The Semantics of Mean

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The volume on the subject of bullying has grown even louder in recent weeks with the conviction of Dharun Ravi in a hate crime against his college roommate, Tyler Clementi, and the release of two documentaries on the subject: “Speak Up” and the forthcoming “Bully.” While parents, legislators, and even student advocates continue to articulate the seriousness of bullying and the toll this activity takes on children and teens, the use of electronic devices and the Internet to telegraph information, as evidenced, in fact, by Ravi’s conviction, now firmly frames cyberbullying in a criminal context. I believe this is a step in the right direction.

Too often, teens flip off the word “bully” as childish, knowing that assailants today are much more vicious than the playground bullies of the previous century. Teenagers today must fend off the silent assassins of the digital age, who operate with phones and tablets and plant emotional land mines in social-networking sites. The harassment and text assaults perpetrated by some teenagers should have a criminal connotation if we are to see a shift in how older students perceive and understand this abusive behavior.

Several years ago, a musician friend of mine was visiting from Ireland. Knowing his fondness for a good pint, I took him to a popular downtown American-Irish pub. During the evening, I asked my friend for the meaning of a line in a Van Morrison song, “the craic is good.” He told me that the word is pronounced “crack” and that the expression simply means “a good time.” I knew the pub we were at was frequented by members of the police force, so I warned him, “Whatever you do, don’t go walking around this place saying, ‘the crack is good.’ ” I imagined myself getting money together to bail my friend out of the county jail. Craic in Dublin may mean a good time, but crack in America has a completely different connotation.

“Too often, teens flip off the word ‘bully’ as childish, knowing that assailants today are much more vicious than the playground bullies of the previous century.”

I often told this story during my years teaching a life-skills class in a program for at-risk teenagers. The story became a humorous introduction to topics of mutual respect, self-worth, and the potency of words. The point I made to my students was that language has the power to depict, to inform, to manipulate, to confuse, and to hurt. Eventually, our discussions of language would lead us down the road to bullying.

My teenage students discussed incidents in which gestures, verbal expressions, or text messages were used to hurt someone, but never once did they describe it as “bullying,” nor did they see themselves as engaged in “bullying.” Instead they talked about hurtful behavior within the context of the drama in their lives. I was the ignorant sponge soaking up every toxic explanation, trying to understand the boundaries of drama, trying to distinguish what my students perceived was hurtful from what were merely superficial interactions common to teenagers.

Conversely, elementary school children have no problem identifying the bully, or the bullied. They know the victim. They know the oppressor. They know and trust the authority figures who have the power to stop the behavior. Unfortunately, in the complex world of adolescence, where high school cliques own the hallways and silent assassins take aim, “bullying” has been jettisoned from teenage culture to the world of young children. The intensity and pain felt by victimized teenagers transcend their ideas of childish bullying. Compound the pain of teen victims with their belief that adults do not understand their cries for help, and suddenly the most important element of intervention is lost: trust.

In the course of this discussion with my students, I soon realized that regardless of the definition, there is always a red flag for a victim. I learned that somewhere in these complaints about the drama in their lives, more often than not someone was being hurt, someone was a victim. But it takes time and sensitivity to carve off the leather skin of denial. Sure some incidents labeled as drama were typical teenage growing pains. But I still listened. Why take a chance? If you do not seek out the red flag when it counts, you could miss the warning signs, and intervention could come too late.

If teens are reluctant to address the issue of bullying, perhaps the resistance may simply be a matter of semantics. And given this reality, the semantics of “mean” would best be served by a criminal connotation.

Adults must help contain the destruction caused by the silent assassins of the digital age. Future discussions of this topic must expand the boundaries of bullying into the world of criminality and insist that the conversation of victimization from digital devices remain in the forefront of both school and public policy.

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An earlier version of this story gave the wrong title for an upcoming documentary on bullying. It is called "Speak Up."

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