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Shouting and throwing things isn’t bullying, it’s just bad manners

Of course it’s bad to persecute people, says Rod Liddle. But bullying has now become the latest politically correct public sector growth industry

24 February 2010

12:00 AM

24 February 2010

12:00 AM

Of course it’s bad to persecute people, says Rod Liddle. But bullying has now become the latest politically correct public sector growth industry

My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘bullying’ in the following terms: ‘to persecute or oppress by force or threats’. The charity at the centre of this latest furore about the Prime Minister, the National Bullying Helpline, meanwhile describes it thus, on its introductory webpage: Stress. Bullying. Workplace stress and anti-bullying advice for adults. Anti-bullying and Cyberbullying help for kids. Bullying help at Work. Anti-bullying in Schools. Anti-bullying in the Community. Bullying in schools. Domestic violence. Cyberbullying. Stalking. Redundancy. Bullying & Harassment Investigations. Workplace Investigations. Grievance. Disciplinary. Discrimination. Dismissal. Suspension. Mediation. Abuse in the Workplace. Stress. Work-related stress. Health and Safety at Work. Downsizing. Change Management. Leadership training. ACAS Code of Practice. Bullying in the playground and in the classroom. Mobile and text bullying. Dangerous websites. Happy Slapping. Facebook bullying. Gay bullying. Problems with Bebo. Advice for parents on bullying. Employment Law. Case Law. Statutory Law.

And really, that’s it. You don’t need to know any more, while picking your way through this latest controversy: it’s all there in that introduction. Bullying, as newly defined by a charity which relies upon the widest possible prevalence of bullying for its money, now includes being made redundant, having a grievance, being disciplined at work, being investigated at work, being suspended from work, working for a firm which is downsizing or changing its management structure in a manner which you might not like, and much much more besides. Including ‘problems with Bebo’. Who is this bastard Bebo, and why is he bullying so many people? It’s a mystery to me, maybe somebody should sort him out, and then he can claim for being bullied too. And then there’s ‘Gay bullying’. Is that people who are gay being bullied by people who are not? Or is it, as the phrase implies, gay people bullying straight people, perhaps by asking them to dress better, or to work on their pecs?


The policemen look younger every year, and bullying is no longer what it was. It now encompasses almost everything to which you could possibly take offence, anything which you feel might transgress you, or make you feel uncomfortable for a few hours. Just as being disabled no longer means being seriously infirm, but could mean a slight limp or a disinclination to work, being bullied has come of age, it has expanded, it has reached out towards all of us: you can be bullied now, if you want it enough. Bullying is inclusive and available to all, not least those people who have never remotely been bullied. All you have to do is utter the word. Bullying, like racism, is in the eye of the beholder. If you say it, it’s so.

And like anti-racism, and anti-sexism, anti-bullying began from the very best of intentions. We might all agree that it is a bad thing to persecute or oppress someone by force on account of their race or their gender or simply because you don’t like them, tempting though this might be from time to time. It’s unfair and, in the grand scheme of things, uneconomic too; discrimination is counterproductive.

Extreme bullying at school is bad too; we all knew kids who were bullied. We might even, to our shame, have colluded in the bullying. But that is not what this is about. The fetish of anti-bullying has, very quickly, expanded into the same sort of areas as anti-racism, with its tyranny of positive discrimination. And in the schools, if you’re a kid, you wear the elastic wristbands which show your rejection of breast cancer, global warming, racism and bullying as if by wearing them you might wish them away.

But it is almost impossible to stop these ‘antis’ from expanding, from almost unlimited aggrandisement. Public sector industries are set up to fight iniquities and become iniquities in themselves, having captured the zeitgeist and, more often than not, the legislature too. They spread their wings, they claim more and more territory until we all accept that one in three of us are disabled, when we’re clearly not, one in three of us are gay, when we’re clearly not; bullying ceases to be this awful thing which spoils the lives of vulnerable and blameless individuals and becomes instead this business which happens to everyone, when clearly it does not. And as these public sector industries expand, sucking in ever larger sums of charitable donations and taxpayer’s money, they simply cannot be gainsaid, in public; because we are all against bullying, racism, sexism and discrimination against the disabled. Even when the definitions of each ‘ism’ have long since mutated beyond recognition from what was originally intended and have become an end in themselves.

What constitutes bullying in the workplace now, according to both the charity ‘National Bullying Helpline’ and the deathless associations of human resources managers, is simply bosses getting cross and displaying that annoyance directly to their employees. This certainly seems to be the case with Gordon Brown, who is accused of occasionally throwing a mobile phone across a desk. This isn’t bullying — it is frustration, exasperation, impatience. It might be bad manners and, according to the rapidly growing sector of our economy which deals with human resources (another sector of the economy which has grown disproportionately), it might be ‘unprofessional’, as they put it. But it is not remotely bullying. It is, perhaps, a good thing to show an employee that his or her incompetence had a certain definite effect which was undesirable and that, as a consequence, it would be far better not to do it again.

If what Gordon brown has been accused of constitutes bullying, then I have been bullied intermittently throughout my professional life and so probably have you. Bosses shouting at you in front of other people because you messed something up, rather than doing as the human resources people would prefer and saying almost nothing, just writing something surreptitiously on your file and, a few months later, sacking you after a disciplinary hearing. As an employee, I know which approach I prefer — the human and humane, even if it might sting for a while. Rather a Nokia to the skull than some corporate monkey telling me, bloodlessly, that I was for the chop. Long live a certain kind of bullying, then, even if it is not bullying as you or I might recognise the term.


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