Canaries in the mine – Part 1
Troy Media – by Anne McTavish
It’s hot in the mineshaft. Small circles of light nudge at the edges of the darkness. The work is dangerous. The invisible methane gas is just as dangerous as the explosions and roof cave-ins. When the caged canaries stop singing, the miners have to get out, or they’ll die.
Our young people are committing bullycide. They are our canaries, warning us of danger, and we are starting to react. We’re making rules. New laws and zero tolerance policies. How effective will they be in dealing with the complex social phenomenon of bullying?
The problem with zero tolerance policies is that they’re applied in an all-or-nothing way. That’s like answering “Yes” or “No” to the question “Why?” Zero tolerance policies are easy to apply, but they treat every case as if it were the most extreme.
Laws that punish come into play late in the game. By the time broken bones, bruises and blood appear, you’re late. You still need to deal with it, but you’re late.
The law cannot and will not by itself cure the social cancer of bullying. It’s like using radiation to deal with cancer. The radiation needs to be applied skillfully to the cancerous tumor and to be part of a comprehensive program involving a knowledgeable choice of chemotherapy, drugs, diet and other therapies. You don’t use radiation for every incidence of cancer. Laws should deal with properly defined cases of serious and extreme bullying.
There’s a problem at the heart of all those new laws: the definitions. The law likes clear, concise, crisp definitions. Bullying is a complex phenomenon that doesn’t lend itself to clear, concise, crisp definitions. We are left with incomplete definitions that will need to be interpreted and applied by the various courts. Until we have decisions from the top appellate courts (which will take many cases over a number of years), we will not have a high degree of certainty about how those laws apply.
Which brings in another part of the problem: There are different definitions of bullying and different ways the laws apply. That makes it difficult to use a decision from one jurisdiction to a case in another jurisdiction, from one province to another. The result will be uneven and inconsistent decisions.
Also, there are key elements missing from the new laws. Bullying is a social phenomenon in which the social setting and provocation play primary, important roles. In law, the social setting isn’t considered, even as a mitigating factor. Provocation is treated as a mitigating factor (if at all), not a contributing or causative factor.
When people who are bullied reach the end of their rope, a societally-encouraged response is to bully back. (“Stand up for yourself.”) And they bully back harder than they were bullied. If a physical bullying-back is in response to verbal bullying, the bullied-bully may not be able to use provocation as a defense or even as a mitigating factor.
The bullied-bully will find it difficult to use self-defense, because you can only use sufficient force to repel an attack. That means you must be being attacked; pre-emptive strikes are rarely, if ever, condoned. A bully-back attack is usually more forceful than the original bullying attacks, and arguing the cumulative effect of the series of bullying attacks is difficult.
There are already laws on the books, both civil and criminal, that deal with bully behaviours (defamation, physical assault, stalking, etc.). However, not many cases have gone to court because we mentally categorize the behaviours as “just bullying”, not as tortious or criminal behaviour. That reflects our general attitude towards bullying, that it’s something children do and something you just have to learn to deal with. We don’t recognize one student hitting and punching another student as a criminal assault; we see it as “just bullying”. We don’t recognize the gossiping and demonizing as defamation; we see it as “just gossiping”.
It’s our attitude that needs changing, not just our laws. We need to recognize the seriousness of bully behaviours. We need to start showing kindness to other people, especially those who are being bullied. We need to adopt better ways to handle our differences and to achieve our goals. Bullying can no longer be an option.
Anne McTavish is a conflict coach and lawyer, and her website ishttp://www.fistfreelanguage.com/.