Laura Martocci Ph.D.

You Can’t Sit With Us


Accusations of Bullying in the Senate Confirmation Hearings

Anita Hill and harassment v. Christine Blasey-Ford and bullying.

Posted Sep 30, 2018

Last week the headlines screamed:

And after Thursday’s judiciary hearings we had:

 and the list could go on.

Interestingly, in 1991, the headlines around the confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas, in which another woman, Anita Hill, came forward and claimed sexual misconduct, used a different word:  harassment.

These words are often used synonymously, so it is important to ask ourselves why the term bullying, rather than harassment, dominates the headlines today. What is the difference between these claims—not only in terms of their referent, but in how they are being used, and by whom. And, what implications do the differences have for the cultural climate of  2018?

As I detailed in an earlier post, harassment—a term whose broad usage can be traced to Civil Rights—is usually reserved for behavior that results from prejudicial biases, and manifests as discrimination against those people: "immoral" homosexuals, Islamic "terrorists," or women and blacks, who are categorically "inferior." *  Unfair treatment on the basis of prejudice is against federal and state laws, while bullying has little legal standing. That is, even though all 50 states have bullying laws on the books, everyday policing relies on local mandates and institutional policies, while courts rely on harassment, stalking, and hate-crimes laws to prosecute it. So, while bullying may mimic harassment insofar as it is demeaning behavior directed at individuals belonging to the same (ostracized) groups, it’s exact referent remains murky—more along the lines of ‘we know it when we see it.’

In the absence of the clarity endowed by legal boundaries, bullying retains a flexibility that gives it great currency in the cultural economy (as its application /usage is relatively unrestricted.). Rooted only in a social consensus about relevant correlations and relationships, bullying can be appropriated to almost any context (while carrying with it the connotations that have attached to it around school tragedies).

Because it has yet to be codified by law, it is easier to understand bullying as a series of claims around a perceived social problem. Bullying, in this view, is not a condition, per se, but a series of subjective assertions that have been made about correlations and/or sets of data assembled around objective phenomena. (Consider its genesis in popular culture: In the wake of Columbine, claims were made about a previously unobserved correlation: the relation between humiliation/peer rejection and psychological states that are both dangerous and destructive.)
In instances of bullying, objective phenomena are said to include:

  1. hostile intent;
  2. an imbalance of power; and
  3. the repetition of behaviors over time.

To these, I would add a 4th: shaming. Bullying is a bid for power which is inordinately successful if the bidder is able to shame her/his target. Shame, in the context of aggressive bids for power, is often the element that turns a target of harassment into a victim of bullying.

Once claims are asserted, a deeper understanding of the issue and its dynamics is required. Consider:

  1. Who is making claims? (a parent? a politician in search of a non-controversial, bi-partisan issue? A school principal looking for funds?)
  2. What language are they are using (every claim is grounded in a moral position).  Bullying, which was initially couched in the language of day-to-day safety, is increasingly spoken of in terms of public health as well as imbalances of power.
  3. How is causality attributed? (Who is to be held responsible, or liable, and why?)

Differences between the harassment claims made by Anita Hill, and the accusations of Bullying swirling around Christine Blasey Ford can be parsed along these points:

  1. Asking who is making the claims shows up immediate differences that undermine the facile comparisons the media has drawn. Anita Hill leveled accusations of sexual harassment directly at her superior, Clarence Thomas. Christine Blasey Ford’s supporters—bystanders—are leveling the accusation of bullying as part of a commentary on how the GOP at large is treating Blasey-Ford’s sexual misconduct claims(or how the Democrats and the media, at large, are treating Kavanaugh). Blasey-Ford’s own accusations use the language of assault, rather than sexual harassment.)
  2. In 1991 Anita Hill claimed that she was sexually harassed, and marshaled both legal language and moral indignation in her defense. Blasey-Ford’s supporters, on the other hand, rest their claims on unfair power balances and intimidating practices. (Blasey Ford’s claims, describe a literal power struggle, one that does not qualify as harassment or bullying.)  Also note that claims swirl around present bullying behaviors, not the aggressions of 36 years ago.
  3. Hill attributed causality to Clarence Thomas. Period. Blasey-Ford’s supporters, in contrast, are attributing causality to the GOP, to the white male composition of the judiciary committee, and to the cultural norms that allow white male privilege to give a nod to her pain, then carry on with business as usual. 

So yes, both women have allegations that speak to sexual improprieties on the part of Supreme Court nominees. But harassment is a term used about the dynamics between Hill and Thomas, while bullying is a term used to highlight imbalances of power--between the GOP and Christine Blasey Ford (the face of the Democrats), between elected officials and their constituents, between men and women.

The particular difficulty that arises with the use of the word bullying in the context of power imbalances is not it’s similarity to the word harassment, but to the concept of “domination.”

Is to dominate the same as to bully? The headlines seem to suggest that there is a large overlap between the two (and recall, an imbalance of power is one of three elements, experts argue, that constitute bullying).

This recontextualizes bullying and situates it in culture, writ large, as domination is the linchpin of capitalism. It is the mainstay of white male narratives, and, by definition, an objective correlate of any power structure. Thus, although the subtle substitution may seem like mere semantics (the type of nuance academics write papers about) its transposition opens the door to applications of bullying that encompass much larger social dynamics, as the GOP struggles to maintain its power—i.e. to dominate politics and political agendas (see, for example, Eugene Robinson’s comments on the civil strife in America, the war between “the America that was and the America that will be,” and his assertion of numerous fault lines along this painful transition—one of which is Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court.) 

In sum, it can be said that bullying, as a dynamic, represents a cultural referendum on dominant narratives that privilege alpha-behaviors, and it is this cultural currency that implicates the GOP as a whole.  It will be interesting to see to what extent bystanders are able to reign it in, and what their diversionary tactics might be.  Note, however, that in the absence of laws, bullies are usually assumed guilty until proven innocent—“we know it when we see it”—and Brett Kavanaugh and the GOP looked like bullies to the nation. 

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* Harassment, under the laws of the United States, is defined as any repeated or continuing unconsented contact that serves no useful purpose beyond creating alarm, annoyance, or emotional distress. In 1964, the United States Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which prohibited discrimination at work on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin and sex. This later became the legal basis for early harassment law. The practice of developing workplace guidelines prohibiting harassment was pioneered in 1969, when the U.S. Department of Defense drafted a Human Goals Charter, establishing a policy of equal respect for both sexes. In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477U.S. 57 (1986): the U.S. Supreme Court recognized harassment suits against employers for promoting a sexually hostile work environment. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed a law which prohibited the transmission of annoying messages over the Internet (aka spamming) without disclosing the sender's true identity.[29]

According to federal websites:

“Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”  

As for the charges it carries, they differ on the state and federal level, as well as from state to state. Again, according to the federal site:

“Harassment charges can range from misdemeanor to high level felony charges. In many states, people charged with harassment will receive a higher level charge if they have previously been convicted of harassment, of communicating a threat, or of a domestic violence offense.”