The issue has been growing for a few years but 2013 seemed to be the year Bullying became a buzzword. A quick Google search of the term brings up dozens of news stories, from the Miami Dolphins controversy to YouTube videos of teenage girls beating each other while friends record it and cheer them on. Sadly, many stories tell of young lives lost to suicide spurred on by relentless bullying at school. All these different scenarios have very little in common beyond the word bullying and the bad behavior of the aggressors. That’s the problem with buzzwords. They get used so frequently, in so many different ways, that they lose much of their meaning.
Bullying, for most of us, conjures images of schoolyard misbehaviour. A shove on the playground, a passed note that Susie smells funny. This type of bullying is still hurtful and should be stopped and punished whenever it arises. However, it is also an unfortunate but perhaps inevitable part of childhood. We can and should combat it but will never quite eradicate it. For victims of this sort of attack they are painful and potentially scarring. Yet, there is something pathetic about the efforts of these bullies. They are small time thugs doing essentially petty things to gain power in the school social structure. It is easy to shrug and say, well, we’ve all been bullied. So we have. Most of us have probably also encouraged, excused, or even partaken in bullying at least once. Sad but true. “Back in my day we just toughed it out.”
Problem is, we’re dealing with a whole new breed of bullying from the kind we remember “back in our day.” Technically, bullying is exerting domination over another, through a real or perceived use of power. One person is stronger, older, bigger, more popular and they prey on the weak. Too many things are being filed under this label, things where bullying is only one part of the crime. The definition is broad enough as to become vague. We need more precision, because what we are often talking about today are not playground hijinks but grave and even criminal behaviours. I was very disturbed last year to read of the suicide of Amanda Todd, a teenager from my home town. Many of the initial articles spoke of her main bully as being a male who coerced her into taking topless photos and then used these to pressure her into doing more and circulated the material so that kids are her school could access it and spread it. This is not just bullying. This is sexual harrassment and extortion. The adult male in this instance isn’t just a bully, he is a vile sexual predator! The teens who circulated this material were not just bullies, they were traffickers in child pornography!
I propose a moratorium on the term bullying. Not because bullying isn’t serious. Because it is too serious to be muddied by imprecision. Indiscriminate use of the word keeps us from really identifying the crimes involved for what they are. We need to call a spade a spade. Whenever a story uses the word bully or bullying, consider what other word you could replace it with. Roughhousing, teasing, gossiping? Assault, harrassment, abuse, pornography, blackmail, bigotry? Strip away the fuzziness, strip away the associations with Bugs Meany or Moe and look at what we’re really dealing with. This will help us to address the underlying problems, including but not limited to: the hyper sexualization of young people, and their overexposure to violence, children acting out in very very adult ways; the regression to adolescence of many adults, acting out in very juvenile ways; the importance of parental involvment in children’s use of technology, particularly social media, internet access and texting. Could we help ban bullying by avoiding “bullying?” Maybe not. But it might help sort between the types of bullying that can be addressed by a trip to the principal’s office and some meetings with parents and the types that could be better handled by a trip to the police station.
(UPDATE: My commenter below disputes my summation of the Amanda Todd case. However, for the purposes of my article I feel it is appropriate. Amanda’s story did turn out to be much more complex than originally portrayed and the young lady herself, as well as her parents cannot be held blameless. I did attempt to address this originally by noting that “initial” reports made these claims, because I didn’t want to lose focus in my piece. Perhaps this was sloppy of me. However, my point remains that the sloppy language of lumping this story in as just another example of the “bullying epidemic” obscured the actual facts of the case.)