When then provincial finance minister Cathy Bennett held a news conference in December 2016 to reveal she was a victim of cyberbullying, the disturbing — sometimes violent — messages she had been receiving were shocking.
“I hope she chokes on her breakfast” was one of the less graphic examples.
The messages targeted her appearance, her family, her worth, or perceived lack thereof; if they were prompted by politics or policy, that wasn’t always clear. What was clear was that they were hurtful and personal, and sometimes threatening.
I think we’d all agree this is clear-cut bullying behaviour that should be called out, and never encouraged or condoned.
When St. John’s Coun. Debbie Hanlon told reporters this month that she was being bullied as a result of critical comments she made about people who parked for hours for free at broken meters downtown, the issue wasn’t quite as clear-cut.
Dana Feltham, who hosts a Women in Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador group on Facebook, wondered whether Hanlon was correct in her use of the word.
“This is a hard one…,” Feltham wrote. “I will never accept bullying and I applaud those women who stood up and called it out. But… what is bullying? I am not ashamed to say that I am one of the people who contacted (Coun.) Hanlon about this issue. I questioned the legality of ticketing when there was no meter in place and requested information on how this would be accomplished. But I don’t think any reasonable person could call my communication ‘bullying.’ However, I have no doubt that she received some nasty comments.”
Reactions I saw to Hanlon on social media were a little more blunt, but still within what I’d consider the realm of fair comment: “If you can’t take the heat…”; “Part of the job”; “If you’re in the public eye, expect criticism.”
It’s important to make the distinction between negative reaction and disagreement versus bullying.
A woman she crossed paths with in front of the Scotiabank building on Water Street, she said, made an angry remark about Hanlon’s comments on parking and threw coffee at her, soaking Hanlon’s feet and legs. That’s beyond bullying — it’s assault.
Bullying is always wrong and harmful.
Respectfully disagreeing with someone may be discomfiting, but it isn’t bullying.
“Respectful disagreement is a valuable part of democracy,” Feltham said. “Bullying is bigger, it’s systemic. It’s difficult to define sometimes.”
When I spoke to Hanlon this week she said she agrees, and says she used the word bullying to describe those who’d taken aim at her personally, not citizens who had merely disagreed with her.
“I just had to turn off Twitter for all of the hatred coming out of it…,” she said. “People should just be respectful.”
She said one person said they’d punch her in the face the next time they saw her. A woman she crossed paths with in front of the Scotiabank building on Water Street, she said, made an angry remark about Hanlon’s comments on parking and threw coffee at her, soaking Hanlon’s feet and legs. That’s beyond bullying — it’s assault.
Hanlon said she didn’t want to repeat any more of the nastiness or who it might have come from because that “would only be giving them power.”
Yet providing concrete examples, as Cathy Bennett did, helps clearly illustrate the severity of the problem.
Hanlon did not deserve to be bullied or threatened.
But in using the word “bullying” without detailing some of the ugly reactions she had to contend with, Hanlon might have made people who had expressed their dissatisfaction in a civil way feel like they were being lumped in with the folks who were abusive.
That’s why a word like bullying has to be reserved for legitimate bullying only.
To use it otherwise weakens and diminishes the harm that true bullying inflicts, and villainizes harmless disagreement.
Feltham, who hopes to eventually enter politics, says she’s fully prepared for rebuttal and debate — even heated debate. But no one should be expected to put up with abuse, and she certainly doesn’t intend to.
“It’s important that we are able to keep the two things separate,” she said, “but it’s equally important for us to call out the real bullying every single time.”
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