Why we should call things by their name

The case of Amanda Todd: not just about bullying

The word ‘bullying’ is a favourite of ‘newsspeakers’ (George Orwell’s name for propagandists that pass as journalists). I have kids and remember a decade or so ago, when schools began to ‘crack-down’ on so-called ‘bullies’. The anti-bullying campaigns never sparked my fire as a political person. I now have a way better idea of why, that is, after this week. I ask you to consider (a basic philosophical skill all people share, to follow the twentieth century radical Antonio Gramsci), to consider a proposition. After the global-mediafication in recent days of Amanda Todd’s coerced suicide her name has become, has been vaulted into the status of a world historical event, namely, the confusion and conflation of bad children’s schoolyard behavior with a range of violent and misogynistic acts, including but not limited to pornographication, sexual predatorship and coercion, sexual assault and rape (statutory and otherwise), harassment, and pathological voyeurism.

Many seem to want to refuse to acknowledge or name what is actually going on, but cover it over with slogans borrowed from the schoolyard.

Amanda Todd’s death is being branded as a ‘tragedy of bullying’. Some apparently thinking people blame the victim, but such stupidity deserves no response. Many seem to want to refuse to acknowledge or name what is actually going on, but cover it over with slogans borrowed from the schoolyard. This is why, sometimes, names matter, including the names we are called in the schoolyard, like ‘fag’, ‘queer’, ‘slut’, or ‘whore’. The bully theorists are not completely wrong, there are resemblances between many things, but what happened here deserves a far more accurate name, a more precise definition. I’ve offered coerced suicide as a better description of her death than the obviously inadequate ‘bullying’. ‘Bullying’, of course, is meant to capture the social pressure (somehow, vaguely of course, without any link to a definite person). I offer a more accurate name for that social pressure: slut-shaming.

It’s about misogyny and violence

Slut-shaming captures the misogyny and the violence. As a name it captures the specific hatred of women that pervades Amanda Todd’s case, real and mediated, as well as the historical and social generality of the acts. ‘Bullying’ fudges over any reference to gender and sex, softens the violence, and blurs criminality. Bullying is a relatively new fix for newsspeakers and the media-addicted and media-deified (the neologisms abound in a philosophical note concerning names).

‘Bullying’ fudges over any reference to gender and sex, softens the violence, and blurs criminality.

Slut-shaming – the practice of punishing women for their sexuality, real or perceived, by word, image, or violent attack – is, by contrast, ancient and cross-cultural. People are quicker and more likely to condemn hatred and violence against women if it happens elsewhere. It is much harder to think of one’s own sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, treating each other with hatred, much harder to think of the way young girls, here and everywhere, are targeted, locally and globally, for sexual assault and commodification. Harder even to think how a young girl today can form a sexual identity somewhat free of misogyny. All the above is difficult to think about, if not far from thought, unless, of course, you are personally involved, which many of us are. But speaking about it is another thing.

Afterword: The link between names, stigma, status, hatred, violence, death, and misogyny, on the one hand, and this column’s concern with something like mental illness should be relatively clear. The considerate reader of both this and the inaugural column should note certain paradoxa throughout these mad thoughts (such as the tension in playing with vocabularies associated with madness and insisting on precision and exactness in distinguishing slut-shaming and coerced suicide from bullying). Luce Irigaray’s work helps think through the conjunction of feminism and mental illness. I would like to thank Victoria Smith for helping me think through the above case. Victoria Smith studies philosophy, music, and feminism at Memorial university; she and the author are significant others who look forward to future writing and activist collaboration.

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