CHICAGO -- Several years ago when I was enrolled in a teacher training program, we were taught that bullying was when one person intentionally, aggressively and consistently intimidated another. It was understood to mean habitual cruelty by a strong person to a weaker one.
After several cases since 2010 where young people appeared to have committed suicide after suffering from prolonged bullying, and those cases made national headlines, everyone has been on high alert.
This is a super-hot topic in kindergarten (yes, kindergarten!) through high school. An entire cottage industry has grown up around charging schools kingly sums of money to put on student assemblies, teaching faculty and staff how to deal with bullying, and selling lesson plans to teach students about every conceivable aspect of the problem.
All this, in addition to zero-tolerance policies, has resulted in "bullying" meaning nearly anything: getting "a look" from another student, interpreting a remark as a thinly veiled insult, eye rolling, witnessing a student lean over to another and whispering.
It's also, of course, a huge issue on college campuses and increasingly being made one at work. I got an email the other day about how to tell if you are a workplace bully. One warning sign is "ignoring your employees' suggestions."
Now, I'm the first person to say that true bullying -- whether in schools, workplaces or anywhere else -- is a deadly serious issue that requires awareness, meaningful prevention and organized and effective responses and interventions.
But we've watered down the way we use the word to the point where it's almost meaningless.
For instance, last week there was a national outpouring of emotion for a Wisconsin television reporter who got an ungentle email from a member of her community.
The author sent an indecorous -- but not abusive, threatening or foul-languaged -- message to news anchor Jennifer Livingston with the subject line "Community Responsibility." He said, "Your physical condition hasn't improved for many years," referring to her weight. "Surely you don't consider yourself a suitable example for this community's young people, girls in particular. ... I leave you this note hoping that you'll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle."
Livingston took to the airwaves with an emotional rejoinder and became a viral Internet phenomenon. She acknowledged her obesity and rightfully pointed out that she is "much more than a number on a scale" -- a sentiment everyone in our weight-obsessed culture should internalize.
Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group