Criticism Does Not Equal Bullying (or, What Bullying Means to Me)


(Update regarding comments:  if you’re here to leave a flippant comment about the issue in question, it is unlikely to get through.  Either engage or move on.  This is likely to become my comment policy from now on because I really don’t have patience for people who want to treat my comments section as if my blog were an opinion piece on HuffPost.)

If you missed the events of the last 36 hours, you should probably catch up here.  I linked to that post earlier today; in short, Charles A. Tan takes an editor to task for their problematic anthology submission guidelines, among other related things.  Earlier today, that same editor, after declaring on Twitter that they felt persecuted by people like Tan, etc., decided to delete his Twitter account and make his FB profile inaccessible (I think the latter is true).  This came on the heels of this editor’s belief that he was being bullied by the people who he had un-affectionately called “rotten meat” (you can see the Twitter exchange for part of that here).

I’m not here to talk about the editor’s submission guidelines or any of the major criticisms offered by Tan or others regarding what this editor has said about Africa and other things.  Instead, I want to talk about the charge that Tan, myself, and others who have criticized the editor (Natalie Luhrs and Jim C. Hines, for example) are bullies.  In short, I will say this:  criticism is not the same as bullying.

First, bullying is not:

  • Being told why a position you took is racist
  • Being told why something you wrote could be misconstrued as X
  • Being told why your editorial decisions are contradictory and are not as inclusive as you think
  • Being told you got something wrong
  • Being told you offended someone
  • Being told you said something sexist
  • Being told you need to think about things and stop resorting to name-calling because you got criticized
These are not instances of bullying.  The nature of these “instances” are not, in principle, irrational, though they may be unwanted, and so they fall more clearly under the domain of “criticism,” as they are, indeed, criticisms of a position.  One could be wrong about any one of these, but it’s impossible to discover the truth of a given matter if one does not treat it as initially valid.  Indeed, I’ve been criticized for many things in the past and have disagreed (and agreed) with a variety of different positions.  Articulated properly, a disagreement about a position is far more useful than blanket condemnation of that position as “bullying.”

Second, bullying is a far more pervasive and insidious practice than some who use its name seem willing to accept.  A good definition of bullying can be found on the U.S. government website, Stop Bullying.  I won’t include the whole definition here, but here is a relevant excerpt:

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems. 

Let’s toss aside the bit about children because I think most of us would agree that bullying can happen between adults, too.  The same page lists a number of behavior types which are defined as bullying, from taunting to unwanted sexual comments to name-calling (i.e., a variation of an ad hominem attack, to be honest) to exclusion , etc.  Notice that the definition makes clear that power is an essential feature.

If I could criticize this page, it would be that it doesn’t make explicit the difference between normal social control (wherein a behavior is rationally excluded on the basis that it is bad — i.e., someone who believes women shouldn’t have any rights and belong to men) vs. coercive social violence (i.e., using ridicule, public shaming, and other tools to prevent someone with legitimate concerns from engaging in a community, such as a woman who speaks out about a sexual assault being repeatedly told by a community and the police that she should shut up — see Steubenville).  I think these are valid distinctions.  The former is a normal consequence of a social culture (women wouldn’t have the rights they have now without some variation of social control); the latter is abusive and can happen in a variety of situations and in a variety of communities, even sf/f (such as someone being blacklisted on the sole basis that other people don’t like them).

None of what falls under the “bullying” category should be misconstrued as “criticism.”

Here’s what bullying means to me:

  • It means being afraid you’ll get punched by someone with a spiked ring, but also so terrified to tell an adult because you don’t think they’ll do anything about it and because you’re afraid the kid will follow you home and punch you when you’re off school grounds.
  • It means feeling helpless to protect yourself and feeling like nobody else will help you even if you really need it.
  • It means being openly ridiculed for literally no viable reason (you’re short; they just don’t like you; they want someone to pick on; they don’t like your glasses; they don’t like your hair; you have freckles; you look different; you talk different; you wear the wrong clothes) and being unable to stop yourself form taking on the names and knock pegs off your self-esteem.
  • It means running home from the bus because you’re afraid of what the other kids will do to you.
  • It means closing in on yourself because you can’t reason with someone who hates you for no reason, who won’t listen to adults, who looks for every opportunity to punish you, who follows you around, who abuses you physically and mentally, who reminds you that you’re really just a worthless pile of shit.
  • It means starting to believe that you just might be worthless, or close enough to it.
For the record:  most of these happened to me throughout much of middle and high school.  I did get threatened with physical violence on a routine basis by a kid with a spiked ring.  I did get followed home (TWICE) by a kid (different each time) who wanted to beat the shit out of me (one actually did so).  I did get called all kinds of names because I was short or had asthma or was poor or didn’t have the right clothes or was perceived as smart (something which resulted in severe depression throughout high school; my GPA dropped from a 3.25ish in my freshman year to a C-average in my sophomore year).  I got ridiculed constantly, so much so that I spent much of middle and high school trying to avoid the locker room so I didn’t have to being pushed and called names and laughed at and so on when I changed (for years, I would wear sweatpants to school so I didn’t have to change at all, and then my P.E. teacher said I wasn’t allowed to do that anymore and would have to change in the locker room).
I know what it feels like to be bullied.  I also know what it feels like to be criticized for things I’ve said or written.  They are not even remotely the same thing.  Not fucking close at all.  You know what happened to me when I got criticized for something I wrote?  I felt like shit for a little while, and then I calmed down, thought about it, and realized either that I stood by what I had written (and could justify it) or I that needed to change my thinking on that topic.  Most of the people with whom I talk about social justice issues are fairly respectful of my positions, even if we disagree.
You know what bullying did to me?  It nearly fucking destroyed me.  I’m lucky I had good friends.  I’m lucky I moved from Washington to California and ended up in a high school where people didn’t ridicule me or threaten me with physical violence every day, where teachers actually supported me in my studies and pushed me to do things I didn’t have the confidence to do because of all the shit that had happened to me before.  I’m lucky I got to be closer to my family and could get a little bit of my confidence back.  Because before I moved, the bullies had destroyed my love of almost everything except those things I could escape to — video games (and books).  I lost my love of music (I played trumpet throughout middle school and high school and used to be really good).  I lost my love of studying.  I got angry.  I got mean.  I was a horrendous teenager, because I could take it out on my family, because they wouldn’t try to hurt me like the kids at school.  I live with that shit to this day and try to make up for it (even though my mother reminds me I don’t have to).
But I’m lucky.  I got to move away from the things that made me hate life.  I got to gain back a little of that music love.  I got to learn to love learning again.  I got to discover my passion for books and writing.  I made friendships that will last a lifetime.  I got a support group.  I got lucky.
Don’t think this post is easy to write.  I don’t talk about most of this very often with anyone, even my closest friends.  I don’t talk about it because it hurts.  It drags up memories and feelings I wish I didn’t have.  But I’m also tired of people trivializing bullying as though it applies to any situation where you might feel bad for a little bit.  I’m tired of hearing criticism get characterized as bullying.  I’m tired of bullying being used as an escape hatch from having to deal with criticism, as if one were above reproach.
Bullying is not a joke.  It’s not an escape hatch.  It’s not isolated to my unique experience.  But it is a serious ordeal that shouldn’t be trivialized because someone doesn’t want to deal with being told they’re wrong.  That’s bullshit, and it should stop.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

10 thoughts on “Criticism Does Not Equal Bullying (or, What Bullying Means to Me)

    • I had a feeling we probably shared some experiences. I don't actually remember much before middle school. I imagine I got bullied in elementary school, too, but my mind has decided the memories it wants to keep from that period was the one year I spent catching snakes for fun.

      Not an easy thing to share, but I felt it needed sharing.

  1. I think most people who throw around that word in this kind of situation really have no idea what actual bullying is. I can relate to what you went through, Shaun. I'm really sorry you went through that. I experienced many similar things for many years.

    I'm lucky I found great mentors and teachers as well, and I'm lucky enough to be a critic by trade now. So people take issue with my opinions and my arguments all the time.

    That is NOT bullying. That's having someone take issue with what you said or wrote.

    Literally every day for 20 years that has happened to me. Once in a while, I get someone whose language is abusive or aggressive, but for the most part, the difference between bullying or aggression and simple differences of opinion is not difficult to grasp. It's extraordinarily crystal clear when someone is engaging in an intellectual difference of opinion and behavior meant to intimidate (which, luckily for me, is rare — though when it happens, hoo boy).

    People disagreeing with you and pointing out why they disagree is not bullying. I've had to make that clear to my middle schooler. You'd think people fully into adulthood would have grasped that by now. You'd think.

    • I would extend that further to "people disagreeing with you w/ snarky Twitter comments is not bullying either." Even some degree of ridicule isn't necessarily bullying if it is founded on rational disagreement. This may be why it is sometimes hard for some to see the difference. After all, one might feel intimidated by an aggressive disagreement.

      Regardless, we're definitely in agreement here, and I'm glad you found mentors and teachers who helped you when you were younger. Bullying is terrible 🙁

  2. Thank you for this Shaun. I was bullied from when I was eight until I was about seventeen and it destroyed my sense of self-worth for a long, long time too. So thank you being strong enough and courageous enough for sharing your experiences.

    Calling something bullying is too often used as a deflective manoeuvre, to make people back off. I think its also emblematic of our culture of entitlement and privilege that people when receiving criticism instantly want to perceive it as bullying, because they can't be wrong, right?

    • I don't think it's isolated to privilege, though it may be more common in that quarter. Criticism says two things: 1) we're all human and it's possible even the best of us could have gotten something wrong, and 2) people disagree. Both are valid. You're not obligated to like either thing, but you do have to deal with it. Reality, after all, isn't our friend 😛

  3. Well said. Much more eloquent that my thoughts on this issue. I keep wanting to post the immortal lines from Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

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