Ways & Means of Bullying

Mandala Artwork by Nicole Shaw

Bullying is a form of abuse. It involves repeated acts over time attempting to create or enforce one person’s (or group’s) power over another person (or group).

– Wikipedia

“Can this truly be serious?” My spouse and I read and reread the first letter we received from the District of Lantzville in September of 2010. Quoting an Unsightly Premises Bylaw, the letter told us to “remove all piles of soil from our property” or it could be done at our expense.

“All piles of soil? Do they really mean for us to remove our gardens?”

A month later, we received a second letter ordering us to “cease all agricultural activity” on our 2.5 acre property, citing the zoning bylaw which states residentially zones properties cannot be used for agriculture purposes.

Since that time, the issue has made headlines in newspapers throughout North America and as far as India, hundreds of letters have been sent to both Lantzville’s Council and the Regional District of Nanaimo and residents have mobilized in various ways to support “urban agriculture” in our very non-urban community.

Along with this support, on the flip side of the coin, my spouse, Dirk, and I have been on the receiving end of lectures, negative assumptions, veiled and overt threats, goading and taunting.

Unfortunately, our situation is not unique. We are probably most familiar with bullying in the schools. Although there are policies in place to address bullying, it still persists. Many young people have ended their lives through suicide as the daily harassment becomes too much to bear. What we do not hear about as often is bullying in the workplace, or in the “adult” world. In a culture where money, greed, image and status are rated highly, those who choose to live simply and sustainably can experience intolerance, contempt and even outright hostility. In our case, things have devolved to bullying tactics.

These tactics began long before we received letters from the District of Lantzville. We have an unhappy neighbour who has deliberately and systematically employed acts of intimidation and bullying toward us, anywhere from several times per week to several times per day. Contrary to what it seems, this behaviour has nothing to do with us growing food. This is simply the current tactic for what seems to be an ongoing, personal vendetta.

Since the “cease all agricultural activity” letter, our neighbour seems to have been emboldened by the attention and has escalated the harassment to the point of us having to involve the police. (The neighbour informed the officer that he had checked with his lawyer and everything he was doing was considered “legal”.)

So what is bullying?

Barbara Coloroso, author of Kids are Worth It and Extraordinary Evil explains that bullying is a far too common system of behaviours learned in childhood. “…Bullying is arrogance in action. People who bully have an air of superiority that is often —though not always— a mask to cover up deep hurt and feelings of inadequacy.” She describes that bullying always includes three elements:

  • An imbalance of power (older, stronger, higher up the social ladder, etc.)
  • Intent to harm. The bully means to inflict emotional and/or physical pain, expects the action to hurt and often takes pleasure in witnessing the hurt.
  • Threat of further aggression: both the bully and the bullied know the bullying can and probably will occur again. This is not meant to be a one-time event.

When bullying escalates unabated, a fourth element is added:

  • Terror. Bullying is systematic violence used to intimidate and maintain dominance.

Coloroso further explains that once terror is created, the bully can act without fear of recrimination or retaliation. The bully counts on bystanders becoming involved in participating, supporting the bullying or at least doing nothing to stop it. Thus, the cycle of violence begins.

In our case, the main imbalance of power is money and the cultural, societal conditioning of what is considered “status”. The threat of further aggression is promised, as an example, by the neighbour recently yelling, “I’ve got plans for you Dirk, you dickhead!” (he didn’t notice there were witnesses… a family with three young children were visiting us). The enjoyment is apparent by the grin he displays when either goading or while having a Lantzville councillor standing on his property, taking photos of ours.

And this last point is what has become increasingly worrisome over these past seven months: the power and energy this neighbour has been given by our local, elected officials. The bully seems to have become increasingly emboldened by the attention and support he has received and has continued to escalate his behaviour. From the beginning of our public issue, I saw the mayor visit the neighbour three or four times. Since then, we have witnessed at least two more councillors visit. Most recently, mid-April, a strange exchange ensued between a councillor and I (see our urban agriculture update – bullet beginning with “April 13th”) while he was walking along the neighbour’s side of the property line, taking photos of our property. And when the neighbour swaggered over, he was grinning ear to ear.

Coloroso clarifies that bullying is not about anger; instead, it is rooted in contempt for another human being “who has been deemed by the bully and his or her accomplices to be worthless, inferior and undeserving of respect.” She writes that contempt has three characteristics:

  • A sense of entitlement.
  • Intolerance toward differences.
  • A liberty to exclude.

Once a person feels contempt for another human being, they can do anything to them and feel no compassion, guilt, or shame; in fact, they often feel pleasure from the targeted person’s pain. The process of dehumanizing that person is then normalized. Because we have different values, we have been targeted. It doesn’t matter if we used to work as “white collar” professionals with good wages, or whether we are considered “poor”, “weird” or “dirty farmers”. With contempt, different equals inferior and thus not worthy of respect. Excluding is to isolate and segregate a person not worthy of respect or care. This has been evident by our mayor continuing to repeat our neighbour’s words on television and by more council members visiting his house and not ours. To me, this is our council advocating on behalf of the neighbour.

The media can become complicit in the vicious social arrangement created by bullies. As described by Coloroso, “It is easy for a bystander to become invested in the logic and practices of the instigator and become not just complicit, but ‘owned by it’. They find that their acts enhance their reputation with the bullies (planners, instigators and perpetrators) and among their peers. They then act less out of compliance and often initiate and flaunt their own tactics.” We’ve found that complete strangers, who have never visited our property, suddenly believe they are “experts” on our situation – tossing rude remarks when they see us in public.

Cultural attitudes toward farmers and farming have helped fan the flame; in our case, manure. Not only has the media made hay (pun intended) with the fact we use horse manure from within Lantzville, one of our elected officials has been reported as retorting to local supporters of urban agriculture, “Do you want a pig farm beside your house?” Such statements are tactics designed to manipulate. This is a slow erosion of social status —which is how exclusion works. And now, rather than simply “dirty farmers”, our status is lowered further to become “dirty, stinky farmers”. The vast majority of strangers driving slowly by our home on a daily basis (which is on a dead end road) to see what all the commotion is about, have stopped and expressed genuine surprise that the place is tidy and doesn’t stink. They are also surprised at the amount of space between the houses. They have said that by the way we’ve been portrayed, they expected to see a row of houses side-by-side and one in the middle with hillbillies, broken down cars and the stench of liquid cow manure. See how powerful imagery can be? How powerful positioning and the strategic use of words designed to manipulate can be?

So how can we stop bullying?

There are certainly “do’s and don’ts” when dealing with such behaviour. With children, we immediately intervene and show the bully that their behaviour is unacceptable. We teach them empathy and friendship skills. We ensure the bullied target knows that it isn’t their fault and we certainly don’t minimize or trivialize the bully’s behaviour.

However, with adults, people seem to be less willing to intervene. Attempting to stop bullying by having “positive thoughts” and sending the bully “loving energy” —which is advice we have received from countless people— is futile, naive, and ultimately dangerous. It refuses to recognize inappropriate behaviour and even rewards hostile behaviour by allowing it to carry on unchecked. Action must be taken. But what action?

I don’t purport to know the answers, however I do know that we have a responsibility to create a community where we want to live. A place where we all feel welcome, safe and secure.

So then, how can we as a community, as a society, respond to bullying in general? How can we become more open and willing to engage with each other concerning this issue?

“When one finds an imbalance of power, intent to harm, and threat of further aggression, combined with contempt that is propped up with its apparent psychological advantages of sense of entitlement, liberty to exclude, and intolerance toward differences, along with an experience of pleasure from other human being’s pain, you have the makings of a bullying that is absolutely distinct and a far cry from mere conflict.”  – Barbara Coloroso

For our urban farm story, see www.synergymag.ca/a-lantzville-couple’s-fight-for-the-right-to-grow-food

Among other things, Nicole Shaw is a farmer, feminist, artist, founding member of the Bowen Road Farmers’ Market, and volunteers her time to publish this magazine.