Jennifer Livingston: being ‘nice’ means saying nothing
Claims by an American newscaster that she had been ‘bullied’ about her weight take hypersensitivity to new heights.
‘We need to teach our children to be kind, not critical.’ So said a Wisconsin newscaster, Jennifer Livingston, in a viral video of her extended, on-air response to an email from a viewer who chastised her for being obese. I disagree. I’d say we should teach children to be critical without being gratuitously unkind. But I am a critic, after all, and in Livingston’s eyes, probably a bully. While boasting of her ‘thick skin’ and claiming not to have been harmed by his message, Livingston labelled the viewer who commented on her weight a ‘bully’, to the applause and agreement of multitudes.
Yet his offending email was unquestionably civil (even grammatical) and neither mocking nor threatening in tone. Instead, it seemed a presumptuous, misguided effort at constructive criticism. ‘Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain’, the viewer concluded. ‘I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.’
How does this qualify as bullying? It doesn’t seek to torment or publicly humiliate Livingston. (Her husband made the email public, with a posting on his Facebook page.) It doesn’t exploit a power differential. In fact, as a newscaster, with media access and a built-in audience, Livingston held the power in this ‘relationship’, and she used it to engage in name-calling and public shaming. Her critic simply pointed out what she acknowledged is a fact: she is obese. He offered an irritating, unsolicited opinion, suggesting that obesity made her a poor role model. In a private message, he suggested that she was setting a ‘bad example’ to young female viewers. So, in public, she made a bad example of him.
Her public sided with her, not surprisingly. I bet her critic received some nasty emails from anti-bullying crusaders, while Livingston received ‘truly inspiring’ support. ‘Hundreds and hundreds of people have taken the time out of their day to not only lift my spirits, but take a stance that attacks like this are not okay’, she gushed. ‘That man’s words mean nothing to me’, she added, unconvincingly. Why, then, did she bother refuting them? October is bullying-awareness month, Livingston observed, and she was deeply concerned about ‘children who don’t know better – who get emails as critical as the one I received or in many cases, even worse, each and every day’.
Yes, children are often (not always) more sensitive and vulnerable than adults. But how is that relevant here? Livingston’s critic addressed her as one adult to another. Why bring up ‘the children’? They take their cues from us, she explains. But that’s a plea for thinking twice about how we talk in the presence of children, not a mandate for us to talk to each other in private as if we were all pre-pubescent.
There is much to decry in current hysteria about bullying: It teaches students that they have no right to give offence or make each other uncomfortable. It doesn’t teach them how to engage in debate. It redefines free speech as civil speech and then defines civility, between adults, as language fit for children.
‘The internet has become a weapon and our schools have become a battleground’, Jennifer Livingston asserts. Perhaps this melodramatic lament is partly true. The vicious comments that were once passed around in handwritten notes are now posted and widely disseminated. But if viciousness is a problem, uncritical niceness is not the solution, for children or adults. Condemn criticism categorically, and you condemn thinking. ‘Be sweet young maid, let those who will be clever’, young girls were once told, but many of us always knew that sweetness isn’t everything.
Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her most recent book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)
Watch Jennifer Livingston’s comments and an interview on Ellen
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