CHICAGO â Several years ago when I was enrolled in a teacher training program, we were taught that bullying was when one person intentionally, aggressively and consistently intimidated another. It was understood to mean habitual cruelty by a strong person to a weaker one.
After several cases since 2010 where young people appeared to have committed suicide after suffering from prolonged bullying, and those cases made national headlines, everyone has been on high alert.
This is a super-hot topic in kindergarten (yes, kindergarten!) through high school. An entire cottage industry has grown up around charging schools kingly sums of money to put on student assemblies, teaching faculty and staff how to deal with bullying, and selling lesson plans to teach students about every conceivable aspect of the problem.
All this, in addition to zero-tolerance policies, has resulted in âbullyingâ meaning nearly anything: getting âa lookâ from another student, interpreting a remark as a thinly veiled insult, eye rolling, witnessing a student lean over to another and whispering.
Itâs also, of course, a huge issue on college campuses and increasingly being made one at work. I got an email the other day about how to tell if you are a workplace bully. One warning sign is âignoring your employeesâ suggestions.â
Now, Iâm the first person to say that true bullying â whether in schools, workplaces or anywhere else â is a deadly serious issue that requires awareness, meaningful prevention and organized and effective responses and interventions.
But weâve watered down the way we use the word to the point where itâs almost meaningless.
For instance, last week there was a national outpouring of emotion for a Wisconsin television reporter who got an ungentle email from a member of her community.
The author sent an indecorous â but not abusive, threatening or foul-languaged â message to news anchor Jennifer Livingston with the subject line âCommunity Responsibility.â He said, âYour physical condition hasnât improved for many years,â referring to her weight. âSurely you donât consider yourself a suitable example for this communityâs young people, girls in particular. âŚ I leave you this note hoping that youâll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.â
Livingston took to the airwaves with an emotional rejoinder and became a viral Internet phenomenon. She acknowledged her obesity and rightfully pointed out that she is âmuch more than a number on a scaleâ â a sentiment everyone in our weight-obsessed culture should internalize.
But she described this one manâs âcruel wordsâ as a âvery hurtful attackâ and invoked National Bullying Prevention Month and her fear for her three daughtersâ exposure to bullying in school and on the Internet.
Livingston closed out with an impassioned âthank youâ to the people who sent their sympathies to her by way of social media and gratitude âfor taking a stand against this bully. We are better than that email, we are better than the bullies that would try to take us down.â
âTo all of the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with your weight, with the color of your skin, your sexual preference, your disability, even the acne on your face,â she said, âdo not let your self-worth be defined by bullies. Learn from my experience that the cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many.â
I donât think that many lost and struggling children will benefit from a TV personality with a large social media following watering down the definition of bullying to mean sending a blunt email.
More and more scientific evidence is pointing to resiliency â the ability to overcome adversity by using learned personal strengths such as independence, initiative, creativity and humor â as a key factor in reducing risky behaviors and increasing academic achievement in adolescents.
But we donât teach resiliency in schools. Instead, society consistently reinforces the notion that every slight, every discomfort, every put-down or rejection is worthy of an outpouring of sympathy for a wronged victim. Weâre teaching that mantra in schools and in workplace harassment seminars, and it encourages people who feel uncomfortable to turn on a perceived oppressor.
Guess who this harms? Not those who crave attention, sympathy or the spotlight, but the quiet among us who havenât yet found a way to stand up to the honest-to-goodness bullies in their lives.
Thoughts? Do you think that we as a society are over using the term "bully"? Do you agree with the author's premise that labelling all unfriendly behavior as bullying hinders a child's ability to overcome and deal with adversity? Are we raising our children to value the attention they get from being a "victim" over being able to rise above the natural stumbling blocks of childhood? If so, what can we expect from the upcoming generations of young adults?