Speaking of Bullying

Thursday, November 28, 2013

by Professor Jane Bailey

The federal government’s approach to “cyberbullying” in Bill C-13, seems more likely to empower Big Brother than to meaningfully protect or empower little sister, or any children, for that matter.  At a press conference Justice Minister Peter MacKay claimed that the government’s priority is to “keep Canadians safe”, “particularly our children”.  If so, this government has a funny way of showing it.  Not only does the bill fall well short of meaningfully addressing “cyberbullying”, it makes even this limited response conditional on accepting increased state surveillance writ large.

“Cyberbullying” has become an umbrella term for a range of behaviours – everything from repeated insults motivated by personal disputes between individuals to invasive and hateful attacks motivated by sexist, homophobic, racist and other prejudices against entire groups.  It is clear that a unidimensional response such as that found in the bill is highly unlikely to meaningfully resolve the issues at stake.  As a result, many have called for a comprehensive national strategy that identifies what kinds of behaviours, practices and forms of harm need to be addressed.  Only then can we assess the potential of current legal and policy mechanisms, the gaps that remain and the responses needed. 

 We know, for example, that those who are seen as “different” are more likely to be targeted by “bullying”.  The kinds of things that make someone “different” include race, disability, sexual orientation and sexual identity.  Getting at the root of that kind of “cyberbullying” will require strategies that address systemic racism, sexism and homophobia, as well as educational initiatives that teach attackers other ways of behaving.  Long-term change requires a strategy that includes policies aimed at inclusion and respect for diversity, human rights education, behavioural approaches, restorative practices and, in some cases, criminal law responses.

 The “cyberbullying” bill addresses only certain kinds of behaviour and offers only one kind of response. It targets non-consensual distribution of intimate images, hate speech based on sex, age, national origin and mental or physical ability, and false, indecent and harassing communications using a telecommunications system. These provisions could be very important for women and girls.  Studies suggest that they are more likely to be targeted by online threats of sexual violence and attacks alleging sexual promiscuity than are heterosexual men and boys.  

 Criminal sanctions for these behaviours could make a meaningful statement not only about protecting youth, but also about our commitment to gender equality and to minimizing barriers to girls’ and young women’s full participation in our emerging digital society.  But with no proactive initiatives to change prejudices that leave women and girls open to these kinds of attacks, we are offered only reactive criminal sanctions that in the past have done little on their own to reduce women and children’s vulnerability to sexual violence.

 We should not dismiss outright the potential for criminal prohibitions on non-consensual distribution of intimate images as a community condemnation of one egregious form of “cyberbullying”.  But unless incorporated into a more comprehensive strategy, its impact is likely to be more symbolic than real.  We must directly address why displays of women’s sexuality or recordings of sexual violence against young women are understood as a way of shaming them.  This is particularly perplexing given the media culture that tells girls and women they should be “sexy” in a predefined way that is really just designed to sell them everything from diet pills to cosmetics to plastic surgery and more.  Perhaps we need to intervene here too, to target online business models that use our personal information to profile us and then market to us according to that profile, perpetuating harmful myths and stereotypes about women and girls, as well as other social groups.

Finally, whatever one thinks of the potential of the new criminal prohibition in terms of meaningfully addressing “cyberbullying”, it is exceptionally objectionable to see the government advancing once again the state surveillance agenda on the backs of our children.  If the bill were seriously intended to protect our children, then at a minimum the new surveillance powers would be tied specifically and exclusively to the “cyberbullying” provisions.  Can we expect that, as it did previously with the lawful access bill, this government will again try to bully us by accusing those who oppose expanding state surveillance of being unconcerned about the vulnerable in our midst?

 A government that aims to provide meaningful long-term protection for those disproportionately targeted by “cyberbullying” would bring us a stand-alone bill that addressed gendered hate speech, non-consensual distribution of intimate images and criminal harassment via telecommunications systems. That government would not have repealed a human rights based remedy for hateful online attacks on vulnerable social groups and their members, as this government did earlier this year.  That government would commit to a broader strategy for “cyberbullying” in all of its forms.  That strategy would do more than just react to certain instances of “cyberbullying” with punitive measures.  It would also include proactive approaches for addressing the social structures and behavioural factors that contribute to the multitude of situations encompassed by the broad term “cyberbullying”.  The victims of “cyberbullying” and Canadians as a whole deserve no less. 
For more on Professor Bailey's recent work in this area see: www.egirlsproject.ca 
Designed by Rachel Gold.