By-law Against Bullying Brings up Questions of Intent

You can’t legislate kindness, says this psychologist and educator

Posted by Dr. Pat Pitsel in Bullying, Employment Law, Human Resources on January 7th, 2013

The Twitterverse sprang into action after the small town of Hanna, Alberta, about 120 miles north east of Calgary, passed a municipal by-law against bullying. According to the Mayor, this by-law was in response to a request by an RCMP officer, who felt the need for additional legislative tools to control bullying that was escalating but that had not yet reached the stage where physical violence had occurred.

This is evidently not the only Canadian town or city to have passed this type of city ordinance. The Mayor, in a subsequent response to a particularly heated series of emails from a non-resident, stated that five or six other municipalities have similar legislation.

The by-law calls for an initial fine of $250, which could jump to $1,000 for subsequent offences. There’s also a bystander clause, where fines of $100 can be assessed if an individual knows something is going on and doesn’t inform authorities.

Laws Don’t Stop Bad Behavior

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Being against a law that prohibits bullying puts one in the same category as being in favor of drowning kittens in a sack. Those who believe, however, that a legal approach is the preferred manner would do well to consider that laws probably don’t stop much bad behavior.

We already have loads of laws on our books – laws again murdering people, drinking and driving, stealing, playing music loudly late at night, jay walking. They range from providing penalties for the most serious to the most trivial of citizen behaviors, but I would venture to guess that there are very few people who do not break a law simply because the action is against the law.

Ever hear anybody say, “Gee, George, we’d better turn that music down. It’s against the law after 10 at night, you know.”? Or, even more to the point, have you ever said to yourself, “I’m going to kill that stupid s.o.b. for cutting me off in traffic. Oh, wait. That’s against the law.”?

Laws to Punish, not Prevent

Now I am not so naïve as to think that we don’t require any laws at all, but I would submit that laws exist in order to effect punishment after some bad act has been committed hoping that either the threat or the experience of sufficient painful consequences will be enough to deter similar acts in the future.

Will the passing of anti-bullying laws reduce the incidence of bullying either in the school yard or in cubicle land? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that there are no laws in existence that will fix low impulse control, a fundamental absence of empathy, or a deep-seated need to feel superior to somebody.

We can’t pass laws that will stop people from having their feelings hurt. It is impossible to enforce laws that try to make people be kind, or thoughtful, or considerate.

I’ve often said that saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” is not really an apology, but maybe I was wrong. Consider the incident where a man, complaining about city buses displaying the words Merry Christmas “was extremely surprised, offended, and angered that a municipal government organization like Saskatoon Transit would display a message pertaining to a religious holiday on its main bus sign.” Maybe in some cases, that is the only thing you can say. It’s better than “Suck it up, Princess”. That would probably be bullying!

Pat Pitsel
Pat Pitsel

Psychologist, Educator and Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd.

Dr. Patricia Pitsel, Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd., is a psychologist and educator. Pat received her M.Sc.Ed. from Fordham University, New York City, and her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary.
Dr. Pitsel's enthusiasm and sense of humour have made her a frequent speaker at conferences and conventions where she has been known to keep people awake for several minutes at a time.