Anti-Bullying Week: The Problem with ‘Banter’

anti-bullying weekDuring Anti-Bullying Week 2017, we take a look at the use of the word ‘banter’ to justify harmful behaviour.

The Annual Bullying Survey 2017, conducted by Ditch the Label, collected responses from over 10,000 young people aged 12-20 in partnership with education institutes across the UK. Exploring the varying forms of bullying, associated motivations, and emotional impact, the key statistics that emerged can be seen below.

  • 1.5 million young people have been bullied in the past year.
  • 145,800 of these were bullied every day.
  • 57% of female respondents have been bullied, 44% of males, and 59% of transgender people.
  • 24% of those bullied go on to be bullies.
  • 20% of all young people have physically attacked someone.
  • 44% of young people who have been bullied experience depression and 41% experience social anxiety.

It is clear that bullying remains rife, with digital platforms giving young people the opportunity to operate on various levels outside of school hours. Anti-Bullying week puts a spotlight on bullying behaviours, highlighting the necessity to work with young people to identify the motivations of bullies, ways in which to support those who are bullied, as well as forming a deeper understanding of the language surrounding it.

In her Tes article, Natasha Devon focuses on this language, particularly the word ‘banter’. She argues that it is frequently used to excuse bullying; a verbal weapon which runs deeper than joke-making.

Lucy Elphinstone, headteacher of an all-girls school in London’s Sloane Square, recently commented that girls should be taught to better handle banter thrown at them in order to cope in today’s world. She made the following rather uncomfortable statement,

“I think girls are, perhaps by nature, sensitive and easily hurt. Very often when we hear something that is just gentle teasing, we tend to call it bullying and boys would never call each other that. They are used to calling each other nicknames, pushing each other around and making fun of each other – but it’s often a sign of endearment. And girls need to learn to not take themselves quite so seriously, to laugh at themselves a little bit more and to understand that teasing isn’t necessarily something that is cruel or unkind.”

– Read the full article here.

Devon unpicks her troubling argument, making the point that we cannot assume that all boys enjoy having this kind of discourse with each other. Plenty of boys suffer extreme consequences at the hands of banter. It cannot be assumed that some people can ‘take’ a certain level of banter above others- especially when cross-sectioned with gender. It is narrow-minded to presume that someone’s very personal boundaries depend on their identity.

The notion that we need to coach young girls in preparation for banter in the workplace is potentially very dangerous considering that it is often used to mask inappropriate behaviour. In a society where power is still abused in the workplace, brushing something harmful off as simply ‘banter’ is totally unacceptable and certainly not an ideology we should be encouraging young people to be complicit with.

It is also important that we don’t focus on whether the perpetrator of the banter meant to cause harm. A joke may be thrown at someone without negative intent but if this infliction sticks with the person then it is damaging nonetheless.

Adolescence provides a time of great opportunity within which young people can flourish, both personally and academically. During this turbulent period, it is crucial that they feel free and safe to act authentically, with the ability to fulfil their learning potential. Masking bullying can be destructive; we must educate our young people, support them, and acknowledge the destructive potential of banter in all settings.