It was certainly a Kodak moment. Heritage Minister James Moore with Ottawa Councillor Allan Hubley (who lost his 15-year old gay son Jamie, to suicide due in part to bullying) announcing a brand new federally-assisted peer-led program to combat bullying in our schools. Laureen Harper wipes a tear from her eye. After all, what parent, indeed what human being, could fail to sympathize with a parent whose child has taken his own life?

But quite frankly, this is not really the Heritage Minister's jurisdiction. Education at all levels is a provincial responsibility. Municipalities are responsible to the provinces too. And given that Heritage Canada apparently has too few resources as it is and is blithely cutting funding to programs that clearly DO fall under its jurisdiction - for example, the National Archival Development Program or the other programs and staff over at Library and Archives Canada - what's it doing brandishing money and meddling in the affairs of the provincial education systems, the Red Cross, and other community groups? When folks have the nerve to protest cutbacks to Library and Archives, or to federal museums, for example, Moore continually trots out the "arm's length" argument. But he's certainly quick to step into the spotlight when there's an opportunity to polish the Government's image and tug on the public's heartstrings!

I also question whether the much-vaunted peer-to-peer aspect of this anti-bullying initiative is going to be particularly effective. After all, most of the bullying that goes on in schools these days is by peers. Doesn't this amount to hiring the fox to guard the hen-house? Seems to me it would be better to have concerned adults running the program - current or retired teachers, parents, and members of the broader community, including some young adults - perhaps university students or recent graduates who have gone through the same thing recently and lived to tell the tale!
For some reason, I always thought of the term "bullying" as meaning something like: forcing someone else to do something they don't want to do. But clearly the term as is presently used encompasses something broader than that. And even in the 1960s-era Concise Oxford Dictionary, the definition is fairly broad - to "bully" is defined as to "persecute, oppress, tease, physically or morally; frighten (into or out of)". On the other hand, that same dictionary defines the use of "bully" as in "bully for you" (especially US or colonial) as "capital, first-rate, bravo" - in other words, something fairly positive. I wonder now if the definition has not in recent years become so broad as to be virtually meaningless. Could our failure to come to grips with what exactly CONSTITUTES "bullying" have something to do with our failure to adequately address the problem?

In my early days in the workplace, the big no-no was "sexual harassment". That seemed to me to be fairly clear-cut - rape or sexual assault or making sexual favours a condition of promotion or continued employment - but eventually it got expanded beyond that, to include things like telling any kind of sexual-innuendo joke that might make people uncomfortable, or posting Playboy calendars, or things that, while perhaps inappropriate, were not really direct attacks against any particular woman or other individual.

And after "sexual harassment" there was "personal harassment". That was another category that to me, seemed to verge on being so vague as to be meaningless. I remember one discussion during my days at Labour Canada in the late 1980s or early 1990s, when someone asked, "If we don't like it or disagree, is that automatically 'personal harassment'?"

Now the big bugaboo is "bullying". If someone says or does something that is politically incorrect, does that automatically constitute "bullying"? Where does bullying occur? It used to be a term for playground altercations, but clearly bullying occurs in adult venues too. In some circles, it's almost "de rigueur" - consider the TV show "Dragon's Den", for example, or some of the reality-TV shows.

I'm not defending any of the behaviour which may now be considered to be bullying. But at the same time, we have to realize that at different times in history - even from one decade to another or perhaps one YEAR to another - our standards change and the lens through which we view things gradually changes focus. Corporal punishment was a given in my childhood, both at school and at home. It wasn't FREQUENT - in fact, I never experienced it at school - but it was considered a legitimate and expected part of the arsenal that adults used to discipline children. Now, we like to pretend that we have never favoured it. Societal attitudes towards gays, lesbians and the transgendered have undergone a sea change during my lifetime and the evolution continues.

Are we reaching a point where, whenever someone, adult or child, does something we don't like, that we can label it "bullying" and demand that the "authorities" intervene and remedy the situation? Is there even a satisfactory remedy to be had?

Teen suicide is real. Work stress is real. Everyday-life-stress is real. But like life, solutions are complex and not to be found at the bottom of a cereal or Cracker Jack box.



October 2017



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