We hear a lot about bullying these days. Bullying in the work-place is a big issue, and schools are smothered in posters about playground bullying. I don't complain about this - I have witnessed workplace bullying and it's a disgusting and reprehensible practice. It ought to be a sackable offence, but in reality it usually isn't - certainly not in the public services.
What we seem not to have recognised is that we are becoming a nation of bullies ourselves. Certain people are regarded as "fair game" by many of us.
Think of smokers. OK, smoking is bad for your health. We all accept that, though the government don't recognise their own hypocrisy in constantly warning us about its dangers when all the while they're making millions of pounds out of tobacco duty. I wonder what they'd do if suddenly we all gave up?
But because smoking is bad for your health, it's become acceptable to be intolerably rude to smokers. Quite ordinary, polite people think nothing of telling a smoker "That's a disgusting habit!" to his face. If he were scratching his bum, picking his nose or spitting on the pavement most of us would be repelled but we wouldn't dare mention it. But it's OK to be rude about smoking, and personally insulting to someone who does it.
In fact smoking is not, in the grand scheme of things, particularly disgusting. Picking your nose in public or hawking and spitting on the pavement - that's disgusting. Farting and lighting it at parties is disgusting. Putting dog poo through your neighbour's letterbox is disgusting. Taking some dried leaves, wrapping them in thin paper and setting fire to it is not. Garden bonfires aren't disgusting, are they? So what's the difference? For most of the 20th Century smoking cigarettes was socially acceptable, even fashionable, while smoking a pipe lent one an air of mature contemplation and gravitas. Now overnight it's disgusting?
Smoking is harmful to health, and in some circumstances inconsiderate and antisocial. But disgusting? No.
Drivers, too, are bullied - and let's face it, that's most of us at one time or another. Have you noticed that whenever a driver makes a mistake he's immediately dubbed "an idiot" or "a moron"? In most of our other pursuits we can make mistakes with impunity. If I go into a shop and offer the cashier a fiver by mistake for a tenner, she doesn't call me an idiot. If someone gets halfway up some busy stairs, then realises their mistake and has to retrace their steps, nobody calls him a moron. If an old lady slips on the snow and falls over, we're all solicitous concern and rush to help her - we don't insult her. Yet on the roads if we take a wrong turn and have to stop, or slither into a ditch, or forget to pay Foxy Ken's congestion charge, we're immediately the next-best thing to a serial killer.
Fox-hunting people know all about being bullied, too. Just because they indulge in a hobby not shared by most of us, just because most of us would not choose to do what they do, just because they're in a minority they're fair game - shout at them, throw things at them, invade their land, sabotage their lawful pursuits, send them razor-blades and dog-shit through the post, that's OK. They deserve it.
Paedophiles deserve all we throw at them, too. Because we regard their actions and predelictions with outrage, because what they do is both illegal and immoral, it's all right to do anything we like to them. Beat them up, howl at them and throw things at them in the street, hound them out of their homes - that's OK, they deserve it.
That wouldn't be too bad if we always got the right people, but sometimes we don't. And sometimes we don't even try. It's a little-known fact that the government - the DfEE to be precise - maintain something called List 99. It's a list of all the people who for one reason or another are barred from working with children, and when someone applies for a job in a school they can check to see if they're on the list. Fair enough, you'd think.
But several years ago I knew slightly a teacher who apparently had a sexual liaison with a fifteen-year-old pupil. I say "apparently" because the pupil made no complaint (rumour had it that she was quite enthusiastic) and the parents didn't go to the police. The school hushed the whole thing up and the teacher quietly disappeared. The man was never charged, let alone found guilty. Yet I happen to know his name is on List 99.
How did that happen? Certainly what he did (assuming he was guilty - my guess is that he was) was illegal and wrong, and he probably should not be allowed to work with children again - not enthusiastic fifteen-year-olds, anyway. But we don't actually know that he was guilty. He never had the opportunity to prove his innocence in court. He never even had a chance to say he didn't do it. So who gave the DfEE, or the Headmaster of the school, the right to play judge and jury?
We did, that's who. Paedophiles are so abhorrent to us that we're happy to allow the normal rights of any citizen to evaporate. If you're suspected of being a child-molester you're guilty with no chance of proving you're innocent.
And of course if we can take this approach with paedophiles, why not with other criminals? I see that Sinn Fein are to be financially penalised by the government because we think members of the IRA committed a huge bank robbery. No-one's been caught, no-one's been charged, no-one's been found guilty, no link with Sinn Fein has been proved, but what the hell? We know it must have been the IRA so let's get them.
Then there's house arrest for suspected terrorists. We can't prove they're terrorists, they probably haven't actually done any terrorising yet, but 9/11 apparently gives us the right to legislate against them all the same. It wouldn't be so bad if one knew that the legislation was going to be used against some of the real terrorists we have in our midst - the people who persecute the families of businessmen who have any connection with animal experimentation for instance, or the radical Christians who make death threats against anyone at the BBC they don't like.
Where will it end, I wonder? Got a Che Guevara poster on the wall in your bedroom? You're obviously a mad bomber, so stay inside your house and rot! Got a horse and a beagle? Great, we'll post you some nice dog-shit in a plastic bag. Smoking a cigarette in your back garden? We'll hang over the garden fence and shout insults at you. Got a car? You're obviously some kind of mental case.
And for God's sake, guys, never let your eyes stray as you pass the local primary school or a gang of vigilantes will take you down an alley and kick your kidneys in. Because you deserve it.
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