OPINION: Online harassment of politicians is bad, but it’s not bullying

Muddying the definition of bullying hurts efforts to help vulnerable victims

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.

RELATED: Liberal and NDP MLAs stand together in support of SOGI education

RELATED: B.C. parents to get online assistance on cyberbullying

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.


@ty_olsen
tolsen@abbynews.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Provincial health body refuses to release full findings of cancer triage system audit

Information and Privacy Commissioner asked to review redactions

Barred Owl family spotted by Fishtrap Creek

Sighting a positive sign for tourism in Abbotsford

Mission-Mastqui-Fraser Canyon MP Jati Sidhu to run for federal re-election

The Liberal candidate has officially announced he will be on the ballot this October

Yale man arrested after fleeing police in downtown Hope

Man arrested on three outstanding warrants after being caught in stolen van

Fraser Valley Bandits split pair of games

Bandits post win over Hamilton on Thursday, fall to River Lions in Niagara on Saturday

VIDEO: Missing teens named as suspects in three northern B.C. killings

Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky are wanted in the deaths of Lucas Fowler, Chynna Deese, unknown man

B.C. wine industry legend Harry McWatters dies

Among his accomplishments, McWatters founded the province’s first estate winery, Sumac Ridge Estate

Southern resident killer whale died of blunt trauma, likely from ship

J34 was found more than two years ago near Sechelt, but the necropsy findings have now been released

B.C. rail crossing death highlights risks for people in wheelchairs: watchdog

Transportation Safety Board points to ‘persistent risks faced by persons using assistive devices’

B.C. teens wanted in double homicide, suspicious death spotted in Manitoba

Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky were thought to have been seen in the Gillam area

VIDEO: Man found dead near B.C. teens’ truck could be linked to a double homicide

RCMP said they are looking for Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, of Port Alberni

VIDEO: Young couple found dead in northern B.C. had been shot, police say

Chynna Noelle Deese of the U.S. and Lucas Robertson Fowler of Australia were found along Highway 97

Wrestling legend finds his wedding dance groove in B.C.

Professional wrestler Chris Jericho posted on social media that he was in Penticton recently

Vancouver Public Library banned from Pride parade after allowing controversial speaker

Vancouver Public Library allowed Meghan Murphy to book space for an event at the library in January

Most Read