“Bully.” What does that word make you think of? Someone in particular, a story in the news, your past, yourself? What about “Intimidation?” What does that make you think of? “Assault?” “Coersion?” “Extortion?” What about phrases like “mob-mentality” or “balance of power” or “cyberbullying?”
Words have meanings and these meanings are the combined perceptions, prejudices and mores we assign to them, either consciously or inadvertently. “Bullying” tends to take on the framework of childhood, to be equivocated, downplayed, “kids just being kids.” We typically think of our own lives, the times we were teased, taunted, called-out and called names. “Toughen-up,” we were told, “Stand up to the bully and he will never bother you again.” Unfortunately, these equivocations, this preconceived framework of childhood embarrassment betray us and we ignore the effect it has on the individual. Bullying, in either its verbal, social or physical manifestation would be called harassment, stalking, coercion, extortion, blackmail or assault were it to happen to an adult. Why, then, do we ignore one and summon the police for the other? Again, it is the framework we build around the words.
If we relegate bullying to childhood (and young adulthood), we must also acknowledge that this is the time in an individual’s life when they are most vulnerable to the machinations of mobs. Self-conscious in their physical appearance and their emotional well-being exposed, they magnify every kernel of attention, often distorting it to meet their current frame of mind. We call it “peer pressure,” a nice, succinct phrase we too eagerly dismiss. We’ve all been there, we all survived. Kids! What can you do?
Unfortunately, we don’t all survive. Many of us are scared, either physically or mentally due to the effects of this early life assault. We carry the bitterness of being a victim into adulthood; our self-esteem forever damaged. We doubt ourselves, limiting our potential and stunting our development, both social, emotional and financial.
Some of us do not survive at all. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the third leading cause of death among Americans aged 15-24. Preliminary 2010 data shows that this amounted to 4,559 kids killing themselves. 3,784 boys whose parents will be destroyed forever and 775 girls whose parents will blame themselves forever, condemned to a lifetime of lost opportunities with acid in their stomach, muscles twisted into perpetual pain and a hole in their heart that will never know comfort. A lifetime of events left as shattered dreams instead of captured memories. And why? Because another individual or group did not “like” their son or daughter? They did not wear the right clothes, listen to the right music, play the right sport, do the right drugs or drink the right alcohol? Did they dare to think for themselves, and in doing so become ostracized to the point of complete emotional isolation, the perfect incubator for irrational teenage thoughts to propagate? The majority of these deaths occur with the explosion of a gun and a bullet tearing into the skull of the child their parent would willingly throw themselves in front of a train to protect.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether cyber bullying should carry the same penalties as bullying, as if the environment in which it is inflicted has any bearing on its effect. Again, it is the equivocation of words. The damage is the same, so too should be the penalty. Worse, the internet never sleeps and feeds upon itself. One posting has the potential to metastasize into thousands, creating an exponential damage multiplier on its victim. “Libel.” “Slander.” “Extortion.” “Stalking.” “Inciting violence.” “Mob mentality.” “Coercion.” “Blackmail.” “Assault.” These terms should replace the innocuous “bullying” (or cyber bullying). Let’s not get trapped in a naming convention when we should be acknowledging the symptoms and acting appropriately.
Amanda Todd killed herself last Wednesday. She was 15 years old. Her YouTube video, posted five weeks before she took her life, showed a series of hand written cards outlining her plight and finishing with these words:
I have nobody.
I need someone.
My name is Amanda Todd.
Tell me again how bullying is just a rite of passage, a childhood gauntlet through which we all pass, always made the stronger for surviving? Tell Amanda’s parents.