As part of the decennial reaccreditation process at my daughter’s high school, I served on a panel to review the school’s goals and objectives earlier this year. Small groups of parents and community members tossed out statements in brainstorming sessions to capture our most heartfelt objectives for the school. Facilitators recorded the statements on poster-size sticky notepads (facilitator-school must teach these people to turn every statement, no matter how passionate or peeved, into something bland and thoughtful).
After an hour or so, we gathered in a hallway outside the school library where the lists were posted on the wall, beside those from similar groups of teachers and students. Each participant was given four yellow and two pink sticky notes. We were invited to cast up to four votes for statements we liked by putting one of our yellow sticky notes next to it. If there was a statement we disliked, we could blackball it with a pink sticky note. The adults were too nice to use their pink sticky notes, casting only affirmative votes, but the students showed no hesitation about letting their pink stickers fly. They turned on two statements from the adults’ lists, similar in intent and sharing a key operative word. One statement read: “To promote a safe, secure environment free from bullying.” The other blackballed goal also featured the word bullying as something to be discouraged.
I was taken aback. Did the students think bullying wasn’t a problem? Was this group of students a secret society of bully-coddlers? Had it been one or two pink vetoes, I might have dismissed it as an aberration, but the anti-bullying statements were peppered with pink spots as if they had been ambushed in a paint-ball fight. Why?
A group of students stood talking not far from me. I asked them about the rejection of anti-bullying as a school goal. This was not a representative sample of the student body (just as the grown-ups were far from representative of our local demographic). These were student-government types, kids who get good grades, participate in community-service projects, and relate well to adults. They talked to me.
The students explained that throughout their school careers, they had seen adults—teachers, administrators, and parents—use the word “bully” as a weapon, a demonizing, conclusory label that branded and convicted its target in one stroke. The word was vague, unspecific, and covered a wide range of behavior from the merely annoying to the criminally culpable. The students, with the unerring sense of justice that comes from being members of a downtrodden class, saw that the word “bullying” had been turned into a privileged term of jargon that only certain people were allowed to use, and that those people sometimes, perhaps often, used the word to advance their own values and agendas in ways that were unfair.
When I was in school, a bully was a cartoonish brute who took advantage of his size to pick on little kids and steal their lunch money (I was always a little kid). In the experience of these students, “bully” had become a label that should require a Miranda warning. What these students objected to was that the word had exploded in meaning without any differentiating qualifications, making it misleading, inflammatory, and prone to abuse by those who had the authority to determine its meaning in any particular instance.
Imagine if we used the word “bomb” without adjectives so that the same word described everything from a firecracker to a nuclear weapon, carrying all the terror that attaches to the most extreme example even when used to label something that produces nothing more than a puff of smoke.
Educators are highly verbal people. They sometimes focus on words as if changing words could change reality, leading to the sort of jargon and euphemisms that those of us outside the world of edu-speak find laughable or worse. When my daughter was in preschool, her excellent Montessori teacher believed that the word “bad” had a harmful effect on tiny minds. Nothing was “bad” in her class, only “inappropriate.” One day, I asked my 4-year-old if she understood what “inappropriate” meant, and she answered, without hesitation, “bad.”
The word “bullying” has been turned into the opposite of a euphemism; it has become an epithet, a term of pure condemnation detached from the underlying meaning of the word or its connection to reality. Like a euphemism, it is an attempt to color or change our perception of reality. Despite the reported decline in language skills among students, kids seem to understand instinctively when adults are using words to obscure or slant reality. In this case, it seems to have undermined the credibility not only of a word, but also of efforts to address important behavioral challenges in our schools.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Bully for You?