sneer than cheer, and some use up their entire space bullying one bad programme, rather than dismissing it in a line and getting on with appreciating a good one.

On the box itself we have Graham Norton beavering away at making people uncomfortable, endless opportunities to phone in and hurt the feelings of total strangers and the superior sneer of Angus Deayton.

Turn on Radio 1 and there is Chris Moyles who thinks that rude equals funny; meanwhile Paxo is not only asking necessary, hard questions but doing the eyebrow thing and the sniffy-camel face, and generally looking at an elected minister as if he had just found it stuck to his shoe .

Then open your post, and there is a curt letter from some public authority implying that you are on the fiddle; glance at the wall in a public lavatory and the Government itself is jeering at you that you'll never get it up if you smoke, snigger-snigger, and that most of your potential partners have rampant sexual diseases.

The sneer, the pointing finger, the snarl and the insult are everywhere.

The thin sour tone of public discourse grows ever more rancid. I am not one of those who think that daily life is too rude; but the media, which filter into our children's lives, are nastier by the day.

Which may or may not be why it now seems quite natural to them to avoid the embarrassments of physical assault and use the deadly power of words.


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