On Wednesday, Canada’s top civil servant decried the cyber-bullying of politicians and political aides.
It’s not the first time people have denounced the “bullying” of politicians, and it won’t be the last.
But we would all be better off if we thought long and hard about what, exactly, bullying is, and whether the word is appropriate to describe the vitriol hurled at politicians and government officials.
I need to make one thing clear off the bat: The abuse, slander and words regularly hurled at politicians on the Internet is mean, bad for democracy, and makes everybody worse off.
I am not here to condone it, and I have no problem calling such verbal attacks abusive and sometimes downright criminal. Our society needs to condemn them and people who hurl invectives around on social media should be ostracized far more than they currently are.
All that said, describing the verbal abuse of politicians (or journalists) “bullying” diminishes the harm done to actual bullying victims, obscures the reasons that they sometimes end up killing themselves, and may make it more difficult to confront the scourge in the first place.
We must preserve the idea that bullying involves the ongoing harassment of a more vulnerable victim. That power imbalance and the vulnerability of victims is absolutely key to why bullying is so harmful, and why its consequences can occasionally be so dire. Acknowledging the importance of power is also the first step to reducing bullying across all walks of life.
Bullying is bad not just because the abuse itself is hurtful. Victims often feel forced to alter their lives because, perceiving themselves to be less powerful than their tormenters, they believe other options may only aggravate the problem.
Bullies thrive when they have power. They pick on people who do not. If we want to stop bullying, we need to give those with less power the tools and support they need to confront their abusers, while ensuring that those who abuse their power actually face repercussions.. (This includes online tools; cyber-bullying of vulnerable people is definitely a real and growing problem.)
The online trolls who hurl slurs and insults at politicians online are doing horrible things. Their conduct suggests they may act as bullies at work or at home. Their words may amount to abuse, or harassment. But the vast majority of such people don’t have the power over a politician to “bully” them.
(A politician can be bullied by a more powerful politician, just like your boss can be bullied by his or her boss.)
Before you dismiss this all as linguistic mumbo jumbo, consider Pink Shirt Day.
If we redefine bullying as verbal abuse, then we lose many of the tools that can be effective against bullying.
The purpose of Pink Shirt Day has changed since basically every kid started wearing pink in February. But in its original incarnation in a single school, it began as a way to signal that a bullied student was not vulnerable and had the support of his peers.
Students recognized that stopping a case of bullying meant empowering their victimized peer.
You will hopefully note, at this point, that politicians won’t face less abuse if they are given more power (although I also don’t think they should necessarily be given less, as those who argue politicians should be barred from blocking people seem to believe).
Hurling abuse at politicians is bad for society in a myriad of ways, but redefining bullying isn’t going to help things.
If we fail to keep power imbalances at the centre of our concept of bullying, then we will inevitably just end up reverting to the failed “sticks and stones” strategies of my youth. Words can and do hurt. But they can also help.