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  • Writer's pictureJessica Jaymes Purdy

Bullying Is No Laughing Matter

How Words Can Conceal and Enable Harm: Article 10

The words "No to bullying" in red on dark background.

One of the most toxic ways that bullying is minimized and enabled is by claiming the bulling was nothing more than "joking". Bullies and their defenders often try to pass off abusive behavior as harmless teasing or simple disagreements, as if the victim is simply misinterpreting events or overreacting to the situation. This rhetoric serves to gaslight the bullied and shield the bully from accountability.

To understand why the using the phrase "it was just a joke" as a defense is so problematic, we need to clearly distinguish the difference between good-natured teasing and bullying. Joking around with friends is a normal part of social bonding. In the context of a healthy relationship where there is equal power and mutual respect, people may playfully tease each other, knowing that it comes from a place of affection and that no real harm is meant.

But bullying is something else entirely. Bullying is aggressive behavior that intentionally targets a person with the aim of harming, intimidating, or coercing them. Bullying is dependent on an imbalance of power. The bully’s actions and words are attempts to assert their dominance over others. Bullying can take many forms, from verbal taunts and threats to social exclusion and physical violence.

The key differences lie in the power dynamics and the intent behind the behavior. Good-natured joking happens between people on equal footing, with an implied understanding that no one means to cause real distress. But bullying involves a more powerful person deliberately targeting a less powerful person with the goal of causing harm and asserting control.

When called out on their hurtful actions, bullies will often claim they were "just kidding around" and that the victim shouldn't be so sensitive. They portray themselves as being on equal footing with the victim, just two people who don't see things the same way or who are both at fault for how the interactions turned out. This framing obscures the key components that distinguish bullying from actual good-natured teasing: the imbalance of power and the intent to harm.

Bullies may even claim the victim is the real bully for standing up to them. This language is meant to obscure the power dynamics at the heart of bullying. It's not a mutual disagreement between peers when one person is targeting the other with aggressive behavior and the other is attempting to defend themselves. It's not a two-way conflict when one person is seeking to control and demean the other.

Bullying is so damaging because being bullied isn't just unpleasant in the moment. It can have severe and long-lasting impacts on mental health, self-esteem, and feelings of safety. Victims of bullying are at higher risk for anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.

Bullying also frequently intersects with systems of oppression and marginalization. Studies consistently show that students of color, LGBTQ+ youth, kids with disabilities, and those from low-income backgrounds face higher rates of bullying. For members of these groups, bullying is a daily manifestation of the discrimination and ostracization we are seeing in politics and media.

The effects of this minimizing language are profound. It suggests to the victim that their own perceptions and experiences cannot be trusted, that they are overreacting. It can cause them to second-guess their instincts and question whether they're really being bullied at all. It isolates them by making them feel like they're the problem for not being able to take a "joke."

Meanwhile, if the bully can successfully convince others that they were "just kidding" or that the victim is equally to blame for the "conflict," they face no meaningful consequences. They're free to continue their campaign of abuse with impunity.

When this bullying is minimized as "joking," all of this context and impact gets erased. Suddenly, the bully and the bullied are put on the same level, as if they were two friends engaged in mutually enjoyable banter. The very real fear, pain, and risk experienced by the victim are trivialized while the abusive and discriminatory nature of the bully's actions are obscured.

This framing puts the burden on the victim to laugh off their mistreatment rather than on the bully to stop their harmful behavior. The victims of bullying are told that they are oversensitive or can't take a joke, when in fact they are reacting normally to being abused. It enables the bully to escape accountability and continue their pattern of aggression.

At a broader level, brushing off bullying as joking or disagreements normalizes abusive behavior. It teaches everyone watching that cruelty is just part of how people relate to each other, that it's not a big deal if someone is being repeatedly targeted and hurt. It creates a climate where bullying is tolerated.

To combat this, we must focus our attention on impact over intent when it comes to bullying. It doesn't matter if the bully claims they were "just joking" or that they didn't mean to cause distress. What matters is the actual harm experienced by the victim. If someone is being repeatedly targeted with hurtful actions, if they feel intimidated, belittled, or unsafe, that's bullying. Period.

We must also be unequivocal in naming bullying directly when we see it. Beating around the bush with euphemisms only enables the abuse to continue unchecked. If we witness behavior that fits the definition of bullying - repeated, aggressive conduct rooted in a power imbalance and aimed at harming the target - we need to call it what it is. Not "drama," not "kids being kids," not "personality clashes." Bullying.

This is especially important in school settings, where bullying is rampant, and its effects can be particularly acute. Teachers, administrators, and all adults must be trained to recognize the signs of bullying and to intervene swiftly and decisively. There need to be clear and consistently enforced consequences for bullying behavior, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator.

This clarity is especially important for the adults responsible for keeping kids safe in schools and other youth-serving settings. Too often, teachers and administrators are quick to brush off reports of bullying as minor squabbles or two-way conflicts. They may tell victims to toughen up or stop provoking their tormentors.

But this is a profound abdication of duty. Adults must be willing to investigate every bullying report thoroughly, to listen closely to victims, and to protect those who are being bullied. They must be willing to look past "he said, she said" framings and focus on impact and power dynamics. They must be willing to impose meaningful consequences on bullies, even popular or high-status ones.

At the same time, we must be proactive in fostering a culture of respect, empathy, and inclusion in our schools and communities. This means teaching all young people to celebrate diversity, to stand up for the mistreated, and to resolve conflicts without violence. It means examining and dismantling the biases and inequities that give rise to identity-based bullying. It means modeling for our children what it looks like to treat all people with dignity.

Bullying is not a joke. It's a form of violence that can have devastating and lifelong impacts. Only by naming it clearly - and acting decisively to stop it - can we create a world where everyone can feel safe, valued, and free to reach their full potential.

All of this is why it's so important to clearly identify and name bullying when it occurs. We must resist attempts to downplay abusive conduct as normal roughhousing or teasing. We must examine the power dynamics at play and center the impact on the victim rather than the intent of the bully.

None of this is easy, especially in the face of a culture that trivializes bullying at every turn. But if we are serious about building schools and communities where every young person can thrive, it is essential. It must start with a commitment to honesty in the language we use to describe peer abuse.

Only by taking bullying seriously as harmful and unacceptable can we create environments where everyone feels safe, valued, and free to express themselves authentically. Only by refusing to let abusers hide behind the mantle of "joking" can we truly hold them accountable. Bullying is no laughing matter, and it's up to all of us to treat it with the gravity it deserves. Lives depend on it.

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