Bullying in the eye of the beholder
The Australian, 4 January 2013
ARE you being bullied? If you have a job, attend university, have a hectic social life or do anything else that involves being put under pressure, you probably are.
But only because everything is defined as “bullying” these days. From being called out on your slackness to being hauled over the coals for your political views; what we used to call “being put on the spot”, we now call “bullying”.
The rise and rise of the B-word is testament to the touchiness of our therapeutic era and to the now widespread belief that people are pathetic bundles of sensitivity who will unravel at the merest hint of pressure.
The wild expansion of the definition of bullying was brought home to me over the holiday season by an article written by the ABC’s Jonathan Holmes.
He was criticising The Australian’s recent critical commentary about Margaret Simons, director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne. The Australian’s critique of Simons had crossed the line from legit journalism to “bullying”, said Holmes. Tellingly, he described this paper as “one of the biggest bruisers in the playground”. What was most striking about his piece was that it described Simons’s own criticisms of The Australian, which have been myriad, as “judicious, cautious and fair”, while The Australian’s criticisms of her apparently add up to “bullying”.
This sums up how eye-swivellingly subjective the term “bullying” has become. Bullying is now entirely in the eye of the beholder, with some words and ideas (the ones we disapprove of, basically) being branded with the B-word, while others are given a nod of approval.
This is an upfront attempt to delegitimise certain forms of media criticism, particularly those that emanate from popular newspapers and are aimed at respectable public figures.
More and more commentators, academics and even powerful politicians now depict themselves as victims of “bullying”, by which they actually mean fierce criticism or public ridicule.
When Julia Gillard copped some flak from internet users (in the midst of the global praise she received) over her shallow, showboating speech on misogyny last year, one magazine said she had been “bullied online” - as if she were an everyday teenage girl being harassed by schoolmates rather than the most powerful woman in the southern hemisphere being critiqued for a very public speech.
Gillard’s partner Tim Mathieson has lashed out at the “bullies” who ridicule poor Julia. Seemingly believing, like ABC’s Holmes, that we’re still all stuck in the playground, Mathieson said “the big boys” should stop “bullying women”.
“Would they like being called nasty names?” he asked.
In a human rights lecture last year, academic Anne Summers compared the grief Gillard sometimes gets with “workplace bullying”. On an issue like the carbon tax, it just isn’t possible that the “level of vitriol” aimed at Gillard is because of the tax itself, said Summers - rather, it must be because of “the simple fact that she is a woman”.
Here, even entirely legitimate political criticism over something like the carbon tax, which has made some people angry, can be slyly delegitimised through being depicted as playground-style bullying beastliness. This is a doubly patronising approach - it depicts the critics of Gillard as bullies (potentially freezing serious political debate in the process, with male MPs probably becoming increasingly fearful of appearing like ugly playground toughs), and it also depicts women as fragile creatures who might wilt or faint upon hearing a coarse or mocking critique.
In describing as “misogynistic bullying” what the rest of us simply look upon as heated political debate, feminists ironically rehabilitate the Victorian view of women as sensitive flowers who might need to be chaperoned when they tiptoe through parliament or venture on to the world wide web.
Where the B-word is often used as a means of shielding politicians from the vitriolic screeching of the madding crowd, it can also be used to chastise politicians who are considered too hard-headed.
So the claims that Tony Abbott “bullied” someone at university in the 1970s are now used to write off his entire political style in the here and now. One magazine describes him as a misogynistic “relic of the 1950s” whose “bullying has continued to the current day”.
If Abbott makes a strongly worded speech, shooting down his enemies, it’s bullying, apparently, akin to what he allegedly did at uni.
In Britain in 2010, then PM Gordon Brown became embroiled in something called “Bullygate” after it was revealed he frequently “clenched his fists” in the presence of his staff and “swore at senior advisers”.
Unbelievably, some of Downing Street’s staff phoned the National Bullying Helpline to complain about Brown. Did they think working at the heated heart of the British establishment, where key decisions are made, would be a cosy, stress-free experience with no swearing? If so - and I’m sorry if this is bullying - they are idiots.
The ideas of “workplace bullying” and “university bullying” are common currency today.
According to one British official report, workplace bullying can include everything from “arguments and rudeness” to “ignoring people, unacceptable criticisms, and overloading people with work”.
In short, work itself - with all its tussles and pressure - is a kind of bullying. Which makes you wonder why we don’t all just stay in bed instead, or perhaps literally go back to the playground, where we might be afforded some protection against life’s stresses and debates by a caring teacher.
We are all worse off as a result of this bullymania. The bullying obsession is especially bad for politics, since it both helps to insulate already aloof politicians like Gillard from public ridicule while chastising other, more outspoken politicians for daring to appear strong-willed.
It threatens to make politics more dull, and to drain the zest and drive from media debate and from everyday life by branding all those who forcefully speak their minds as bullies.
In 2013, make it your resolution to never, no matter how beleaguered you feel, say, “I’m being bullied!” Those words should never cross the lips of anyone over the age of 10.
Read more of my articles for The Australian and other publications here.