For decades now, public schools and society at large have fretted about how to stop bullying. At some point in the 1990s, some time around the Columbine High School massacre, bullying became a public crisis. Public crises must have a government program, which must have a logo, and must have posters and handouts and a website and well-credentialed experts—all of which add up to lots of taxpayer dollars.
The federal government leads the way with stopbullying.gov, “an official website of the United States government.” The U.S. government’s official bullying website exhorts visitors to do everything they can as adults to stop kids bullying, calling bullying a “public health” issue.
But hold on. Should adults really be the main ones stopping bullying? And is bullying really a “public health” issue worthy of a federal program, or is it a human nature issue? Haven’t we always had bullying? Didn’t Goliath bully the people of Israel? Didn’t George III bully the American colonies? Didn’t Napoleon bully Europe?
To put it more starkly for our time today: Does Bruce Wayne become Batman if he never faces the adversity of seeing his parents murdered before his eyes? Does Luke Skywalker ever grow from the whiny Tatooine teenager to the leader of the galactic rebellion if he never sees Darth Vader strike down Obi-Wan on the deck of the Death Star?
Culturally, we understand the role of adversity in growth. Adversity is like Miracle Gro for character. Adversity forms the plots of our most popular films, books, and TV shows. But as our culture works to stamp out “toxic masculinity,” it is also attempting to stamp out human nature itself. Both attempts are doomed to fail at accomplishing their stated goals, but they are likely to do unpredictable damage. If we are able somehow to eliminate bullying, how do we replace an often necessary rite of passage from weakness to strength?
What if I spin you a tale about a group of Halflings saving the world? In The Lord of The Rings, Hobbits were the most unlikely of tiny heroes, and yet they stood up to Sauron, the greatest bully of them all. Gandalf puts it like this: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay . . . simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.”
Fact is, we’re inundated with bullying programs and campaigns that don’t work and we don’t need to spend any more money on them. The U.S. government’s website is just the tip of the anti-bullying iceberg. October is National Anti-Bullying Month. Every school and every town has an anti-bullying program of some kind. Though they have different names and branding, anti-bullying programs all have one thing in common: We don’t need them.
Schools and towns have instituted “anti-bullying” programs and campaigns that haven’t stopped a thing. Bullies keep bullying. If anything, bullying is worse now because victims are not allowed to step up and defend themselves, physically or even verbally. They have to pay lip service to the “anti-bullying” programs and campaigns that everyone deep down knows don’t do anything. They have to read a bunch of stuff, attend a bunch of classes, listen to a bunch of lectures—everything but the only thing that would work: taking the bully on and ending the reign of terror directly.
If “anti-bullying” programs were aimed at actual bullies and worked, after all, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin wouldn’t be creating a whole new anti-bullying program aimed at parents. That’s right, parents. The New York Times credulously reports the town of 17,000 will start levying fines on the parents of kids accused of bullying other kids. Parents of accused bully kids might end up paying $315 per incident. If such a law was enforceable.
Other towns have instituted similar systems of fines but significantly, none has ever actually levied a fine on a parent for the behavior of their alleged bully kid.
So what are programs like this one really meant to accomplish? What do they actually hope to achieve? Well, other than giving the bureaucrats a reason to strain their arms while patting themselves on their backs, smugly satisfied they have done something, not much.
Of course, that’s what bureaucrats are for—to do something, even if it’s ineffectual. Even if it’s counterproductive. And even if, as in the case of bullying, it’s impossible to stop because it’s part of growing up, both on the part of bullies and their victims.
Might it not be the case that bullying is not something the U.S. government should treat as a “public health” issue, but something that can and does create some positive goods? Don’t get me wrong, bullies suck. They spot weakness in others and ruthlessly exploit it. They can be cruel and they can do great damage, physically and psychologically too.
But forest fires can do lots of damage, too. And yet forest fires clear out land of dead wood and vegetation, and before long new life springs up in its place. Dealing with bullies can be a rite of passage, a means of overcoming adversity and growing from child to adult. Taking down your bully can be your origins story of growing up, or becoming heroic.
The U.S. government’s own bullying website hints this is true. It says most bullying happens in middle school, which is a key transition point between true childhood when we play with the toys of youth, and the growing responsibilities of adulthood when we first get jobs and cars and really think about the future. Kids in the prime bullying age are finding their way, testing boundaries, and figuring out who they are.
The feds’ website notes a lot of bullying takes place on school buses. No kidding. On their best days, school buses are Lord of the Flies-level chaos—importantly, where there are no adults around to do anything about it. So victims have to find ways to stand up for and defend themselves, or they will remain victims.
The feds define bullying as “unwanted aggressive behavior; observed or perceived power imbalance; and repetition of behaviors or high likelihood of repetition.” Anyone who has been in the grown-up workplace for long recognizes at least some of that, not as bullying, but as just dealing with an overbearing boss or an annoying co-worker. Being bullied as a kid can help prepare you for dealing with adversity as an adult. It can toughen you up. Make you find your own inner strength.
We grow not by always taking easy paths, but by overcoming obstacles. Seeing the challenge and rising up to conquer it. You get better at reading by graduating from See Spot Run to taking on Tolstoy and Shakespeare. You get stronger by lifting heavier weights. You become able to run longer distances by making yourself run longer distances. You grow through the challenges life puts in your path.
Bullies are some of life’s obstacles. They can be overcome. If George McFly can stand up to Biff Tannen then so can you.
So let’s stop with all the hand wringing, brow furrowing, the mamby-pamby bullying posters, flyers, campfire chats, and lectures and just encourage kids to find the cajones to deal directly with their tormentors. Society has to afford victims the space to stand up for themselves. Yes, that can mean punching the bully in the nose or in the gut.
If we let victims handle their bullies, as we used to a couple of generations ago, the victims won’t feel so trapped, and pretty soon they won’t feel like victims—because they won’t be victims anymore. They will be heroes and their bullies—zeroes.