I love English. It's a fascinating mutant stew, constantly incorporating and breeding new words to keep healthy, and I figured I would never have to advocate against any of them.
has gotten ridiculous.
[New York Daily News, 12-22-11]
When I was a kid, there was no such thing as "bullying." There were "bullies," and they looked like this:
These bullies, who could be found all over TV and film, were brutish teenage villains who made fun of smart teenage heroes. They were easy to spot because they always made fun of the heroes for being themselves
-- for being shy, or for liking guys, or for liking girls.
And they didn't stop with words: they hit, spat, and threw things.
Now, when I actually met people in my childhood who made fun of me for being myself (and threw things at me), my brain went, Ah! That's a bully!
It was almost as if I'd met them before. And thanks to The Wonder Years
, and Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories From Wayside School,
and especially George Orwell's "Such, Such Were The Joys"
, I knew that there were two ways to deal with bullies:
- Fight back. Pretend you're in prison and go for the bully's throat to show that you're not scared, to make the bully respect you.
- Endure. Pretend that the bully's words and physical attacks aren't getting to you and wait for the bully to forget about you. (This will take at least one year -- and possibly until you graduate whatever institution you're trapped in.)
Generally I endured bullies; occasionally I fought back. But in all my dealings with them, I never thought "I am being bullied"
or "I am a victim of bullying."
I thought, "This is just like in the stories, and we know who wins in the end."
But as the bullies around me weakened and dispersed in the late 1990s, the term "bullying" grew stronger.
It originated in England, which makes sense if you read "Such, Such Were The Joys," with this book published in 1989:
Still in print today
, Bullying in Schools
acknowledges the term's coeval obscurity --
"Bullying is the most malicious and malevolent form of deviant behaviour widely practiced in our schools and yet it has received only scant attention from national and local authorities."
-- and posits that prior research was limited to Scandinavia:
"The Scandinavian research tradition can be dated back to 1969 when a Swedish doctor of medicine wrote a semi-popular article about a phenomenon which he named 'mobbing' (Heinemann, 1969)... He describes the phenomenon [as] violence directed against an individual who has disturbed the group's ordinary activities."
The book goes on to set the foundation for bullying as we know it today. In 1992, the term appears in the international journal Disability & Society
; for much of the decade it is recognized as a workplace issue, with books such as Bullying in Sight
(1996) offering ways to combat "Flame mail, bullying by e-mail, 'spamming'... and 'cyberstalking'"
But in the 2000s, as the children of Gen X hit school, bullying takes off as pop psychology, and now it's everywhere.
Now parents can get scared of it on "20/20" and "ABC News." Now kids can watch black belts teach them how to deal with it in "Bully 911"
. Now you can engage in Girl Wars
and Bullyproof Your Child For Life
. (Do you want to? Really? How do you expect them to deal with life if they can't deal with Wayne?)
I can't help but wonder how the bullies feel about all this -- they might feel great, or they might feel a little ripped off, because they're robbing people for chump change while the bullying experts get to appear on TV.
I understand that cyberbullying
is a new phenomenon and needs to be addressed -- but cyberbullying doesn't feel like bullying to me. It feels closer to slander,
with its ability to instantly reach millions of people and leave a stain forever. As such it should be dealt with in court -- and it is
The way to deal with bullying is simpler:
It's run by The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
; it's national; it's been used 5 million times; it's an easy number to remember. Kids should be taught it as a basic: "If you see someone really hurt, call 911; if you feel like you want to really hurt yourself, call 1-800-SUICIDE." Every time I read about Tyler Clementi typing "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry"
on his Facebook wall I wonder, why didn't he call the hotline?
Then again, maybe he didn't like to use the phone. So it's good that Facebook has this new feature that lets you chat with a counselor if you post something that a friend flags as "harmful behavior → self-harm"
I know this is a sensitive issue, because people who run afoul of bullies sometimes kill themselves, but ultimately, suicide is a decision made by the person who takes his or her own life. We can't possibly protect all the nice, smart heroes of the world from what the bullies do. If you're any kind of decent human being, growing up you will
be ridiculed for what you are and what you aren't. You will
be called gay; you will
be called stupid; you will
be called ugly; you will
have your racial heritage mocked. There's no way around it. If it gets bad, call the hotline.
We don't need to make the bullies any more powerful by giving them a noun.