Sunday, January 29, 2012

"I Don't Care If They Hit You; You're Not Supposed to Hit Back!"

(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.

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.
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?

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.


Saia Sikira said...

you totally have got a point here.

I remember, being a child, how, weel, everyone bullied me, but there were some guys in the school bus who were really older than me (let's say I was 5 and they were 14), and they really abused me. An, you know, mymmom and all just said things like "ignore them and they'll stop 'cause it won't be fun anymore" or "just try not to be on their way" and it was completely useless. and one daqy a friend of my mom's came and he told me "and why don't you just hit them back?" and I thought it was not a solution 'coz I was really tiny compared to them and whatever and one day in the bus things got really bad and I was desperate and I hit one of the boys. It makes me laugh remembering how shocked they were. It did stop them, and nothing else would have.

So, theese classes you speak about seem cool and all but they shouldn't try to erradicate self-defense. something like "try not to use violence as a solution if you can do any other thing" could be OK, but stoping them is not...

Anonymous said...

as a Kansas City resident may i say this: it all has to do with insurance. if you call it a self defense class, then it falls in the same insurance group as contact sports, gymnastics, and circus skills. Its roughly 3x the price for a insurance for a similar class not involving full contact, like running, aerobics, yoga, volleyball, soccer, ect. one daughters karate classes is 130 a month. my other daughter takes acting classes for 90$ for 2 months. my sister cant teach Arial fabrics because of the liability insurance.

Lindsay said...

@erilyn - yeah, I noticed the "for legal reasons" in the paragraph about why Fight Club can't call itself a self-defense class.

I probably sound harsher on Holly Reynolds and Fight Club than I really feel --- I do think it's awesome, and I do think Reynolds and Bigg Ron get it. I just noticed that half of the article seemed to be like, "hey, now these kids are better prepared to defend themselves if they need to" and half of it seemed to be saying the kinds of things I complain about in the post.

And because it says Holly Reynolds was bullied herself, I'm definitely willing to believe she's just not running it as an actual self-defense class because of legal or insurance stuff.

(I think the stuff I mention is a big problem in general, though, so I feel justified in writing this post, even though I think Fight Club is much more part of the solution than they are part of the problem, and the ways in which they fall short are probably to be blamed mostly on external factors.)

But thanks for your comment, it was enlightening.

Anonymous said...

Your critique of anti-bullying programmes is right on the money. I remember that when I was in Kindergarten, our teacher (presumably by decree of the schoolboard) told us that we should respond by saying "I like you, but not what you're doing."
Here's a fun game: try imagining saying something that is *more* likely to get your face beaten-in by a bully. [HINT: This is not possible].
Later-on, when I was in grade seven, I was harassed by a gang of bullies until I suffered a very public emotional breakdown. At this point, they and I were forced to go into "conflict resolution." This measure, when you think about it for more than about a second, so completely misses the point that it should be obvious that whoever devised it had never actually been bullied himself; this is not a "conflict;" it is one human being's continuous display of contempt for another Human being's existence.
Now I am an out transwoman, and bullying is becoming an issue for me once again. I think that the best way to respond this time is by taking up some kind of martial art. And I will not be doing it in order to learn poise and equanimity, or whatever: I will be doing it so that I will know how to kick the crap out of my harasser.

Lori said...

Your philosophical terminology sounds eerily similar to the terminology used on death certificates.

Lindsay said...

@voxcorvegis - Wow, that's awful. (Both the "I like you, but not what you're doing" and the conflict-resolution thing --- like you say, they both miss the point spectacularly and make things worse for the victim).

The first one also has the same kind of denial of what bullying is really like, too --- of course you personally dislike someone who's bullying you! It's like they're more concerned with making sure *you* never lose sight of the bully's humanity than that he start to see *your* humanity.

Max said...

In junior high I once spoke with a counselor about the bullying. Their response was to ask me what I could do. Drove me nuts. That and other incidents taught me that I was on my own in these matters and that no one else really cared.

Holly's Esthetics said...

We specifically can't use any form of self defense wording, due to legal reasons. A free self defense class was offered by Title about a year ago, and there was a lawsuit, which Title won.

Our guest speakers have all encouraged these teens to work on their self esteem skills, empowering actions and speech, but have also assured them, if you get hit, you will know better what to do.

Thank you for taking the time to read our article in the KC Star. If you ever want to drop in, so you can see firsthand, what it is that we do, we welcome you any Sunday, from 12-1:45. We also have a volunteer meeting on February 25th, if you wanted to take a hands on approach, we welcome suggestions, as it only makes our program richer. Feel free to email me at

lilconnor said...

Respectfully, I wonder if the detractors on this thread may be missing the larger picture. This particular group serves minors, and so by law can't be called a "self-defense" class. That's an issue of law, and the fact that Ms. Reynolds does not refer to it a "self-defense" class, nor conduct it as such cannot really be called anything other than an informed and responsible decision. My question is, how narrowly are we willing to define 'self-defense?' Personally, I think self-defense starts with self-esteem. A kid who feels good about themselves, about who they are, and who has an outlet for their frustration, is better able to deal with a bully. The idealistic and best option is simply to ignore ignorant people, such as bullies. But I think everyone on this thread, myself included, has at some point been forced to fight back physically, either in defense of themselves or others. My mother always said, "Don't start a fight. But if someone else starts one, you end it." The sentiment being that violence is never to be instigated, but if it comes, it must be met. So, when and if a child is put is that same position, a kid who feels confident and self-assured is more likely to stand up--for themselves and for others. Those internal quantities are exactly what Ms Reynolds and her group are seeking to enrich. And it is those internal values, self-confidence and self-worth, that enable a child to better withstand cruel people when they ought to be ignored, fight them when they need to be fought, and forget about them as soon as they're dealt with. We could teach kids how to beat the crap out of each other, but that's not going to solve anything, and it certainly not in the long-term. Sad but true--there are bullies in every aspect of life, and kids have to meet them--whether in school or in the workplace or on the street. There are always going to be people who try to advance themselves by belittling others, mocking the non-conformists, suppressing the weak. But bullies are cowards, by nature, and MOST of the time they'll shrink from people who refuse to be intimidated. However, sometimes they don't shrink, and a confrontation is either inevitable or necessary, a confrontation may be physical. In which case, wouldn't you rather the kid have spent some time in a boxing gym, surrounded by people encouraging and supporting him/her? In a situation where there is no choice but to fight, isn't it better to do so with more confidence than fear? And does anybody really think, "non-self-defense-class" or not, that these kids don't get a pretty good idea of how to defend themselves? It's a good thing. Let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Anonymous said...

This article was a nice reminder that there are people out there who get how incredibly useless and victim-blaming all that hackneyed advice about ignoring bullies is. Thanks!

Ettina said...

I did hit back (well, not literally hitting, but shoving and yanking) and it made not a bit of difference. Really, when will people learn that you don't intervene with *victims* to treat bullying? Not only is it not effective, but it leaves the bullies, who are very likely to have psychiatric problems themselves, untreated. (In particular, there's a link between bullying behavior in childhood and adult criminal behavior.)

Regarding self-defense, I don't know about boxing, but karate class can easily teach you to defend yourself without 'hitting back'. You learn to choose exactly how much force to apply. For example, if someone grabs you by the shoulders, you can do anywhere from simply getting free to breaking their arms - whichever suits the situation. You can choose tactics that cause little or no pain but prevent them from hurting you, or tactics that cause pain but no serious injury, or go full-force and cause injury. (Of course, in the dojo we only practice the 'no or minimal pain' forms.) Also, we do spar with each other, which I think helps me get less likely to panic and freeze if I'm actually attacked.

Lindsay said...

@Ettina - I agree that victims aren't the ones who need to change; I hope that wasn't the impression I gave in the post!

I also know that fighting back is no more a guarantee that bullies will back off than ignoring is --- I was just trying to highlight how wrong it is to police victims' behavior in *any* way, when the bully is the one who offended.

That's neat about no-pain, no-injury defense tactics ... maybe I should take a karate class sometime. (I have enormous strength, but no fighting experience or training, and if I were ever attacked I would want to stop my attacker(s) without hurting them).