There is nothing new about bullying. Most of us have some experience of it, whether as victims or witnesses.
It is an unfortunate aspect of human relationships, the delinquent aspect. Our modern society recognizes that not alone does it cause untold hurt and distress to the victim, it also has a very damaging effect on society generally.
Bullying takes place everywhere, in school, at work, at home and in social situations. Society at large feels the effect of it, from absenteeism at school or work to all manner of stress related illnesses. The stresses on a victim sometimes leads to suicide.
As part of its response most societies have reacted by legislating against bullying and introducing anti-bullying practices into schools and workplaces. Some legislatures, particularly in the United States, have designated some forms of bullying as a criminal offence. In Ireland we do not have a specific crime of bullying, and neither do we have any employment laws which expressly forbid bullying.
However that does not mean that the victim has no rights. Under various employment laws the victim may have rights of redress, for instance under anti-discrimination rules, employment equality laws, health and safety laws and unfair dismissal legislation. One of the difficulties of specifically legislating against such behaviour is the problem of defining what exactly is meant by “bullying”. To some you are being bullied if you feel bullied. While that definition may have merit it is dangerously subjective. Another accepted definition is that
“ A person is being bullied when they are exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons. Negative action is when a person intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words or in other ways.”
While this definition is fine for a sociologist, it is simply too imprecise and subjective to be useful as a legal definition. The “inflicting injury” part is clear, (and it’s a criminal offence anyway), but should making someone feel discomfort really be against the law?
A second problem with such a definition is that it could only be enforceable in certain environments, such as schools and places of work. It would be unthinkable to have a general law in society outlawing such behaviour in every situation. If it was applied generally then many marriages, and, I suspect, every family would be in breach.
The reality is that the law is a blunt instrument and criminalizing such aspects of interpersonal relationships is not an answer.
There is another reason why anti-bullying laws are not as effective as we would wish, and that is that the bully is rarely made to suffer the consequences. While in many cases, in Ireland and elsewhere, the law may give some form of redress to a victim of bullying, generally that redress is obtained not from the bully but from the organisation that the bully is attached to. In the case of work related bullying the claim is made against the employer, though the bully is frequently a fellow employee of the victim. For students the claim is made against the school, and not the bully. Neither the employer nor the school may be aware of the bullying, yet they are responsible.
Sometimes the stock response of society is to say ”There should be a law against that”. Sometimes there should be, but with an issue like bullying, complicated by factors of morality, personality, sensitivities, the law can rarely provide a solution.