A Rose by Any Other Name: The Over-Definition of Bullying
Professor: Peter Sacco
With several recent high-profile suicides, due to cyber-bullying, being recently ubiquitous on Canada’s airwaves, the phenomenon has taken significant root in the popular consciousness, and myriad groups appear to be lobbying for Canadian schools, and other institutions, to take a harder line on the so-called bullying problem. With bullying striking between 33% and 50% of current Canadian children and adolescents, based on contemporary definitions of the phenomenon, a true moral panic has emerged around the bullying problem. In response to it, many schools have implemented a “zero tolerance” approach to bullying which defines the phenomenon widely, and which punishes purported offenders seriously. In contrast, the previous paradigm for dealing with bullying, pragmatic in nature, sought to only punish cases of purported bullying when they actually engendered direct harm.
Comparing and contrasting these two approaches to bullying, this essay finds that the contemporary zero tolerance approach, a product of circumstances in which bullying has received significant media coverage, may actually be counter-productive. Because bullying is being defined in such a broad manner, coming to include almost any activity or gesture which hurts another person’s feelings, the zero tolerance approach is rendering an important concept meaningless through over-definition. In other words, because the zero-tolerance approach is so severe, and subsumes almost all conflictual inter-personal behaviors under the rubric of bullying, it creates a context in which bullying means nothing because it is used to refer to everything. On this basis, the essay concludes by proposing that, if schools and other social institutions are to take bullying seriously, it is imperative that they rethink their current zero tolerance approaches, and combine the best aspects of the pragmatic and zero tolerance paradigms so as to create an optimal approach to dealing with bullying. Otherwise, there is a very real risk that the current approach to bullying will fizzle out, in potency, as the media circus surrounding the bullying program dissipates. The Bullying Problem in Canadian Schools
To provide context for the approaches to bullying which are currently normative in the Canadian school system, it is important to understand how significant of a problem bullying truly is. In this respect, CIHR (2012) report that approximately 33% of Canadian adolescents have reported being the victims of bullying, that 47% of Canadian parents report having a child who has been such a victim, and that cyber-bullying is a true growth industry, with close to 75% of bullying victims, since 2010, reporting that their abuse took place online. While long-term statistics are not available, given that bullying was not a significant official concern in past decades, it has emerged as a significant social problem, receiving a massive rash of media coverage, in the wake of suicides committed by teenage victims of cyber-bullying.
In this context, Rivers & Duncan (2013) argue that, while bullying is a real problem, that disproportionately affects members of minority groups as well as LGBT students, schools have come to approach the problem in a manner anathema to its successful resolution. With many schools implementing what is referred to as a zero tolerance approach to bullying, they are making use of what has become a “one-size-fits-all” approach to bullying. In this context, which Rivers & Duncan (2013) argue is sometimes devoid of nuance, the country’s school systems are creating a system in which qualitative divergences in the severity of bullying incidents are not taking into account. Considering that long-term longitudinal statistics on bullying in Canada are unavailable, because the problem has only recently emerged into the public sphere in earnest, and...
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Rivers, Ian, & Duncan, Neil. (2013). Bullying: experiences and discourses of sexuality and gender. New York, NY: Routledge.
Stein, Nan. (2003). Bullying or sexual harassment? The missing discourse of rights in an era of zero tolerance. Arizona Law Review, 45, 783-815.
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