John Leo
Frequent Flyer magazine once ran a poll showing that nearly four out of 10 executives who fly a lot had witnessed at least one example of "air rage" in the previous year. So anger on airplanes is a growing menace? Probably not. The poll's definition of air rage included attempts to sneak a smoke on a plane and "verbal abuse" (i.e., criticism) of a flight attendant, a passenger, or any airline employee on the ground.

This version of air rage might include an exasperated passenger who says something sarcastic when told that his luggage has been sent to Saskatchewan. The complainer would be part of the rage stats along with people who assault pilots. This is like including "unnecessary honking" in the definition of road rage.

Many of us are suffering from "statistics rage" or "battered stats (BS) syndrome." These numbers are produced by muzzy definitions, which in turn affect policy and law. A current example is the hullabaloo over bullying. To goose the number upward, advocates produce the broadest possible definition of bullying, including starting a fight, refusing to include a klutz in a schoolyard basketball game, and spreading rumors. Anything that hurts anyone's feelings seems to qualify. That ought to cause the stats on victims of bullying to hover somewhere between 99 percent and 100 percent.

In its excited 1993 report on sexual harassment in schools, the American Association of University Women claimed that 80 percent of students had been harassed. But given the broad definition, it surely should have been 100 percent. Jokes, teasing, gossip, ogling and winking all counted as harassment. That report was silly, but the press took it seriously, and it led to the rigid school policies and grim workshops we have today.

We are headed in the same direction on bullying. A prosecutor in Dakota County, Minn., recently announced that any student 13 years of age or older who picks a fight "will be looking at" at least one night in jail. The prosecutor must have attended an unusual school. At the one I went to, half the fights involved boys who were friends one day before and one day after the big tussle.

Don't laugh. All harassment definitions are infinitely expandable. The Chicago Tribune reports that joking in the workplace has become so perilous that some companies have called in consultants to rein in office humor while other companies hire humorists to help employees lighten up. Maybe it's safer to have no laughing at all.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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