Leo Tolstoy writing to Mohandas Gandhi during a long and fascinating correspondence, quoted a well known truth “It is natural for men to help and to love one another, but not to torture and to kill one another.” It is something that puzzled these two great men. If compassion and mutual assistance is natural, as it plainly is, how is it that there are men and women about who take delight in abuse, torture and killing.
I think some of the answers to the enigma can be found in a book first published in 1857 (yes, seriously). They are as true now as they were when it was written, for the book is a blueprint for how to produce an elitist and a bully. It is called ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ by Thomas Hughes and it is set in the Rugby, the school he attended himself. So how is this transformation achieved, from a child who could be caring and loving to one who will prefer torturing and belittling?
The rules are really quite straightforward and depend very largely on an existing class system. Right at the start of the book the coach driver taking young Tom to school enlivens the journey by telling him about a fight between a group of Rugby scholars whom he calls “the young genl’m’n” and a group of Irish navvies whom he calls “reg’lar roughs”. The distinction is significant for he and the boys and Tom himself all accept that these are two completely different sets of human beings and that the ones from Rugby are superior. He is delighted when he hears that their leader has called out to his gang, ‘Let the Pats have it about the ears’. A derogatory term you see. It is the way these superior young men refer to a class they consider lower than their own. Oiks, plebs, shirkers, benefit cheats, the terms are many and varied but they always imply inferiority. The fight the coach man describes was as unpleasant on one side as the other. As a writer, I would call both gangs ‘louts’, certainly not ‘genl’m’n’ and ‘plebs’. But the idea of this uniformed superiority is deep seated. Just take a look at this picture of Eton boys arrogantly looking away from a group of working class kids who are gazing at them in amazement and you will see it in essence.
A posh uniform is a necessary ingredient to the process, but what had also been done to these superior boys to make them feel it is quite in order to push other humans around and hurt them.
Well for a start they’d been sent away from home to boarding school, when they were much too young and very vulnerable and afraid, and with good reason. For there were bigger boys to bully and hurt them and a master with a cane to correct them and they were on their own amongst strangers, grieving for home, where they would have at least of had a more or less sympathetic nanny to comfort them and feeling totally lost. Many learnt young that one way to avoid being hurt is to play the clown (think Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt) and they certainly had to acquire a stiff upper lip, because showing you are afraid makes you more vulnerable to bullies.
From this situation, the little boys were sent to prodigious public schools like Rugby and Eton. In Tom Brown’s day, newcomers were caned by the bigger boys, who were given the job of looking after them and were called “prepostors”. They were aptly named because their behaviour really was preposterous. Not only did they cane, but they tossed the newcomers in a blanket until they hit the ceiling. It was very frightening, as Tom Brown observed, describing “the feeling of utter helplessness and leaving his whole inside behind him sticking to the ceiling” but he had already learnt to understand that “What your real bully likes in tossing is when the boys kick and struggle, or hold on to one side of the blanket and so get pitched bodily on the floor; it’s no fun to him when no one is hurt or frightened.”
Later on in the book the worst bully in the school who is called Flashman holds Tom so close to the fire that it scorches his legs. The child does not complain. It is not the done thing. You endure being hurt because you have understood that eventually you will be a ‘big boy’ and can hurt in your turn or to put this in another way, your ability to be compassionate and loving is steadily being destroyed. It is an appalling indictment of an appalling education system. And it turns out one generation after another of wealthy, elitist, arrogant, uniformed thugs. Take a look at these guys, in their fancy superior uniforms.
What can we do about it, we ordinary, compassionate, loving plebs?