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Music agent Bernie Finkelstein on bullying

Bernie Finkelstein founded True North Records and still manages Bruce Cockburn. His autobiography, True North: A Life in the Music Business, has been published by McClelland & Stewart. He will be appearing as part of the Toronto Jewish Book Festival at the Toronto Reference Library from June 4 to 7.

Were you bullied as a child?

My father was in the air force. We moved every two or three years as I was growing up. There weren't a lot of people with the name Finkelstein around, so sometimes I would attract a little too much attention. Nothing, in the end, I couldn't handle. I found ways to get around.

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Were you ever a bully as a child?

No, I was not. It is not in my nature to be a bully of any sort.

How would you define bullying?

In its most simple sense it would be to pick on people who are in some way or another less powerful than you are, whether it is purely physical or people you feel that you can lord over or push around.

Where do you draw the line between being forceful and bullying in business life?

I ran a company. I had people who worked for me, had jobs I had to get done, and there is no question I could be quite forceful if I needed to be. But I never thought of it as bullying. It was never like I'm backstage at Massey Hall and [saying] "You're just an usher. Why don't you run around the corner and get me something?"

In a recent poll, half of Canadians questioned said they experienced bullying as a child. Can something so widespread be considered just a normal part of growing up?

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I'm willing to accept that it might be part of normal growing up but I'm really hopeful that human nature can leave it behind. If some kid appears to be gay or someone's skin colour is different or their name is funny – that kind of bullying – there is no room for any of that. It might be normal, but it should not be thought of as something that has to remain normal.

The wired world has allowed bullying to become something more insidious than taunts or blows in the schoolyard. The damage is more pervasive and done anonymously. How do we confront bullying going online?

I don't see any quick solution. I'm semi-retired. The only act I still work with is Bruce Cockburn. I'll see an article in the [newspaper]and it will be something about Bruce. Now there is full access to the public to decide what they think of the article. When I read the kind of vitriolic comments left, I think how nasty people can be and what hate they seem to show online because they are so anonymous. Human beings are imperfect, and the Internet is the perfect place for people to show just how imperfect they are. We may have been on our computers for a couple of decades, but in the scale of human time it is a very short period. Some of that will be left behind.

Is bullying worse done anonymously over the Internet or in your face in the schoolyard, where at least you can fight back?

I'd much rather be surrounded by a bunch of dolts on the Internet than a bunch of dolts in public. Remember "sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me"? I feel bad for anybody who is bullied on the Internet, and it may sound callous, but they do have the option to turn off their computer. But I guess that is not an option that a lot of people feel they can take any more if they want to belong.

Society seems to be taking more notice of bullying. Extreme cases resulting in suicide or death are making the news. Is bullying something that society should actively confront?

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There is a fine line between society doing positive things and being kind of fascist with a small 'f,' but I don't think we've gotten very close to that fine line. I'm not saying there is more now than there ever was, but we probably hear more about it now. Much like I never heard the word "Alzheimer's" when I was growing up, but people surely must have been afflicted. Now we are real concerned about Alzheimer's and how to avoid it. Same thing here. We have this issue of bullying more in the news because of the Internet, more kids coming out of the closet, the tensions of a multicultural society. These things going on more and more in the open, more and more people are trying to find answers. I think that is a good thing.

Do you have any advice to anyone who is being bullied?

Stand tall and you are going to get through it. And a little bit of talk back doesn't hurt. Often people who are bullies are cowards. You face them down. Stand tall and stay true to yourself.

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