A personal story about a bully: he hit me in the face and then claimed I’d walked into his fist. Stretching himself up to his full five-foot-four height, he stated that he never apologizes to anyone, then proceeded to call me a spoiled brat when I pointed out that an apology was in order.
This didn’t happen in grade school or high school. It happened a couple of weeks ago, in a private boxing gym where I train for kickboxing, but where some of the men train only for boxing. In this case, my round with a male boxing study had ended, and we were standing by the ropes talking with our trainer, when the man swung his hand back and hit me in the face—a blow hard enough that it could have cracked my nose. Then he turned and smirked at me—a gotcha look.
I resisted the urge that came up strong and furious to punch him as hard as I could, to basically beat the hell out of him. Instead, I left the ring, told the instructor I would never spar with him again, and changed my schedule so I’d never have to see him. But this is what bullies do: they look for an opening, a vulnerability, and then they lash out. It may sound like schoolyard immaturity, but it’s the kind of stuff we see in adult situations each and every day.
In this election season in particular, it’s ironic that the subject of school bullying is so front and center, because if you only listened to the candidates, you’d have trouble telling them from angry adolescents. Over the past months, we’ve been bombarded with adults indulging in childish name-calling, over-the-top nastiness, humiliation tactics, and smug asides during debates that were once expected to be civil. In California, both Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, gubernatorial candidates, basically refused to stop negative campaigning—asserting, in tangled verbiage, that the other one had to stop first. Wow, that’s mature. And one of them will be running the state of California soon.
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Some might say it’s politics as usual, but in this particular moment, there’s a valuable question to be asked: how do we teach our children civility and respect when the adults running for prominent political positions sound like undisciplined juveniles with bad attitudes? It’s smackdown politics, and it’s everywhere. When positions of power seem to be the reward for bad behavior, how are kids supposed to believe that behavior is wrong?
The news about teen bullying has indeed been grim. Teenagers committing suicide; teenagers literally bullied to death, oftentimes for being gay. But bullying is not only aimed at those who are gay. Kids are harassed and tormented for their race, their religion, the ways they are different, their choice of dress, their physical characteristics or limitations. And occasionally, it seems, for nothing.
Much of the current dialogue about bullying focuses on the parameters of exactly what the definition is. Is bullying a single act of torment? A pattern of behavior? Is it a physical attack, or a cyberspace assault, or some combination of the two? I would suggest it is simply this: one human being refusing to respect another, going out of the way to inflict injury—physically, emotionally, or psychologically. It extends from schoolyards to boxing rings to the halls of political power all over this country.
Plato once said, “Mankind will never see an end of trouble until lovers of wisdom come to hold political power, or the holders of power become lovers of wisdom.” I suspect that even Plato would be unable to solve the mess facing us now, and I certainly have no sage advice. But here is a suggestion: maybe it would help if we all remembered what we’re supposed to be doing. I go to kickboxing to learn a sport that I fell in love with years ago. Kids are supposed to be in school to learn and grow and prepare themselves for life out in the world. Politicians are supposed to be running for office to help our country—God knows we could use some help. Anger doesn’t create good athletes, or productive citizens, or leaders. It only creates bullies, and we already have enough of those.