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A Soft Diversion from Hard Reality

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Bullying. You might wonder why a Whiffle subject like this would dominate even a day of our news in recent months. Greece is leaving the Eurozone, California is bankrupt, underemployment and wage stagnation are decimating the middle class, our public and private debts run deeper than the Mariana Trench, and... We're talking about kids picking on one another. And whether one of our presidential candidates was unduly cruel to a fellow classmate fifty years ago.

Why? For exactly the reasons I noted above. Because there are so many serious issues to rectify, and such a small chance our failed political system can forge any semblance of the compromise needed to address them, we'd rather pretend they're not there. We'd rather confront children being mean to one another, as they have been since, well... since they've been.

Normally, I'd laughed at this sort of feeble-minded diversion. Credit it to the usual crowd of soccer moms with too much time on their hands, bleeding heart meddlers, and our ever opportunistic media looking for a story that captivates the broadest demographic. (Who hasn't been bullied at one time or another? Who doesn't feel terrible when hearing stories about a child suffering such treatment?)

But these aren't normal times. We're in turmoil - economic, political, societal. This isn't an age for group hugs, or telling anyone, however much he's suffering, "The village has your back... We will outlaw people picking on one another... We'll make wedgies a misdemeanor, hazing a felony... We'll create a Brave New World where meanness and cruelty will be quasi-criminal."

It's that kind of thinking - that officious referee-ism, coupled with the ludicrous belief the answer to every grievance is passage of some new law, or regulation - that's turned us to the soft-headed, uncompetitive nation we've become.

Teach anyone at an early age that the state will intervene on his behalf, like some helicopter parent of last resort, and you'll get what we have today: Legions of useless, parasitic bankers thinking they're entitled to endless monetary easing and bailouts; Armies of miseducated, naive protestors who think if they holler enough, some magic hand will gift them largesse; Unions of already overpaid, superfluous public sector workers with the temerity to challenge someone asking them to accept a $20 co-pay adjustment to their Cadillac health insurance plans.

This all starts with someone thinking somebody else, or something else - some grand beneficent hand, with indefatigable power and resources - is going to protect him from the dangers of life. That from cradle to grave, we all have, or should have, luxurious safety nets and bullpens of big brothers to fight our battles.

The better course is to tell the kids being bullied to fight back. Tell them, "Hit the bully. You'd be surprised how fast he'll fall. And if he's too big for you, get a couple friends together and gang up on him." A kid who fights back gains confidence, becomes a man who stands his ground, and with that mentality will avoid like hell ever making himself a ward of our already overburdened state.

This sounds nuts to those who think, "We should all be regulated to play nice with one another." And it should. Those people live in delusion - in dangerous, unaffordable fantasies. Like it or not, we are in a sunset of sorts for the United States. We are going to suffer through decades of intense competition for resources, on both the macro and micro level. Nations, businesses, and individuals will battle viciously amongst themselves at their discrete levels of competition. In times of Less for All, the trend is not toward cooperation, but toward a level of selfishness that would test the most ardent Randian's sensibilities.

Now is not the time to tell a nation of kids the lie, "The authorities will be there to take care of that bully for you." They won't be. They can't be. We can't afford their pensions, let alone the kind of overtime that policing would require.

It's time to tell the kids what everyone knows, but most of us don't want to say out loud: "More so than any other generation in recent history, you're on your own." We shy from this, I assume, because most of us see it as depressing. As a failure - that we couldn't make the Great, Managed Society work. Bullshit. If anything, "Fight your own battles" is empowering. It's the message your grandparents and great grandparents brought over on the boats. If you're reading this piece in a comfortable home, it's probably because someone a few generations back left his homeland, came here, and broke his neck to succeed. Or, if your ancestors were brought here as slaves, because the first one who gained his freedom faced down frightening odds to make it in a society that treated him in an unforgivable fashion. These people didn't take shit from anyone. They fought for what they made. They had no option.

And following this ethos also cures bullying - from abusive first-graders, to abusive high schoolers, to abusive bosses - with ten times the effectiveness of any policy interdiction or feel-good awareness campaign. I know this because I've seen up close, as I'm sure many of you have, the "let the market sort it out" approach to bullying in action.

In third grade I moved to a new town. The new kid on the school bus, I was bullied. I plead for assistance at home and was told by my father, quite bluntly, "I'd be doing you no favors. If a kid hits you, all you can do is hit him back." This was horrifying at first, but then I realized, I had no choice. Retaliate or suffer. So I followed the advice. A few days later, a bully's face bloodied, his eyes blackened, and his parents threatening to sue mine, mission accomplished. A month after that, I used the same approach on a kid who challenged me on the playground. Again, he stopped bothering me.

Then my confidence got the better of me. After pummeling a third kid who stole a baseball card from me, and thinking myself invincible, I ran - as every aspirant bully will - into the kid who knew Karate. He called me out, knowing I'd walk right into the trap. I replied physically, as expected. And he beat me like glue factory mule. (It's hard to describe in words the pain delivered by a kick to the face.) After this loss, I discontinued (for at least several years), responding to anything in a physical, bullying fashion.

And there it is, deus ex machina as it might seem (but only because this hands-off solution works so efficiently) - the market solving the problem. I'd gained confidence, and learned to fight my own battles, and also discovered I wouldn't make much of a bully (unless I was willing to learn Karate, which I wasn't). I'd also grasped an understanding that being a bully is being an asshole. Getting your ticket punched in front of a group of peers drives you to introspection quickly. Even at a grade school age, you're compelled to ask yourself, "What defect in my personality forced me to attempt to assert dominance like a caveman? Am I that insecure?"

Bullies will never learn anything if we teach kids to call in the authorities to stop them. All they'll do is learn to game the system - to attack people in ways that can't be remedied by any law or zero tolerance policy. They'll persist in becoming abusive, obnoxious spouses, co-workers, CEOs, and politicians. When they do blow up, having been coddled by frightened yes men for so long, their falls will be spectacular. They'll bring down families, companies, governments. We have to teach kids early, hard as it might be, to Take the Bully Out. Bring Him Down. And if you're worried this might make the bullied into bullies? Don't be. The market corrective is out there, a slap from the "invisible hand," perhaps delivered as a kick to the face, waiting to teach the bully-in-the-making a lesson he won't forget.

[Read more from The Philadelphia Lawyer]


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