An NYT op-ed piece yesterday by Emily Bazelon, “Defining Bullying Down”, about what should and should not count as bullying. Bazelon:

… “bullying” isn’t the same as garden-variety teasing or a two-way conflict. The word is being overused — expanding, accordionlike, to encompass both appalling violence or harassment and a few mean words.

State laws don’t help: a wave of recent anti-bullying legislation includes at least 10 different definitions, sowing confusion among parents and educators.

All the misdiagnosis of bullying is making the real but limited problem seem impossible to solve. If every act of aggression counts as bullying, how can we stop it? Down this road lies the old assumption that bullying is a rite of childhood passage. But that’s wrong.

Bullying is a particular form of harmful aggression, linked to real psychological damage, both short and long term. There are concrete strategies that can succeed in addressing it — and they all begin with shifting the social norm so that bullying moves from being shrugged off to being treated as unacceptable. But we can’t do that if we believe, and tell our children, that it’s everywhere.

It’s natural to look at such issues as entirely verbal ones, having to do with the definitions of words. But that’s jumping the gun. We start with some perception of a significant categorization of things — of behavior, in this case. Then there’s the question of what label to apply to the category; very often, the label is carried over from ordinary language but now applied to a category with special significance in some technical context: medical, legal, administrative, whatever. So with bullying, where people use the word in ordinary language for a variety of behaviors. Bazelon takes over from some psychologists the view that the behavior of special concern is physical or verbal abuse, characterized by two factors: it’s repeated over time, and it involves a power imbalance.

In other words, it’s about one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him miserable

To this concept, the now (semi)technical term bullying is now applied. Excluded, among other things, are teasing, two-way conflicts, one-time physical attacks, mean gossip, and what teenagers label drama.

Of course, once the category has been delineated and the label applied to it, there will be a strong tendency for authorities to insist that the label always be used this way — that “true definition” of the label is the one associated with this delineation.

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