There are words in our language that start out as powerful and meaningful, but overuse and misuse weakens them to the point where they are meaningless and without power. It has happened to many words, like "special" which has become so overused as to become a cliche, as when everything is "special" then nothing is truly "special" anymore. When every item in the grocery store is on "special" the word has become so diluted as to have little value.
The same can be said about other words, like "great", and "amazing", and "awesome", all wonderful words but so easily used that we have to reach even further into our vocabulary to describe experiences that are truly great, amazing or awesome. And there is another word that is being wildly overused in our world, one that should have great power and impact but that is becoming subject to such overuse that the true value and meaning is rapidly being lost.
I don't want anyone to think I am suggesting that bullying doesn't exist, as it does and I was subjected to it as a young adult in a way that I think was formative in my character. I think it is a common experience in childhood, and one which deserves our absolute attention and recognition. It is, however, the way this word is being used by adults about other adults that concerns me deeply.
Bully is a word that should be reserved for certain situations, ones in which someone is using their power or influence to exert force on another in a way with potential for real-life impacts. Bullying in this brave new world of social media, however, is a word that is being thrown about with abandon, and it is to our detriment as we witness the degradation of the very concept.
Just this week I saw claims that one level of government was "bullying" another. Once, before this word was so easily tossed about it our conversations, we would have simply said these politicians were playing the game as they are wont to do, pushing each other around in a forum they have chosen to participate in (and in fact many have worked very hard to be there). But now we claim they are "bullying" each other, as if someone is the victim and someone is the bully. I saw claims that someone facing a lawsuit for potentially defamatory comments made on social media was being "bullied" by the ones claiming to be defamed, a claim that every person being sued could now suggest, saying that they are the real victim and not the one they possibly defamed. I saw others accused of bullying for correcting misinformation and refusing to back down, as if their facts were negated by someone calling them a "bully". And in recent months I too have been called a bully, for correcting an error in capitalization on a marketing document for a politician and simply standing my ground.
This is a word that should have power, that should indicate the gravity of a situation and the vital nature of what is happening, but now I have seen situations where each side claims the other is a bully, with both sides claiming victimization at the hands of the other.
Everyone, it seems, is a bully. Except that they are not. You see, we are starting to lose our ability to see what is really occurring - conflict - and creating a victim and aggressor scenario instead whenever people are in conflict with each other.
Is this how we want our children to see the world? Do we want them to believe that every person out there is a potential bully and that they therefore are all potential victims? Or do we want to teach them that some situations are simply conflicts which you can work to resolve - or walk away from - as needed? Do we want them going into schools and workplaces believing that bullying is so very commonplace, or do we want them to recognize it for the atrocity it is and stop seeing every conflict as being bullied? I am not sure about you, but I want my daughter to understand that you can have conflict between two people in which neither is the victim nor the aggressor - it is just conflict.
The concept of bullying between adults on social media is particularly troublesome to me. In the world of young adults I know that the conflicts in which they engage on social media often carry into the real world and have very real impacts, meaning that bullying among young adults can and does occur on social media. What adults need to know, though, and what we must teach our children, is that often we can simply walk away. Social media allows us to block those we find ourselves in conflict with, ignoring their comments and their hurtful words. We can remove ourselves from their sphere of influence, as while we cannot change their behaviour we can change our own and refuse to be manipulated by them.
I have encountered some stone-cold assholes on social media. I have been threatened, called names and told it was hoped I die of cancer. Not once, though, did I feel or claim I was being bullied. That these people are jerks is beyond question, but bullies? No, because they hold no power over me on Facebook or Twitter. I choose to ignore them, block them, avoid them - because that is within my power.
In over four decades I feel I have been bullied exactly once as an adult, and that was in my real world and not on social media. It was done by those who held power over me in my employment, and it was a form of intimidation. And when it happened I went directly to those involved and I confronted the situation, because it is the sort of true bullying that must be addressed. But this world where suddenly every person is a bully and every person is a victim? People, we need to stop.
We are not doing ourselves or our children any favours by claiming we are being bullied every time someone disagrees with us, sues us, pushes our buttons or says something we do not like. We are not doing ourselves or our children any favours by refusing to acknowledge that conflict can exist without there being a victim involved, and that we don't address conflict by claiming the "olly-olly-oxen-free" of crying "bully" but by trying to resolve the issue, and, if it cannot be resolved, by walking away. We risk creating a world where everyone is painted in colours of bully and victim, and where the very word "bully" loses all power and meaning.
And as the adult who still has inside her the 13-year old girl who was mercilessly bullied this worries me. I fear the demeaning of bullying means that one day we will see it as so commonplace from overuse that we not only expect it, but accept it. And I think that is the exact opposite of what we want to see happen.
So, the next time you are in conflict with someone think about a few things. Ask yourself if this person has any true influence in your life, and any real impact in terms of your employment or quality of life. Is this a situation where you can walk away without injury or harm of any real and measurable sort? Did this person truly hurt you or did they just really, really piss you off? Did you play the game, too, and now want out? Then instead of crying "bully" just realize you have been in a conflict, and either resolve it or walk away. If you are able to do these things and help us to maintain the value and importance of the word bully I just have one thing to say: thank you for making sure the word "bully" doesn't become another grocery store "special".