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Opinion: The meaning of bullying is overused

Posted by on Jan. 28, 2013 at 11:36 AM
  • 28 Replies

Opinion: The meaning of bullying is overused

CHICAGO — 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 “bullying” meaning nearly anything: getting “a look” from another student, interpreting a remark as a thinly veiled insult, eye rolling, witnessing a student lean over to another and whispering.

It’s 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 “ignoring your employees’ suggestions.”

Now, I’m the first person to say that true bullying — whether in schools, workplaces or anywhere else — is a deadly serious issue that requires awareness, meaningful prevention and organized and effective responses and interventions.

But we’ve watered down the way we use the word to the point where it’s 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 — but not abusive, threatening or foul-languaged — message to news anchor Jennifer Livingston with the subject line “Community Responsibility.” He said, “Your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years,” referring to her weight. “Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular. … I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.”

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 “much more than a number on a scale” — a sentiment everyone in our weight-obsessed culture should internalize.

But she described this one man’s “cruel words” as a “very hurtful attack” and invoked National Bullying Prevention Month and her fear for her three daughters’ exposure to bullying in school and on the Internet.

Livingston closed out with an impassioned “thank you” to the people who sent their sympathies to her by way of social media and gratitude “for 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.”

“To 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,” she said, “do 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.”

I don’t 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 — the ability to overcome adversity by using learned personal strengths such as independence, initiative, creativity and humor — as a key factor in reducing risky behaviors and increasing academic achievement in adolescents.

But we don’t 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. We’re 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 haven’t 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?   

by on Jan. 28, 2013 at 11:36 AM
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by Gold Member on Jan. 28, 2013 at 11:39 AM
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Yes 100% yes. There is a huge difference between tesing and bullying.

by Ruby Member on Jan. 28, 2013 at 11:41 AM
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I do think they are using the term bullying too much.  Not everything is bullying.  Yes we need to teach our kids how to overcome adversity. 

by Silver Member on Jan. 28, 2013 at 12:08 PM
I agree with this wholeheartedly.
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by on Jan. 28, 2013 at 12:17 PM

 Yes, I do think we're over using the term "bully".  It's putting our youth at a disadvantage for when they become adults.  There will always be bullies and people that do not like you.  You have to learn how to deal with that in a constructive manner. 

by on Jan. 28, 2013 at 12:18 PM
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I agree . Good points ! Tbe Jennifer Livingston thing was ridiculous. I even agreed with the guy who sent the very polite e mail. He was right. She called him a bully because she doesn't want to be reminded that she is quite overweight .......
Actual bullying is just like the description in the article.
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by Libertarian on Jan. 28, 2013 at 12:29 PM
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 I agree 100%. Getting your wee little feelers hurt over a heavy dose of fact does not = "bullying". However, I do think the guy who sent Livingston the email was a total douchebag who deserved to be kicked in the balls and put in his place. I don't think she was a "bullying" victim, but I do think he was a total asswipe who needs to go back under his bridge where he belongs.

"Roger that. Over."

R   A   D    I    O    H    E    I    D

by Ruby Member on Jan. 28, 2013 at 12:48 PM
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My sons school is very anti-bullying. The kids are taught from day one that even teasing won't be allowed and that they must all treat eachother with respect and kindness. All of the grades have lunch together and a main recess together.

When i was a kid in school the playground was full of bullying, older kids pushing the younger kids around and not letting them use the equipment, just kids being mean to kids all over. Not my sons school. The kids in his school all play together nicely as though it's the most natural thing in the world. The older kids spend recess HELPING the younger kids, pushing them in the swings, helping hold them up to "swing" on the monkey bars, teaching them playground games. Everyone gets along and shares everything.

On Fridays when they have the kindergartners do ice skating time the 5th and 6th graders come out and help all the kindy gets pick out skates and tie them up for them, then they go out on the ice and help them learn to skate.

So far this year there hasn't been a single case of bullying in any of the grades and most years they don't for the entire year. The school has the best rates of students getting high grades and going on to finish high school and graduate.  Not allowing any form of bullying or mistreatment has not weakened the students in any way, nor has it inhibited them from learning coping skills *there are MANY things in life that teach those necessary coping skills without needing to allow bullying to accomplish it* nor has it, as my cousin wanted to insist would happen, "Panzyfyed" the kids. Instead it's created a community of happy healthy children who respect eachother and help eachother to succeed.

by on Jan. 28, 2013 at 12:51 PM
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Very nicely said and saves me from having to type it out. ;-)

Quoting OHgirlinCA:

 Yes, I do think we're over using the term "bully".  It's putting our youth at a disadvantage for when they become adults.  There will always be bullies and people that do not like you.  You have to learn how to deal with that in a constructive manner. 

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by on Jan. 28, 2013 at 12:53 PM
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I do agree that labeling everything that consists from not wanting to be friends with someone, sit next to someone and/or being uncompromising as a bullying behavior is excessive.  Conflict begets conflict resolution in many scenarios and situations.

by AllieCat on Jan. 28, 2013 at 1:05 PM
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Yes, we do indeed use the term when it is not warranted.  We are teaching our children to run and cry at a foul look, when some one says some thing they do not like, when some one calls them a name and they never see the person again.

I have tried hard, with my youngest, to point out when some one has truly been bullied and when some one is just a little shit who means nothing in the overall scheme of things.

Being a victim is far too easy for far too many.  Precious, precious children who cannot stand up for themselves, do not even realize why or when they should and then turn around and wonder why they lack friends and social skills.  The blame is always focused on others instead of the individual.

Bullying is real and it is awful.  But if people, especially parents, do not come back to reality and realize the difference and tell their children to cry bully at every turn, they are allowing those who truly bully to win and their children will lose in many other aspects of life.

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