Overuse of the Terms “Bully” and “Victim”

I feel that we must take a moment and discuss how terms like “bully” and “victim” are overused, and how this overuse of the words is harmful to real victims of bullying.

If you rank of popular words in America today; one word that is bound to be prominent in the result is the word “bully.” Without any doubt, bullying is an activity that deserves every attention that is being paid to it around the world, and perhaps even more care is needed. However, there is a somewhat strange aura about the bully in schools, workplace, and the society at large, there seems to be a misconception of what qualifies as bullying. Anytime the word is mentioned, the mood automatically shifts from casual to serious because the gravity of the consequences that accompany the act is endless.

It is clear that from times past, a lot has been done to stem the tide of bullying in human society and yet if you watch the 24-hour news channels or read a news article online, everyone is seemingly a victim of bullying.  It does not matter if the report is about a divorce case in court with one of the two parties labeling the other party as a bully or for a student to name his classmate as a bully, or for the President to be called a bully just because he does not follow the same political ideology of another.

The use of the word is also common in the workplace as subordinates and superiors often slam the word on any individual or character they often disagree with. It is impossible to disagree with another without you being labeled a bully.

The word “bully” is so commonly used in the society today that the average person already believes they know exactly what the word means and they do not bother to read a dictionary to find its actual definition, Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a bully as:

a blustering, browbeating person especially : one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable

The key is habitually cruel to others. It also goes on to define a bully as a tormenter who has an imbalance of power and uses this behavior towards others on a constant basis. It is imperative that the true meaning of a word be properly understood before being applied and used; otherwise, it may lead to a problem especially with developing laws to tackle issues. After all, a problem has to be fully understood before help can be proposed. In the definition above, some key factors are essential or necessary for a person’s actions to be aptly termed as “bullying.”

According to the definition above, among other things; a bully must habitually cruel, i.e. have a track record of cruelty in his dealings with others around him. The bully must also be a tormenter, i.e. he must be an individual that thrives and derive joy from seeing others in pain and anguish. He or she must also have an inordinate appetite for power and dominion; so that he wants to impose his opinion and ideas on others forcefully and aggressively regularly. Based on these clarifications, a bully must be consistently aggressive towards his victims.

Bringing this definition back to the schoolyard or even to online social media based cyberbullying.  The bully must be relentless and consistent in the torment of their victim(s). An isolated instance with the passing of a comment like “she is fat” or “look at those zits, dork” is an example of being a jerk, not a bully.  Of course, I am not saying that those comments should be made or that as educators and parents we should ignore those comments. Being a jerk is not acceptable, and we must teach our youth those comments are not socially acceptable.  I am saying; however, that these examples, which account for many cases of bullying do not rise to the level of victimization and calling them such only diminishes the words.

“So who cares?” is what you are probably thinking, right?  What is the harm in calling a simple schoolyard jerk a bully and the target of his or her meanness as a victim?  The harm is when you lump these cases together into the same grouping with instances of real torment perpetrated by bullies.  More specifically, if everyone is desensitized to the term bully then when a youth wishes to report an actual instance of bullying to adults it can be too easily dismissed as “kids will be kids.”  Put simply, if everyone is a victim, then nobody is.

Another critical reason to distinguish between name calling and fights being the gym, and actual cases of bullying is most cases of kids getting into tights, verbal or even physical, is a two-way street.  Whereas, bullying is one way with the target of victimization innocent of any wrongdoing.

Children are not stupid; in some ways, they are more cunning than adults give them credit.  Kids know if they run to an adult and say “he is being a bully and picking on me,” that the adult will storm over to the bully and stop the action.  Even if, unbeknown to the adult, both children were equal in their unkindness towards each other. In these cases, which account for many, who is the victim?  Was it the child that ran to the adult or the purported bully? I feel the alleged bully was the victim as he or she will undoubtedly receive punishment, whereas the other kid that reported the alleged act was most likely just as guilty.   Do not blindly allow a child to assume the role of a victim without investigation.

Only by separating the occasional name calling and simple fights in the schoolyard from constant tormenting of another by a bully can we ever help to remedy the situation.  Of course, just as I stated above, schoolyard fights and name calling should still be addressed at the administrative level with adequate punishment for all parties guilty, please do not call it bullying.

Now that we know what bullying is not, let’s delve into what it actually is; doing this will help expose the glaring overuse of the term in our society today. Bullying can be broken down into four main groups; physical, verbal, social and material:

  • Bullying can be physical when it involves acts such as tripping, pushing intentionally, hitting or striking a person.
  • It can be verbal when it involves the use of insulting words to threaten, mock and ridicule another person. Verbal bullying can also include the use of hostile remarks such as sexist or racist remarks or the use of stereotypic statements that discriminate against or unjustly amplify the physical defects or characteristics of a person. Bullying can be termed as social bullying when it involves consciously propagating lies and rumors about someone to smear their image and deplete their worth in society.
  • Social bullying also involves such acts and behaviors that are clearly targeted at isolating and excluding an individual from a group activity in a bid to humiliate them.
  • Material bullying just as the name suggests include the deliberate destruction and vandalism of goods or property belonging to someone else. It can also involve forcefully or falsely taking something belonging to someone without their prior consent, i.e. taking a kid’s lunch money or other item with or without value.

On the other hand, we must also itemize and discuss acts that do not constitute bullying. Based on the dynamic nature of human behavior, it is quite easy to categorize any unwanted or diversionary behavior from someone as bullying even when it really is not.

Cyberbullying: The 21st Century School Yard

The concept of bullying is almost as old as humanity itself. Anywhere humans exist; the tendency to seek dominion over one another is a given. Perhaps, it is not just restricted to humans; even animals exhibit traits of dominance over another. Anywhere there is a consistent and regular gathering of people; it is typical for a few members of the population to show domineering traits over another; this is why schools have been such a natural breeding ground for bullying for such a long time.

Being confined in a single location consistently during the day is bound to bring out the real personality of that person. This is why one of the best institutions to observe human behavior in its natural form is the school. Children begin to show their dominant and subjective sides based on their evaluation of others around them. This perhaps is the reason why the school is the place with the highest power play as individuals struggle within themselves to gain powers over another in a way that mimic what obtains in the political arena.

In previous generations, bullying took place on the actual playground, hallways, and classrooms and usually involved a student that was physically larger, relatively weak academically and not particularly admired by other kids in the school. A bully would target a student he or she thought was vulnerable and harass them.  Sometimes it would be the old stealing the milk money or verbal threats like “meet me behind the gym after class, and I’m gonna beat you.”  

Although bullying has been around for long, the advent of the internet has only gone ahead to amplify bullying by creating a sub-division of it which is known as cyberbullying.  No longer is the bully standing directly in front of their victim in the playground or hallway. Now the bully can hide behind the anonymity of a pseudonym, making it difficult to identify the actual culprit. In an effort to protect children, today’s youth are far more supervised during the school day than previous generations.  This has had the unintended effect of “normalization of bullying behaviors by requiring bullies to adopt methods that can be used in more public areas,” such as the abuse of technology to bully their victims.

Although bullying has been around for long, the advent of the internet has only gone ahead to amplify bullying by creating a sub-division of it which is known as cyberbullying.  No longer is the bully standing directly in front of their victim in the playground or hallway. Now the bully can hide behind the anonymity of a pseudonym, making it difficult to identify the actual culprit.

In an effort to protect children, today’s youth are far more supervised during the school day than previous generations.  This has had the unintended effect of “normalization of bullying behaviors by requiring bullies to adopt methods that can be used in more public areas,” such as the abuse of technology to bully their victims.

Nowadays, it is a rarity to come across a child who has not been affected in some way by bullying in recent times. According to the Pediatric Academic Societies in their general meeting held 5th of May, 2013 in Washington DC:

Step into a class of 30 high school students and look around, five of them have been victims of electronic bullying in the past year.

Psychologically, when a behavior is not punished, it is rewarded. The lack of stringent measures to tackle bullying in the school has led to a steady rise in bullying everywhere in the world today. Bullies who started in the school having graduated from schools into a higher school level or in the workplace have continued to exhibit and practice their bullying unrestrained therefore making the society less and less healthy by the day. A cursory look towards major governmental agencies and public office holders easily reflect this trend of bullies now occupying positions of the authority having graduated from school and continued to master and hone their art everywhere they find themselves unashamedly.

“Psychologically contemptuous, rue behaviors are called gateway behaviors, since they are used as beginning or low-level, low-risk ways of asserting power or expression contempt.”

Without proper intervention these gateway behaviors can increase in frequency and escalate in severity.  Research shows that today, gateway behaviors are used substantially more often than other, more obvious types of bullying behaviors.  In 2012, only 6 percent of respondents reported being victims of physical bullying while in high school, but 34 percent reported being victims of distressing rumors or lies.

It is evident that the issue with cyberbullying is connected to the usage of the internet. Hence it is apparent that the usability of the internet is the major problem more than the children themselves. Yes, it is true that multiple factors combine to contribute to bullying ideation in children, yet, there seems reasonable evidence to suggest that early exposure to the technological gadgets and the internet has made the issue more complicated than it naturally ought to be. The internet promotes anonymity, and when this is in place, many unsocial and negative traits inherent in human beings begin to come out and manifest naturally.

Children must be educated on their powers and abilities to resist being bullied either by their teachers or by their colleagues. Conferences can be organized for them to motivate them on the need to believe in themselves and ignore the bullies or fight back and report to the authorities if they are bullied again. Bullying is not a one, and for all event, it tends to be repeated even as the bully seek to stamp his authority on his victim and build a fear factor around himself. The fight to reclaim the integrity of the school system back must begin from here. It will no doubt be an arduous and tasking one, but it will be one where the reward outweighs the sacrifices involved.

Children are highly impressionable, and a lot must be done to protect and shield them from exposure to antisocial behaviors either at home or at school. Parents must be orientated on acts that reasonably constitute bullying so that they can adjust their conduct at home and everywhere accordingly. Parents are first of all role models for their children; hence they must play their role well as role models and ensure they only replicate acts that are wholesome and loving before their children. The upbringing of children is a joint venture between teacher and parents hence teachers should work with school authorities to promote healthy communication and relationship between students at all times and where a child consistently exhibit bullying tendencies toward his peers, the parents must be contacted and urged to address the issue with their child appropriately.

The school may recommend and advise parents on the best approach to handling the issue. It is imperative that teachers and parents be made aware of the severity of bullying on the mental and emotional development of children. It is an act that can rob the society of brilliant inventions and innovations that can advance the course of humanity and make life easier and more pleasant. Worse of all, bullying is an act that can engender suicidal thoughts and ideation such that can rob families of their precious children. This is why schoolyard bullying is an activity that must be tackled headlong.

Notwithstanding, it is important to repeat and elaborate on the point made in the previous section that not all activities of unkindness warrant direct intervention from adults.  As painful as it may be to watch, children must learn tactics to handle meanness from others, and adults should only intervene when it is necessary. It is our responsibility to know when we must intervene in a situation to prevent or at least reduce the damage done to another child.  Only through educational programs of all parties involved, the educators, parents, and children; both those that could be victims and those that could be perpetrators, can we hope to make a positive impact.

This education starts with reducing the overuse of the words bully and victim.