You keep using that word… (a note on “bullying”)

As a tech editor who apparently hit the glass ceiling, perhaps my only value to the industry is reminding people what words mean. Usually that is done for the author before something is published but it is clear the industry could gain some value this time. With the terms “bully” and “bullying” being thrown around more liberally recently, it is important to remember what it really means. Like most words in the English language, that answer varies greatly. Not only with historical changes, but with social changes as words are used, reused, and co-opted. Let’s start with what Google tells us!

According to, the definition is:

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

Some readers are certainly homing in on this definition while glossing over an important qualifier. We are not “school-aged children” despite often acting like it on Twitter. This definition is custom-written to be suitable to kids in school that face bullies. Next up, Wikipedia defines it as:

Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively impose domination over others. The behavior is often repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power.

Those same readers may now be homing in on this definition based on the last line, but it is important to note that is a two-way street. If we can arbitrarily call it “bullying” solely based on one side’s perception, then we’re all equally guilty of bullying. If I call you a jerk, and you call me an ass in return, we are both potentially guilty of it. In reality, I think we can all agree that is a bit absurd. I think if you drop that last line and focus on the first two lines the definition is pretty good, especially given the next choice. According to the dictionary:

  • 1 (archaic): sweetheart or a fine chap
  • 2a : a blustering browbeating person; especially one habitually cruel to others who are weaker
  • 2b : pimp
  • 3 : a hired ruffian
  • bully verb
  • : to frighten, hurt, or threaten (a smaller or weaker person)
  • : to act like a bully toward (someone) to cause (someone) to do something by making threats or insults or by using force
  • transitive verb
  • 1 : to treat abusively
  • 2 : to affect by means of force or coercion

We can certainly agree that the archaic definition isn’t what anyone means when using the term. Similarly, a pimp or hired ruffian is probably just as archaic and not intended. Focusing on the rest you have a variety of definitions that range from “treat abusively” to the more dominant that includes the purpose of the activity. The words threat, force, and coercion appear more than once in the definitions above and are the crux of what bullying is about. Everyone who is now equating the term “bullying” with anything less than a malicious, sustained campaigns of hatefulness with the intent of coercing/threatening is the worst sort of cowardice and dishonesty. They are doing a disservice to society and themselves.

Someone stating their opinion is just that. Calling someone a name or insulting them over appearance or action makes them an ass, nothing more. They aren’t trying to coerce you, they aren’t trying to force you to do something, and they aren’t threatening you. In this country they are simply exercising their first-amendment rights. As such, you have the right not to listen to them. If someone on Twitter is saying something you don’t like, stop following them. If they are including you in the messages, block them. Add their Twitter ID to a filter so it helps ensure you don’t read anything to, from, or about them. Remember, it is a push medium that you opt into. By using the service, by following people, by subscribing to lists, or by searching for specific words, you are specifically choosing to read it.

Cliff notes for the rest of you. Simple name calling or stating opinion on Twitter is not bullying, even if it is mean and you don’t like it. Those using the term in such a fashion are the real bullies here; they are capitalizing on a social stigma and social movement to brand what has been our way of life for hundreds of years as some new form of persecution. You are trying to use social pressure to coerce us into changing our behavior. Worse, by equating simple insults and jabs as bullying, you make it harder for those who have truly been bullied to be believed. Sorry, I won’t cave into bullies, something your crowd keeps telling us to do ironically enough.

To finish this post, I want to answer a question put forth by someone crying “bully”:

Can my daughter take criticism? Yes but not publicly. You got to have a pretty tough skin to be able to take criticism publicly. Most of us don’t have that tough skin. I think that’s good because that usually goes hand in hand with compassion. If I had to choose only one thing missing in this InfoSec community, it would be compassion. The nonconstructive criticism is so public and so vicious that you end up missing that one nice person who is trying to offer the constructive criticism that could really make a difference. And that’s sad. That person who is trying to help gets lumped in with the naysayers, and no one benefits. Is this really the InfoSec community you want?

Yes! That is exactly what I want the industry to be. More importantly, that is exactly the type of industry our society needs. There are two aspects to this, and one of them is so entirely simple, but seems to be missed time after time.

First, the InfoSec industry has two fundamental sides; those who break things (attack), and those who fix things (defend). The entire attack (a.k.a red-teaming, tiger teaming, vulnerability assessment, or offense) side of it is built itself on the act of tearing others down. When you perform a penetration test, you are showing how the programmers and/or IT staff have failed in some way. In some cases, you are taking years of their work and shitting all over it in a PDF or by PowerPoint with pretty colors. That million lines of code to perform incredibly complex actions to make a seamless experience for their paying customers? You tell them it is Swiss cheese, that it shouldn’t be on a production network, and that they must go back and make it better while flippantly giving them the oh-so-helpful remediation instructions of “sanitize user input“. You get paid, handsomely even, to do just that day in and day out. Did you develop software that makes that process easier? Then you are facilitating colleagues so they can more easily tear down the work of other people. This is a simple fact and how our industry operates. You are offering what you think to be constructive criticism. The developers and admins receiving the report do not think it is constructive. You are a “naysayer” and yet both sides benefit ultimately. The notion that “no one benefits” is absurd.

Second, the more emotional answer. Our industry, and society at large, need more people that are not afraid to speak their mind, tell the truth, and demand better from everyone. That is how things get fixed, and that is how we improve as a society. Your friend being a douche-nozzle? Do you think they intend to act that way? No, so you tell them in whatever terms are needed so they stop acting like one. Your customer running insecure software that would allow little Bobby Tables to expose all of their client data? You tell them so they can fix it. Your report can soften the blow a bit, but ultimately you are telling them they have failed in a spectacular fashion. This isn’t some circle-jerk hug fest. This is an industry largely based on critique, which is a vehicle to improve.

When your day job is based on leveling criticism at other people, it is your responsibility to be able to take criticism. If you release software to the world, you are a vendor so to speak. Someone reporting a vulnerability in your software is not them “picking on you”. That is them making a sincere effort to help you improve your software, just as you are trying to help your customers (or students) improve. If you don’t understand how these are fundamentally the same, then you don’t belong in this industry. That is not a threat, force, or coercion. That is a fact.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

4 responses to “You keep using that word… (a note on “bullying”)”

  1. There have been about 20 kids in the past 10 years who have been in the news as committing suicide due to online bullying. I haven’t done similar research on adults, though I suspect the number may be fewer. Still, even if an adult doesn’t kill themselves, they can carry the emotional distress of bullying with them for the rest of their lives.

    Women are especially susceptible to online bullying. They get death threats, rape threats, or are just told they’re worthless, stupid, bitch, cunt, etc. Usually it’s bloggers, scientists and other women trying to do some work in the public eye. Once they become a target, often the only words they see are threats and insults. It can become very, very scary, and they often believe they are under threat even if they haven’t received a specific threat to take to the police.

    But cyber bullying of adults doesn’t extend to just threats. Often communication itself can be violent. From

    “Unaware of the impact, we judge, label, criticize, command, demand, threaten, blame, accuse and ridicule. Speaking and thinking in these ways often leads to inner wounds, which in turn often evolve into depression, anger or physical violence.”

    In your argument, you are making the case that simply “saying mean things” is not a big deal, and should not be considered bullying. You continue by explaining how your first-amendment rights apparently trump anyone else’s rights, like the right to live free from pain and fear and judgment (the pursuit of happiness clause of the declaration of independence, essentially).

    In your view, people should simply be forced to deal with your words, however fierce and unyielding they are, as long as you don’t make a specific threat of bodily harm. You make the case that if someone signs up for twitter, they are *asking for it*, similar to the way women are “asking” to be raped if they have a short skirt on, or “asking” to get robbed if they wear iPod earbuds in a rough neighborhood. You in essence giving the same justification for your own actions as the defenders of rapists and thieves. And there’s a reason why this justification is wrong.

    There is a basic human principle that some people live by, which is to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. But this principle doesn’t work for everyone. Some people actually enjoy receiving verbal abuse, because it gives them an opportunity to fling insults at someone else. Some people have so much pent up anger and pain that they can sit online all day, lobbing verbal grenades and firing the missiles of violent communication at others. And they enjoy these interactions.

    The problem here is, not everyone enjoys these interactions. Some people even have feelings (shocker), which do get hurt from these kind of verbal altercations. Of course, I don’t expect you to care about anyone’s feelings. But try to imagine, just for a second, how someone might feel when an entire community of people (maybe the community they were a part of already) all target them in a barrage of hateful, negative, judgmental comments.

    First, you start to feel bad, because your peer group is basically telling you you’re a bad person. Next, as claims and accusations start to get more and more severe, you begin to become afraid. You wonder if all the things people are saying are true. Your fear raises as you wonder if any of these people are going to try to do something to you. Your heart begins to pump faster. Your breathing becomes shallow and fast, and you feel like you might die at any second. This feeling stays for hours, days, even weeks.

    Basically what’s happened is the fight-or-flight response has involuntarily activated. It occurs in people who perceive themselves as under threat, and it can be easily triggered – even in otherwise mentally healthy people. These panic attacks don’t stem from specific threats of violence, but from the kind of verbal violence I mentioned above, strung out over time or over a small amount of time by multiple parties. Sometimes just one party can cause them if they have sufficient social or personal power.

    Now, that all can happen in *mentally healthy people*. Can you imagine how someone who is a survivor of trauma or abuse might take such comments? Or someone who has a history of being bullied as a child? If they are subject to depression, this kind of treatment can easily spiral their mind into such thoughts of worthlessness and despair that suicide looks like a very convincing way to end the pain.

    Now, again, I don’t expect you to care about people, or their feelings, or the pain they experience. You probably only care about your own well-being, and as long as *you* don’t experience these things or come under threat, you believe all of your actions are justified. And I get that. You don’t want to limit the things you’re allowed to do or say. But it’s clear that violent communication can have debilitating effects on other individuals. You are in essence using words to harm people in a very real, physical way. And nobody deserves to be harmed, regardless of who they are, what their opinions are, or if they have done something to you that you believe deserves retribution.

    If you care at all about your fellow human being, you will try not to harm people. The way to do this in the context of Twitter is not to be a cyber bully. I’ll stand by my own definition of cyber bullying, which is using violent communication to make someone feel bad. No amount of it should be justified or right or acceptable in our society. And no matter what definitions you go by, being mean to someone is just a dick thing to do – ESPECIALLY if you have social or personal power over them.

    • Thank you for your detailed response, but I wish you would read my article more closely. Your reply is full of misattribution, trying to shoehorn my words into your altered definitions.

      In your argument, you are making the case that simply “saying mean things” is not a big deal, and should not be considered bullying.” — No, I say that one person saying a mean thing or two is not bullying.

      You continue by explaining how your first-amendment rights apparently trump anyone else’s rights,” — I do not say they trump the “right to live free from pain and fear and judgment“. I maintain that I do have a right to say what I please if it doesn’t cross certain boundaries (e.g. threats of bodily harm, public endangerment). Quite a difference there, and you seem to be implying that I do not have a first amendment right in your argument essentially.

      In your view, people should simply be forced to deal with your words” — Absolutely false. Using Twitter as my example, I said that there are several avenues for them to avoid seeing content they don’t like. I didn’t even go so far as to say “shut the computer off” like many do. I demonstrate that they can continue using the service, but without the offending comments.

      as long as you don’t make a specific threat of bodily harm.” — I never made a distinction between mean comments and threat of bodily harm. In fact, the words “bodily” and “harm” don’t appear in my blog.

      You make the case that if someone signs up for twitter, they are *asking for it*” — Seriously? I am not sure how one person can make this many assertions based on text that simply isn’t there. I didn’t say, or imply, that they are “asking for it”. I said that if they opt into Twitter or an online medium, then they opted in to potentially see hurtful remarks.

      You in essence giving the same justification for your own actions as the defenders of rapists and thieves.” — I absolutely did not say that. Your powers of deduction are severely distorted and honestly, perverse.

      I am not going to reply to the rest of this, because it is clear you are performing the worst set of fallacies including the ‘strawman’, ‘false cause’, ‘slippery slope’, and ‘black-or-white’. I encourage you to approach such articles that are presented in a reasonably balanced manner and take them at face value. Trying to distort them and inject your own words just so you can argue them isn’t productive to anyone.

      I’ll stand by my own definition of cyber bullying, which is using violent communication to make someone feel bad.” — Making up definitions is part of how we got here. In your case, your definition using the qualifier “violent” is absurd. Not only is that word inflammatory itself, it is a matter of perception. Your entire reply here, with the skewing of words and trying to put words in my mouth in an effort to change my behavior, is closer to textbook bullying than anything I did. You attempt to paint me as some monster who think “girls deserve it” when I said no such thing, and simply do not believe it, is exactly the kind of behavior you are rallying against.

      • My reply is based upon my interpretation of your argument. I’m not cherry picking your statements to disprove them and pretending that proves I’m right and you’re wrong.

        You make the distinction that one person saying something mean is not bullying. I think that’s ridiculous, personally. One person can do tremendous harm with their words.

        You make the argument that using Twitter makes one implicitly agree to see things they don’t like. Then you detail how they can block the inappropriate content, or simply disconnect. Is there a point to these assertions? You don’t say. So we are left to make assumptions. June it’s that you’re attempting to justify bad behavior by pointing out how someone either is agreeing to receive abuse, our should just deal with it.

        Even worse than this, you actually make the argument that “just sharing your opinion” can never be called bullying. You prescribe to definitions of words specifically designed to allow you to be mean, to be a jerk, and be verbally abusive, without ever considering yourself a bully. You actually seem to be making the case that you should be allowed to be mean, to be a jerk. Like it’s not only your legal right, it’s some kind of completely acceptable form of expression. What it betrays is the truth that speech online is a way to get away with abuse, as the anonymous nature means there is little repercussion to what you say online.

        You can ignore my post, but it’s not going to affect me. What it will do is prevent you from considering if maybe your lack of empathy could be leading you to think and behave in hurtful ways. Please reconsider if it matters whether you hurt someone, and if maybe it’s worthwhile to control your behavior to minimize said hurt.

      • You make the distinction that one person saying something mean is not bullying. I think that’s ridiculous, personally.” Then you are clearly bullying me in your replies to me where you make severe implications that I never said or made myself. Please stop being a bully, it is hurtful.

        Again, you are flat out trying to put words in my argument that are simply not there. The word “never” does not appear in my post. “you actually make the argument that “just sharing your opinion” can never be called bullying.” That is absurd. I don’t mind discussion on this topic, but if you choose to take this route of labeling me a monster by inventing stuff that I did not say, kindly go away. There are some things that may be left for interpretation, but what you are doing is inventing, not interpreting.

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