When Everybody Bullies

Emily Bazelon’s  New York Times op-ed about the ever-changing definition of bullying was reminiscent of a point made in 2009, a warning that a very dangerous word was becoming a trigger in the public’s mind even though nobody could really explain what it meant.

After offering the examples of 12-year-old  Bailey O’Neill and 15-year old Amanda Todd, Bazelon writes:

Were these instances of actual bullying? It’s hard to say. But what’s notable is that observers automatically assumed they were, even though we know that “bullying” isn’t the same as garden-variety teasing or a two-way conflict. The word is being overused — expanding, accordionlike, to encompass both appalling violence or harassment and a few mean words. State laws don’t help: a wave of recent anti-bullying legislation includes at least 10 different definitions, sowing confusion among parents and educators.
This seems like an appropriate opportunity to repeat the words of Oxford math don Charles Lutwidge Dodgson:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Any word that triggers public outrage is a dangerous one, made more so when it’s breadth of meaning allows it be applied at will.
All the misdiagnosis of bullying is making the real but limited problem seem impossible to solve. If every act of aggression counts as bullying, how can we stop it? Down this road lies the old assumption that bullying is a rite of childhood passage. But that’s wrong.

Bullying is a particular form of harmful aggression, linked to real psychological damage, both short and long term . There are concrete strategies that can succeed in addressing it — and they all begin with shifting the social norm so that bullying moves from being shrugged off to being treated as unacceptable. But we can’t do that if we believe, and tell our children, that it’s everywhere.

While Bazelon’s criticism of the amorphous word is well taken, the problem remains that it’s insufficient to argue what it’s not, and shouldn’t be, without coming up with a definition of what it is.  There is a dictionary definition, but it’s worthless from the perspective of the law as being far too vague.




  1. A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.

  2. Corned beef.
On the other hand, psychology defines bullying in terms of the feelings of the person being bullied, which may work fine for the purposes of psychologists but does little good in determining whether conduct is wrong or, well, just mean. 

Crying wolf about bullying isn’t good for the children who play the victim, either. Those who hold onto that identity are less likely to recover from adversity. Bullying victims need sympathy; they also need help learning to be resilient.
While Bazelon’s commentary devolves into what schools can do about bullying, provided they aren’t “straightjacketed” by laws compelling such inane response such as zero tolerance, she adopts what strikes me as an overly rosy view of the good faith of school administrators, if only they were allowed to exercise their own unfettered judgment, and the understanding of the problem from the perspective of children.

Understanding what bullying means to children is integral to the success of every smart bullying prevention effort, because it harnesses the power of the majority. One effective strategy is for schools to survey their own students about bullying, and then broadcast the results to students. When they see evidence of what most of them know intuitively — that bullying is outlier behavior — they’re even less likely to engage in it.
Ah, yes, crowdsourcing legal concepts so that we can decide whose life to ruin today. What could possibly go wrong?  It’s rather surprising to read Bazelon’s embrace of “the power of the majority,” given that one would also expect her to appreciate the tyranny of the majority. 

It’s fine to suggest that by bringing students into the question of what is bullying, they will be sensitized to the conduct they wouldn’t want done to them, and therefore they shouldn’t do to others.  But then, it does little to distinguish what conduct is “evil bullying” from conduct that is not.  Reliance on such norms as social status (or, notably missing from the discussion, physical strength) and the feelings that are suffered when “intimidation,” whatever that means, is applied, really add little to our understanding of where the line is drawn between conduct that should be criminalized and the ordinary unpleasantries of life.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in  Towne v. Eisner, 245 U.S. 418, 425 (1918):

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.

When a word is used to define conduct that is criminalize, it can’t be left to the person whose feelings were hurt to be the ultimate arbiter.  It can’t be left to students to crowdsource where the line is drawn.  At some point, the word needs to be adequately defined or it has to be called out as a fraud, word so vague and meaningless that it can’t be applied in the law and can’t form the basis of sanctions.

I’ve never been able to come up with a definition of bullying that is sufficiently comprehensive and limited that it serves its function while passing constitutional scrutiny, and I’m unaware of anyone else having done so either.  So I call BS, and it’s time to recognize that it’s merely an epithet of no legal consequence.

8 thoughts on “When Everybody Bullies

  1. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    I must be getting old . . . but when I was a kid, a bully was a bigger kid who abused smaller kids, because he could . . . I now know that to be assault or battery . . . And if the bully shook you down for lunch money too, that’s robbery . . .

    Best I can tell today, if a kid tells another kid, “Your mama wears army boots”, he’s a big, bad bully . . . Even if the mother does actually wear army boots . . .

    A special snowflake is a terrible thing to melt™ . . .

  2. SHG

    Oddly, you’ve pretty much encapsulated the problem. If it’s physical, than it’s a crime because it was always a crime to cause physical harm.  But when it’s hurt feelings, there are too many variables to define, most of which reflect the “victim” rather than the “bully.” The old “sticks and stones” no longer plays well.

  3. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    Greenmeany, did you just call me odd?? . . . Because that, oddly, really hurts my feelings, coming from you . . .

    This whole topic is very personal to me, as I can see the day, in the not too distant future, where snark will be outlawed. Once that happens, only outlaws will have snark . . .and that will be a sad day indeed!! . . .

  4. C. N. Nevets

    Oddly enough (to coin a phrase), I think the word “bullying” is at the center of a battle over who gets to control the language that captures the public attention. Its first resurgence was in the wake of several young people’s suicides after social torment over their LGBTQ lifestyles. There were a lot of articles and opinion pieces about the special bullying and “cyber-bullying” that such youth receive.

    There was then a counter movement to say, “Hold on, young women get bullied, too.”

    And then another movement to say, “Hold on, straight young men get bullied, too.”

    And now everyone has an equal right under the fourteenth amendment to be bullied.

  5. Todd E.

    I grew up being bullied.

    First, when we moved to England with the military for a spell, and I was the American kid, then when we moved back to the U.S., I was just that nerdy kid who read too much.

    Interestingly, people at school were divided into two classes…the people who didn’t care, and the people who found enjoyment in mocking me and beating me up.

    The general effect of bullying is that you live in fear, and, unless you want to get in trouble all of the time for “starting fights” to stop it, there is no recourse. You just live in fear until you graduate, or they kill you.

    OTOH, having gone through that, I find that I have much more ability to simply live through a lot of things than people around me. My food is late? There are worse things. The waiter obviously has their mind on other things? Probably has other things going on.

    You can’t really outlaw bullying without outlawing people. Cruelty lies in the hearts of people, and people who are given to be bullies are always creative at finding ways around rules, or to use the rules to their advantage.

    For the most part, these rules are only going to hurt the victims.

  6. SHG

    Funny thing about it is that pretty much everybody believes they were bullied, at least at some point, and the same people were bullies, since someone has to do the bullying to the ones who were bullied. But it does little to define bullying, or bullying beyond ordinary childhood hurt feelings that seem to afflict everyone at one point or another.

    So what distinguishes bullying that should be sanctionable from the same bullying that everyone experiences as both bully and bullied?

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