Lady Gaga’s new Born This Way Foundation is working to stop bullying – and the smartest thing she’s doing is avoiding the term “bully” itself. While the media, as well as many of her monsters, are using the word bully left and right, Gaga’s foundation doesn’t use the word. At all.
Instead, there are other words like safety, skills, opportunity, bravery, kindness, love, individuality, empowered, acceptance, and humanity. It’s not so much that these are the right words to use, but that bully is the wrong word.
To be sure, the anti-bullying movement that has picked up steam after high-profile suicides of bullied young people is a tremendously positive force for social change. But the problem with the movement and its terminology is that bully simply covers too much territory. It glosses over the specifics of what happens to any one person. Instances of sexual harassment, assault and battery, sexual assault, homophobia, hate speech and others all fall under one over-sized umbrella. In the process, the underlying causes are lost. So, too, are appropriate responses.
Consider two different instances:
In the first, an eighth grade student says something mean about a sixth grader’s hairstyle on Facebook, and tags the sixth grader to make sure she knows what was said.
In the second, a high school senior pushes a junior against a locker and, in doing so, puts his hands on her breasts.
Both might be called bullying. Lumping these two very different actions together under the single term of bullying has serious ramifications. The first is most properly termed harassment. The second is not only harassment, but a type of sexual assault as well. The first is very unlikely to rise to the level of a crime; the second is criminal conduct in every state. As well, the gendered nature of the second interaction is lost when it is simplified into a bullying problem. Could a single school anti-bullying policy appropriately respond to both of these incidents? Doesn’t the term bully minimize what happened in the second instance?
Addressing the many different actions that get called bullying is of critical importance to our young people, our educational system, and our society as a whole. By focusing on how to encourage positive behavior and empowerment without succumbing to the fad-like popularity of doing anti-bullying work, Lady Gaga is making a genuinely helpful contribution.