Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ending Bullying by Changing Its Name

A group of researchers commissioned by the American Education Research Association says that efforts to reduce bullying in school are hampered by the overuse and abuse of the term “bullying” and are calling for it to be replaced by the term “victimization,” according to a recent report in USA today.

Yeh, right. . .

When the Blackwater mercenary army was having image problems they changed their name to Xe and then again to Academi, innocent sounding names that couldn’t possibly have any connection with the slaughter of Iraqi civilians or martial law in New Orleans. Similarly, civilians commonly refer to their problems as “issues,” in a semantic shell game they hope will make them seem more together. So why not call bullying victimization and trust that unhappiness and suffering will cease to be a problem at schools?

The problem, according to the researchers, is that the term “bullying” is being used to describe everything from eye rolling to teasing to simply not wanting to be friends, thus obscuring educators’ ability to identify what is actually happening and respond appropriately and effectively. One researcher said that school employees have reported waiting for bullies to repeat their behaviors before intervening, in accordance with school policies that define bullying as “repeated” abuse.

They are correct that the term bullying has become meaningless, but changing the name to “victimization” will not solve the problem. A teacher who refuses to intervene in abusive behavior because it doesn’t seem to fit the school’s definition has other issues (oops, problems) hindering them, like fear of authority, passiveness, inability or unwillingness to act independently, lack of empathy or compassion, and/or personal biases. When a child is being taunted or teased, for example, why should it matter if the behavior fits a school’s definition or violates its code of conduct? It serves no productive or legitimate purpose at school, it is often disruptive of the learning environment, and it is likely making someone feel bad unnecessarily. Thus intervention is the rational and appropriate response.

There are many reasons why people victimize each other and why others allow it to happen. What we call it is not the biggest problem. Teachers may avoid intervening in an interaction occurring outside their classroom with students whom they do not know out of fear, or because they do not trust they will be supported by their administrators, or because they cannot leave their own students unattended, or because they are so swamped with work they don’t want to be bothered with the time and potential paperwork involved. Their own biases may prevent them from intervening (e.g., “boys will be boys” or “that kid is a sissy.”)

Nevertheless, it is a good thing that someone is challenging the misuse of the term “bullying.” Rolling eyes, disliking someone, and not being nice may feel disrespectful and offensive, but they are also relatively innocuous and sometimes reasonable behaviors and certainly not bullying. It is a lofty goal to expect everyone to always treat everybody with courtesy and respect, but not everyone is equipped nor ready to love their all their neighbors, let alone their enemies.


  1. Is the very system itself the basis of bullying? The authoritarianism practiced in most every society permits for a power imbalance between any two persons. Any power imbalance has the potential for bullying. While there are regulations intended to keep the person with more power from abusing those with less power, society tends to favor the powerful and give them a lot of leeway. Is the reason for that because people fear the powerful and know what the consequences of not giving them that leeway might be? That goes back to the problem then of power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. So, is bullying ultimately designed into the socio-political-economic system? If so, we have bigger problems on our hands.

  2. I think part of the problem is that people want to distinguish "bullying" from other forms of domination, oppression, abuse and meanness so they can maintain the power imbalance in their favor. but in the context of the classroom, teachers have the responsibility to intervene any time children are abusing each other.

    Also, I don't think it is a question of "society" favoring the powerful, so much as the powerful holding all the cards and being able to make the rules in their favor.