Dear Middle-Aged Man Who Stopped to Chat With Me At San Diego Comic-Con,
You were strolling through the Autograph Area, looking to see if there were any tables you wanted to visit. You stopped and read the banner above my table. You walked over to me, smiling. I thought you might be a teacher looking for some resources, or perhaps a father hoping to get help for his kids. Maybe you were a fan coming to tell me your own story of having been bullied.
“Don’t you think all this anti-bullying stuff is kind of dumb?” you asked me. “I mean, why don’t you just tell the kids being bullied to fight back and then no one will bother them? It’s because they act weak that they get picked on. Think of all the Comic Book heroes who were once weaklings and then they just fight back and become heroes. That’s what you should be teaching these wussies to do, sweetheart, not trying to coddle them.”
I asked if you had some time to talk, and invited you to pull up a chair. I wanted to take time answering your question, because your view is shared by millions of people, and I thought you deserved a thoughtful, research-based response. I even hoped that we might have a good conversation.
You laughed. “Nah, I’m here to have fun, not to talk about serious stuff,” you said, and walked off. So basically, your only interest in approaching me was to let me know that you have a closed opinion on an open subject. Bummer for you.
I often hear this "hit back harder" advice from adults who are recalling their own playground brawls from twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. The simplicity of this advice fails to consider the complexities of the bully-victim dynamics of today's digital world, where bullying often takes place on social media. Sure, if a victim fights back in person and flattens his bully, the bully tends to back off. But what if the bullies are hiding behind computer screens? What if the target is physically incapable of taking down the bully, which is more often the case?
You mentioned the comic book weaklings who fought back and became heroes. But you conveniently left out the fact that those protagonists almost always discovered secret powers or abilities that enabled them to level the playing field. As far as I can tell, we’ve never really had a kid turn into a spiderman. Peter Parker’s amazing story should not be the basis of your approach to dealing with real-life targets of bullying. Let it serve as inspiration, as escapism, as a fantasy or a dream. But don’t pin a bullied kid’s hopes on it.
The truth is that there are many bullying situations in which the victim cannot simply beat up the bully and end the problem. The very nature of bullying renders victims fearful, frozen and incapable of defending themselves.
Bullying is characterized by three factors: 1) It is repetitive (not a one-time event in the hall, but a regular ongoing problem). 2) It is unwanted (not two-way teasing where both parties are having fun, but instead a situation where someone is on the receiving end of hurtful taunts or aggression). 3) It takes place in the context of a power imbalance (a bigger kid against a smaller kid, or multiple kids against a single kid, or a kid with more social capital against a kid with less social capital).
What if one of the “wussies” you encourage to “just fight back” is a teenage girl being taunted by multiple athletes at her high school? How exactly does she fight back? Do you think it will help her to simply punch them, one by one? This type of action might put her at risk for further harm or even sexual assault.
What about all the kids who are the victims of cyberbullying, which is not something easily combated by punching the bully in the face? What if 1,000 kids share a vicious meme about one of your “wussies” on Instagram? How does the target just fight back?
And what if the person being targeted is marginalized by society to begin with? Is it even possible for this person to fight back without incurring disciplinary action at school or through our criminal justice system? The bullies have more power. They will use it to silence their victims, usually by engaging in some form of victim-blaming, if they can get away with it. And they DO often get away with it.
When a parent or a teacher tells a child who is being bullied to stop tattling and fight back, it can make the situation worse. Those kids who are unable to fight back may end up feeling blamed for the bullying. Their already fragile self-esteem is further weakened, as they wonder, "What is wrong with me? Why can't I make this stop?"
So, my brief Comic-Con visitor, in answer to your question, no, I don’t think this anti-bullying stuff is “kind of dumb.” I think it will be the stuff of legends. Because one day, there will be another Peter Parker out there who is being bullied, and someone who is watching will remember learning about how to act as an ally instead of as a bystander, and that everyday hero will rally others to defend Peter Parker, and their voices will be stronger than yours, sweetheart.
May the Force Be With You,
Check out Carrie Goldman's award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.