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When Advocates Become Perpetrators: The Complex Reality Of Bullying

Updated: Dec 25, 2023

“They bullied me,” I told my daughter as we were driving home. “They run an anti-bullying organization and are a strong advocate against bullying yet they bullied me.” 

“Mom, that’s not bullying because it isn’t repetitive behaviour. Bullying is repetitive behaviour. That is what we are taught in school,” my daughter replied.

Wait, what?

According to the Oxford languages dictionary, bullying is defined as, “seeking to harm, intimidate or coerce (someone perceived as vulnerable).” And the definition of intimidate is, “to make timid or fearful, to frighten especially, to compel or deter by or as if by threats.” I don’t see the word “repetitive” anywhere in these definitions.

Image credit: Vladimir Cetinski

Let’s consider the implications and impact of what this word “repetitive” may have:

As a teenager who was sent away to attend a very prestigious boarding school, I was targeted by a group of girls who went from name-calling to physically assaulting me publicly (if you are wondering, no one stepped in to help). I spoke to my teachers about the name calling at the first instant but I was told to ignore it as it seemed to be a one-off thing (according to the teachers) and girls being girls. Ignoring it escalated into an assault. Isn’t the first instant itself “seeking to harm, intimidate or coerce (someone perceived as vulnerable)?” Why does it have to be repetitive? Where did this concept of “repetitive” come from? Are we implying that we are meant to tolerate a certain amount of abuse before we can take a stand against the abuse? While we wait for this to become “repetitive”, what effect would this have on our mental health and our self-esteem?

In my early 20s, I entered the workforce in post-apartheid South Africa and I had the same experience in three different companies: being called stuck up and not a team member because I refused to be called by racial slurs used to refer to Indian people. I think what made this worse was that other Indian people were okay with being called racial slurs and joined in with others in putting me down as I refused to be addressed/abused this way. Every time we were out of town for the day for work, my male counterparts asked me what I cooked for them for the day and I would say nothing. They would then remind me of another Indian female employee who did this for them. I was expected to do the same. Incidentally, this Indian female had no qualms about being called racial slurs and in fact, criticized me for having issues with this.

Being excluded from management’s Christmas parties even though my predecessor (a white male) was always invited. I was told I am not part of management. Ironically, the head of one particular department was a black lady and on the day of the Christmas party, the transportation arranged to take everyone to the party somehow “missed” picking her up. I wonder why? 

I was asked to give shoulder massages by other managers and when I refused, once again, I wasn’t a team member. My boss would stare at my breasts when talking to me, I complained to HR who seemed to be on my side and offered to give me a glowing recommendation when I quit that job because of these incidents. I believed him because I was in his office when he gave a glowing recommendation to an employee who was fired for stealing from the company. When it was my turn, he gave me such an awful reference, which prevented me from getting another job in that city. 

In each of these incidents, was I supposed to wait until the behaviour became “repetitive?” Does “seeking to harm, intimidate or coerce” have to be “repetitive” for it to be labelled as “bullying?” What effect would that have had on one’s mental health?

Was the word “repetitive” added on to ease the workload of those responsible for applying the Solve strategy to bullying? What is the Solve strategy? A strategy that results in three additional problems being created due to the law of unintended consequences. Take a look here: Why Solving Bullying Could Possibly be Making it Worse. 

I shared my TEDx talk with someone I looked up to and admired. This person runs a well-established anti-bullying organization. The feedback I got on my talk was that “it’s like using a popular term (bullying) to get noticed but it is a misuse of the term. You are talking about self-negative talk, negative old tapes…”

I graciously accepted the feedback and kindly asked for this person’s definition of the word “bullying” so I could understand them. Instead, they sent me a legal definition of the word “harassment” which included the word “bullying” but didn’t define it. When they offered to share their researched definition of the word “bullying”, I thanked them and took them up on their offer. After all, I was more than willing to accept when I was wrong and take corrective action. It’s been more than a month, I am still waiting for an answer.

By the way, if you are curious, I do share the Oxford Languages dictionary definition of bullying and connect this behaviour to self-bullying in this article of mine: What is Self-Bullying? And for reference purposes, here is a link to my TEDx talk:

Let us look at the definition of bullying again: “seeking to harm, intimidate, or coerce (someone perceived as vulnerable).” How do bullies “seek to harm, intimidate or coerce?” By using bad and worse communication causes:

  1. They make statements about others.

  2. They don’t ask questions.

  3. They don’t answer questions.

Based on these criteria and the definition of bullying, I was bullied by this person because they made statements about me, they didn’t ask questions and they didn’t answer my questions. As for whether their initial criticism was meant to intimidate or coerce me, they did remind me of their professional degree (working in the area of therapy for over 3 decades), implying I wasn’t at their level. 

Furthermore, in all of my interactions with them, I followed good communication guidelines: I made statements about myself and I asked questions (which I never got answers to), I never had the opportunity to answer questions because they didn’t ask any. 

Incidentally, I shared my talk with another person who runs a huge anti-bullying organization, and in their words, “Your TEDx talk was incredibly insightful and we could glean a wealth of knowledge from your experiences.” They fully understood my message.

It is absolutely okay to question something if it doesn’t make sense, but question it, instead of making statements about another person based on one’s perceptions and somewhat limited understanding. When that same person won’t answer questions, it is either because they aren’t interested in being understood or they don’t truly want to help.

If those who are advocating for anti-bullying aren’t practicing what they preach, where does this leave the rest of us?

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