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Monday, January 24, 2011

Please don't think of the children, or, what we talk about when we talk about bullying

The media frenzy over Tyler Clementi's suicide. The proliferation of the "It Gets Better" videos, featuring everyone from Perez Hilton to the President. The storm of anti-bullying legislation, including the "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights" (called "the nation's toughest law against bullying and harassment in schools") signed by Gov. Christie in New Jersey just a few weeks ago. Bullying has achieved prominent status in the nation's consciousness and discourse, and we should all have a problem with that.

With the term, that is. The term "bullying" has been applied in so many diverse contexts, to describe so many different kinds of behavior, and with such variations of inflection that it is now essentially meaningless. The term's popularity as shorthand for name-calling and playground mockery, as well as for various forms of abuse, harassment, or physical assault, means that it is always either too serious or not serious enough. Surely it is not the case that every comment made by a child to another child about hair color calls for a legislative response; nor does referring to sexual harassment or physical assault (of either a child or an adult) as "bullying" do anything but trivialize those experiences.

The term "bullying," with its connotation of children facing off in a schoolyard, is profoundly unhelpful. It is the kind of term that is all too revealing of how adults often relate to children, veering between sentimental over-protection and infantilizing dismissal.  Of course children are more vulnerable than adults, and so we should be sensitive to the greater impact that harmful acts may have on them. But that very vulnerability in some ways makes children more resilient than adults. When an eight-year-old uses a racial slur against another eight-year old, chances are neither of them actually understands the import of what is said; the situation is arguably quite different when it occurs between two adults. Moreover, the harms we rightfully decry when they occur to children are more often than not still harms when they occur to adults. In fact, one reason to be justifiably more anxious about harassment today than twenty years ago is  (as I have argued elsewhere) because of the way technology has exploded its temporal and social boundaries.  One could, in the past, be thankful for the fact that the hateful slurs written on the bathroom wall would only ever be seen by a small group of people, and that those people and that wall would fade away after graduation. Not so any longer, when the Internet makes it possible to broadcast every crude comment and vicious invasion of privacy for the world to see forever.

In the face of truly awful acts committed against both children and adults, we need precision, not vague sentiment.  What most anti-bullying advocates are (rightfully) really worried about are harms for which we already have names: harassment, intimidation, threats, assault, invasions of privacy. There is no particular need for recourse to the vocabulary of childhood, especially when that very vocabulary is so often deployed to minimize and dismiss harms against both children and adults. 

Posted by Mary Anne Franks on January 24, 2011 at 05:05 PM | Permalink

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