Bullies – Thugs or thinkers?

At the Centenary Annual Conference Jon Sutton described the work that won him the 1999 Award for Outstanding Doctoral Research Contributions to Psychology.

IN February 1996, 16-year-old Katherine Morrison killed herself. Two schoolmates, Shelley McBratney and Lee Ann Murray, were put on trial for common assault. In the eyes of many, they were being accused of bullying Katherine to death. The Daily Record branded the girls ‘Bitches from Hell’, and the sheriff at the trial called them ‘contemptible and cowardly’ and said they had acted ‘evilly’. There were claims that Shelley was jealous of Katherine’s academic achievements, and ashamed of her own inadequacies. Shelley’s mother had a different view: she felt that the tragic incident was simply a falling out between close friends, and she said that ‘Shelley was bullied by the press. She was bullied by the court. She was bullied by everyone. That was the real bullying’ (The Guardian, 25 April 1998). Conflicting opinions in the explanation of aggression are not new. The public, the media, even psychologists: all have a tendency to stigmatise and pathologise individuals involved in threatening behaviour as psychologically and socially abnormal or deficient. But is bullying a pathological behaviour found only in a minority, or is it in fact a common identity choice actively chosen at certain times because it makes sense in certain social environments? Are the children involved inadequate, or could they be considered socially competent… even superior?

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