(Photo by Allison Long, for the Kansas City Star)
A recent article in the Kansas City Star covered a group with a different sort of anti-bullying campaign: it's a boxing-based fitness class just for teenagers who've been bullied or whose friends have been bullied.
It's called Fight Club, and in general I think it's awesome. It sounds, in a lot of ways, like exactly what I needed in middle school.
There's only one thing that bothers me about the program: it's not an actual self-defense class. The article stresses that the kids taking the class are encouraged not to fight back against their abusers, and that the boxing serves more as an outlet for emotions than as practical training:
It's not a self-defense class. Holly Reynolds, the woman who started the program, can't call it that for legal reasons. It's not about fighting, either, though Reynolds gave it the same name as the 1999 Brad Pitt movie about underground fight clubs.It's not that the things the classes do offer --- improved physical fitness, confidence, an emotional outlet, a roomful of other people who are having the same experiences as you, along with adult trainers and mentors who are clearly on your side --- aren't also hugely important; I just worry that explicitly discouraging these kids from fighting back if they're assaulted undermines what the program is supposed to do. It's supposed to give you confidence and enable you to stand up for yourself or your friends; how can you do that if you freeze up once the confrontation escalates?
This Fight Club is about getting fit, feeling strong and fighting the good fight, she said.
These teens don't spar with each other. They spar with their feelings.
We have a serious problem in mainstream American culture, in that we tend to put all the blame on victims of violence --- especially certain kinds of violence. If you were raped, you must've done something to draw attention to yourself, or gone somewhere you shouldn't have, or trusted someone you shouldn't have trusted. To use some philosophical terminology, the rapist may have been the immediate or proximate cause, but you were the ultimate cause of your own rape.
It's the same with bullying, whether of children in school or of adults in the workplace or in their communities. If one or more people decide to harass you, stalk you, follow you around in groups yelling things at you, try to scare you, subject you to unwanted, gross and insulting sexual advances, physically attack you or vandalize your property, it's bad, but you must've done something to make them choose you as their target.
And with school bullying, adults tend to tell children very stupid, unhelpful things when those children ask for help, like, "Just ignore them; they'll go away if you don't respond." (More victim-blaming: you're only being bullied because you let them get a rise out of you!) They also hold victims of bullying to a much higher moral standard than the bullies themselves: no matter how in-your-face, menacing or even violent they get, if you hit them back, you're just as bad as they are. They ignore bullying until it does turn into a physical fight, and when that happens, they act as if all combatants are equally at fault*.
So, against that kind of cultural backdrop, I don't think it's doing the kids any favors to try and convince them they don't want to hit the people who are abusing them. Of course they do. Telling them they don't, when they know perfectly well that they do, would (I think) just work to undermine any impression you've made of being the rare adult who understands what they're going through.
Don't get the wrong idea; I know teaching kids self-defense won't magically enable every one of them to win a fight with a bully (especially those who are bullied by a whole pack of people), and I know it's not fair to expect victims of bullying to solve the problem on their own. In my ideal school environment, teachers and bystanders would play a much more active role in defusing incidents of bullying; I just think physical self-defense is also a tool kids need to be given, without shaming or second-guessing them when they use it.
*That happens to grown women, too, when they try to defend themselves against rape or domestic abuse.