Last week I posted some links to recent guest posts I did on bullying. One of the bloggers asked me whether there has been an increase in bullying or just more awareness.
I’m no expert on bullying beyond my own personal experience with it, but as a member of the media, I do know a little something about “hot topics” and just how they get so sizzling. I know how the media can blow things up – how we can unintentionally (and unfortunately) trivialize serious issues by over-discussing them – how we can take powerful words and turn them into meaningless “buzzwords.”
BULLY is one of those buzzwords.
Just the other day, a dear friend of mine told me I was bullying a coworker, because of the way I was speaking to her. My friend meant no harm or offense, and she was right to correct me for being rude. But for the record, I was being a condescending know-it-all, not a bully.
At least, not according to Merriam-Webster.
Here are 3 definitions of “bully” (noun):
Merriam-Webster: “a blustering browbeating person; especially one habitually cruel to others who are weaker”
thefreedictionary.com: “a person who is habitually cruel or overbearing, especially to smaller or weaker people.”
dictionary.com: “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”
There is an important word these definitions all have in common: HABITUALLY.
Other definitions use words like “repeated” and “constant” and “over time.” The word that comes to mind for me is relentless. That’s how I would describe my own personal experience with bullying. It wasn’t just the cruel things my peers said. It was that they said them all day every day. I don’t think I would have been as scarred by bullying if it hadn’t been relentless – if it hadn’t been HABITUAL.
This is not to say an attack that happens just once is okay or any less painful for the target, but is it always “bullying?” And if we call every act of cruelty “bullying,” are we minimizing it for the children and teens who are daily targets of abuse?
As a journalist, I see so many stories cross my desk in the newsroom with the word “bully.” It’s a catchy word, and these days, a press release or news blurb with that word will get read, and there’s a good shot it will worm its way into a newscast, just like all the other buzzwords. But it’s not always an accurate description of what’s happened.
Worse yet… other than my friend calling me a bully, the last dozen times I’ve heard that word used out loud were all on episodes of “The Real Housewives of Wherever.” Every real housewives reunion show seems to have someone who gets called “the bully.” If that doesn’t trivialize the word, I don’t know what does.
When these women say “bullying” – when many people say “bullying” – what they’re really talking about is kindness vs. cruelty.
And maybe that’s okay. Choosing kindness over cruelty may be the root of the anti-bullying message, and perhaps it will be effective in solving the problem. I just worry that over-using the word “bully” will eventually make it meaningless. We see this in newsrooms every day. The audience gets bored with hot topics and buzzwords, because too much exposure desensitizes us.
So while I’m glad for the growing spotlight on bullying, I’m concerned about how generalized the definition has become.
It’s important that we are specific and accurate when we use powerful words like BULLY, so that people like the "Real Housewives" can’t smash them down into nothing.
For a more in-depth definition of bullying, visit Stopbullying.gov.
And for more information about National Bullying Prevention Month, visit pacer.org/bullying.
I just realized I used proper capitalization in this post. Hm. I guess it's a capital-letters kind of topic.