Free associations

Free associations

Do we claim ‘bullying’ too often?

What does it say about our loose use of the term ‘bullying’ if the most powerful man in the world can claim to be a victim? OLIVIER DOULIERY / POOL/EPA/AAP

June was a banner month for bullying. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump was in the thick of it. His offensive tweets about MSNBC co-hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough are Exhibit A.

Adrienne Watson of the Democratic National Committee opined that “Trump’s bullying tweets are an attack on women everywhere”. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi decried their use of “violent imagery to bully the press”. Her sentiment was echoed by White House correspondent Brian Karem, who complained he was tired of being bullied for doing his job.

By some accounts, President Trump was also the “victim” of bullying. White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders argued he was merely defending himself against personal attacks. She said:

This is a president who fights fire with fire and certainly will not be allowed to be bullied by liberal media and the liberal elites within the media, or Hollywood or anywhere else.

Bullying has also been pervasive closer to home. Embattled Greens senator Lee Rhiannon complained of “feeling bullied and harassed” by her political foes. Recently deposed chief executive of CPA Australia, Alex Malley, is facing allegations of bullying for, among other things, “aggressive, vulgar language that you wouldn’t expect in a business world.”

The potential seriousness of this kind of behaviour was underscored by a recent study. The survey purported to show that young women who had recently experienced bullying were much more likely to self-harm, and be psychologically distressed, than those who had never experienced it.

Defining bullying

Bullying appears to be ubiquitous and it is receiving attention like never before. The word itself is inescapable. However it is not always clear what people mean when they refer to bullying, and whether their understanding is accurate.

The concept of bullying is quite young. It was first systematically defined and studied in the 1970s by Norwegian developmental psychologist and aggression researcher Dan Olweus. Olweus was at pains to define bullying tightly and distinguish it from other forms of peer aggression.

He proposed three key criteria. To qualify as bullying, harmful interpersonal behaviour had to be intentional, repetitive and perpetrated by someone more powerful than the victim. Aggressive behaviour that was inadvertent, unrepeated or enacted by a peer might be harmful and unpleasant, but it was not bullying.

The spread of ‘bullying’

This initially tight definition of bullying has been progressively loosened. Bullying researchers have argued behaviour need not always be intentional or repeated to qualify. They have broadened the definition of power imbalance so it can include differences in popularity or technological savvy.

The concept of bullying has also been broadened in other ways. It now often encompasses behaviour that is indirect or exclusionary – such as shunning and spreading rumours – rather than only behaviour that is directly aggressive and intimidating. A greater subjective component is recognised, so recipients’ perceptions of intent, harm and power imbalance are taken at face value.

Finally, bullying is increasingly being seen as something that transpires among adults in workplaces rather than children in schools, Olweus’ original focus.

The graph below documents this change as well as the rise in the cultural salience of “bullying” as a concept. It charts the changing frequency with which the terms “bullying” and “workplace bullying” were mentioned in the massive Google Books search database from 1960 to 2005.

Both lines are scaled, so that 100 represents the year in which the expression had its highest frequency as a proportion of all words or word pairs in the database for that year.

The evolution of our use of the terms ‘bullying’ and ‘workplace bullying.’

The graph indicates “bullying” has become much more popular over time, mentioned more than three times as much in 2005, as in 1990. The rise of “workplace bullying” is even steeper. The expression was essentially unknown prior to 1990, when bullying started to become an accepted way of describing problematic behaviour at work.

As researchers’ definitions of bullying have broadened, lay people’s use of the term has become more open and spacious. Bullying has become part of our standard vocabulary for calling out all manner of undesirable behaviour.

Implications

Perhaps we should not care that the concept of bullying has expanded. Concepts evolve all the time. It could be argued that by defining a wider range of unpleasant behaviours as bullying, we are expressing the enlightened desire that it should no longer be tolerated.

A less appealing alternative reading is that the use of “bullying” has become a little promiscuous. If bullying is almost everything – a near synonym for “something others do to me that I don’t like” – then it is almost nothing. The word is being used so loosely, the most powerful man in the world can claim to be bullied, and the mildest unrepeated slight experienced in the boardroom can be given the same label as the harshest Lord of the Flies brutality meted out in the playground.

Relaxing the definition of bullying can have several undesirable effects. It can inure us to more severe forms of maltreatment by diluting the concept’s meaning. It can escalate ordinary conflicts, such as those bound to arise in everyday performance management at work, by needlessly invoking legal remedies.

It can bestow enduring and highly moralised “bully” and “victim” identities on perpetrators and recipients of fleeting misbehaviour.

Subjective definitions

Loosened subjective definitions of bullying can also be problematic for research. The study referred to earlier, which claimed women who recently experienced bullying were more distressed than others, measured bullying by simply asking: “have you experienced being bullied?”

No guiding definition of bullying was supplied. As a result there is no way of knowing whether the reports of bullying were valid; whether bullying as usually defined influences mental health, or whether mental health influences the tendency to report being bullied, or both. The study is important for showing what the impact of bullying might be, but it can only establish some of the correlates of perceived bullying.

Another recent study shines a light on the problems of defining bullying too subjectively. Here, the researchers asked 124 parents of primary school children to judge whether 25 hypothetical behaviours, many of them ambiguous, were examples of bullying. The parents also rated themselves on several personality characteristics and reported whether their children had experienced bullying.

The researchers found large variation in how many behaviours were viewed as bullying by different parents. Parents who had a broader understanding of bullying, judging more behaviours to be examples of it, tended to be somewhat more entitled and apt to see themselves as victims. They were also more likely to report their children had experienced bullying.

By implication, holding a broad subjective definition of bullying may go along with a heightened tendency to expect special treatment, to be sensitive to personal victimisation, and to identify behaviour as bullying that others would not.

None of this implies we should abandon the concept of bullying or discredit those who claim it. Bullying is real and harmful. However, we should perhaps be less casual about how we throw the term about and consider using less inflammatory labels when in doubt.

It will never be possible to craft a definition of bullying that is perfectly unambiguous, but loose definitions, like loose shoelaces, have a tendency to trip us up.