TODAY I LOOKED UP the word bullying in the English As It Is Actually Used Dictionary:
Bullying, vbl. n. [bʊlɪɪŋ]: A word that by 2014 was being used by some adults to describe what all the adults were doing to all the other adults, everywhere.
On any day in any news source, there are articles about adult bullying, as well as commentaries and anecdotes and calls to put an end to it, wherever it happens, which according to some people is everywhere.
Just before I began this article I checked the latest headline, and there it was, a story about a provincial politician quitting because Allison Redford, the Premier of Alberta, is a bully. Yet another article had a quote from a federal politician who says Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a bully. My mock-favorite however is this: Michele Bachmann says gays are bullying the American people. I guess technically that would be “reverse bullying,” which is sort of like reverse racism (which, as we all know, leads to historical outrages like reverse slavery, reverse Indian reserves, and reverse Holocaust).
Before you begin that hate email you now want to send me, let me say that I do think bullying is a real thing, and I care about it, and I think we need to be vigilant. I was writing about bullying years before it was the omnipresent word it is today, and to be candid I almost regret it. I feel that in my own tiny way I’ve contributed to this bad habit of over-using a word that has become powerful and trendy. It’s natural to think that using a powerful, trendy word will rouse people to action more than a less inflammatory (but more accurate) word. I understand that, and I know why demagogues like Bachmann think they’ll get somewhere calling people bullies. Before we can tackle bullying effectively, and prevent abuses of the word, we need to know what it is, and what it is not.
This essay is mostly about politicians who say they are being bullied by colleagues. This means it’s also about adults bullying adults. I’m going to start by saying I was very skeptical about this when I started my research. According to some sources, bullying will happen to one in four adults. This seems like a very high number to me, and I’m not sure how it was calculated. Most of the websites I’ve visited present adult bullying as omnipresent. It’s an epidemic, if they are correct. And it’s getting worse. I’m saying if that’s true, it’s a huge deal, and so we need to be more careful, not less.
Here’s one of my many concerns. The use of the word bullying is reminding me these days of the use of the word fascist. Fascist is a word people throw around like it’s a generic term meaning real bad. There are people who, the moment they decide they don’t like something, invoke Hitler and Nazism. It could be Obamacare or the Harper government’s environmental policies or the National Post’s editorials or what Tom Perkins says the 99% are doing to the rich people. When you over- and misuse a word, two things happen: people don’t take you seriously, and they tune out every time they see or hear that word. Then the real deal comes along, and rather than rallying against it, people say, Oh boy, here we go again with the Chicken Little. Fascism is already one of these words, and bullying is quickly catching up to it.
If an adult friend of mine told me he were being bullied, I’d take it seriously. I’d listen and offer support. I’d step in and step up, in whatever appropriate and reasonable way possible. Also, since I’ve read academic studies of bullying, I’m inclined to take an academic approach. Definitions matter to me, as do analysis and case studies. I’ve tried to be clear in my own mind what is, and what is not, bullying. In my view, this matters. Here, for people like Michele Bachmann, are some things that I would argue are not bullying:
– an argument/conflict between two adults
– a vulnerable and/or unpopular group trying to assert their rights
– a political debate or disagreement
– generic rudeness, or things that offend you
People argue. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, and it is also natural. Sometimes they may go too far for one’s liking, in which case you can say they are being a rude. Arguing is not bullying, it’s people having a conflict over an idea or proposition. Sometimes the disagreement involves a power imbalance, such as when gay people try to assert their rights against a society that denies them. I’ll explain later why I think gay people can’t bully Michelle Bachmann, or the American people. (The short explanation is the power imbalance favors the majority heterosexuals.)
When politicians harass, insult, berate or mock one another – and they do this all the time, and have for millenia–, the correct term to use is not bully but asshole, as in, “The Hon. Member for Nepean-Carleton is being an asshole.” Again, I’ll have more to say about this further down.
As for generic rudeness, there’s a lot of that around and some of it is severe enough that it could begin to look like bullying. We need some criteria to determine if and when it is bullying. Keep in mind that we are considering the behavior of adults among other adults. This is not about children or young adults, who I believe merit a separate consideration.
Here’s why I”m skeptical about some of the claims concerning adult bullying. Think about the claim that a politician is bullying another politician. An all-grown-up adult – raising children and holding down a job and representing thousands of constituents and sitting on committees and making decisions – is being bullied? By another adult just like him? This is what I see in my mind:
Politician A criticizes Politician B. Then Politician A wedgies Politician B and steals his lunch money. Politician B assumes the fetal position on the House of Commons floor and cries. Politician B’s girlfriend goes off in Politician A’s dad’s convertible. CTV is there and gets it all on film, thank god.
Obviously, something else has to be going on. Real bullying is serious, and it’s unlikely to resemble children in a school yard, juvenile though politicians are. The same is true with workplace bullying, which I’ve been reading a lot about lately.
I’ve studied bullying, and while I know adults are capable of it, I’m having a hard time believing that it’s happening everywhere, every day. Here’s why. Bullying is social, not individual. It requires calculation and strategy and planning and recruitment and the credible threat of physical harm, including death, as well as huge power imbalances between the bully and the bullied. The genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutu Power movement, and the Stalinist terror tactics of Kim Jong-un and Saddam Hussein, can be called bullying. On a smaller scale, and where North Americans live, it’s more about cliques than totalitarian dictatorships. Let’s consider the clique.
These require a sustained and coordinated effort. The objective is to get a group to encircle and dehumanize a group outsider. Bullying doesn’t just require a bully – it requires a variety of enablers, such as bystanders, cheerleaders and side-kicks. A bully must recruit the office into his cult. I bet this happens, just like Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre happens, and I feel like some of the articles on adult bullying are a variation on How to Prevent the Jonestown Massacre in Your Workplace. I’m not saying that adults can’t be bullied – what I’m saying is that I’m skeptical about the examples I cited at the top, and I’m skeptical that this is happening in as many as one-third of all workplaces. (The stats on this are all over the place, by the way, but they all agree it’s a huge problem.)
I may be over-laboring this point, but adulthood is the time in life when you look back and say, “I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with that any more.” I realize I could be wrong in my skepticism, but I’ve noticed that even the committed bullies of my youth aren’t bullies any more. It’s highly unlikely that if you meet these folks again they’ll beat you up, or start a broad rumor campaign against you, like they used to do. I know this because about ten years after moving away I visited a bar in my hometown, and on the next stool over was the guy who bullied me all through school. You know what he did? He bought me a drink and acted as if we’d been best friends. Apparently this is common.
I attribute this to getting older, but also to the fact that it gets a lot harder to be a bully as you enter adulthood, and I suspect there’s a diminishing return. Even if the bully is the same, his (or her) environment isn’t. Now the laws apply to the bully (or office rules, or codes of conduct) and he can be prosecuted or disciplined. His peers have experience and inner resources and awareness. This doesn’t mean bullying can’t or won’t happen, but it does suggest the occurrence will be reduced to something below an epidemic.
Some folks never grow up, but the school bullies never act alone. They can’t act alone. They need the complicity of the school yard population, and they get it. The odds of your office having one adult with a propensity for bullying is not small, but what about the odds of your office having a bunch of adults who are bully and bullying enablers? What we are considering here is an adult workplace version of Lord of the Flies. That would be a huge front page story. There would be inquiries and RCMP investigations and international media coverage for months and months, and for good reason, that reason being it would be extraordinary.
I know I’m going to get hate mail just for being honest about my skepticism, and I accept that. I struggle with this because I believe, based on my research, that bullying is about isolating and demeaning a target to the point at which the victim is no longer even considered human, or as fully human as the group members. It typically precedes a physical assault, for instance in the case of the Holocaust. Bullies target people that they consider less than human and deserving of contempt and expulsion: homosexuals, Jews, overweight or trans-gendered people, people of a different race or religion, etc. They undertake a campaign of defamation against their target so that others will join them in their bullying. That’s quite a bit different from “merely” being impolite, sexist, racist, authoritarian and mean-spirited, but they do look the same.
Now for a bold, out-on-the-limb claim: I doubt that it’s possible for a middle-class adult to bully another middle-class adult in a society where middle class people (especially white people) have legal, political and economic advantages, at least in relative terms. This describes much of the bullying I’m reading about in the paper, especially politician bullies. Remember: bullying is social, and you need the peer group to be complicit in it. That’s what separates bullying from pathological or destructive individual behavior.
To really drive the point in, let’s imagine what would happen if the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, decided to launch a bullying campaign. Let’s say he decides to turn all the Members of Parliament against a lesbian MP by suggesting that lesbianism is weakening the Loonie and that the lesbian member has to go because she’s a cockroach ruining the Canadian economy. (I’m drawing on actual historical instances of bullying for this scenario.) Then imagine he spends all his time as Prime Minister dehumanizing and demeaning his victim – imposing on her a new hateful name, whispering rumors, giving hate speeches and cornering the member and telling her all the violent things the government is going to do to her.
Nothing could be more textbook bullying than this. But what do you think would happen if he tried? Do you think everyone in the House of Commons would jump on board to bully the lesbian Member of Parliament? No, what would happen is he’d lose his job and probably face criminal charges, because somewhere around zero percent of adult Canadians will tolerate actual, for-real bullying. And the same is true in the country’s work places, which is why I am skeptical about statistics that say somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of us are experiencing bullying at work.
Now, racism, rudeness, arrogance, sexism and asshole behavior are a whole other matter. I believe the rate of these in our workplaces would be around 90%, if not more. The worst thing is that you can get away with these by using code words and otherwise covering your ass. Bullying can’t resort to these tactics: it has to out itself by definition to be true bullying. The bully is a team player, and his whole purpose is to dominate others by creating a victim and rallying a cadre of enablers to the cause. If there is indeed widespread bullying in the nation’s offices, it means that most people are participating in bullying as enablers. That’s a very serious charge.
What I wonder is, might it be possible that there is a lot of abusive individual behavior – ranging from commonplace rudeness all the way up to mental illness and psychopathy – that we are misdiagnosing as bullying? The mother of Amanda Todd said recently she’s concerned that the word bullying is “losing impact.” I agree. Also, I wrote an article for Huffington Post in which I argued that bullying didn’t begin to cover the criminal things done to Amanda Todd, and that there were better words to use, like sexual violence. Bullying seems to me like a euphemism in this case, if not a distraction.
In summation: the best way to deal with a problem, in my opinion, is by calling it by its proper name, and not by a name that you hope will get people worked up because it’s a highly-charged word that many other people are using. All I’m asking is that we consider the possibility that we’re doing long-term harm to the cause by being imprecise. With our children, I say let’s err on the side of caution. With career politicians, on the other hand, I say stop labeling your political and ideological opponents as bullies, right now, before you nullify the word completely. Bullying should be used to describe bullying, rather than any behavior that adults find upsetting in other adults, and will continue to find upsetting as long as there are hurtful people in the world. Which is probably forever.