Political game changer? The ‘B word’ enters the fray

In the cut and thrust of politics – and the accompanying drive to galvanise support and isolate opponents – any number of unacceptable ‘isms’ are flung about in the hope that some of the more damning semantic baggage might stick.

Over the past couple of weeks a new branding has emerged that doesn’t fit the ‘ism’ category. It’s ‘bully’ and it’s being used with considerable effect in the opening salvoes of the United States Presidential elections.

On the face of it a bully-boy mentality might seem a ‘must have’ characteristic for any politician. Just turn on Parliament TV and watch the behaviour in the debating chamber and you’ll get the point. 

Calling someone a socialist is one thing. Questioning someone’s suitability for office because, as a youth, the candidate bashed other young or vulnerable people is taking professional name-calling to a whole new level.

Could branding someone as a bully ever be a lethal weapon in the rough and tumble of the NZ political jungle?

Traditionally the argument went that bullying was just part of growing up. Harry Flashman may have been a prat but Tom Brown finished his school days none the worse for wear. Conventional wisdom was that everyone who was bullied ‘just grew up and got on with it.’

But whoever got the green light to float claims that Republican candidate Mitt Romney is “a bully” has, one could argue, put a whole new spin on the use of labelling.

Rumours started to surface mid-May of this year in the Washington Post about Romney’s allegedly dark past. Allegations included shouting “‘atta girl” when a “closeted gay student” spoke out in class and walking a blind teacher into a closed door, after which Romney is reported to have giggled hysterically.

The worst case was an alleged attack on one John Laubner, described as a “soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney who was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality.” Bleaching his hair was purportedly what sent Mitt into a fit. With a group of others he is said to have pinned Laubner to the ground and clipped his hair off with scissors while shouting abuse.

Romney’s attempts to laugh off these incidents, during a Fox News interview, as mere teenage high-jinks didn’t wash with New York Times op-ed writer Charles Blow who has labelled the GOP candidate as ‘Mitt the Menace.”

Says Blow: “There is so much wrong with Romney’s response that I hardly know where to begin. But let’s start here: if the haircutting incident happened as described, it’s not simple bullying. It’s an assault. Second, honourable men don’t chuckle at cruelty. While I have real reservations about holding senior citizens to account for what they did as seniors in high school, I have no reservations about expecting presidential candidates to know how to properly address the mistakes they once made.”

It seems many would support Blow’s view. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that 77 percent of Americans believed that “bullying is a serious problem that adults should try and stop whenever possible.”

As Blow said in his piece, bullying is physical and emotional abuse that, stripped of its ‘social conditioning’, often amounts to criminal violence. Bullying might be the label used in some cases when in fact the ‘real’ incident might have been sexual abuse, assault and/or psychological torment.

Given the confrontational style of our own Westminster-based parliamentary system, could ‘the B word’ ever make a regular appearance in New Zealand’s political lexicon, or the type of parliamentary-privileged character-bashing that speaks regularly to personal foibles instead of politics?

It did in the UK, where former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was damaged in the polls by allegations of bullying behaviour within the confines of 10 Downing Street and, earlier, The Treasury.

After the New Zealand Herald’s recent week-long ‘state of the nation’ exposé about bullying it’s fair to ask: could branding someone as a bully ever be a lethal weapon in the rough and tumble of our political jungle?

Just as the word socialist is spun up and down the ladder of semantics to evoke rich imagery, bullying is a particularly loaded term. Would the use of this label alienate the voting public and, if so, would they turn away from the accused? Or the accuser?

Bullying in New Zealand and around the world is at epidemic proportions. Almost three-quarters of New Zealand school children report being victims of bullying. Its destructive impact on the lives of individuals, families and society is enormous -not just for those who have been bullied but also for the perpetrators.

The questions being therefore: would we stand for having a bona fide bully as the leader of this country? And on whose scale would we judge the accusation? Similarly, what might be the next career-limiting invective to come out of the closet?

As communication professionals we know that words count, and we’re past-masters at using them to forge and destroy reputations. Is the whole area of professional bullying in the political arena an area we’re prepared to venture into?

Or will it remain simply ‘not cricket’?

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