The ancient solution to physical bullying
Published on May 21, 2012 by Izzy Kalman in A Psychological Solution to Bullying
This is an installment in a series called “Ten Principles for Moral Discipline.” They are meant to form the basis of a moral, effective school bullying policy.
Much of the aggression among children is physical. While insults cause subjective harm (whether I am upset by your insults depends on me, not you), physical attacks cause objective harm. What moral principle can help kids defuse physical aggression?
The answer is, “turn the other cheek.”
[Note: This principle is not being presented here as a guide for dealing with attacks that cause injury. Injuring people, especially on purpose, should be treated as a crime. But children are more physical than adults. It is more common for them to hit and push each other, and they deserve to learn how to deal with it. It is also not an instruction for school staff who witness kids attacking each other. It is a principle for the individual who is the recipient of the attack.]
This principle is difficult for many people to accept, even for devout Christians who revere Jesus, the originator of the “turn the other cheek” saying. Most people think it means we must let ourselves be the losers when others attack us and to “let them get away with it”.
Turning the other cheek is not a recipe for losing. It is actually a recipe for win/win situations, as it prevents the creation of a cycle of violence.
Our natural response to people hitting us is reciprocity (see Rule Number Three: the Golden Rule), meaning, we want to hit them back or get revenge. This, though, often results in an endless cycle of retaliation by each side. On the other hand, when we don’t hit back, the other side usually stops hitting us.
Turning the other cheek is not an attitude of weakness but of strength. It takes fortitude and self-control to resist the urge to strike back. When we turn the other cheek, we don’t fearfully run away from the person who strikes us but face them confidently, without anger, making it apparent that we can tolerate the pain and that we are not afraid of them doing it again. This usually elicits respect from the other person, often causing them to feel remorse and even to offer a sincere apology.
Many people are afraid that this moral principle means that we need to let people injure or kill us without resistance. They will say things like, “The Jews ‘turned the other cheek’ during World War II and as a result six million of them were killed.”
According to the New Testament, Jesus did, indeed, allow himself to undergo a slow and excruciatingly painful death at the hands of his sadistic Roman tormentors while asking God to forgive them. In this manner he demonstrated his limitless love for everyone. However, he did not instruct ordinary mortals to passively allow themselves and their loved ones to be slaughtered at the hands of evil men. He did not say, “If someone kills your wife, let them kill your children, too.” His instruction was specifically regarding a slap to the cheek. A slap is not meant to injure or kill us but to humiliate us or provoke us into a fight. If we slap them back, they will probably hit us even harder, leading to escalating violence. If they are more powerful than us, they may seriously harm or kill us. If they are officers of the law or soldiers, they will feel justified arresting or shooting us. However, if we face them without retaliating, their aggression is likely to be defused.
The tactic of ‘turning the other cheek’ can work only if the other person has the capacity for conscience. It will not work when sadistic, crazed or hate-filled people are actually intent on injuring or killing us regardless of our behavior.
Furthermore, when people slap us, most frequently it’s because they are angry with us. This means they feel that we hurt them in some way––that they are our victims.
Many people insist that kids must hit their bullies back even harder; otherwise they will continue to be bullied. There is validity to this contention, as we have all heard adults telling us they were bullied as kids until they couldn’t take it anymore and knocked their bully senseless, never to be bullied again. That’s because reciprocity often works, otherwise it would not have become our default biological mode. Reciprocity helps keep peace among social creatures in nature. Fear of retaliation makes them cautious about using violence.
However, viciously attacking their bullies is only likely to work when kids do it spontaneously. Their pent up rage explodes against their tormentors, who suddenly discover to their surprise that it is dangerous to mess with them. But as adults, and particularly if we are professionals, we cannot instruct kids to do this for a variety of reasons. One, we cannot purport to be promoting nonviolence by instructing kids to use violence. Two, we can get in trouble with the law if we encourage kids to use violence. Three, we can be putting children in danger, for they may get hit even harder by those they attack. Four, it doesn’t always work. There are many children who are constantly getting into fights because they don’t want to let anyone get away with hitting them. Five, they may spend their time in school in increased anxiety, being constantly on the lookout for the correct opportunity to show they are not a pushover. Six, when they do finally decide to hit someone, they may do it at the wrong time and/or to the wrong person, as they lash out at the first person who commits some minor offense against them. Seven, they can get in trouble with the school for hitting back. Eight, there are kids who find it extremely difficult to hit anyone, and our instruction just makes them feel more anxious and inadequate. And nine, most kids who suffer from bullying are not being attacked physically. Most bullying is verbal, and though the victims may feel like using violence against those that are saying bad things about them, it is inappropriate to use physical aggression in retaliation for verbal aggression. If they respond to verbal acts with physical, they will be the only one getting in trouble even in schools that require both sides in an altercation to be punished.
While we tend to think there are two ways of dealing with physical aggression–fight or flight–-there is a third way: the way of wisdom. And ‘turning the other cheek’ falls in that category. Furthermore, one need not be silent while ‘turning the other cheek.’ A simple question can multiply the likelihood of getting the person to stop hitting us. Simply ask, “Are you mad at me?” This question brings the situation down from the physical level to the verbal. The person now must contemplate why they hit you. If it’s because they are mad at you, it means they feel victimized by you. So they will tell you why they are mad at you. You can work out the problem and apologize if appropriate. And if they are not mad at you, they will probably realize there is no good reason to hit you and will stop.
A closing note: Turning the other cheek is specifically a prescription for personal behavior. It cannot serve as a guiding principle for courts of law, including for when schools need to punish students for hurting others. Justice is not served when a court allows criminals to attack their victims again. (The proper way to punish will be discussed in Principle Number Eight: An Eye for an Eye.)
Read Previous Installments to this series:
We have also created a proposal for a moral, effective school bullying policy based on the Golden Rule. We welcome you to use it, and if you like it, recommend it to your school administration: https://bullies2buddies.com/Essential-Articles-for-Home-Page/proposal-for-a-rational-moral-school-bullying-policy