Way, way back when I was in university I tried to write an paper about bullying for an ethics class. We were supposed to be writing about something controversial and I remember classmates being skeptical that bullying could be a controversial subject. Of course bullying is wrong, right? Of course people should try to help those who are being bullied, right? To me it is still a controversial subject. To me the world is not divided up into good guys vs bad guys, bullies vs victims, or right actions vs wrong. Life is confusing.
There are several things that have made me think about bullying this past week. I wrote earlier about a council meeting I had been to and how a councilor was concerned that the investigation by the provincial ombudsman was too “adversarial.” She didn’t use the term bullying, but the implication of her comment has been that the councilors feelings should have been respected more.
Then post on a blog I read brought the topic of bullying to my attention. Dr. Amy Tuteur runs a blog about the often unspoken of dangers of homebirths with under-qualified “certified professional midwives.” Some of her posts feature the stories of homebirths gone wrong. She finds the stories online but quotes them without permission of the authors, many of whom are still in denial that homebirth was the cause of their tragedy, so she regularly has people dropping into her blog to tell her how mean and awful she is. Others of her posts discuss the science behind obstetrics. In many of her posts she makes frequent references to a number of natural birth advocates, exploring the ways in which they make their arguments, the language they use and the lack of scientific backing their beliefs have. One of the people she talks about is a blogger named Gina Crosley-Corcoran, who blogs at The Feminist Breeder. Gina routinely refers to Dr. Amy as a troll, bully, etc. She says she never reads Dr. Amy’s writing, which I can believe in that if she did it might interfere with her interpretation of Dr Amy as a bully and troll. Is it bullying to point out the wrongs in what someone else writes? Is it bullying to point out when ideas a person promotes are dangerous?
I have linked above not to the homepages but to the posts they wrote about each other partly so that people can see the styles in which the two speak of each other. Does style matter in bullying? I think it does, particularily when someone takes what could be an academic argument and makes it quasi-sexual. Gina writes: “I know you pour my words all over your naked body and writhe around in them until you dream up some way, any way, no matter how irrelevant or hurtful to women, to respond in anger.” Imagine for a moment how that sentence would sound said about a man instead of a woman.
Yet even when one tries to argue just with the ideas and opinions, one can be accused of or even feel like a bully. I felt like a bully when I posted a negative review of Tracy Kauffman’s book Richard the Lionheart. I tried to make the reviews (both the one I posted on my website, and the shorter one I posted on Amazon) specific and detailed. Is is specific aspects of a book that I have trouble with, not a person, but I know that difference is not always apparent, and to individuals whose actions are criticized it doesn’t always feel meaningful.
Is bullying in the eye of the bullied? Or of the witnesses? What if there are no witnesses? Sometimes something that is taken as normal in one setting (perhaps swearing, perhaps yelling, perhaps making jokes) can be seen as bullying in another setting. Bullying is not as clear as people would make it seem. Telling a person to have a thick skin, to not let something bother them, can be incredibly dismissive. At the same time, expecting all other people to be cautious about barely visible slights is also problematic. On top of all of this there exists mental illness, some of which makes a person more sensitive to slights and criticisms, and some of which prevents people from recognizing how their actions impact upon others. How do we learn to get along, given all these complications?
One of the hardest things in life is to learn to accept and deal appropriately with criticism. Different people react differently. Some people will take criticism strongly, and too seriously. Others have a tendency to dismiss it too quickly. We often surround ourselves with friends that hold similar beliefs as us so that we have help dismissing others beliefs. We build echo chambers that protect us from having to acknowledge when we are wrong.
How does one respond to bullying? When I was a child there was an odd time I would attempt to respond to the teasing I was given at school. It never worked. At times there were teachers eager to prove they didn’t give me special favors so if I did anything, no matter how small, against those who teased me I was punished. I saw another boy who in attempting to respond to the bullying towards him ended up being labelled a bully. Then because even the teacher said he was a bully, others had free reign to bully him.
I think about a book, Lionel’s Grand Adventure: Lionel Turns the Other Cheek. The story is about a neglected and abused boy who ends up going to summer camp where he is bullied and teased more. He possesses a magic charm but it acts erratically so he has to be cautious using it. Trying to use it to defend himself against the bullying results in him getting in more trouble. I could relate to that from my pitiful childhood attempts to stand up for myself (without magic, of course). Finally he realizes he could take action against the bully, win a prize that is meaningful to him and stymie the bully in return, and yet he sees that in doing that he would be becoming too much a bully himself. So he turns the other cheek and finds himself lucky in other ways. I looked at a review someone else had wrote about the book, on Amazon.com and who thought it an awful book because “the bully gets off better than the bullied.” I don’t know on that, since I see Lionel’s contentment with who he is as being a pretty good thing, but more than that I think, I don’t know what else the character of Lionel could do. It would have been nice if a knight in shining armour rushed into rescue him (and he does end up having friends and protectors in the next book in the series) but in real life that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the best that can happen is a person finding contentment within themselves.
Yet there are problems with the idea that one cannot defend oneself without becoming the bully. I have seen accusations of bullying used as a way of silencing other people. A caring person can end up being isolated and self-censoring in an effort to prove wrong the accusations, keeping quiet even when they should be taking action on things.
Cultural norms become a way of reducing bullying. If people know what to expect and what is acceptable they can act in ways less likely to harm others. Yet then cultural norms also become barriers. What do you do about a person who wishes to be part of the group but for whatever reasons cannot follow the cultural norms? Do the norms exclude those with mental disabilities from participating fully? Do they rely on shunning to enforce?
My children recently borrowed a library book called Lumpito and the Painter from Spain and it is by Monica Kulling. The book tells the story of the Daschound that Pablo Picasso adopts, from the point of view of the dog. His owner is away frequently and he doesn’t like the big dog that bullies him. When he goes to visit Picasso he enjoys it and is left with Picasso. From the book I wasn’t quite sure whether the owner brought him to Picasso’s with the idea of giving him away or whether that was a decision they came to while he was there, but as I read the book I couldn’t help thinking that with dogs it is easier because one can actually give a dog away if necessary to establish peace. The human equivalent is removing people from one another’s contact, and sometimes that is easier than other times. In this story too, it was the small bullied dog that was given away to a happier home. What kind of story would it be if the bigger, meaner dog, was given over to a pound and potentially put to sleep?
I am in no way saying that all of bullying is hard to identify. Sometimes there are very obvious situations and sometimes severe actions need to be taken in order to solve the problems. There are also times when bullying ends up being used as a cover for more serious issues such as misogyny in the case of Amanda Todd’s life. There are times when we should discuss the role of the media in promoting that misogyny and acting as a bully, as in the medias participation in showing pictures taken of Anna Hathaway without her consent. And there are times when it needs to be discussed in terms of mental illness and here I’m going to link to a courageous article by a mother talking about her relationship with her son. It is incredibly tempting to try to go back through her story and through her blog looking for some sign that she and her parenting was to blame for her son being the way he is, yet I imagine she’s used to that type of judgement, and I imagine it as being incredibly alienating and isolating for her, so I don’t do that.
Yet there are less clear issues too and these are perennial questions that keep reappearing in the things I write about. See this post about trying to accept things not being right or this post about judging and being judged or this one about a book Mistakes Are Made (but not by me) or even to an extent this one about echo chambers.
Edited to add: I also did a follow-up post on the topic of bullying, and the pressure on women not to be adversarial might actually be making bullying worse.