There was a time when I was confident that I knew exactly what "bully" meant.
That time was the early 1980s. Mr. T offered wisdom regarding fools and jibber-jabber. People wore their Izod collars popped, never dreaming they would rear a generation of children too dull-witted to learn from their mistake. Vice President Mondale concluded that he had a chance. Teachers gamely trained us to duck under our desks in the event of a nuclear strike like we had seen in The Day After, politely ignoring that my school was two miles from Jet Propulsion Laboratories. Nuclear war seemed like a real possibility those days, what with the Russians shooting down jetliners and Matthew Broderick being kind of a jerk and thus-and-such.
I — sartorially challenged, but not wearing any popped collars, thank you — knew plenty about bullies. I was a pudgy, clumsy, nerdy kid with — and I know this will shock you — a smart mouth. So bigger, stronger, more athletic, more popular, more socially adept kids bullied me. By that I mean, despite my best attempts to ignore and avoid them, they sought me out, singled me out, and variously pushed, tripped, punched, or slapped me, or put nacho cheese in my bookbag (you'd think you could scoop it up with chips and eat it if your books are reasonably clean, but you can't), or let the air out of the tires of the bike I rode to school, or called me derisive names for no particular reason, or snickered and hooted and mocked my reedy voice when I answered a question in class.
I was fairly comfortable with the definition of bullying including that behavior. I was resigned to the fact that there wasn't much I could do about it. At that point, at least, bullying existed on a seemingly ethereal plane imperceptible to adults. I was suspicious of cinematic training montages and didn't think that working out would turn me into a victorious bully-puncher. Nowadays some people recommend that kids offer clever comebacks; I was capable but learned that quickly that the sort of verbal salvos that satisfied me either led to more punching or sailed without apparent impact over the bullies' head like an algebra problem. So: I worked, I played with friends, I tried to be true to myself, I tried not to bully the few weaker than I, and I endured, believing that in the long run things would get better. I was right, at least in my case, as it turned out.
I knew then what bullying was. I'm not so sure I know now. I know what I think the word means, and has always meant, and ought to continue meaning. But other people seem to be trying their best to make it mean something else. People seem to want "bullying" to mean "criticizing" or "making fun of" or sometimes "disagreeing with" or "condemning" or "uttering unacceptable opinions about" or "challenging and examining."
There is still bullying of the sort I remember — people singling out the less powerful for physical or emotional attacks because they look different or talk different or for no reason at all. Kids kill themselves over it. Kids killed themselves over it when I was a kid, too, but we didn't have cable networks making it the flavor-of-the-month back then. These days, schools are far more attuned to bullying. Many take it more seriously. Many have anti-bullying policies, and some actually enforce them. When kids in my daughter's kindergarten class were making fun of her eyes (never mind that 50% of the kids in the class are Asian like her, and some of the bullies are Asian), the teacher's reaction was swift and validating and effective. These are good things. There's no reason that kids should dread going to school. There's no reason that kids should be allowed to abuse others with impunity at school.
But not everything is bullying, unless we're going to stretch that word to mean any expression we don't like, any social pressure we disagree with, any sharp attack on a person or position. I don't believe that fighting against social and political and legal positions we don't like is bullying. I don't believe that challenging and questioning and criticizing claims or stances or doctrines is bullying. I don't believe that ridicule or satire or rough language directed at people who choose to enter a debate is (usually) bullying.
That's no longer the prevailing view. As educators have become more aware of bullying — and as the media has made it a hot topic — opportunists have adopted the term in a crass attempt to delegitimize expression they oppose.
You can see this on all sides of the political spectrum. Try Googling "conservative bullying" or "liberal bullying" and see what I mean. "Bullying" is relentlessly pressed as a term meaning "vigorous advocacy I don't like." Conservatives are deemed "bullying" for criticizing a political group's participation in a school event. Liberals are deemed "bullying" for using social pressure to condemn the Boy Scouts shameful anti-gay stance and for lobbying for change. A conservative actor I quite like — who made his bones playing unashamed tough guys — constantly whines (sorry, Jayne) that liberals are bullying conservatives. Bloggers complain that it is "bullying" to challenge the language they use. Reacting to outrage over Aaron Swartz' prosecution and suicide, a Boston Globe columnist defends the government and tells us that "widespread revulsion directed at the US attorney’s office is overreach by cyber-bullies." Authors unhappy with negative reviews and criticism on a book site create a site labeling negative reviewers as "bullies" and posting their names and addresses and sometimes the names of their children, and are called "bullies" in return. A school paper runs pro-and-con opinion columns about the right of gays to adopt; school district officials label the "con" column as bullying because it criticizes homosexuality. Canadian school officials argue that Catholic schools can't teach anti-abortion lessons because being anti-abortion is misogynist and misogyny is bullying.
("Bully" is by no means the only term so abused to mean whatever people want it to mean on a given day. When some men start a #whyIneedmasculinism hashtag on Twitter and some (including me) troll it, it's "awesome"; when, a few days later, some people troll the #tellafeministthankyou hashtag on Twitter, it's "harassing".)
The abusers of the term "bully" — the bully-bullies, if you will — seem unconcerned with how the misuse of the term makes them look. Conservative Ben Shapiro writes a whole book about how mean liberals bully decent conservatives and therefore silence them, perhaps not recognizing that this makes conservatives sound weak and unsuitable for leadership and their values milky, not recognizing that this accepts my least favorite trope that criticism is censorship. In the course of making Piers Morgan look like a fool — not a particularly challenging task, but a worthy one — Shapiro somewhat enfeebles himself by accusing Morgan of being a bully on the issue of gun control. Morgan is a puffed-up twit who always seems slightly but understandably incredulous at his own success. His ascendancy is a sigil of the decline of the British Empire as certainly as are speech codes or Clement Attlee. But swollen blow-dried self-regard is not in and of itself bullying, and Shapiro knows it. When Shapiro calls Piers Morgan a bully on guns, he doesn't mean that Morgan tracks down gun owners and dunks their head in the toilet. He means that Morgan uses blunt, condescending, belittling, and frequently stupid language to disagree with people who have chosen to enter into the gun control debate. That's not bullying.
Is there scary behavior we should condemn in the realm of political and social advocacy? Sure. There are some deal-breakingly-crazy stalkers out there who mindlessly pursue people who disagree with them. But a better term for them might be "crazy stalkers," not "bullies."
I approve of protecting the weak from the strong. I approve of calling out people who pick on strangers who are minding their own business and who didn't enter a debate. But I don't like the unprincipled overuse of "bullying" for several reasons. I don't like it because it shifts focus from issues to personalities. I don't like it because it changes our focus from substance to quarrels over substance. I don't like it because I think it encourages the trend of feckless, unconstitutional speech codes, and encourages the state to apply those codes too broadly. I don't like it because it encourages the unprincipled to pursue legal theories like "cyberbullying" when they mean "I acted badly and now a bunch of people are writing about me acting badly." I don't like it because I think it encourages the censorious mindset rather than the appetite for more speech. I don't like it because it encourages a posture of weakness over a posture of strength. But perhaps most of all, I don't like the overuse of "bullying" because it diminishes and degrades the word for petty political purposes to the detriment of actual victims of real bullying. The meretricious overuse of the term "bullying" threatens to degrade it to the point where efforts against real bullying are not taken seriously and are tarred with the same brush of self-serving partisanship.
Put another way, if you think it's "bullying" for Sean Hannity or Rachel Madow or some blogger to make fun of people with your viewpoint on some political subject, I think you are unserious, I think you are flirting with weakness, I think you are empowering censors, I think you are more interested in partisan games than in kids getting the shit knocked out of them every schoolday, and frankly I think you are kind of a dick.
Sorry if that comes off as bullying.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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