NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

Face facts, New Zealand is a nation of bullies

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

We all have myths and half-truths we tell ourselves, it’s what we call an “ego-ideal”. It’s the positive version of how we imagine ourselves to be.

At best it’s a half-truth, at worst it can be a complete fiction.

As a nation I believe we like to think of ourselves as a nation of “can-do” people, hard but fair, self-reliant but caring.

Yet a recent international study suggests we have the second-worst rate of youth bullying in the world, with just more than a quarter of 15-year-olds reporting being bullied at least a few times a month.

This is concerning for many reasons, in large part because we know that bullying has long-lasting consequences. It often leads to depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts for teenagers and adults.

So no matter what we might like to think about ourselves, the uncomfortable reality is that New Zealand is a violent country, and getting more so.

We might not be armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weapons like the US, but our violence can be just as deadly.

Deadly in particular for our young people. An OECD report published last year found New Zealand had the highest teen suicide rate in the developed world. Our rangatahi are being killed by their own pain, killed indirectly by the violence of others.

But it isn’t our attitude towards the bullied that needs to change, it’s our attitude towards the bullies.

Because we are a nation that loves to punish.

We’re heading into yet another election year where “getting tough on crime” is going to be one of the talking points. New Zealand has an incarceration rate nearly twice that of Australia, and rising, and yet we’re building more prisons while our health system languishes in disrepair.

It’s a challenge to respond without revenge, to speak out when we’re distressed or in pain, to respond with compassion to the bully.

Instead, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to feel pain and distress, and allow ourselves to connect with that in others.

We must see others suffering as our own.

Somewhere along the way we lost our sense of collectivism, the sense that as a country we’re all in this together. Maybe it’s a global trend, maybe it’s due to the inherent competition of capitalism.

Increasingly we all battle on in the belief that as long we make sure we’re okay, then that’ll do. And if someone else is struggling, then it’s not our problem, it must be their own fault, right?

But turning a blind eye, is it’s own special form of violence. How can we expect our young people to treat each other with respect and kindness when their parents’ generation turns on each other, and throws away the key, at the first excuse?

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