Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Pop-Culture Buzzword: Bullying

There are all sorts of buzzwords in our culture these days and "bullying" is most certainly one of them.  Now let me be clear when I say buzzword I mean a word that is used often, one that we see in print often, and is also often misunderstood or misused.

While the term bullying isn't new at all, the focus on it (and the effects of it) do seem to have a stronger focus in our day than even 5 or 10 years ago.  I don't really know why that is, but I assume it has a lot to do with the explosion of internet use, social networking, global connectivity, etc.

I will confess that the modern definition of the word seems to be a bit different than the definition I grew up with.  You see, I'm from the time when a "bully" was most often the mean, overweight, ill-mannered little booger on the playground who made you think he would beat you up if you didn't hand over your lunch, or lunch money.  He may or may not have ever beat anyone up in his life, but he was cruel enough verbally and intimidating enough physically to make you think that he likely had, and probably would, if you didn't do what he said.  As a kid, you just fear that bully.  If you see him coming you run the other way or hope he doesn't notice you.  As an adult, it's clear to me that these were kids that came from a home where either the mom or the dad acted exactly like that.  Kids act out what they learn at home, so if mom is going around the house screeching threats if things don't go her way, or if dad is threatening (or doing it) to slap mom (or the kids) if he doesn't get his way, then naturally the kids just pick up on it and learn that this is how you get your way.  I will also confess that there were times (more than I care to recall) when I was a younger mom that screeching and threatening when things didn't go my way, was a normal part of our home life.  Certainly not one that I'm proud of but it wasn't until someone said to me "how would you feel if someone talked to you like that?" that it really hit me.  Of course I didn't think I was a bully but there are different kinds of bullies and different kinds of bullying.

There are some things I'd like to toss out there about bullying.  You may or may not agree but this is the way I see it, from where I sit:

The word bully or bullying is over-used.  Some will say this and in some cases I think they might be right.  However, I think in some of those cases the people thinking it's over-used are those who still see bullying as the brat on the playground, and that's pretty much it. But, what about:

• The husband who consistently runs his wife down about her weight, or her cooking, or her hair style or whatever, in an attempt to get her to lose weight or dress differently or wear her hair differently?
• The mom who screams and cusses at her kids as a common form of communication?
• The teenage girls who insult, threaten and intimidate another girl at school because she's different in some way (weight, race, sexual orientation, etc.)? (remember the movie Carrie?  Count yourself blessed if you never dealt with the venom that can come from ignorant, self-absorbed teenage girls).
• The teenage boys that do exactly the same thing but more often take it another level by making it physical and actually assaulting other kids?

All of those examples are nearly textbook examples of bullies.  Someone using verbal or physical intimidation through threats or insults to "get" something.

Here is a possible mis-use of the word.  When Jennifer Livingston, a Wisconsin journalist, received an insulting email from a viewer that called her a bad example and bad role model because she is overweight, she fired back, when on air and labelled him a bully and his actions "bullying".  Now while technically the method he used to address her wasn't any kind of repeated, over-bearing, intimidating or threatening style (as is typical in bullying) I can see why it was quickly labelled that way.  It was rude, it was uncalled for, it was insulting and it just never needed to happen.  However, I'm not convinced, no matter how out of line the emailer was, that he deserves the label of "bully".  Bone-headed and obnoxious and no tact, yes, but bully I'm not so sure about.

This is where I go back to where I said at the beginning of this post that the modern definition isn't really the same as the one I grew up with.  Back when I was a kid, if someone called you fat they were just a rude person, they weren't a bully.  But now, apparently "bully" means rude and obnoxious as well.  No question about it, I applaud Jennifer Livingston for standing up and speaking out and using the experience to address her audience and maybe be a voice of encouragement for someone who is truly being bullied.

But I do have to wonder if as a society we're not doing more harm than good, by re-defining words and terms if it fits with our idealogies.  No doubt about it, bullying is wrong and cruel and hurtful, but just being a jerk isn't bullying and I think it waters down the seriousness of real bullying that causes real harm to those that never deserved it to begin with.