I was in elementary school when the educational ministers began preaching that fighting back against bullies was not to be tolerated. It was insisted that responsive violence only begat more violence and that the way to stop bullying was to “not respond” and to “demand the bully respect you,” or some horseshit like this. This went along with a bunch of programming about creating an “inclusive environment” and a bunch of other malarkey that imagined if we could all listen to “Free To Be You And Me” together nobody would get picked on when we went out for recess.
To this day, I want to know what they were smoking. These folks spent their entire adult careers allegedly studying the social behavior of young children and yet never realized that “Lord of the Flies” was a lot more than a fictional fantasy novella. They went about fighting bullying in exactly the wrong way – by criminalizing the physical aspects rather than disincentivizing the psychological aspects of bullying, they ensured the “negotiating” between bully and victim took place in the psychosocial realm where the bully had already secured an advantage, and imposed a moral equivalence that shamed victim for daring to fight back. The establishment seems to want to think of bullies as the fat stupid kid who has no other way than his fists to express himself (a la Moe from Calvin & Hobbes), however the bullies I dealt with had great social savvy and were able to bamboozle the teachers into believing they were the victim instead of me. Thus, any one-on-one verbal discussions that were supposed to “resolve conflict” were simply an extension of the bullying process – just as, for example, a negotiation with a corrupt businessman is itself structurally corrupted.
The teachers and administrators also had these stupid ideas that bullies suffered some psychological defect that caused them to do this, and so if everybody worked together to “understand” the bully, he would respond with the same measure of goodwill. It was about as effective as telling a guy whose girlfriend is angry and sullen that he should fix it by being nicer to her. I believe this philosophy fed their narcissistic attachment-teaching concepts that if they could just empathize with those troubled kids and “reach them” they could make them become functional members of society. In a lot of cases I experienced, there was nothing particularly insecure or twisted or “wrong” with the bullies themselves – they were just dominant personalities who got off on dominating other people. The adults would have been better to recognize this, accept it, and seek to limit the damage. In most cases, there was no “conflict” to be resolved through empathetic discussion, there was simply a person who enjoyed fucking with other people in the same way the teachers enjoyed drinking coffee and bitching about the union. (I wager that the sort of conciliatory personalities that are drawn to teaching are not very able to accept that some people just want to mess with other people for fun.)
The teachers seemed to have a vague idea that bullies sought to pick on weak people, but there were two problems: first, they didn’t really want to state this out front, probably because it sounded like “blaming the victim;” secondly, they didn’t make the mental inference (or couldn’t bear to admit it) that the solution to being targeted was to show yourself to be strong as the bully (if not more). By their nature, victims needed to be given permission in order to fight back – something explicitly denied to them.
The best lesson I got from any no-bullying or no-violence policies was to understand that authority figures were completely incapable of either seeing or admitting the social scene was what it was, that they had no real interesting in actually solving serious problems I was enduring at the hands of other students, and that to play by their utopian “rules” against kids who were employing the most basic principles of psychological framing and physical constraint was really just unilateral disarmament on my part.
In that light I suppose these policies were a big shit test. Hey, everyone has to learn how the world works at some point.
The frame I’ve come to believe in with regard to bullying is that, yes, a bully is trying to exploit a power differential, and that the faster you demonstrate strength to close the differential, the more quickly the bully will leave you alone and find someone else to victimize (if the demonstration of strength wasn’t enough to humiliate them entirely). Generally speaking, that means you’re going to have to get physical at the middle or high school level. Once you’ve shown you’re not going to be fucked with, the spell of dominance is broken and the bully no longer sees you as someone to victimize.
This frame differentiates a bully from a thug; a thug speaks the language of violence, and if you engage a thug physically, he now has permission to play the game on his terms, the way he wants to communicate.
I don’t want to stew in false nostalgia, but I have been told that there was a time in the USA when being weak as a boy was seen as a bad thing. If your dad heard you were getting picked on at school, he might respond with “why the fuck are you letting that go on? See if he still does it after eating a knuckle sandwich. Let’s go out back and practice your jab and cross.”
A COUNTER-BULLYING SUCCESS STORY
My heart was warmed when I clicked the headline “Bullying Victims Fight Back With Help From Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Royalty.” (quotation abridged by me)
Martin Hendricks, 12, spent a week this summer at the Gracie Academy in Torrance, Calif., in an intensive program designed to make him “Bullyproof.” He learned as many jiu-jitsu self-defense techniques as a kid can absorb in five days, he memorized a blueprint for dealing with a bully fairly and squarely, and he gained self-confidence. The first week of school he put the lessons into practice.
Rener Gracie, 27-year-old son of UFC originator Rorion Gracie and grandson of legendary Brazilian jiu-jitsu grandmaster Helio Gracie, knows all the statistics. He recognized that the martial art perfected by three generations of his uncles and cousins is ideal for combating bullies. So he and his brother Ryron developed a program specifically for youngsters who have been the target of taunts and shoves, kicks and punches.
It took until Thursday for Martin to convincingly respond to a taunt by walking up to the instructor posing as a bully and saying with conviction, “Don’t ever do that again.”
Rener taught Martin the three T-steps: TALK to the bully and ask him to leave you alone. TELL the teacher and your parent that the bully won’t stop even after you’ve talked to him. TACKLE the bully and use jiu-jitsu to gain control of him without resorting to punches or kicks.”If you draw that line with your words and the bully respects it, the case is closed without a physical altercation,” Rener told Martin. “But if you draw that line and they slap you, kick you, cross that line again, you don’t think twice. You take both of your hands and push him as hard as you can in the chest. You blast him. Knock him off his feet.
“Then take control using jiu-jitsu and tell him you will let him go if he promises not to bother you any longer. If he won’t say it, wait until a teacher or another adult shows up before letting him up.”
I like these steps because a clear boundary is drawn, the bully is given a chance to cooperate in the verbal, nonviolent stage, and if he chooses not to, the consequences escalate. That’s very important for placating teachers and administrators – it shows the victim is willing to try it their way, and frames the bully as the one who is not playing by the rules.
Martin wasn’t to be trifled with when the bullying started up again at school.
Everything Martin had learned during his week at the Gracie Academy bubbled to the surface. He jumped off the lunch bench and while in midair pushed the bully in the chest with both hands as hard as he could. Both boys landed on the ground and Martin pinned the bully by placing his knee on his chest and holding his arms down with his own.
It was a classic jiu-jitsu combination — decisive and effective without causing trauma or blood.
The bully was shocked and as he struggled in vain to get up he yelled that Martin was crazy. The bully’s friends told Martin to get up, but as he told the principal later: “I chose not to.”
On Monday the principal called Martin into the office and let him know he wasn’t in trouble. Fighting was not tolerated, he was told, but in this instance the response was appropriate. Neither Martin nor his mother told the school about his jiu-jitsu training. [Presumably until they were interviewed for a Yahoo! Sports article.]
The bully sought out Martin at lunch and apologized in front of other kids. Word got around the school. No longer is Martin the target of bullying — from anybody.
I always cry at happy endings.
IF YOU’RE NOT A KID, FIGHTING WILL LAND YOU IN JAIL
All the above being said, understand that as you become an adult, violence becomes an increasingly less appropriate and more dangerous approach to maintaining to your safety and security. You do NOT need to go brandishing your fists as a way of showing off how alpha you are. There’s no manhood test that says you have to get in a fight to punch your masculine card. Laws vary by state but you should always assume you can’t prove provocation or escalation or self-defense – if you put your fists on somebody, a district attorney will try to find a way to book you for battery. You can lose everything.
Besides, if you’ve been working on your game, your psychological state management and verbal dominance skills should make rhetorically demolishing a would-be bully much more powerful than any physical display. Most bullying will probably take place in your workplace anyway, since as an adult you can choose to exclude such people from your social circle, and violence in the workplace will almost certainly get you summarily fired. If you have a hard-on to kick someone’s ass, join a dojo or a boxing gym.