That which we call a bully by any other name would be just as banal.
Certainly it doesn’t mean what you think it does when you cry out indignantly and mockingly to a friend to stop bullying you. Chances are that you are not experiencing verbal or physical abuse. “Bully” has become too trite in recent years.
Nowadays, the term “bully” means something radically different than it did even 10 years ago. “Bully” has become too (as much as I loathe to use the word) mainstream. The overuse of the word in popular culture and in everyday conversations has robbed others of the legitimacy of their experiences; people have become less sensitive to the nuances of the word.
Picture a bully. If you are imagining either a cartoon character stealing some kid’s lunch money or someone giving you unwanted criticism, then you are incredibly far off from the truth. Jennifer Livingston is a prime example of the latter. She is a grown woman working as a newscaster in Wisconsin and an adult who has been universally praised for calling out a man who sent her a rude letter that commented on her weight.
Now, excuse me if you disagree, but one letter does not make for what dictionaries call “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.” Of course, the letter to her was undoubtedly impolite and mostly uncalled for, but that does not make it necessary to classify it as a habitual attack.
To my knowledge, this was the only letter that this man had ever sent to Mrs. Livingston. By definition, this man is not a bully. He’s an ill-mannered excuse for an adult, but he is not a bully.
Everyone, whether it is adults or children, have become a bit too trigger-happy to use “bully” as their defense against their inability to handle criticism. It’s time for people to wake up to the realities of true bullying. Another story that has been getting a lot of media coverage lately is the tale of Amanda Todd’s experiences with bullying. Now this is a situation that actually deals with bullying. To say the least, it is ironic that these two stories can exist at the same time. I could even go so far as to call it sickening.
Bullying is not when someone tells you once you’re overweight. Bullying is when someone, or multiple people, abuses you to the point that you are too terrified to even imagine leaving the safety net of your home. It’s when you feel so much emotional pain that you have no idea what to do anymore. It’s what makes you want to give up, like Amanda Todd did.
Todd’s case is not a unique one — no matter how much anyone wishes that it is. It is far more prevalent than it should be. This is an issue that must be taken seriously, and I doubt that many people do. No one would uncaringly toss the word around if they were clued in to the realities of bullying and the serious ramifications that it has on others. No one thinks twice about calling someone a bully in jest or even in some misguided attempt at defense — but they should.
The word “bully” is a word that has its ability to incur attention. Through this strange verbal epidemic, we’ve changed the meaning of the word. It no longer portrays accurately the suffering that people experience. Unfortunately, some people are ultimately aware of the depth of the term. If those individuals were to inform another that they have been or are bullied, I’m not certain if the person they confide in will completely understand the seriousness of the situation.
Sure, more and more people identify themselves as those who have been bullied. Are they really, though? It is unlikely that those who claim to have been bullied have experienced the true, extreme forms that are damaging to others. Bullying is not a few insults and rude comments. It’s painful physical or psychological torment.
It’s not rare for people to experience this, but it is less likely that those who do will come forward. Why would someone come forward when their experiences may be downplayed? A true victim will feel an inevitable hesitation to confide in anyone, even a supposedly empathetic confidant.
I’m not confident that people — children, adolescents or adults — will come forward seeking help if they know that their situations won’t be handled as seriously as they should. After all, their torment has been trivialized for years. The suffering that they go through daily has been made out to seem like practically nothing due to the overuse of this hackneyed word. It has to stop.
Think twice before you accuse someone of being a bully. Really consider the implications of your little sister or neighbor or friend telling you that they’ve been bullied. Do what you can to prevent the callous misuse of this word. Reserve it for situations that really call for it.