Anthropologist Janice Harper and school psychologist/consultant Izzy Kalman want to stop the use of the term “bully” to label those who treat others in psychologically and physically abusive ways at work and school.
In a recent Huffington Post piece (link here), Harper writes that the bully label “has to go”:
Calling a person a “bully” may be effective in bringing an aggressive individual down to size, but that very quality is what makes the label so problematic. The use of any derogatory label to describe a person is dehumanizing and promotes stereotypes. When we dehumanize a person with a label, we make it easier to attack them. In warfare, soldiers learn to kill other people by referring to them with terms associated with animals, monsters, evil, or any of a number of names which make it easier to see them as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity and hence, a threat to group survival.
On his Psychology Today blog (link here), Kalman, whose company produces materials and provides consultations on bullying, urges us to use “good psychology” — not laws or policies — to address bullying behaviors:
Bullying cannot be reduced by treating it like a crime. The behaviors that are being called bullying today are more appropriately called aggression or dominance behavior, and are part of the fabric of life. The attempt to outlaw human nature is bound to create more harm than good. If laws could make social and interpersonal problems disappear, all we would need to do is pass enough laws and we would have Utopia. The true solution is good psychology, teaching people to use their brains to understand and solve their problems.
They are not the first to sound these warnings. For example, Ken Westhues, the University of Waterloo sociologist whose thorough examinations of mobbing in academe are worthy of close study, cautions that we must not become what we abhor and expresses serious reservations about workplace anti-bullying laws and policies.
Over the years I’ve considered whether terms such as bully and bullying are becoming overused, but these recent critiques have prompted me to revisit the question more deeply. Most of my comments address workplace bullying as opposed to schoolyard bullying. Here goes:
The benefits of naming and labeling behaviors can be considerable. I cannot begin to count how many workplace bullying targets have told me that they had no idea what they were enduring until they discovered articles, websites, and blogs discussing workplace bullying. The label resonated with them deeply; it captured their experiences.
By contrast, had more general, academic, or sanitized terms been used — “socially aggressive workplace behavior,” “inappropriate incivility at work,” to name two possibilities — it’s likely they would’ve skipped right over what they found.
In other words, labeling helps us to form frameworks for understanding. Consider, for example, how society finally labeled sexual harassment. Until the underlying behaviors were named, women so targeted had no easy way to refer to them. Today, however, the term sexual harassment is well understood.
Whether dealing with individuals, organizations, or society as a whole, labeling both the good and bad events in our lives helps us to develop a contextual comprehension of our experiences.
The benefits of labeling individuals engaging in bullying behaviors are less pronounced. For targets, it provides a natural way to tag and describe their tormenter(s). Obviously it’s an easy way to get the media interested as well, which, in turn, builds public understanding through their coverage.
However, here is where the concerns of Harper, Kalman, et al., do carry weight. Labels can endure, they can be overused, and at times they may lead to mobbing or ostracism.
We tend to be labeled by what we do, and that is bad news for individuals whose publicly defining behaviors are widely regarded as destructive or hurtful, whether they be “terrorists,” “corrupt politicians” or, yes, “bullies.”
But beware the slippery slope. If we rid our vocabulary of “bully,” would Dr. Harper also suggest that we abandon labels such as “murderer” or “pedophile” because of their stigmatizing potential? (I do not offer this point facetiously. For example, I have had conversations with women who have experienced both sexual assault and workplace bullying and told me that the latter was more traumatic.)
True, murderers typically are labeled only after our justice system has adjudicated them so. By contrast, because most instances of bullying (at least the workplace variety) are not actionable under law, the label is imposed by a court of public opinion if at all.
However, while concerns about group retribution are not unfounded, it’s much more likely that (a) the organization will ignore a complaint about bullying; and/or (2) the target will experience the bystander effect, whereby she is left without anyone coming to her assistance or defense (i.e., the mob turns against her).
On the other end of the spectrum, some thoughtful individuals believe that terms such as bully and bullying diminish the destructiveness of this form of mistreatment. Ongoing exchanges with one friendly critic persuaded me to invoke the term “abuse” more often in discussing workplace bullying.
Malicious, ongoing bullying at work ranks with other horrific forms of interpersonal abuse. For that relatively small number of people in our workplaces who destroy the souls of others, the bully label is an understated characterization of their behaviors. This is especially true for those who are stellar at indirect, passive-aggressive forms of bullying that can be maddeningly difficult to untangle, explain, and prove.
The role of the law
I happen to agree with Kalman that most instances of bullying should not be treated as a crime — unless, of course, the behaviors violate existing criminal laws, such as those governing homicide, battery, or sexual assault. In fact, I recently wrote that, for a variety of reasons, it would be difficult and legally problematic to broadly criminalize workplace bullying in the U.S. (Some within the workplace anti-bullying movement were very disappointed with my position.)
However, it also is horribly unjust how malicious, targeted behaviors that destroy someone’s health and livelihood currently fall between the cracks of existing worker protections. That’s why I drafted the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), which provides severely bullied workers with a legal claim for damages.
Interestingly, in drafting the HWB I did not use the term bully or bullying to label either individuals or the unlawful employment practices created by the legislation. The HWB imposes liability on both employer and perpetrator, recognizing that both organizational cultures and individual actions lead to psychological abuse at work.
The HWB also includes liability-avoiding incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying at work. This would encourage employers to send what Kalman calls “aggressive” employees to counseling for some “good psychology.”
Use, but don’t overuse
It behooves us to use these labels sparingly, and only when clearly appropriate. Personally, I am more concerned about branding a youth who bullies with a Scarlet B because of possible long-term emotional effects and the belief that children generally should be held less responsible than adults for their behaviors. When it comes to adult bullying at work, however, the stigmatization issue pales when matched against other valid goals and priorities.
In any event, while I respect the concerns shared by these critics, until we radically change our natural connection of deeds and labels, it’s unrealistic to expect that “bully” will disappear from our vocabulary. In addition, if we stop using the term, something else surely will take its place. Obvious substitutes such as “abuser” or “predator” might be even more stigmatizing and likely to trigger the kind of retribution we want to prevent.