When Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighed in on the tragic story of Rehtaeh Parsons, the 17-year-old Nova Scotian who was driven to hang herself in April 2013 after months of bullying following an alleged sexual assault, he echoed the national revulsion at the event, saying he was “sickened” by the story. He also said he thought that it was time to stop using the term “bullying” for some of these things because that connoted “kids misbehaving”, when some of these circumstances were “simply criminal activity”. That they may be. But no one can deny that it is the bullying itself that in recent years has been driving so many young Canadians to depression, despair and suicide.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Mr. Harper wants to downplay the term “bullying” by suggesting it’s just the kind of shenanigans that children get up to in a sandbox. If he were to admit that bullying was morally wrong and deeply dangerous, a pervasive social ill that has become common in all walks of modern life and among all ages, he might have to change the way his Party does politics and fights elections. Bullying, which has become such a scourge in our schools, workplaces, social media and arenas, is now also a political tool in this country.
Not even 24 hours after the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada had delivered his acceptance speech, speaking of unity and refusing to resort to divisive negativity that has been a hallmark of the Harper years, the Conservative Party of Canada had already launched its first two attack ads to take him down. The premeditated and no-doubt expensive campaign “justinoverhishead.ca” and the vicious attack ads are designed to ridicule and hurt, just like the ones the Conservatives used to decimate previous Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. The ads would be laughable if they were satire, but they are not. That the spin-demons took footage of Trudeau playfully removing his shirt as part of a charity gig for the Canadian Liver Foundation and sneered at his having been a drama teacher and camp counsellor in his past, only make it worse.
But the issue here is not Justin Trudeau or his politics. Rather, the problem here is the message these ads send to our youth, that it’s okay to make ugly personal attacks on people and broadcast them to the world. That this is how you get ahead in this world, even how you win a federal election.
Political ads that make personal attacks on opponents have nothing to do with serious discourse or policies, or political competence. They do not promote democracy; they undermine it. They lead good citizens to disengage from the political process. They constitute bullying, as childish, cowardly and stupid as the kind of nasty stuff that kids get up to on the playground. But they are even more dangerous and harmful because they come from adults who should be condemning such infantile and hurtful behaviours, not using them to try to defeat their rivals.
How can anti-bullying campaigns succeed when bullying has become an acceptable way to succeed in this dog-eat-dog world we’ve created? And more to the point, how can we tell our children and teenagers that it’s wrong to bully — to humiliate, ridicule, demean and diminish others — when the people who govern us think it’s fine to use bullying tactics in personal attacks to destroy political adversaries? That is the question I have for Mr. Harper, the Conservative Party of Canada, and indeed anyone who is involved in the slimy business of these bullying attack ads.