The story of a Wisconsin television anchor who used her live newscast as an opportunity to defend herself when a viewer called her fat has rallied anti-bullying advocates across the globe.
Jennifer Livingston addressed a man identified as Kenneth Krause after he sent her an email in which he claimed her heavy weight made her a bad role model.
That Livingston received a critical note is not news — nasty letters and comments are commonplace these days thanks to the internet. That she responded publicly, bringing his criticism to light, made it a story.
“He doesn’t see that the way that he approached it was clearly hurtful to me," Livingston said. “He’s trying to shame me into losing weight. That’s not being helpful. That’s being a bully.”
What makes some people think it is OK to insult strangers? And when does “constructive criticism” cross the line into bullying behavior? We asked some experts to weigh in.
For clinical psychologist Dr. Joel Haber, context is key.
“If you have a relationship with someone, people can take criticism or constructive criticism, but without the relationship, it comes across as nasty,” he explains.
As Livingston pointed out during her broadcast, Krause “knows nothing” about her. This fact in itself, says Haber, is enough to cross the line.
“She may be a great role model in other ways. We don’t know her story.” Some may argue Krause was offering what he thought to be constructive criticism when he suggested Livingston "reconsider your responsibility to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.” He told the AP the letter didn't have anything to do with bullying.
But as psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Gardere points out, “if you do not know someone well and do not understand what their sensitivities are, you must be extremely careful that you are not crossing the line from being helpful to being a bully.
“A bully does not care about someone else's feelings, and therefore, if they are not being constructive in any way in their comments, then these are rude and bullying comments.”
According to “Bullied” author Carrie Goldman, the tone of Krause’s letter falls clearly into the “bullying” category.
“A man who knows nothing about Jennifer Livingston made sweeping assumptions and critical judgments about her — solely based on her physical appearance — and that is classic behavior that we see in bullies,” she explains.
“He has revealed that he harbors prejudices against her and that he sees overweight people as less valuable role models,” she adds.
So why do some people feel it’s OK to insult strangers?
“Anyone who emails a stranger or anyone else to comment on their appearances usually have their own self-esteem issues and therefore engage in what is called 'splitting,'” Gardere explains. “This is a psychological term for ‘I am good and you are bad. I am skinny and you are fat.’ It's a way of distinguishing yourself as being better than the other person.”
With so many ways to criticize people nowadays — through posts on Internet comment boards, Facebook messages, emails, in chat rooms — it’s more common than ever to for people to be nasty.
“We are at a place where we can say wherever we want but the lines get so blurred with being respectful to people and being uncivil,” Haber says, adding that it's much easier to write unkind things about someone "without having to see their reaction face-to-face."
For Goldman, Livingston's decision to stand up to the attack was a "brave" one because "it is forcing people to confront their own thoughts and beliefs about what constitutes cruelty."