Language

Policing Language Gives Ammunition to the Trolls

Don't make the world responsible for your emotional well-being unless you enjoy getting hurt.

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You knew what the likely outcome would be, Charlie.
Charles Schulz

Could Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg have known there would be a big backlash when she embarked on her campaign to ban the use of the word "bossy" to describe the behavior of assertive women and young girls in particular? Her statistics have been criticized as cherry-picked or debunked, and the movement has been roundly mocked, resulting in an increase of the word "bossy" being tossed around (and at Sandberg). It seems likely that despite Sandberg's efforts, "bossy" will not be joining "bitchy" in the list of words forbidden in polite company.

As COO of Facebook, surely she's familiar with certain types of Internet behavior, namely that of trolls. Once a term used mostly by fans of the fantasy genre, "troll" is now used to refer to people who deliberately try to stir up trouble and mayhem on the Internet and through social media. The term has even been made into a verb. It has leapt off the Internet to describe anybody (particularly politicians and pundits) whose behavior seems designed to stir up controversy rather than conversation. Women who are active online tend to be a frequent target of nasty attacks from trolls, and the names they get called make "bossy" look like a compliment. Sometimes the harassment spills over into real life in creepy, sometimes threatening ways.

So why did Sandberg attempt such a misguided effort? She's probably been called "bossy" in the past few weeks more than she ever had been growing up. There's some theorizing that Sandberg, a Hillary Clinton supporter, wants to short-circuit some of the critical language Clinton will face should she run for president again. That seems a bit of a long bridge to trudge across to make political hay out of the "ban bossy" effort. It's more likely that Sandberg means what she says. She doesn't like the word and she thinks it's hurtful.

But her approach to trying to ban the use of "bossy" highlights a troubling issue that's become an extension of the "language police" culture. Sandberg and those who approach communication this way are saying that the community as a whole is responsible for the emotional well-being of its citizens, that millions of people she's never met can affect her attitude and mental health with the language that they use. Not only are hundreds of millions of people unwilling to embrace this philosophy in the first place; it's essentially giving the people of the world (especially the trolls) a blueprint on what to say to really hurt you.

Consider a study just last fall from the University of Texas. Researchers determined that schools that had developed anti-bullying programs actually saw more bullying than schools without programs. How did that happen? The kids used the examples of bullying they were shown as a template, not a warning. From the college's own coverage of the report:

"One possible reason for this is that the students who are victimizing their peers have learned the language from these anti-bullying campaigns and programs," said Seokjin Jeong, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at UT Arlington and lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Criminology.

"The schools with interventions say, 'You shouldn't do this,' or 'you shouldn't do that.' But through the programs, the students become highly exposed to what a bully is and they know what to do or say when questioned by parents or teachers," Jeong said.

The researchers also pointed out that boys are more likely to be victims of physical bullying, and girls, emotional. Most parents would expect adults to intervene in instances of physical bullying. Verbal and emotional bullying becomes a more complicated matter. Here's how one school defines the two of them:

Verbal: Verbal bullying involves speaking to a person or about a person in an unkind or hurtful way. Examples include: sarcasm, teasing, put-downs, name calling, phone calls, spreading rumors or hurtful gossip.

Emotional: Emotional bullying involves behaviors that upset, exclude, or embarrass a person. Examples include: nasty notes, saying mean things using technology (e.g. cyber bullying using emails, instant messaging), chat rooms, tormenting threatening, humiliation or social embarrassment.

Certainly these are behaviors adult caretakers want to discourage in the strongest terms and even discipline. But as we grow up, "physical bullying" becomes "assault and battery" and the law gets involved. Verbal and emotional bullying becomes … what exactly? Part of becoming an adult is learning how to appropriately deal with environments where this behavior happens. This doesn't necessarily mean, "Suck it up, you little baby." Rather, as adults, we are expected to be responsible for managing our emotional well-being. That includes learning how to be around others or adapt to others who simply don't give a damn about our feelings.

These calls to ban words, these references to all behaviors that make us feel bad as "bullying," and the very concept of "trigger warnings," an Internet/college phenomenon where the public is expected to warn adults in advance that they may talk about issues (like assault) where some may have personal, traumatic experiences, push the responsibility for individuals' well-being onto the world around them. Not only is this unrealistic nonsense, it is an abnegation of one's own ability to thrive and cope in a complex world. It is the opposite of evolution and maturation.

And it's dangerous. That is what the trolls know. "Don't say these terrible things that wound me psychologically," we say. "I'm going out of town for a week and keeping my door unlocked. Please don't rob my house," is what the troll hears. Obviously, we want the people who matter in our lives—our family, friends, children, co-workers—to respect us and not use hurtful language against us. It's perfectly reasonable to ask your significant other or your children not to call you or anybody else "bossy." But the world at large doesn't care about your emotional state. They have their own problems to deal with. Don't expect strangers to care what you think about the word "bossy" any more than they care what you think about the weather, the upcoming elections, or last night's episode of Scandal. The strangers who do pay attention may well be jerks looking to use your publicly revealed vulnerabilities to screw with your head.

NEXT: 6 Big Unanswered Questions About Obamacare

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  1. It seems likely that despite Sandberg’s efforts, “bossy” will not be joining “bitchy” in the list of words forbidden in polite company.

    Oddly nobody seemed phased when I referred to a male doctor I work with as bitchy earlier today.

    1. I thought gratuitous use of the word “bitchy” was one of the benefits of being gay?

      1. Wait, would that mean that Sheryl Sandburg was engaging in homophobic microaggression?

        1. Yeah, let’s go with that.

      2. The bitch is always back 😉

        1. Stone cold sober, as a matter of fact.

    2. It has honestly never occurred to me that “bossy” was anything but gender-neutral. And I frequently refer to men who act like ill-tempered Papillons as “bitchy”.

      1. I thought women weren’t allowed to be bossy before women’s lib!

        Oh heck, I’ve just gone and dated myself.

    3. Without the word bitchy I’m unable to describe Obama.

      1. incompetent douche bag still works!

  2. Consider a study just last fall from the University of Texas. Researchers determined that schools that had developed anti-bullying programs actually saw more bullying than schools without programs. How did that happen? The kids used the examples of bullying they were shown as a template, not a warning.

    So I guess we need to ban dystopian fiction in schools, then.

    1. Is there a study about the media pushing stories on the newest teenaged drug scare followed by an increase use of the drug? Because that would be awesome.

      1. Many. The one that comes to mind is glue sniffing. I should look for a cite but IIRC a newspaper in the Pacific NW in the early/mid 1960s did a huge story on the dangerous youth habit of sniffing glue to get high complete with detailed descriptions of glue brands, ingredients, method (rag in a bag)etc.At the time of publication the glue sniffers were mostly in or ex- reform school and mental wards.After publication it spread to teens of all social classes and the stores couldn’t restock the empty glue shelves fast enough for the increase in demand.

        1. cite

          This article says Denver, 1959. I could’ve sworn it was in Portland or Tacoma around ’63.

          1. My psycho cousin would deeply inhale airplane glue until blood came out of his ears.

            To this day, I live in fear of crossing paths with him.

            1. I have one who would sit on our grandfathers tractor and sniff the gasoline fumes until he passed out and fell off.

              Today he is a recovering crack addict.

              1. Back in the 1980s there used to be a cardboard sign guy in Manassas VA who sniffed gasoline as a habit. People called him Hi-test and the local throwaway liked to interview him 3 or 4 times a year. He said that he liked gasoline fumes because it was legal and for 50? he could get high all day. That meant he only had to work for an hour or two to afford his food, cigarettes, and gas.

                Nowadays he’s been a long time dead from (surprise!) benzene poisoning.

    2. I knew having Orwell’s 1984 as required High School English reading in the 70s would bite us in the ass!

      1. Nobody thought that there were actually people who would view it as a how to manual.

          1. Orwell gets respect, an anti authoritarian leftist. Pretty rare.

    3. shit, I guess that means no more cannibal documentaries…

  3. “Sandberg and those who approach communication this way are saying that the community as a whole is responsible for the emotional well-being of its citizens, that millions of people she’s never met can affect her attitude and mental health with the language that they use.”

    The sad thing is, the fear that people will use words she doesn’t like can affect her mental health.

    While I would say the adult thing is to get over it, I think she has a mental disorder. Seriously.

    1. She doesn’t have a mental disorder, she’s attempting battle space preparation to neutralize Hillary’s negatives for her 2016 presidential run.

      Okay, maybe that actually does indicate a mental disorder.

      1. What, by being a bossy cunt?

        1. supervisory bitch?

  4. Not only is this unrealistic nonsense, it is an abnegation of one’s own ability to thrive and cope in a complex world. It is the opposite of evolution and maturation.

    ^^^This X 1000^^^

    Part of maturation is the realization that not everyone is going to walk on eggshells around you. The world doesn’t care how sensitive you are, and yes, there are nasty people out there who will gladly take advantage of other’s sensitivities. The key is to recognize these people and try to interact with them as little as possible.

    1. Or tell ’em to fuck off.

      1. Yeah, there’s always that approach too. But most hyper-sensitive snowflakes don’t have the cajones to actually tell someone to fuck off. Instead they’d rather do things like ban certain words that hurt their widdle feewings.

        1. Well, then fuck them, their life is going to suck by choice.

      2. I love telling people to fuck off! Especially progressive idiots. One of my favorite forms of catharsis.

    2. In other words: “Toughen the fuck up, Nancy.”

      Words to live by, really, and I mean that without a scintilla of sarcasm.

    3. The world doesn’t care how sensitive you are, and yes, there are nasty people out there who will gladly take advantage of others’ sensitivities.

      Agree, except we’re into the second generation of schoolchildren and college students being told that, yes, you can use your own sensitivity to control the actions of other people. See, e.g. Larry Summers & Harvard.

      1. Which is bullying by victimization.

        Jeez, our society has gone mad. I blame compulsory education. (Which we’ve only had thru grade 12 for 3 generations.)

      2. I find that not giving a shit helps greatly. I gave to deal with this kind of nonsense with younger relatives. As if I’m going yo walk on eggshells around snot nosed teenagers.

      3. remember not everyone goes to college..

    4. See this is what I don’t understand when it comes to the womenfolk; on one hand we’re supposed to constantly kiss their ass about how “empowered” they are non stop, but then we get these bullshit ideas that are premised on them being to emotionally weak to even withstand a fucking word. I mean make up your damn mind.

  5. While I would say the adult thing is to get over it, I think she has a mental disorder. Seriously.

    Yes, she has a personality disorder – she’s a control freak. In other words, she’s bossy.

    1. Behind most control freaks is a little hurt person. Not that I think you are wrong, but that both are true. Her personality disorder is a coping mechanism for her mental issue.

      1. She’s not coping, she’s avoiding.

  6. push the responsibility for individuals’ well-being onto the world around them

    You know, I’ve never been able to really articulate why these types of initiatives bother me. I think Shackford may have just nailed it.

    1. Thanks for sharing that video, I founded by luck another one. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YR2ZDCICYk4

      1. “What the fuck do you want, rapist?” is just about perfect.

  7. push the responsibility for individuals’ well-being onto the world around them

    Like with mandatory vaccinations and ‘herd immunity’.

    1. Way to bring pseudoscience into it. Since vaccines provably do work.

      No, don’t tell me why you think that’s incorrect, and I don’t give a shit about your invisible friend in the sky, either.

      In other words, stop being a whiny little bitch.

  8. push the responsibility for individuals’ well-being onto the world around them

    This is what “civil rights” has devolved to.

    1. And to think I just found a time early in my life when I realized I needed to just decide to be what I wanted to be in spite of it all.

  9. Word bans are stupid. Ceratainly schools have an interest in intervening when there is verbal or emotional abuse going on. Those situations will usually escalate to a physical fight. i know if you were calling me names you where goign to get punched. Unfortunately addressing those sceneriao just requires common sense as opposed to some word ban or whatever. Common sense doesn’t seem to be in very large supply especially with school authorities.

    1. I vote to ban Ceratainly…

      1. What if I twist my handlebar mustach when I say it.

  10. Speaking of language police, the credit to Charles Schulz in the image should be without a ‘t’.

    1. Oppressor!

      I fixed it.

  11. I got censored today for asking if someone threatened me, would I be allowed to fart in their general direction in self defense. There’s no doubt the language police have run amuck if a guy can’t even make fun of a gun control nut by quoting Monty Python.

  12. I bet ‘Bossy’ is her safe word

    1. *shudder*

  13. I guess I’m a troll. I don’t remember using the word bossy ever in my life before that campaign or ever hearing it much, now I make it a point to use it all the time. Thanks for the cool new word dummy!

  14. Facebook. That’s the bunch of idiots that suspend accounts for using words like “chigger” and “niggardly”.

    1. You spelled nigger wrong.

  15. Just FYI, “troll” was a verb before the Internet, if I recall correctly.

    1. Being an avid fisherman, my father has a motor for just those purposes.

  16. That seems a bit of a long bridge to trudge across to make political hay out of the “ban bossy” effort. It’s more likely that Sandberg means what she says. She doesn’t like the word and she thinks it’s hurtful.

    Why can’t it be both..? She didn’t like it in reference to her and she doesn’t want it used against a friend and ally..

  17. One of the tenets of newspeak is limiting vocabulary in order to control thought.

    Also I can’t get over the irony of telling people they can’t call you bossy.

  18. women ARE bossy.

    they are psychologically designed differently from men.

    men are more insensitive, women are more bossy.

    bossy-ness is when you assert authority that is not yours to command. initiate force that you have no moral authority to apply.

    women have as rocky a relationship with proper authority management as men have with empathy, except that our culture feminizes male empathy to enhance it, and feminizes female bossiness to exacerbate it.

    IMO the balancing act is really impossible to achieve. Without bossiness you cant ensure positive outcomes for those you empathize with (and rule). With proper authority you cant fully empathize with disorder. its an element to eliminate, not dominate and control.

    male leaders care less but allow underlings autonomy. women care more but gravitate to fascism. if you care about underlings you gotta subvert their agency to protect them from themselves.

    women are bossy.

    1. I don’t know how much of it has been proven factual, but this is a great post.

      1. The first thing they did with their vote was take away our booze…NEVER FORGET!

  19. Apparently, the COO of Facebook has too much time on her hand. How’s her company doing?

  20. It seems to me that her effort may work, although not in the way she intended. As this story points out, the effort to stigmatize certain words often just generates ever more use of those words. Eventually, though, the word is so over-used that it’s not even noticed by the target anymore, because it means nothing. I’m sure that by this point, Sandberg doesn’t even notice being called bossy (and worse), let alone that it still bothers her if she does notice it. So she, in effect, achieved her goal of getting rid of the word, though not in the way she planned.

    Sort of like “racist.” Liberals decry everything they don’t like as “racism,” so I’ve started using the term that way, too. McDonald’s screwed up my order? “Racists.” Someone uses the term “black sheep of the family”? “Racist.” The overuse helps to take the power out of the word, but my hope is to prompt people to look past the label and to think about what’s actually going on–which, it seems to me, is the mindset that defeats racism. So liberals may achieve their stated goal of reducing racism, but only at the cost of opening people’s eyes to the fact that many of the worst actual racists remaining in the country are said liberals.

  21. So, can two guys be “married?”

    1. yeah, but only until they swap shit with someone else…

  22. I”d have to read the study mentioned, but a couple of things could be happening:

    1. kids learn what not to say to get in trouble, thereby giving them impunity to be nasty, just so long as they don’t say ‘bossy’ for example. More articulate bullying.

    2. there really is less bullying, but everyone is so hypersensitive ‘micro-bullying’ is now being counted.

    3. certain smarmy connected kids are using the system to get at other kids whom they don’t like, by accusing them of bullying.

    The reality is, everyone (pretty much) games the system and uses it to their advantage. Almost everyone looks at the rules and sees how best those rules can be used to gain an advantage and get something they want. An anti-bullying system is just as likely to be used as any other type.

    1. micro-bullying? is that where you bully someone very, very small or you bully a microscope?

      1. It’s when you put little people in a microwave.

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  24. The kids are being taught that ” sarcasm, teasing, put-downs, name calling, phone calls, spreading rumors or hurtful gossip.”, and “nasty notes, saying mean things using technology (e.g. cyber bullying using emails, instant messaging), chat rooms, tormenting threatening, humiliation or social embarrassment.” are grown-up toys for the media and campaigning politicians to play with.

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