National Voices

Wednesday, Oct 10 2012 11:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: All the hype about 'bullying' dilutes the term's meaning

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    Esther Cepeda

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Several years ago when I was enrolled in a teacher training program, we were taught that bullying was when one person intentionally, aggressively and consistently intimidated another. It was understood to mean habitual cruelty by a strong person to a weaker one.

After several cases since 2010 where young people appeared to have committed suicide after suffering from prolonged bullying, and those cases made national headlines, everyone has been on high alert.

This is a super-hot topic in kindergarten (yes, kindergarten!) through high school. An entire cottage industry has grown up around charging schools kingly sums of money to put on student assemblies, teaching faculty and staff how to deal with bullying, and selling lesson plans to teach students about every conceivable aspect of the problem.

All this, in addition to zero-tolerance policies, has resulted in "bullying" meaning nearly anything: getting "a look" from another student, interpreting a remark as a thinly veiled insult, eye rolling, witnessing a student lean over to another and whispering.

It's also, of course, a huge issue on college campuses and increasingly being made one at work. I got an email the other day about how to tell if you are a workplace bully. One warning sign is "ignoring your employees' suggestions."

Now, I'm the first person to say that true bullying -- whether in schools, workplaces or anywhere else -- is a deadly serious issue that requires awareness, meaningful prevention, and organized and effective responses and interventions.

But we've watered down the way we use the word to the point where it's almost meaningless.

For instance, last week there was a national outpouring of emotion for a Wisconsin television reporter who got an ungentle email from a member of her community.

The author sent an indecorous -- but not abusive, threatening or foul-languaged -- message to news anchorwoman Jennifer Livingston with the subject line "Community Responsibility." He said, "Your physical condition hasn't improved for many years," referring to her weight. "Surely you don't consider yourself a suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular. ... I leave you this note hoping that you'll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle."

Livingston took to the airwaves with an emotional rejoinder and became a viral Internet phenomenon. She acknowledged her obesity and rightfully pointed out that she is "much more than a number on a scale" -- a sentiment everyone in our weight-obsessed culture should internalize.

But she described this one man's "cruel words" as a "very hurtful attack" and invoked National Bullying Prevention Month and her fear for her three daughters' exposure to bullying in school and on the Internet.

Livingston closed out with an impassioned "thank you" to the people who sent their sympathies to her by way of social media and gratitude "for taking a stand against this bully. We are better than that email, we are better than the bullies that would try to take us down."

"To all of the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with your weight, with the color of your skin, your sexual preference, your disability, even the acne on your face," she said, "do not let your self-worth be defined by bullies. Learn from my experience that the cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many."

I don't think that many lost and struggling children will benefit from a TV personality with a large social media following watering down the definition of bullying to mean sending a blunt email.

More and more scientific evidence is pointing to resiliency -- the ability to overcome adversity by using learned personal strengths such as independence, initiative, creativity and humor -- as a key factor in reducing risky behaviors and increasing academic achievement in adolescents.

But we don't teach resiliency in schools. Instead, society consistently reinforces the notion that every slight, every discomfort, every put-down or rejection is worthy of an outpouring of sympathy for a wronged victim. We're teaching that mantra in schools and in workplace harassment seminars, and it encourages people who feel uncomfortable to turn on a perceived oppressor.

Guess who this harms? Not those who crave attention, sympathy or the spotlight, but the quiet among us who haven't yet found a way to stand up to the honest-to-goodness bullies in their lives.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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