Most dictionaries would define bullying as something like: “Using strength or influence to intimidate, or force someone to do something”. Wikipedia adds that it is “to gain power over another person.”
The traditional images of bullying are those of someone being pushed around or verbally abused. In recent times, of course, it has manifested itself in the form of cyber-bullying, with images and words being the weapons. Bullying is a significant concern.
There is another type of bully, however. They are more insidious than the others, and from a societal point of view they could arguably be considered the most damaging.
Correctness Bullies fit the same definition as the others, but instead of hiding behind fists or hurtful words, they hide behind ideals. We’ve all seen the Correctness Bully. He (she) seems to spend his whole life looking for reasons to be Offended. He’s the one who will pounce, for example, when someone innocently says something in jest like “Are you nuts?”, citing that the language is hurtful or predjudicial to people with mental challenges. The fact that this was not the context or intent of the comment, or that the complainer was not the recepient of the comment, would be irrelevant. His complaint has now put him in a superior moral power position, and that’s what he was looking for.
As with all bullies, it’s a power thing. They are people who take a narrow and pedantic interpretation of a social convention, and use this to control and intimidate others. They actively look for opportunities to view themselves or others (often large social segments based on race, religion, gender, etc) as victims, and then leverage this to gain moral authority. This very positioning is what makes them difficult to deal with. It’s hard to fight back against someone who is claiming to champion a cause and staking claim to a moral high ground – no matter silly his argument might appear. Even when no harm is created or intended, and even when there are no actual victims, the Correctness Bully’s position forces others into submission. There is often no choice but to back down.
The larger social impact of Correctness Bullies cannot be overstated. People and institutions become fearful of conflict with them, and often make seemingly absurd decisions in an effort to avoid conflict. In New York, for example, schools banned words such as ‘pepperoni’, ‘birthday’, ‘home computer’ and ‘dinosaur’ for fear that they might offend particular groups. In 2000, a booklet was published telling nursery teachers to stop playing the game ‘musical chairs’ because it encouraged aggressive behaviour. We’ve all heard stories like this.
The net impact is that people become afraid that their every move and every word might potentially be used against them. It’s the kind of fear that is the goal of bullies everywhere.
The question, then, becomes, what can we do? How should you respond if you find yourself the target of a Correctness Bully?
The easy answer is to not fight back, get away as quickly as you can, and avoid this person in the future. This, sadly, is also sometimes the best solution. A Correctness Bully can be a relentless adversary. The other option, as it is with all bullies, is to confront him. It’s not easy, but it can be effective approach if you execute it well. It’s a 3 step process.
1. Retake the high ground
Begin by making a very strong statement in which you take absolute ownership over the moral high ground the Bully is trying to occupy. Imagine, for example, that a Bully has decided to twist a comment of yours as being racist. You might say something like: “Racism is one of the worst, most narrow-minded things someone can be guilty of! It is truly a horrible thing.” (Don’t be afraid to be a little over-the-top. You want everyone to have no doubt as to where you stand.)
2. Challenge the Bully’s interpretation of your comment
Make it personal, with you now taking the role of victim, e.g. “And you’ve chosen to interpret my choice of words as me being a racist? That’s a serious and inappropriate accusation!” The Correctness Bully is now in a defensive position, and has to justify himself. The roles are now reversed.
3. Catch & Release
Once you’ve caught him, don’t give him the opportunity to try and fight back or get the upper hand. Let him off the hook a little bit, while making it clear that the topic isn’t up for discussion. E.g. “I appreciate your beliefs. I am very passionate about it too. But you need to be a little more careful before you jump to conclusions.” Once you’ve said this, change the topic and try to move on as quickly as you can.
This strategy may not cause Correctness Bullies to back down entirely, but it it will usually make them think twice before confronting you again.