Seven ways to have a real political conversation about bullying
Bullying is the topic up for debate in the House of Commons today. You may be saying: "At last!"
But no, it's not political culture that's getting a hard look by our federal politicians, even though this would be an ideal time to put some issues on the table. Although it's a very worthy and timely topic, I'd argue that MPs, political folks and yes, even journalists could make this conversation far more meaningful today if they talked about their own practices on this score; their failure to lead by example.
First, start with a definition of bullying, this one obtained from the U.S. stopbullying.gov website:
In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:
- An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
- Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
By that definition, it's not hard to see where we can make political comparisons. And with that in mind, here are seven ways in which we could have a serious conversation about how politics veers dangerously close to the type of bullying behaviour being condemned today by the MPs.
1. Question Period and members' statements. I don't really need to say anything more than that, do I? The insults, the shouting, the cheering-on of people who can yell the loudest and mock the most? As is repeatedly stated, if this happened in any other workplace, we'd call it bullying. But it's constantly air-brushed here as "vigorous debate." So vigorous that many of us can barely stand to watch it anymore.
2. Relatedly, the level of debate on Twitter, Facebook and in the comments sections of political blogs or online stories. Yes, I put this right after that last point in case anyone in the spectators' stands is feeling smug. Staring into the black screen of Tweetdeck, I too often see (from all political stripes), comments intended to scare or rattle people who are simply speaking their minds.
3. Rewarding bad behaviour. We keep being told (and we in the media perpetuate this image) that true leaders are strong, aggressive, ruthless and "in control." They gain friends by fear, not kindness. That is also the description of a bully. Think about it.
4. Mocking differences over which people have no control, such as physical appearance, accents, etc. For some reason it's seen as totally OK in politics to poke fun at NDP caucus members for their youth, women MPs for their voices, some male MPs (guess which) for their hair. And we who work in the world of politics want to lecture high-school kids on how to talk to each other?
5. Negative ads. Some say all's fair in love, war and politics, but I find it hard to look at some of those ads in recent years, especially the ones against Stephane Dion, and not think of sand being kicked into someone's face at the beach. (And in case anyone's tempted to see this as partisan sympathy, I was similarly unimpressed by the personal insults levelled against Stephen Harper when he was opposition leader. We want to call this 'attacking" in the political context, but if it was high school, it would be called "teasing.")
5 (a) Threatening people's jobs. Okay, okay -- at base, politics is about one group of politicians (the opposition) trying to take the jobs of other politicians (the ones in power.) But does that mean that every disagreement in Ottawa has to be distilled down to a job threat? I've seen a real increase in this rhetoric in the past 10 years or so in Ottawa: feuding Liberals threatening to deny jobs to rivals, Conservatives putting clouds over careers of people deemed to be Liberals or other rivals. When someone with power and influence is threatening someone with less power and influence, that could well be described as bullying.See the definition above.
5 (b) On that same score -- trying to get people in trouble with their bosses. This is another bullying tactic that has increased exponentially in Ottawa in recent years, and it is intended as intimidation, pure and simple. It works this way -- rather than deal with a critic (whether journalist, blogger, rival or simple commenter) head on, the complainer simply calls his or her boss. The idea is to show your potential critic/rival that you have more power than he/she does over his/her job. It's a repellent way of handling disagreement. It's also cowardly, but bullying is often cowardly, isn't it?
7. Temper tantrums. Maybe it's the high stakes of the political world (see previous point about jobs in the balance) but I've been constantly surprised through the years about stories of political staff here and the way they've endured hot-tempered outbursts and harangues from their MP bosses. Not just the low-level MPs, either. Former prime minister Paul Martin became famous for what people around him cheerfully called "beatings" and current Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been known to kick chairs. Bosses aren't supposed to scare the bejeezus out of their employees, period.
People in politics don't like to admit that bullying goes on here, or worse, that it's happened to them -- it's viewed as a sign of a weakness or "whining." But that's the whole thing about bullying, right? It persists exactly because of this mentality. And until the political people here starting owning up to the practice in this workplace, whether as perpetrators or victims, Ottawa is not really in a position to preach.