On “Bullying”

After growing older and looking back on what happened to me in middle school, and comparing it to what elementary and high school were like, and hearing other people’s stories, I’ve come to despise the word “bullying.” Bear with me on this.

When my friend [redacted] tells people that he spent years in therapy due to bullying, many react with incredulity, an assumption of weakness: “Well, in fourth grade they called me Ginger Snap because of my red hair and I turned out just fine. I didn’t go crying to no therapist.”

When someone hears the word “bullying,” they think of their own experiences with it. Getting called Ginger Snap is one experience. Being pursued down the street, as a high school freshman, by senior boys pelting you with rocks and screaming “DIE FAGGOT!” is another. And that’s the problem. The word “bullying” casts too wide a net.

Consider this poster:

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It makes a list of things to define as “bullying” and campaign against. A noble idea, but notice that it puts “gossiping” in the same class as “stealing.” Imagine telling an adult “don’t buy tabloids” and “don’t rob people” in the same sentence. “Teasing” and “harassment” are implied to be equivalent. A child coping with “rumors” and and a child coping with “hitting,” “brutalization,” and “threats” get the same level of advocacy. It’s no surprise that people become confused when you tell them how important it is to take a stand against bullying.

Consider these scenarios:

  1. Sarah spreads a groundless rumor that Jessica is sleeping with Paul in order to turn Paul’s girlfriend against Sarah.
  2. Jason calls Daniel a “fucking Jew” and tells him he should “go burn in an oven.”
  3. Mike, Alex, Chase, and Mikey D confront Caleb in an isolated spot and threaten him until he turns over his money and his smartphone.
  4. George flirts with Keisha as a joke in order to get her to send a naked picture of herself to him, then posts it on the internet.
  5. Mike, Alex, Chase, and Mikey D attack Paul with baseball bats because they believe he is “a queer.” They scream homophobic invectives at him throughout the encounter. Paul sustains a mild concussion and a broken wrist.
  6. Miranda and Charity rip off Aisha’s hijab, call her a “terrorist” and a “sand n*****,” and hurl her against a water fountain.
  7. Chase refers to Demetrius as a “huge nerd” whom “no girl would ever want to fuck”
  8. Sam corners Emma in a hallway, pins her to a wall, and gropes her breasts and buttocks while she struggles to fight him off.
  9. Arianna tells Sarah that her new haircut looks terrible and refers to her as Old Bristle Brush in everyday conversation.
  10. Alex casually shoves Kevin aside on his way to the bathroom.
  11. Miranda constructs a fake online dating profile to get Emma to fall in love with her for her amusement.
  12. Mikey D tells Caleb he is going to kill him, and later shows up at his home and points an unloaded gun in his face “as a joke.”
  13. Amanda gets petty revenge on Demitrius by telling a counsellor that he molested his little sister.

Now think of how you would classify these behaviors if the parties were over the age of 18:

  1. Gossip-mongering, backstabbing, immature mean girl behavior
  2. Hate speech
  3. Mugging
  4. Revenge porn, invasion of privacy, a growing concern among internet users
  5. Hate crime, assault
  6. Hate crime, assault
  7. Immature douchebag behavior
  8. Sexual harassment, sexual assault
  9. Immature mean girl behavior
  10. Mild physical intimidation
  11. Fraud, catfishing, a growing concern among internet users
  12. Assault with a deadly weapon
  13. Slander

Now, how does our society classify these behaviors if the parties are under 18?

  1. Bullying
  2. Bullying
  3. Bullying
  4. Cyberbullying
  5. Bullying
  6. Bullying
  7. Bullying
  8. Bullying
  9. Bullying
  10. Bullying
  11. Cyberbullying
  12. Bullying
  13. Bullying

As you can see, the designation infantilizes young people (especially teens) and teaches them that drastically different actions have similar consequences. It baffles potential advocates who don’t grasp why the government and police would want to be involved in what they understand as teasing. It makes it a challenge for children and teens who are enduring serious harassment to convey their suffering to others. Alternatively, it can divert resources into solving non-problems, as in the infamous case where a grade school boy was suspended for kissing a girl on the cheek; it can also inspire a non-holistic zero-tolerance approach that punishes victims for fighting back or bystanders for stepping in. To put it simply, bullying is a terrible idea. Kids would benefit if we started calling behaviors by their real-world names: call teasing teasing, call harassment harassment, call hate speech hate speech, call assault assault, call cliques cliques, and call “bullying” an old-fashioned made-up word.

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