Is it Bullying, or Bad Behavior?

June 3rd, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Many argue that labeling all bad behavior bullying does no good.

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The Responsibility Project

It seems the nation’s bully population is exploding; at least, according to anecdotal evidence from my Facebook page and article after article about bullies on the loose.

“It’s so unfair that I am getting bullied like this!” complained one friend on Facebook, who is, by anyone’s standards, privileged, beautiful and probably more likely the target of garden-variety rudeness.

Why make the distinction between bullying and rudeness? A recent New York Times op-ed piece by Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon, author of “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy,” suggests that misdiagnosing bullying makes a “real but limited problem impossible to solve.” If every aggressive act is bullying, how can we stop it?

“The definition of bullying adopted by psychologists is physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, and involving a power imbalance,” Bazelon writes. “In other words, it’s about one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him miserable.”

Equally vexing, writes Susan Eva Porter in the Los Angeles Times, is that once we label both bullies and victims, it’s awfully hard for either to shake their monikers down the line. Though she’s speaking specifically about children, the logic holds for adults: “As soon as children are labeled bullies, this seems to give us permission to unleash on them a degree of anger and scorn that is frightening. As for the ones we label victims, we keep them identified with their pain and deny them the opportunity to develop true resilience.”

Likewise, labeling every aggressive act the work of a bully dilutes the important work of reducing actual cases of bullying – harmful at the very least, and ultimately fatal in the worst cases.

The way to identify real bullying, Bazelon suggests, is to listen to how teenagers (and, I would suggest, all of us) describe their interpersonal conflicts. “Most teenagers can identify bullying, but they can also distinguish it from what they often call ‘drama.’”

“In fact, it’s drama that’s common, and bullying, properly defined, that’s less so,” Bazelon writes.

What do you think about the importance in making a distinction between bullying and rude behavior: just a matter of semantics, or a crucial step for reducing future cases?