Defining what is and isn’t ‘bullying’

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Bullying is one of the great scourges of youth. It always has been and, for some people, it doesn’t go away with acne and high school. An important part of today’s national dialogue on bullying must be to determine where we draw lines. What is and what isn’t bullying behaviour?

There’s an odd dissonance when a Lumsden teen claims to have been bullied because her school principal told her it was not appropriate to wear Goth make-up to school. This made her feel “horrible” because she likes wearing the make-up. This came just days after a complaint was made in Texas against the winning coach in a high-school football game. His team won the game 91-0 and a parent on the losing team felt this score was bullying. Even the ordered deportation of two university students from Nigeria, caught illegally working on student visas in Regina, was described as bullying. Although the penalty – known to every foreign student – is harsh and was inflexibly interpreted in this case, just how border services officials upholding the law can be considered “bullying” hasn’t been explained.

The more this word is overused, misused and manipulated the more it loses social significance and relevance. The rush to cry “bully” every time someone’s feelings are hurt, arguments are lost or they don’t get their way, eventually chips away and undermines an important issue. From the provincial government readying MLA Jennifer Campeau’s study on bullying to the country’s ministers of justice uniting in efforts to amend the Criminal Code to address cyber bullying, there is broad consensus that something needs to be done, But a good starting point is to determine what it is we’re trying to stop.

Much like the U.S. Supreme Court justice who said of obscenity, “I know it when I see it”, bullying is notoriously difficult to define, at least meaningfully. Many of us accept that bullying is behaviour that is persistent, not a one-off or occasional incident, but repeated acts of negative and aggressive words or acts intended to hurt another person. Sometimes, but not always, there is a power imbalance between bully and bullied as there may be an underlying issue of power and control. The victim may be uniquely vulnerable, but not necessarily.

To simply lump into bullying any behaviour that results in someone feeling bad, uncomfortable or excluded is to misapprehend the nature of life, how interactions evolve, how boundaries are set or even the sometimes tribal behaviour of people rooted in groups. Some people are jerks and will do and say things that hurt us. And while bullying, in its truest and most hurtful sense, should not be condoned as a fact of life, sometimes being prepared to accept that certain people may hurt our feelings or say something mean is central to our life experience. No one among us can be placed in an insulated zone of protection from life’s vagaries and hurts. It’s how we prepare ourselves, work our inter-personal skills, adapt and hone our resiliency to the negative that often make us grow.

At an encouraging level, many of today’s schools are fostering among young people a much greater appreciation and focus on empathy, understanding, tolerance and inclusion. Many kids are better equipped than ever to deal with friction and conflict created by others. The wilful and deliberate nature of bullying and its relentless attempts to undermine and rob its victims of self-worth are the sort of things that we must resist. And, whether teen suicides – like those recently in Regina and North Battleford – are directly attributable to bullying or caused, in part by bullying that triggers depression, it is critically important for students and their families to have the support to know that they’re not alone and, although it doesn’t feel like it at the time, it will get better.

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