Sticks and Stones

About once a week, something comes across my virtual desk that riles me to some degree or another.  I usually vow to write about it, only to get too busy with one of my paying gigs ever to deal with it.  So, I wind up writing something formulaic a few days later, never to think of it again.[1]

I assumed that would also be the case after reading about the La Crosse, Wisconsin news anchor who “confronted” (not really) her “bully” (also not really) on the air.

I read the story via Gawker, I watched the video, I shook my head in disbelief, and I assumed that would be the end of it.  But then it started to pop up on my Facebook newsfeed.  I fired off a couple of against-the-grain comments, briefly contemplated writing something here, then, as I usually do, decided I was too busy.

But then I had a last straw moment when my clock radio awakened me with a local morning DJ team (perfect!) applauding the “courage” of this woman.

So, there’s no turning back now.  Let’s get into it.

Here’s what happened: Some random viewer [Note: It turns out this viewer is a personal injury attorney in the area] wrote to anchor / reporter Jennifer Livingston [Note: Turns out she’s the sister of Ron Livingston of Office Space fame] recently.  He wrote a (surprisingly even-tempered) e-mail in which he pointed out that her obesity sent a negative message to viewers, especially young women.  It’s important to note that the e-mail was not written by a media critic for a newspaper column, or published on a blog like this one.  It was a private communication sent to Livingston’s work e-mail address listed on her station’s website.

Livingston and her husband (also a news employee) apparently then decided to publish the e-mail online themselves on the latter’s Facebook page, which prompted its contents to become “a talking point in this community,” according to Livingston.  She then took the further step of reading the e-mail on air and spending several minutes discussing it, ostensibly because it ties in with the “bullying epidemic” that we’ve been told for the last couple of years has engulfed this nation.

In this excruciating and awkward four-minute video, an angry Livingston says that this e-mail was “more than” a mere critique.  She calls the e-mail an “attack” and the author “a bully.”

She goes on to admit to being overweight, even obese, but then takes the author to task by saying that she’s “more than a number on a scale,” and pointing out that she already knew that she was overweight.  Then she makes a major leap by connecting this e-mail to the bullying problem, going as far as to say that, “as the mother of three young girls, it scares me to death.”

Incredibly, Livingston then goes on to say that she isn’t thin-skinned, and that the author’s words “mean nothing” to her, but then says that what makes her angry is that children who receive e-mails like this “don’t know better,” that the internet has become a “weapon,” and our schools a “battleground.”  She goes on to imply that she’s come forward so that this will be a teachable moment for the community.  She adds that if viewers who saw this made fun of “the fat newslady,” then—guess what?—your kid will probably call someone fat at school.  She concludes by thanking everyone for “taking a stand against this bully,” saying she’s “literally” overwhelmed, then presents a direct appeal to “children” who are struggling with the color of their skin(!) or disability(!!), closing with an inspirational message.

Give me a f***ing break.

Not many things incense me, but this did the trick.

First off, let’s get something straight: Not every negative thing someone says to you is “bullying.”  I know that’s not a popular stance in 2012, but lacking tact or speaking out-of-turn is not bullying per se.  Merely hearing something that hurts your feelings doesn’t mean you’ve been bullied.

Bullying is about power.  A random e-mailer whose words will never see the light of day who points out to a prominent local media member that she’s overweight (which I’m not saying he should have done, or that he wasn’t “mean”) has no inherent power over her.  This is not a bigger, stronger kid who could subjugate a weak or disabled or out-numbered classmate.  This is a random crank on the internet.

The appropriate response would be to click “delete” and move on.  Rise above it.[2]

Yet, what Livingston (and/or her husband) did was not only to take a private incident and make it public, but to take the further step of connecting this with something that is far more serious in an attempt to equate the two and thereby making herself a victim / self-appointed spokesperson for the all-important cause of bullying.

In short, even if what the e-mailer said constituted potential bullying (which I don’t think it did) he had no power . . . until she gave it to him.  And nothing says “this didn’t hurt me” like emotively discussing it on television and having the story go viral nationally.

Of course, this all plays wonderfully with the mommy demographic, with other local news personalities, and with people at the analytical level of local morning DJs who need a hot topic to discuss.

But there’s a bigger issue, aside from the grandstanding.  The fact is that kids are already insulated enough as it is.  I am in no way convinced that living a life totally devoid of teasing is a net positive.  I would go as far as to say that learning to deal with harsh, rude people is a hugely-important part of life that allows folks to become well-adjusted members of society who have the ability to overcome adversity, rather than folding up like a wet cardboard box when confronted with it.

To be clear, I’m not talking about what we would have called “bullying” 20 or 30 years ago.    I’m talking specifically about the modern idea that any negative comment requires an outpouring of support from friends, family members, and the community.  That is the idea being reiterated here, and it is one that is terrible for society.[3]

Everything is not bullying, and trying to place the story of a successful news anchor who gets called “overweight” under the same umbrella as the story of a kid who gets harassed to the point of tears or even assaulted by his classmates has exactly the opposite effect from the one intended by this news story.


[1] Speaking of formulaic, stay tuned for the return of SitCombat very soon!!!!!!

[2] On top of that, given the generally respectful tone, the lack of profanity, and the fact that Livingston ultimately says that the e-mailer is factually correct, this certainly can’t be “bullying,” can it?

[3] And, just remember, if you don’t like what I’ve said, and you really take me to task for it, that makes you a bully!!1!1!!!!1!

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10 Responses to Sticks and Stones

  1. Pingback: An Incomplete List of Things That Are Not Bullying | The Axis of Ego

  2. Pingback: Best of 2012 | The Axis of Ego

  3. Pingback: Push me pull you | 3bean

  4. Matt Gilliam says:

    The way to deal with the truth when you don’t like it these days is to become offended. That is how politicians shut down debate. They try to act offended when someone points out a fact they don’t like. Same thing here. I would say that if there was a bully in this situation, it was her.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      Playing the “bully” card is the rhetorical equivalent of wrapping oneself in the American flag. Once you cry “bully” or “hate speech,” the other person has almost no choice but to apologize or shut up, because there’s almost no way to argue against that stuff intellectually.

  5. Rod Johnson says:

    Let’s also be clear about one thing…Going on television and announcing that someone is “mean” and that their “words meant nothing” to you is apparently not bullying in any form.

    Though she is certainly more than “numbers on a scale”, Mrs. Livingston treats the author as though the sum of his being are the words he put on page (or in e-mail, as it were).

    Perhaps her next diatribe to the children of the world should be about how two wrongs do not make a right, even if soccer mommies approve of the retaliatory nature of the response.

    After all, would she be in favor of a bullied student standing up in front of class railing against his / her tormentors? I bet that would hurt the feelings of a kid too.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      Exactly. As I said, who has the power in this situation? And who made this a self-congratulatory mountain out of a previously-irrelevant molehill?

  6. Chad Dreyer says:

    Doesn’t bullying normally also imply a repeated pattern of teasing or harrassment? This was one e-mail, so for all her soapboxing the reality is she is profoundly thin-skinned. This doesn’t excuse the rudeness of the e-mailer (why not change the channel if her obesity is so repellent? there is so much anorexia to behold on the CW alone, if content means nothing to you), but still, delete and rise above as you said.

    Victimization is and has been in fashion, more so than ever with the rise of the internet. The problem being with everyone claiming a grievance or ten, we are at risk of desensitizing ourselves to actual societal wrongs we can more or less all agree upon (bullying bad, peer pressure bad, etc).

    At any rate, well said.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      Thanks, and I agree. Once we lose the ability to distinguish between an adult who is possibly out-of-line in a private e-mail, and a situation where a kid is getting tormented at school by bigger, stronger kids (or kids who out-number him), then we have HUGE problems.

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