Is Bullying Ever Justified?

The first time that I thought about this question was a couple of years ago when I first saw Monica Lewinsky’s moving TED talk on the price of shame. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you take a look.  After seeing this talk, I came to the horrible realization that I was guilty of bullying a victim. When the Lewinsky-Clinton story came out in the late 90s, the judgement of the world rained down on her. Without giving it any thought at all, most of us (including me) jumped on this shaming bandwagon, which in retrospect, was nothing short of the brutal bullying and public shaming of an innocent person. A 22-year old intern, whose boss abused his power, took the brunt of the world’s cruel jokes, comments, and attacks. The rationale for our hate of course was that she was evil. A home-wrecker. A slut. Today most of us recognize that she was a barely an adult who was working for and in love with the most powerful man in the world. The existence of that relationship and the fallout from it was entirely his responsibility, and the blame should have been placed solely and squarely on his shoulders. But that’s not what happened. In fact, he was eventually acquitted of any wrong-doing and remains one of the US’s most beloved presidents.

Another example is the Tonya Harding case. Few of us knew the real story, but most of us were quick to judge her, laugh at her, and demean her. Only since her story became a Hollywood motion picture did any of us give a second thought to our jokes and our laughter. Only then did we bother to do a bit of digging to find out the truth. Did she really not know anything about the attack against Kerrigan? At a minimum, isn’t that a question we should have asked before we began these attacks on her character? Before we turned her into a social pariah?

Let’s look at a more recent and less ambiguous case. Yesterday the story broke about Roseanne Barr, who made a deplorable racist comment about one of Obama’s advisors. ABC (rightly) fired her. Her agent dropped her. Her acting career is probably dead. Surely losing your career is a good enough punishment for a racist tweet? Isn’t it? I mean, isn’t that enough of a punishment? But the world has jumped on this, and like so many previous instances, Roseanne is now the butt of every joke, and the target of millions of horrible comments and tweets. We’ve all become the conveyors of judgement and wrath. We are all selective trolls – lashing out at someone when they do something we don’t like or with which we disagree. And, to most of us, it doesn’t seem wrong. I mean, Roseanne’s a racist. She’s a terrible person. Doesn’t she deserve it? Monica and Tonya were victims. Roseanne isn’t. She’s a public figure who used her power to make a widely visible racist remark, so she deserves what she gets. Isn’t bullying justified here?

I don’t think so. The Internet and the age of social media has given us the capacity to quickly and publicly shame and bully people who we don’t know, without having complete information. We are judge, jury, and executioner all in 60 seconds or less. Often we end up harming someone we don’t even know from behind the safety of our keyboard.

But isn’t that what we’re railing against in the first place? I mean, what is the purpose of our attacks? Maybe it makes us feel better? Because certainly it isn’t an effective tool for teaching a racist how to be a nice person. By collectively bullying a bully, aren’t we turning him/her into a victim? Aren’t we becoming the bully? Aren’t we giving the bully more leverage for their hateful comments?

It’s ironic that we resort to the public attack of a bully as a way to punish them for being a bully. When did we stop seeing this as bullying and start seeing it as justified? And what will make us stop?

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