Earlier this week a private boys’ school in Melbourne got a lot of unwanted media attention for publishing an article on its website on the topic of bullying.
The article was written by Melissa Anderson, who describes herself as a “resilience coach”. She’s also a counsellor and a pharmacist.
My first reaction to it was astonishment, disgust and a kind of despite-myself amusement. I admit, I spent a good half an hour ridiculing it on social media.
As I read and re-read it, though, I began to wonder: what if it deserved the benefit of the doubt? What if this wasn’t the work of a person with very bad ideas, but merely the work of a very bad writer?
What if somewhere past the corporate tinniness; deep within the thick, barely penetrable forest of the gardener anecdote; beyond the jarring non-sequiturs and sudden change in addressee there was something worthwhile?
What if this was… salvageable?
So I went through it as a kind of exercise in morbid curiosity. Here’s what I came up with:
ORIGINAL: As a resilience coach I am adamant that, in any bullying situation, you must own your part of the problem, no matter how small, no matter how unfair it may seem. No one is lily-white and blameless.
I’m all for a bold start, and this is ballsy, no doubt, but it haunts the rest of the article.
“As a resilience coach” is an adequate way to begin an article so long as that article doesn’t go on to mention how odious you find self-absorption. Let’s be completely frank here: very few people know what a resilience coach is, so better to explain it at the end of the article than mention it off-hand at the start.
The demand that bullied parties “own [their] part of the problem” is a repeated theme throughout, so it makes sense that it’s stated at the start. What their part of the problem is, though, is really only alluded to towards the end of the article.
The contention that “nobody is blameless”… well, I’ll come back to that later.
ORIGINAL: As a wise person once said – you must clean up your side of the street.
Generally, if you go with “As a wise person once said…” you want your reader to say in their head “…and obviously she means Einstein” or “…which is clearly a reference to Mark Twain”.
Not with this one.
I googled it. Here’s what I got:
After a much broader search, the best I could do was that it might have been something some people sometimes said in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
My point is, without context or any bridging sentences it reads like a non-sequitur. You have to guess why it’s there and what it means.
ORIGINAL: Earlier this year, I employed a gardener to do some work in our backyard. For 2.5 hours he worked but stopped many times to chat to me. In a short period I heard his life story – his marriage breakup, how his children were not talking to him, how he lost everything, how he had a breakdown, how he doesn’t have many friends, how hard it was to find a girlfriend. His life narrative was all negative and I heard not one moment of self-reflection or the taking of responsibility. He also asked not one question about my life. Such self-absorption may explain a lot.
This gardener was a bore. He was no people magnet.
Importantly, he appeared to take no responsibility for his situation. So, nothing for him will change.
You can only change what you are prepared to acknowledge.
The best anecdotes are (a) plausible or (b) implausible in the most exaggerated and cartoonish way possible.
This one is neither and so only leaves readers with a furrowed brow and a sense of bewildered dissatisfaction. Here are a few reasons why:
- Why didn’t the author go inside after ten minutes instead of sticking around for two and a half hours if she found the gardener so boring? It wasn’t his magnetic personality.
- Why would someone in the business of giving “resilience” advice stand idly by and wait for a man to ask about her when she could be asking serious questions (including, if she must, about responsibility) regarding his breakdown and general mental health?
- Every single detail of this story reads like a bully describing a “loser kid” and yet if we’re giving this article the benefit of the doubt we have to assume the author is on the side of the bullied.
By the way, if this story had been any good, or vaguely believable, I probably would have started the article with it.
ORIGINAL: If your son is currently being bullied, in the spirit of cleaning up your side of the street:
-Is he part of the problem? Even 5%?
-Is he a whinger, a complainer, self-absorbed, an exaggerator, loose with the truth, a passive doormat, displaying negative body language, an approval addict, a try hard, critical or a bad sport?
This is where the article – and the writing – goes from bad to dire.
Again we get “cleaning up your side of the street” with almost no context or elaboration. It’s not a particularly colourful or whimsical metaphor so it’s not even entertaining. What makes it worse this time is it’s followed by an abrupt colon which reads something like “COP THIS!”
Even “do you need to ask yourself some questions?”, while still being awful, would at least have made the thing easier to read and ever-so-slightly less accusatory.
Then we get “part of the problem”, repeated from the first paragraph. But once again there’s no context. We haven’t been told what the problem is. So we need to make assumptions and, because most of us are empathetic humans with a little bit of common sense, we can only assume this is, like any archetypal “bullying situation” a problem lying entirely with the bully. The author needs to either paint the picture of the mitigating circumstances or describe what she means by “problem” in much greater detail.
The second bullet point is a bizarre conglomeration of legitimate points and globules of outright absurdity.
Can you imagine a father reflecting on whether their son bends the truth a little bit and gets themselves in trouble because of it? I can.
Can you imagine a mother needing to sit down with her son and discuss how critical he is of himself and others? That’s entirely possible.
Now let’s think about Tuesday evening round the dining table and Mum putting down her cutlery, clearing her throat and saying “Michael, your father and I think you’re a whinging, self-absorbed doormat and a try hard. What are your thoughts on the matter?”
I’m an unabashed fan of brash, naked language – it doesn’t work here at all.
ORIGINAL: Of course, you might say but how can my son clean up his side of the street if he is the target of cruel taunts because he has buck teeth, acne, a disability or a lisp. That’s not his fault.
Of course, it’s not his fault, but owning his small part of the unpleasant problem may be learning to stand up for himself, developing grit, steely self-belief, strong self-esteem, choosing his friends wisely and reminding himself that the bullies are dealing with their own demons and that the problem lies principally with them and not him.
This is where the rescue operation becomes tricky, if not impossible.
The author has moved on from hinting that the person being bullied might be bringing it on themselves because they’re, say, critical of others (remember I’m doing my best to give the benefit of the doubt here) to talking about a scenario where a boy is being tormented because of things he has absolutely no control over.
This, I think, is the part that turned publication of the article from simply a bad decision from Brighton Grammar into a PR catastrophe.
Among the many, many eye-bulgingly large stumbling blocks within these two paragraphs is the inconsistency and ambiguity.
Yet again we’re told about “the problem”; this time it’s “unpleasant”. With my benefit-of-the-doubt hat on I can believe the author is referring to the problem of being bullied in a general sense. But the way the sentence is written, it’s far too easy to read it as a reference to one of the disabilities or conditions mentioned in the previous paragraph. That’s grotesque.
Even if you discount this entirely, there’s still a perplexing inconsistency when it comes to the question of “Is the article saying boys need to take some kind of responsibility for the fact they have an incapacity or appearance that others attack?”
In one sentence alone the author admits “[o]f course it’s not his fault” but goes on to state that he still needs to “own his small part of the unpleasant problem”. If it’s not his fault, surely it’s not his problem to “own”. Isn’t that just basic logic?
And here’s what I mean about the opening paragraph haunting the rest of the article. Remember “nobody is lily-white and blameless”? Is the author seriously suggesting somebody with a disability being called vile names and being slammed into a locker every morning (for example) can’t be described as blameless because they’re not gritty enough? Because they haven’t “chosen” the right friends? Because they lack self-esteem?
Even if you put aside the outright nastiness of such an assertion and just look at it purely from a writing perspective, it fails spectacularly because it’s not rooted in reality. Very few parents would read it and think “Thank goodness this horrible business can be put to bed once Daniel reminds himself the bullies have their own demons.”
The world doesn’t work like that and decent writing is at the very least credible.
ORIGINAL: After having been bullied myself for most of high school, it was only when I was brave enough and self-aware enough to ‘own’ my part of the problem that the bullying stopped. I earned respect whilst building self-respect.
Time to own your part, and stop playing the victim.
Be the victor, not the victim.
Now, this whole post has been very critical, but it’s about to get plain rude. You’ll forgive me if I’m not particularly rueful.
One of main reasons why this is such a disastrously poor piece of writing is that it’s opinion and personal experience masquerading as serious mental health advice.
For me, if you’re going to put something about mental health on a website whose reputation you care about, it has to be backed by science, backed by extensive experience and observation or it has to be a personal story.
I read this and think “Where’s the evidence for any of this?”
It may fit into the “extensive experience and observation” category but you’d never know because all we get is a dodgy story about a down-and-out gardener and a two-sentence assurance that the author was once bullied herself and overcame it by (again!) “owning” the “problem”.
It reads to me like the work of a corporate motivator, which is just about the worst thing you can say about a piece of writing.
There are repeated buzzwords and glib truisms none of which are defined or given context. There’s a distinct lack of empathy and a sense that the author (who has “self-respect” and a multifaceted career) considers herself superior to the reader, a “victim”. Humour, warmth and self-effacement are totally absent, as is nuance. There’s gross simplification of complex problems. And there’s emotive language designed to simultaneously shame and rouse.
In short: it treats readers as fools.
Is it salvageable?
It reads like someone telling vulnerable children “harden up, dweebs”. If the author truly doesn’t harbour that sentiment, it might not have been dead on arrival.
At the very least, it shows how important clear thinking and strong language skills are when it comes to putting your ideas down into words.
But being the self-absorbed critic and approval addict that I am, I would say that.