Last week a NSW Year 10 student fought back after being punched repeatedly by a younger boy, and the video of the fight went viral. The victim, his assailant and the student who took the video were all suspended. The boy who fought back has since been inundated with support from victims of bullying. However, in the predictable flood of expert commentary, the consensus has been that it is never ok to respond to violence with violence.
The message given to young people following this incident has been a kind of terrible double bind; don’t be a punching bag and whatever you do, don’t hit back. If violence is never justified, how do we learn to defend ourselves?
The treatment of these young people by the media, particularly in
televised interviews, has been both judgemental and voyeristic. This
kind of exploitation is its own kind of violence. Adults in a position
of power making use of a young person’s painful experience for personal
gain. This is a textbook definition of bullying.
However, many young people regularly experience violence, both at home and at school. This is a reality that seems to have been overlooked in many of the professional responses to this recent assault.
Children are experiencing violence, and whatever changes we may be putting in place or have put in place, violence will still occur for the foreseeable future. We may describe certain abusive relationships as bullying, and we understandably feel the need to respond appropriately and effectively. But a punch in the face is still a punch in the face. It hurts, it’s dangerous, it’s scary and it can be humiliating. How can we be prepared to deal with violence when it happens?
Many of us are victims of violence, and some of us will be in violent situations in future where we have only ourselves to rely on. In these situations, to pretend that force is never necessary is extremely dangerous. If self-defence is taboo, then we are vulnerable to those whose aim is to hurt us.
We need to know how to protect ourselves physically. If our instincts for self-preservation are intact, then we respond to a threat with either an impulse to run, fight or freeze. This process is activated outside of our conscious awareness and each response is designed to help us react to differing varieties and levels of threat. When these instincts are impaired, we are in danger of being injured ourselves or of hurting others unnecessarily. It is foolish to say that violence is never an appropriate response. It is not the only option and it is not often called for, but it is sometimes necessary, and if we have learned to respect our instincts, we will know when that is.
In order to defend your body appropriately, it is very helpful to have had an experience of growing up where your physical boundaries were respected. This means, among other things, that when you did not want to be touched, this was respected. This is of course often not the case. Many of us have had to work very hard to regain the skills of self-defence because our personal boundaries were not respected as children. We were hit, forced to touch others and to be touched when we didn’t want to be, force fed or simply mocked for our physical sensitivities or preferences. Most importantly, when these boundaries were violated, we were not allowed to retaliate. Some of us even learned never to say "no" as it made the violation worse.
Many adults who were hit as children remember clearly the day they could physically overpower their abusive parent. They often remember that day as the moment they realised they no longer needed to put up with the pain. Over and over again in my work, I’ve heard people say that the violence of a parent ended because the child was finally able to defend themselves.
For many people, the idea that children would have full physical autonomy is too threatening. Even parents who do not use violence will often say of an older child who is getting into trouble, "What can I do? He’s so big now." I think many of us may not be able to bear the idea that children should be able to physically defend themselves, because that may mean we lose our physical control of them.
Just as adults living with domestic violence need a personal safety plan that includes physical protection strategies, young people living with the threat of violence at school do as well. In "Writing Themselves In" a national report (pdf) on the sexuality, health and wellbeing of same-sex attracted young people, young people who have experienced ongoing bullying refer to the central importance of being strategic about self protection, including learning physical self defence.
International perspectives on effective anti-bullying strategies stress not only a "whole of school" approach, but also link bullying to power imbalances within the social structure. Bullying is part of our society, because so much of our social structure is based on the enforcement of power by one group over another. This enforcement is a nutshell definition of bullying. Dealing holistically with bullying is necessary, but it’s a mistake to confuse a social and community strategy with personal self-defence. To say that physical self-defence is not OK, means that bullied young people are more alone than ever. First Dog on the Moon put it beautifully in his recent "We are all the fat kid" cartoon.
When I fail to defend myself, I’m vulnerable to fantasies of revenge. Those times we go over and over a situation in our heads trying to imagine a better reply are not unimportant. These fantasy situations are actually serious messages that we have let ourselves down. We have allowed our boundaries to be invaded, and we need to work on asserting ourselves. To criticise those people who cheered this young man on for fighting back against his attacker, shows a lack of insight into how many of us have experienced violence, humiliation and intimidation, and how many of us still harbour resentment and hurt about our victimisation.
It is not possible to avoid a response to violence. Every reaction is a response, and every response has an effect. Even bystanders are part of the impact of a violent attack. Witnessing violence affects our bodies and minds in similar ways to being a victim ourselves, and knowing that others allowed us to be hurt is often the worst part of an assault.
If we want to be prepared to defend ourselves appropriately, we need to respect our personal boundaries. This may take time and support. We may find that because of our histories we over or under-react to threats of violence. If we are concerned that we may hurt someone when we fight back, then we need to learn some physical defence skills. We need to know our own strength. We have a right to be free from violence, and like all important rights, sometimes we need to fight for it.
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