Being Human: Our debt of care to the victims of abuse

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 10, 2017 - July 16, 2017.
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In recent months, the nation has witnessed the heart-wrenching deaths of three young people as a result of bullying and violent abuse that puts the spotlight on our poor handling of youth violence, hazing and corporal punishment.

The horrific abuse that the three victims suffered — namely, schoolboy Mohd Thaqif Amin Mohd Ghaddafi, who died in April following severe punishment by an assistant school warden; naval cadet Zulfarhan Osman Zulkarnain, who succumbed in early June to torture at the hands of his fellow cadets; and teenager T Nhaveen, who died last month after falling into a coma as a result of a vicious attack by his bullies — draws our attention to the unwholesome conditions that allow such atrocities to be perpetrated in our midst.

The three beautiful lives that were snuffed out tragically — as they were sensitive, caring and talented souls — leave us indebted with a duty of care to seek a deeper understanding of the situations that trigger abuse and a determination to foster a more nurturing society, so that no one else needs ever to endure the suffering that cut them down so gruesomely.

Although it is an in­escapable fact that neither abuse nor any other aberrant behaviour can be totally eliminated from human society, the plight of the three victims nevertheless provides strong motivation for some serious soul-searching on how our society has failed them. 

An important step in that direction is the realisation that current approaches to the protection of young people are far from satisfactory. This awareness is crucial for allowing us to step back from our conviction about the correctness of our present position and open our minds to new and perhaps apparently improbable solutions.

In the cases of Mohd Thaqif Amin, who was a boarding student in a religious school, and Zulfarhan, the naval cadet, there is an element of faith in a higher order and an esprit de corps, respectively, that is transferred to the hostel guardian and the cadet corps, which forms a backdrop to their situations.This transference can lead to a suspension of judgment about disciplinary methods such as corporal punishment or compliance-based bonding practices that can tip them over into abuse.

To take the case of uniformed bodies like military academies, reports of abuse, sometimes spanning decades, surface ocassionally even in the most prestigious institutions around the world. Even when such abuse is exposed, investigative reports have showed that the authorities concerned tried to cover up the problem while giving public reassurance that such behaviour would not be tolerated.

To cite just one instance this year that mirrors other headliners over several decades, The Telegraph reported in March that the British Ministry of Defence had been accused of colluding with the Duke of York’s Royal Military School, the country’s “most prestigious military boarding school”, to cover up claims of abuse. The report focused on the alleged failure of the Kent Police to investigate some 38 crime reports over two decades, including 12 sexual offences and 11 “child protection incidents”. A concerned parent who alerted Ofsted, the British inspectorate of education and children’s services, to the school’s record of serious bullying, abuse and an oppressive punishment system as detailed in its medical records, was instead arrested for handling stolen goods and breaching the data protection law.

The case illustrates the considerable difficulties involved in changing entrenched organisational cultures even when abusive behaviour is evident. This suggests that genuine transformation can only arise out of a collective change of heart among the key stakeholders in a social network that results in a heightened sense of their inter-connectedness so that the dominant, dependent and ancillary members in a given relationship can see a reflection of themselves in one another and dwell in greater mutual empathy.  

Further, it should also tell us that the predictable solutions that will be purveyed, such as stricter screening of school wardens and other guardians, the inquisitorial pursuit of abusers and the criminalisation of school bullies, would create a false sense of accomplishment in the measures taken.

There is a growing body of expertise about bullying, its causes and its effects, as well as proven methods for handling the problem that have been built up by public health organisations around the world, and this will serve us well in our own journey towards addressing its occurrence in our country.

For example, the US Department of Health’s website advocates avoiding strategies that have negative consequences, such as zero tolerance or “three strikes, you’re out” strategies. Also, suspending or expelling students who bully does not reduce bullying behaviour as students and teachers may be less likely to report and address bullying if that is the consequence.

Neither is conflict resolution and peer mediation effective in curbing bullying. “Bullying is not a conflict between people of equal power who share equal blame. Facing those who have bullied may further upset kids who have been bullied,” it advises.

These and other lessons can help our efforts to formulate effective policy responses to the problem. It is important that such programmes consist of well-tested interventions that are built on sound behavioral science rather than hardline approaches that look good in the news.

For the sake of the Mohd Thaqifs, Zulfarhans and Nhaveens who have paid the price of our social dysfunction with their lives, let us make the remedies we adopt truly substantive.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge Malaysia