Grow Up–You’re Probably Not a Victim of ‘Bullying’ or ‘Cyberbullying’

By on June 11, 2010

The annual conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) features a lot of interest in "bullying" this year (here’s the PDF agenda). Peter Schmidt at The Chronicle of Higher Education caught on to this topic ahead of time, reporting on Tuesday that three sessions would be devoted to the topic on Wednesday.

Some kinds of "bullying" are indeed problems, but the field right now is rife with confusion between a truly hostile working environment and the normal rough-and-tumble of vigorous debate in a free society. You don’t need to use the term "bullying" when there are perfectly valid categories of unprotected conduct already, such as harassment, discrimination, discriminatory harassment, and constructive discharge. Throwing all kinds of protected expression into the realm of "bullying" only encourages people to see themselves as victims of taunts who need somebody to step in and stop the teasing, just like a schoolyard child who tells on his classmates to the teacher or to Mommy or Daddy. Complaining about things that are not truly actionable makes it harder for the real victims to be taken seriously.

Furthermore, as Schmidt reports, 

[E]ven the best-intentioned approaches to bullying can backfire. For example, many colleges have been adopting ‘respectful workplace’ or ‘dignity at work’ policies calling for people to be civil to their fellow employees, but ["mobbing expert" professor Kenneth Westhues] has watched bullies bring frivolous complaints under such policies as just one more means of tormenting their victims.

My message to you wimpy complainers: grow up! Get yourself empowered to withstand the mean things people say. That’s how kids grow up, and you are adults who should be ashamed of yourselves.

Here are some examples of the things that adult professors and adult students ought to be able to handle on their own:

In a Chronicle article (subscription only) cited by Schmidt, journalist Piper Fogg worries that 

[t]his is no playground bully brandishing fists in search of lunch money. The academic bully plays a more subtle game. He  or, just as likely, she  might interrupt every time you speak in a committee meeting. Or roll his eyes at your new idea. [Emphasis added.]

Oh, no! In Fogg’s defense, Fogg acknowledges that "[s]ome people may not believe that eye rolling … rises to the level of misconduct worth confronting." I’m one of them.

Fogg does tell some stories of real bullies but also tells this story about a Ph.D. in philosophy who 

worked in an administrative position at an Ohio college, where she also occasionally taught academic courses. While organizing a prestigious campus event, she says, she raised $67,000 and arranged for an internationally renowned speaker to attend. It was then that her supervisor began acting strangely: ‘She started haggling with me over little things, disrupting my work.’ The director conspicuously failed to thank her publicly at the event, and later mocked her behind her back, she says. When she needed to prepare for a course she planned to teach, her boss refused to grant her the time and even clicked her tongue in disapproval. [Emphases added.]

The Ph.D. "started to panic" and lodged a formal complaint, requesting mediation, Fogg reports.

Fogg also alerts us to a "Workplace Aggression Research Questionnaire" that makes the same mistake in calling protected expression a problem. As the questionnaire is reported in the New York Times, "[o]ccasional insults don’t count. Bullying occurs when the behavior has occurred consistently during the past six months." Well, kind of, but not really. To count as actionable behavior in the workplace, the behavior has to be severe enough or pervasive enough to actually change the conditions of your employment. (See my colleague Azhar Majeed’s excellent law review article for more precise definitions of discriminatory harassment.) 

The questionnaire even identifies as bullies those who fail to give you "the praise for which you felt entitled"! It is usually going to be your problem and not somebody else’s if you find that you frequently, for example, have "[h]ad your contributions ignored by others" or have been "[s]hown little empathy or sympathy when you were having a tough time."

Indeed, as one of the papers at the AAUP conference shows, according to Schmidt, "The most common type of bullying behavior faculty members engage in, the Wilkes [University] researchers found, is discounting another person’s accomplishments." (Emphasis added.)

The researchers found that the other most common forms of so-called bullying are "turning other people against their victim, or subjecting their victim to public criticism or constant scrutiny." (Emphases added.)

The job of an academic includes discounting accomplishments that, in one’s professional judgment, ought to be discounted. That often means subjecting people to public criticism because of any number of things that the researcher might disagree with. This would include, for instance, the complaints of over 100 University of Chicago faculty members who, by these definitions, are apparently bullying the late Milton Friedman by subjecting him to significant public criticism because of his academic and political work. I imagine that Friedman, even while alive, could handle it. Yes, if you are an academic, you must expect to be subject to constant scrutiny even after death. If Bill Ayers and David Horowitz can handle mean people saying mean things and can live with it when people discount their accomplishments, so can you.
Or maybe you live in a zoo, you look like a monkey, and you act like one, too.

According to Lenora DeBord, Mary Taylor Huntsman, and Shane Talbott, advertising their AAUP presentation, "Mobbing/bullying in the workplace is a phenomenon that is sweeping our country. Many states have begun legislation to eradicate this issue." And according to other AAUP presenters, there is a new "nationwide initiative" planned that focuses "on workplace incivility and bullying, inclusivity, and ADR [alternative dispute resolution] in higher education and healthcare. This initiative is sponsored by the American Arbitration Association, the ADR Consortium, and Loyola University’s Institute of Human Resources and Employment Relations."

Let’s just say that this project deserves "constant scrutiny" in order to properly protect free speech.

Finally, yet another article on "cyberbullying" this week takes a look at research on adult college students who say mean things to one another via the Internet. A researcher says, "I don’t think many high-school students who experienced cyberbullying will suddenly change once they enter college, even though they may be more mature. I think they already learned that this is a way to put down others." (Emphasis added.) The same researcher says that she has "never heard of colleges or universities limiting cyberbullying or taking preventive actions." FIRE’s speech code database says otherwiseif you count the many "acceptable use" policies restricting Internet speech, though they do not actually use the term "cyberbullying."

There are now a few things I would like to say to the thin-skinned "victims" of bullies and cyberbullies (not the true victims of things like harassment, but those with frivolous claims). I thank FIRE’s interns for reaching back to their grammar school days to come come up with these things people might say about you:

If you can’t handle Internet taunts, you’re probably a n00b. 
Neener, neener, you’re a wiener, and a wimpy, sissy crybaby.
You’re so full of crap that your eyes are brown. Also, you’re a poopy-head and a butthead, and have cooties and four eyes.
And you’re a geek and a dweeb, you suck, and you’re a dummy, an idiot, and a jerk and a fool.
Especially if you are a boy, you should understand that while girls go to college to get more knowledge, boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.
Also, your mom called. She said you are a booger.