Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Overuse of the Word "Bully"

Let me start by saying that this post is not about whether or not bullying is really as bad as it seems. It is bad. In its worst forms, it can create post-traumatic stress that stays with the victim for a lifetime, or even worse, it can cause someone to become suicidal. This post is not a bullying-denial post.

This post is about people who diminish the word and the damage done by real bullying by throwing the term bully around, though. I'm not calling out any one person or any one group here, but I've noticed it. In the worst case, accusations of bullying have been levied at the bullies' victims, which can lead to a knee-jerk circling of the wagons by people who are not familiar with the conflict at hand. At best, it diminishes real bullying by "crying wolf", which makes it easier for people who do engage in bullying-denial to make their cases.

The worst part is, in a lot of the "crying wolf" situations, the person who throws out "bullying" inappropriately is actually right that they are being treated badly, and it would be good to let them articulate their points, so that the people who gave offense have a chance to consider the effects of their words/actions and to apologize. When the word "bully" comes out, though, the situation escalates. People who might have been sympathetic to the person calling "bully" can turn against zir because they disagree with the use of the term. People who emphasize behavior over labels can also be turned against someone who is actually wronged because they perceive the situation as one where lines are being drawn and permanent labels are being affixed to people who have only made a momentary mistake.

Because of what I've seen in both the atheism and autism blogospheres about this issue, I'm proposing that we draw some clear lines. For instance, when we want to call something out as abusive, we can use words like "abuse" or, my personal favorite, "lateral violence". Similarly, when we see something that is not bullying being called bullying (especially when it's an abuser labeling zir victim a "bully"), we can call it out and explain why it's an abuse of the term and how it diminishes the rest of us to see that happening. 

Last, but not least, we can embrace the idea that it might be better to call out the behavior and not the individual (i.e. "You're bullying me" instead of "You're a bully") unless the situation has been so prolonged that the person doing the bullying has already been confronted with zir behavior and refused to change it. In this way, we make sure that people who are labeled as bullies are aware of the fact that everyone sees what they are doing before they are given that label.

My Definitions
These are the conditions under which I'm using certain terms. They are not the only reasonable positions, but I am advocating that, as a community, each community I am involved in come to a consensus about how terms will be used, and that we actively enforce the definitions once they are agreed upon. I'm putting these definitions forward as first drafts in the hope that they can be either adopted or improved upon by the commentariat.

Abuse: Any hate/disrespect that attacks a person and not that person's ideas. Abuse, by definition, can not be simple disagreement. It is instead entrenched in who a person is, how that person chooses to express zirself, and/or whether or not we like that person. Attacking a position on an issue, an opinion, or a plan of action without attacking the personhood of the speaker should never be called out as abuse. Tone trolling, policing profanity, and attempting to derail the topic of conversation to avoid talking about an issue can be abuse, because those tactics can be used to shut out viewpoints without addressing the ideas of the speaker. Abuse can be acute, or it can be part of a pattern of lateral violence and/or bullying. It is possible for both parties in an argument to be abusing each other, in which case I will not pick a side. I will attempt to shut down the abuse first, and address viewpoints later.

Harassment: An ongoing pattern of abuse, whether or not it is intended to silence an individual and/or to exercise power over them. Harassment that does not attempt to silence a person or exert power over them, but merely to irritate them, should not be called out as bullying. Harassment that specifically pressures an individual or group into silence or compliance is bullying.

Gaslighting: Any attempt to convince the victim of abuse, harassment, or bullying that ze was the instigator and/or abuser/bully/harasser. This can include privileged attempts to write off the speaker's views as symptomatic of another condition.

Lateral Violence: Any abuse that happens across perons of similar privilege is lateral violence. Lateral violence depends on an intersectional approach to assessing the situation, though. For example, an autistic/autistic conflict between a man and a woman about a neurodiversity issue that does not involve gender in any way is, for all practical purposes, lateral*. A conflict between the same two individuals about a gendered issue would likely not be lateral, since one of them enjoys a privilege that the other does not. This makes the label "lateral violence" messy in practice, and highly negotiable. Its main usefulness is in highlighting whether or not one party is in a position of relative privilege which would complicate the conflict. It is highly useful as a contrast to the "bully" label, because it highlights the relatively equal standing of both parties.

Positional Violence: Any abuse that happens across differing privilege levels is positional. This can include bullying behavior, but it need not be limited to bullying behavior. Positional violence includes attempts to silence, attempts to label the person receiving abuse or harassment as a bully, and attempts by a less privileged person to attack a position of privilege through an attack on an individual. Positional violence can be abuse or harassment. Technically, it can be bullying, but I prefer not to use this term to address bullying, but as another way of contrasting problematic but not-quite-bullying behavior with bullying.

Bullying: The use of violence to abuse, harass, or gaslight an individual into silence or compliance. This includes false labeling, guilt by association, privilege denial, privilege invoking, tone trolling, and all other forms of silencing behavior. It is pervasive, not necessarily because it is ongoing, but because it invades personal and private spaces and involves the bully exerting ownership/control over the means of the victims' communication. This includes stalking, sockpuppet accounts, unrelated and derogatory @mentioning, and attempts to hijack social media accounts through hacking, impersonation, or derailing. It also might involve gendered/homophobic/transphobic/ableist/racial slurs, use of bandwagon appeals to cause crowd attacks, tu quoque appeals, and/or trotting out unrelated or long past misbehavior in order to undermine the victims' humanity. (Big example here: slut shaming and stalking girls & women who post nude pictures of themselves, or whose pictures are leaked.) In short, bullying behavior is abuse or harassment that you can not walk away from, that is centered on your personhood and not your own bad behavior. Calling someone out for their bad behavior and demanding they make amends (*ahem* Charles Carrion, anyone?) is not bullying.

In Use
Bullying in situations of lateral violence is best described as an attempt by one person to create a privilege that they don't already have, at the cost of another person. If the situation does not appear to be that, then I'm more comfortable with "harassment" or "abuse" being used instead of "bully". In situations of positional violence, I see bullying as an attempt to use privilege to silence, and again, I'm not really comfortable calling abuse or harassment bullying unless there is that attempt to take control or agency away from the victim. I believe that to give in to the "bully" label for other reasons diminishes the suffering of people who have actually experienced bullying. (I'm looking at you, Axl Rose.) It also creates a situation where the winner is the one that can successfully convince the most people that the other side of the conflict is bullying zir.

The goal here is not to make it harder to see bullying for what it is, but to make it easier. By shutting down people who are quick to claim that other people's disagreement is bullying, or that single incidents of abuse in a limited forum are the equivalent of an ongoing campaign of public abuse, we can also shut down the bully-deniers who are quick to write off conflicts as "having two sides" or being single incidents that can't be related to one another.

I don't expect that this is the last word on these definitions, or that my word will be the best word, but this is a conversation that needs to be had. It hurts all of us when this very real problem is diluted, hijacked, or abused by bullies themselves.

*I'm aware of the argument that, in our society, it is impossible to have a conflict between persons of different genders that is not a gendered conflict. Please go with this as a thought experiment for the moment, though, because this is not meant to be a counterargument to that idea.