In her new book, Becoming (2018), Michelle Obama describes how she dealt with a girl who was bullying her incessantly when she was a kid. Did she expect an adult in her Southside Chicago neighborhood to intervene? Nope. Did she look to an authority figure to solve her problem? Nope. One day, after a particularly nasty remark, she lunged at the bully. They rolled around in the dirt for a minute or two, punching and kicking each other like crazy until someone stepped in and broke up the fight. After that, the bullying stopped. Abruptly. She’d won the bully’s respect. What’s more, she’d made it clear that she wasn’t to be messed with.
I was also bullied as a kid. He was an older kid named Ricky Flood. And he terrorized me. But he also taught me some invaluable lessons, such as: (1) the importance of not walking around with a “KICK ME” sign you put on your own back; (2) the futility and stupidity of trying to go it alone; (3) the futility and stupidity of expecting authority figures to solve all of your problems for you; (4) the importance of building alliances with trustworthy people who will have your back when it matters; (5) the importance of loyalty, promise-keeping, and having your friend’s back, especially when it costs you something. On balance, I think I probably learned more from the bullies who kicked the shit out of me when I was a kid than I learned from any of my elementary school teachers.
Look, I know I’m supposed to believe that we’ve created a far superior world for our children. But sometimes I wonder: Have we? Don’t get me wrong, the advantages of our way of doing things are obvious (so there’s no reason to recount them here). The drawbacks are less obvious though, and probably more insidious. I sometimes fear that we may be inadvertently raising a generation of young people who don’t know how to manage conflict and deal with bullies, a generation of young people who expect authority figures to solve all of their problems for them. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, if Chris Rock is to be believed, a whole lot could go wrong: “We need bullies. How the fuck you gonna have a school without bullies? Bullies do half the work. Teachers do one half, bullies do the whole other half. And that’s the half you’re gonna use if you’re a fucking grownup. School is supposed to prepare you for life, and life has assholes. . . . That’s how Trump became President. That’s exactly what happened. We got rid of bullies. A real bully showed up. And nobody knew how to handle him.”¹
What’s more sustainable: an anti-bullying campaign that teaches kids that they shouldn’t stick up for each other and intervene, that they should run and tell an adult whenever something goes wrong? Or an anti-bullying campaign that teaches kids to stand up for the weak and stand up to the strong, an anti-bullying campaign that teaches them to seek out adult help only as a last resort? The gay and trans kids don’t need to have the school administration looking out for them 24/7 when they’ve got loyal friends who love them and are willing to kick the shit out of anyone who tries to fuck with them. Moral clarity’s great, but courage is better; because your heart can be in the right place, but if your balls aren’t, well, you probably won’t do the right thing when it matters.
Am I saying we should let kids go all Lord of the Flies on each other? Of course not. My ideal schoolyard, much like my ideal economy, is about 90% laissez-faire and 10% regulation. We need to identify and protect those kids who get bullied for days and days until they commit suicide. But we also need to give kids a chance to work things out on their own.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2018)
1. Chris Rock, Tamborine (2018).