On September 7, Amanda Todd – a 15-year-old girl from Port Coquitlam, B.C. – posted a nine-minute YouTube video in which she described, using flashcards, the harrowing abuse she had faced over the past three years. Entitled “My Story: Struggling, bullying, suicide, and self harm,” the video went viral after she committed suicide on October 10.
In the wake of her death, politicians have focused on three issues. First, the lack of resources provided to victims: over a month elapsed between the date Todd’s video was uploaded and her death. Where were support services when she needed them most? Second, the nature of cyber-bullying: the internet has led to the emergence of new forms of abuse, and perpetrators are able to access their victims and spread information with unprecedented ease. Third, the legal status of bullying: should the Criminal Code be extended to punish bullying and cyber-bullying?
A focus on these three points is valuable, but has one important flaw: it emphasizes “bullying,” but not abuse or oppression. Todd’s abuse began when men she met online – men who told her she was “stunning” and “beautiful” – sent topless photographs of her to her friends and family. Afterwards, she was called names like “slut” and even received death threats. If she had been a few years older, the media would have pronounced her a victim of “sexual harassment” or “hate speech.” If she were a thirty-year-old woman, the debate surrounding her death could not have begun without references to sexism and gender stereotyping. As Danielle Paradis noted in Flurt!, a website that works to empower young women, “the prevalent culture around [Todd] sends mixed messages, such as take your clothes off to get the affection you desire, but don’t do it in the wrong way or with the wrong people or you’ll be seen as a dirty, worthless whore.”
Yet the measure offered by NDP MP Dany Morin on Monday referenced bullying, not sexism or slut-shaming. Morin proposed building an all-party committee of MPs to study bullying and help build a national anti-bullying strategy. It’s a well-intentioned measure, but as soon as the word “bullying” is used, the schoolyard connotations of the word take over, providing a convenient way for politicians to dodge serious questions about social inequality, sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and gender stereotyping. Bullying is a pernicious form of abuse, but it cannot be treated separately from other forms of oppression. It is also not a static phenomenon; it is a learned social behaviour that happens in homes and workplaces, and is not confined to any particular age group. The victims of bullying often go on to become bullies themselves.
Going forward, any debate around bullying must consider the messages society sends young people today. How might a person feel obliged to conform to a stereotype? How might someone feel stereotyped? How does bullying relate to other forms of oppression, and how can victims be treated so that they both heal and do not become perpetrators themselves?
These questions cannot be considered in isolation, and we worry politicians are over-emphasizing punishment. Liberal health critic Hedy Fry wants to add cyber-bullying to the Criminal Code, and earlier this year Ontario introduced the Accepting Schools Act, which would mandate schools to take a tougher stance with bullies, including expulsion. But does punishment and explusion stop the abuse, or just move it outside the school? As Wanda Cassidy, an expert on bullying from Simon Fraser University, notes, “Often what politicians do, because they don’t understand education, they think if you bring in legislation and punish…it will solve the problem….We know that just is not the case.” Rather, Cassidy says, “We have to have a model that is educative, more preventative, and is discussion based.”
With initiatives such as deal.org, bullying.org, and Bullying Awareness Week (which takes place from November 12 to 17), the Canadian government has done well raising awareness of bullying in schools, but these learning materials are clearly designed for children.
Bullying is prevalent on the playground – bullying.org estimates that high schools experience 282,000 incidents of bullying per month – but not because of the playground. Like other forms of abuse, bullying concerns every single one of us – the behaviour and messages we each accept give power to the perpetrators. Politicians must think seriously, then, about the messages they send when they talk about bullying; we must approach bullying with the seriousness we approach racism and sexism.