Words Matter: Bully as a Label

As bullying continues to be brought to everyone’s attention, there’s a real tendency as a society to talk not necessarily about bullying as a verb, but bully as a noun or as a label. When discussing incidents of bullying, we tend to talk a lot about “the bully” and “this person is a bully” and “don’t be a bully.”

One problem we have, in general, is that there’s a tendency to jump to labels very quickly. I think we can agree that those individuals―both children and adults―who bully others are people, too.

I’m certainly not condoning that people should engage in bullying behavior, but I think it could almost be considered part of human nature to establish what is really power, control or dominance over another person. When we use “bully” as a label, and basically say, “this person is a ‘bully’,” we’re dehumanizing them as a villain in a way that could have them despised potentially forever. Being given the label of “bully” is just as damaging as what happens to the victim or target of the bullying behavior.

We need to start establishing more awareness that calling someone a “bully” is damaging. For example, if a teacher caught a student lying about an incident that happened, the teacher would call them out for being dishonest.  The teacher would most likely use that as a learning experience and talk about the importance of honesty.

The teacher certainly would not begin referring to the child as “the liar” to everyone. The incident doesn’t become the definition of that person. I’m afraid that with bullying, we’re letting the unfortunate behavior become the definition of that person, which really discounts the ability of people to learn from their mistakes, to grow, change and mature.

I would really like to see “bully” never used as a label or a noun. Just because I one time engaged with my fellow students in name calling or ostracizing another student when I was eight years old, doesn’t mean that should define my character and my personality for years to come or, worse, a lifetime. It will take a lot of work to eradicate bullying, and changing our language is a simple step we can each take.