What is likely the only thing Lady Gaga and Conservative MP Mike Allen have in common? Both believe that bullying should be a criminal offence. Following the suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer in Buffalo, N.Y., last month (the teen was bullied mercilessly for being gay), Lady Gaga expressed via Twitter that “Bullying must become illegal,” and underscored her position by pressing President Barack Obama about bullying while towering in heels (Obama has since described the encounter at a fundraiser as “intimidating”). New Brunswick’s Mike Allen, for his part, has been working with BullyingCanada.ca to make bullying an illegal act. Despite their efforts, however, neither the pop star nor the politician has been successful. While various behaviours that fall under the bullying umbrella—assault, uttering threats, harassment, unauthorized use of a computer—are included in the Criminal Code of Canada, the term bullying itself is not. The young offender who last year allegedly attacked Mitchell Wilson—the 11-year-old Pickering, Ont., boy who recently committed suicide after being bullied relentlessly for his muscular dystrophy symptoms—was charged with assault, not bullying. And maybe that’s a good thing; because the divergent languages of bullying—what adults call it and what its younger victims do—may be more problematic than its pending legal status.
Recent research confirms what I—someone not far removed from adolescence—have suspected for awhile. “Bullying” may be the accepted term for kid-on-kid brutality, but it’s seldom used among kids themselves. “They view the term as adult-driven,” says Wendy Craig, a Queen’s University psychology professor and researcher at the Bully Lab. “Teens especially don’t generally refer to the term.” Craig echoes recent research by Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick, whose innovative paper on bullying in the United States found that young people don’t use the word “bullying” in the same way and/or nearly as frequently as parents and educators do; not only is the term practically unused, it’s considered painfully passé. In fact, when most teens hear about bullying they automatically assume a “grade school problem” that doesn’t apply. On GritTV last year, actor John Fugelsang argued that the verb bullying should be retired for good. “Bullying is a flaccid, outdated, archaic, Archie comic term,” he said. “It’s quaint, it’s useless, it’s toothless.”
So how, then, do young people label the humiliating and infuriating abuse of power adults call bullying? In classic teenager style, ironically and maybe even more insidiously, they call it “drama.” Why drama? “The emic use of ‘drama,’ ” wrote Boyd and Marwick, “allows teens to distance themselves from practices which adults may conceptualize as bullying. As such, they can retain agency—and save face—rather than positioning themselves in a victim narrative.”
In plain English, Jessica sends a mass email to everyone in her high school slandering Rachel, in order to win over Rachel’s boyfriend, and the entire cyberbullying incident (as it might be referred to on the part of the school’s principal) is chalked up (on the kids’ part) to a whole lot of drama. “Why are you starting all this drama?” Rachel the Victim might ask Jessica the Perpetrator, from whom she’d likely hear: “God, Rachel, stop being so dramatic.” Catch the poisonous and understated collusion in that exchange? The term drama minimizes the seriousness of the incident and the pain it causes, which only makes it twice as serious and painful.
There you have it: Bullying 2.0—a different beast than the kind concerned officials are currently battling. The problem is that the majority of adults who’d like to see bullying outlawed aren’t familiar with the social nuances of the wholly social problem they want to eradicate. And this disconnect, if Boyd and Marwick are correct, could turn the “war on bullying” into the war on drugs, or the war on terror—other misnomers whose relative failures are bound up in the fact that advocates aren’t even sure what they’re fighting. Until that changes, bullying probably won’t, either.
But Craig remains ever hopeful and—in the face of the optimism surrounding the issue, that bullying is some kind of new epidemic we’re on the brink of curing—realistic. “People will always want power,” she says, acknowledging that kid-on-kid conflict, by any name, will exist forever. “It’s how we teach them to use that power that makes the difference . . . taking them out of school and putting people in jail doesn’t help them change.” It’s a good point: isolating bullies—and especially putting them together—isn’t ideal for the rehabilitation process. But more importantly, it doesn’t teach us anything new about the problem we’re trying to solve.
Language does. That youth may shirk the term (“bullying”) but not the act itself is more important than the legal semantics of something officials are only beginning to understand. It’s also profoundly telling: the way teens use “drama” doesn’t represent a mere generational shift in lingo, but rather an attempt to minimize the effects of a dangerous and painful behaviour. And it’s hard to confront that behaviour—legally or otherwise—when both victim and perpetrator are reluctant to do so themselves. George Carlin was right. His website says, “Language is a tool for concealing the truth,” but if anti-bullying activists spend more time listening in than speaking out, they’ll learn it has the power to reveal as well.