The Dehradun Student’s Death is a Reminder That Toxic Masculinity Starts With Boyhood Bullying

Social Commentary

The Dehradun Student’s Death is a Reminder That Toxic Masculinity Starts With Boyhood Bullying

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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ecoming a man is hard. For some boys, making it to manhood unscarred is impossible, and for others, even surviving until then becomes untenable. This week, grisly details emerged of shocking violence that led to the death of a 12-year-old boy at a children’s home in Dehradun. Brutally beaten by his seniors, the victim died of internal haemorrhage in an incident that gives us an unsettling glimpse of how the difficult path from boyhood to manhood is fraught with hard, unfeeling, oftentimes cold violence.

A report in The Print paints a harrowing picture of the violence the child endured at the hands of two 19-year-old residents of the same children’s home. The torment the seniors unleashed on him continued unabated for six hours, and ran the gamut from corporal punishment, verbal abuse, and ritual humiliation. Being force-fed Kurkure chips, having his face dunked in toilet water, and getting assaulted with a cricket stump were just some of the tortures he underwent. The details are shocking and painful to read. As a young man, it served as a sobering reminder that barring some fortuitous twists of fate and my own privilege, I could have easily been the victim… or the assailant.

An incident from my school years floated to the forefront of my memory. A group of bullies cornered a boy they all picked on during the lunch break, and dragged him onto the football ground. There, they tightly fastened one end of his tie to the goalpost in an impossible knot, and spent the next 30 to 40 minutes laughing as they kicked footballs at the struggling student. I wasn’t in the group of bullies, but I was the worst kind of bystander – a passive one, literally eating a bag of chips and watching the carnage from the sidelines.

My equanimous reaction to the bullying unfolding in front of me wasn’t out of the ordinary; nobody on the ground that day seemed particularly disturbed by what was happening (except the bullied kid, who didn’t come to school for nearly a week afterward). This was an all-boys school, and most students there had some level of experience with bullying and violence already, on a second- if not first-hand. Even before this kid had been tied to the goalpost, schoolboys used to tell stories, almost legends, of the batches that went before – how last-to-last year’s senior batch locked the class monitor in the class cupboard for tattling to teachers, how X had caught Y in the bus parking lot after school and sent him home with broken specs and a bleeding lip, and other such tales of problems being solved with blunt, casual violence. We had become accustomed to living with the fight-or-flight response just a heartbeat away.

After all, “boys will be boys”, right?

Those seniors were not hard-wired to beat a junior to death, just like my classmates weren’t the kind of kids to tie a peer to a goalpost, until one day, that’s exactly what they did.

“Boyhood immerses boys in violence and the bullying that leads to it,” writes Michael C Reichert, author of How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men. In that context, “boys will be boys” no longer seems like a pithy, throwaway phrase used to put a good face on the damage toxic masculinity can do to an individual. Because emotionally scarred and stunted boys become emotionally scarred and stunted men, and real violence follows in their wake. The two seniors who killed the boy in Dehradun were no longer boys, they were young men, 19 years of age, and filled with an inexplicable restlessness and rage that suddenly turned fatal.

Their actions were unforgivable, but let’s remember that they were also products of their environment – probably not dissimilar to the lethal atmosphere they created at the home. In fact, the conditions at that particular children’s home have since been reported to be dismal and horrid, with a Class VII girl being raped and another minor boy having gone missing a few years earlier. Surrounded by fear, uncertainty, and a lurking, indefinable sense of danger, it’s not difficult to see how a boy or young man might become violent.

In a New York Times essay titled “It’s Dangerous to be a Boy”, Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura is quoted as saying, “People are not born with pre-formed repertoires of aggressive behaviour. They must learn them.” Those seniors were not hard-wired to beat a junior to death, just like my classmates weren’t the kind of kids to tie a peer to a goalpost, until one day, that’s exactly what they did. Somewhere along the way, they picked up social cues that taught them that sensitivity and sympathy were undesirable traits, and that physical dominance and social supremacy were ideals to strive toward.

The violence that my schoolmates – and the seniors at the home – gave vent to, was built on the foundation of smaller aggressions with less severe consequences. As children and adolescents, at an age where you’re most receptive to peer pressure, the spiral of boyhood violence is nearly impossible to escape.

I’ve spent my own share of time in that spiral, on both ends of these aggressive exchanges. I remember hiding between parked cars on my street as a 10-year-old, as neighbourhood bullies searched for me on their bicycles, looking to make good on threats to fuck me up. But I’ve also been the one roughing up a batch-mate and then, with the help of a fellow bully, bodily flinging him into a prickly bush behind our school church. For growing boys, such interactions are unfortunately all too common, because nobody thinks twice about being the aggressor, and we would rather lose a fight than be seen as weak. I consider myself lucky to have been able to leave that mind-set behind, and graduating from the all-male environment of my school and entering the more diverse environs of college played a huge role in that evolution.

Boys should be taught to be sensitive as well as strong, and not equate dominance with their sense of self-worth.

Not all boys are able to smooth out their rough edges, and the way boys treat boys sets the tone for the way men treat the world. Men commit a disproportionately large number of violent crimes worldwide, considering the global sex ratio. Studies show that men are more likely to indulge in substance abuse and die young. The recklessness and disdain for others that is ingrained in us as boys is costing the lives of not just damaged men, but also the victims of their violence. From the Christchurch terrorist to our homegrown lynch mobs, from the school shooters in USA to jilted lovers attacking women with acid, angry, dissatisfied, unhappy men are always at the centre of the violence – and the one common thread linking them together is toxic masculinity.

In an essay titled “The Boys are Not All Right”, the actor Michael Ian Black writes, “Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others.” It’s an unworkable model, one that should be re-evaluated and replaced.

Boys should be taught to be sensitive as well as strong, and not equate dominance with their sense of self-worth. Because as long as these are the messages being hammered into boys during their formative years, we will keep witnessing horrors like the one in Dehradun. The idea that traditional masculinity needs an update has been around for a while, but if we want to see a generation of better men, first we’re going to have to save our boys.

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