This topic is so vital because this meaningless, definition-free word — Terrorism — drives so many of our political debates and policies. Virtually every debate in which I ever participate quickly and prominently includes defenders of government policy invoking the word as some sort of debate-ending, magical elixir: of course President Obama has to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process: they’re Terrorists; of course we have to stay in Afghanistan: we have to stop The Terrorists; President Obama is not only right to kill people (including civilians) using drones, but is justified in boasting and even joking about it, because they’re Terrorists; of course some people should be held in prison without charges: they’re Terrorists, etc. etc. It’s a word that simultaneously means nothing and justifies everything.I wonder if a similar phenomenon is starting to occur with the word “bullying.” Of course, no one likes a bully, and we’d all like to see less bullying in schools. But when I hear people talk about a “War on Bullying,” and about “crackdowns” and “zero tolerance,” and when I hear the word applied to an increasing range of conduct (see Iowa City’s definition here), I get an uncomfortable sense of deja vu. I can’t help wondering whether the word “bullying” is being used as a rhetorical tool to generate support for – or quell opposition to – the schools’ use of increasingly authoritarian practices to “manage behavior.” Is policing more conduct and punishing more kids the best way to teach kids to treat each other well?
I don’t think we should take the War on Drugs, for example, as our model for how to address a social problem. Bullying, like drug abuse, is a real problem, but it doesn’t automatically follow that a heavy-handed law enforcement approach is the solution.
This is particularly true in the context of bullying, because the more schools use coercion to address bullying, the more they are modeling coercive behavior. The school, after all, is telling the kids how to act, giving them no say in what it demands of them, then policing their behavior and punishing them if they don’t comply – sometimes even casting them out of the community (via suspension or expulsion). Schools can’t avoid doing some of that. But consider how often “bullying” resembles those same actions. Is it possible that some of the bullies are acting out what they see around them? How confident can we be that, if the school intensifies its focus on punitive enforcement, the kids will start to treat each other better instead of worse? And shouldn’t we be concerned about the other values that end up getting taught – even to the “well-behaved” kids – the more the school starts resembling a police state?
Greenwald and others have also written about the double standard that often applies when the words “terrorism” and “torture” are used to refer only to what other people do, and not to what we do. Similarly, it’s hard to come up with a fair definition of “bullying” that wouldn’t apply to some of what schools do to kids in the name of compulsory learning. When one kid coerces and intimidates another, it’s “bullying.” When the school coerces and intimidates the kids, it’s apparently something else – maybe “enhanced education techniques”?
The first step to addressing bullying should be to model humane treatment of other people. Schools, given the power they have over the children who attend them, are in a particularly good position to model humane treatment of those who are weaker and more vulnerable. Wouldn’t that necessarily involve giving them some say over their own treatment? Wouldn’t it involve treating them more gently, and with more understanding, dignity, and compassion, than one could get away with? What else is bullying but a disregard, through superior force, of those principles?