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Philippine Taekwondo Kid Seen as Bully Rather Than Hero

The scientific definition of bullying muddles our understanding of aggression.

"The reason the anti-bully movement is so popular is the same reason it is failing so dismally: everyone thinks the bully is someone else." —Izzy Kalman

Martial arts are often recommended as a solution for victims of bullying. It's generally good advice. However, martial arts are far from a panacea for bullying. I have had clients that were victims of bullying despite having black belts. And there is a good reason the martial arts training didn't stop them from being bullied. Most bullying is verbal. What are you supposed to do when someone insults you — smash their teeth out? Social exclusion is also a common form of bullying. Will beating up those who don’t want to talk to you make you more popular? Unless the instructor teaches kids how to handle non-physical confrontations, the bullying is likely to continue.

Izzy Kalman
Source: Izzy Kalman

In fact, kids can use the others' martial arts training to frustrate them, as in the accompanying illustration drawn by my daughter, Lola. In nature, where might makes right, you have to be insane to attack more dangerous individuals. They will tear you to pieces. In civilization, there is the rule of law. You can antogonize stronger people, and if they dare to hit you, you inform the authorities and now they're in really big trouble. You thus use their own power against them to defeat them.

Today, victims can be charged as bullies when they use their martial arts skills to get even with their tormentors. This is apparently what happened to a "bully" at Ateneo Junior High School in Manilla, in a story that has caused an uproar in the Philippines and been a major concern of the news media. (Do a search for "Ataneo bully," and you will get a barrage of links to news stories.) A video was disseminated of a diminutive boy using Taekwondo to intimidate and beat up kids twice his size. In fact, one of them was sent to the hospital with fractured bones. The video has apparently become banned from the Internet, so it is difficult to find, but you can get a good sense of its content here. The boy was immediately deemed a bully by the news media, and the Department of Education kicked him out of school. The Philippine Taekwondo Association also condemned the boy’s actions and has banned him from competing.

But there's something very wrong with this story that no one is addressing. Isn’t a bully supposedly a cowardly brute picking on kids smaller and weaker than themselves? This boy is obviously not a coward. He is taking on kids much bigger than himself. And he is obviously an accomplished taekwando student. He was certainly taught to use his skills only for self-defense, and even then, only to use minimum force. Also, the video was probably filmed at his request, to document his conquests. Why would he want to create evidence of criminal attacks that can be used against him?

It's because something else was probably going on...

There are countless stories of successful martial artists whose attribute their careers to being bullied as kids. We unfailingly see these characters as heroes. Coincidentally, only a week ago my son, Yannai, who is a martial arts aficionado, showed me a powerful short documentary of this nature called BULLY PROOF: The Story of GSP’s Evolution from Bully Victim to UFC Badass. (Unfortunately, you need a paid subscription to watch it, but Youtube has a shorter film about his experience.)

GPS is George St. Pierre (GSP), one of the greatest mixed martial artists in history. The film is a dramatization of his experience as a boy. He was small for his age and bullied terribly. His father sent him to study martial arts. When George was ready, he clobbered his main bully, and his days as a victim were history. This film has certainly been an inspiration to many young victims of bullying, and I would not be at all surprised if the Ateneo "bully" was one of them.

Thus, the most plausible explanation of the Ateneo story was that the boy had been bullied for years, perhaps his entire school career. His parents sent him to study taekwondo, and finally he felt ready to take on his bullies, perhaps even with his parents' blessing. He instructed a friend to film his revenge, expecting to be seen as a hero, just like GPS and countless others.

But there was something the boy didn't take into account, leading to his undoing. The video didn't show his previous history, only his apparently unprovoked, horrific attacks against innocent bystanders. So rather than earning the public's admiration as a victim overcoming his bullies, he earned notoriety as a cruel bully.

This story should also throw light on a problem with the academic definition of bullying, formulated by the creator of the field of bullying psychology, Prof. Dan Olweus, and universally accepted in all official domains. This definition is supposed to clarify what bullying is. However, as discovered by every school that tries to use this definition, it is not at all easy to determine when an act constitutes bullying.

The Olweus definition of bullying has three components. One is an intention to cause harm. The second is repetition. The third is an imbalance of power, with the stronger person being the bully, of course. I have addressed the problems with all three components in other places. Every component is invalid, is rarely applied in practice, and should be discarded. Here I will be dealing only with “imbalance of power.”

Labeling students "bully" is a serious act that can adversely affect them for the rest of their lives. The BOE in Manilla reportedly conducted an investigation. Shouldn't it have assessed the comparative strength of the alleged bully and the larger boys he was attacking? And wouldn't it have revealed that he was a brave victim rather than a cowardly bully?

Quite plainly, an evaluation of imbalances of power was not conducted because doing so is foolish. Let’s say you’re a principal and a big, strong student with blood gushing out of his skull comes crying to you, “Johnny bullied me! He hit me over the head with a baseball bat! Please help me!” You then tell the student, “I’m sorry, but Johnny is much smaller and weaker than you. What he did to you is not bullying, so it is not my responsibility and I can’t help you.” How long would you keep your job?

In reality, the power imbalance component of the definition of bullying is irrelevant. You don’t have to be bigger and stronger than someone to hurt them. You can be much smaller and weaker and still injure or even kill them. If you hurt someone, you are responsible for what you did, regardless of the power equation between you. And that’s what schools are legitimately concerned with — real harm.

And that brings us to another flaw of the bullying field. If the boy were actually a victim finally getting back at his bullies, he was not exhibiting bullying behavior but victim behavior. In fact, the worst acts of violence are committed by people who feel like victims. Victims are angry and want revenge, and what they do in revenge is usually far worse than what was done to them. But there is no academic definition for victim behavior. It defines all aggression, from eye-rolling to genocide, as bullying, even when it is committed by victims. That's why most children who get accused of bullying insist that they are the real victims. What is the value of a definition of bullying if it applies most frequently to victims. Scientific psychology is supposed to clarify of understanding of human behavior, but the bullying psychology only muddles it.

Another question is, why was it even necessary to label the boy a bully? What purpose does it serve?

The answer is that it serves the anti-bullying industry. In order to promote its bullying prevention services, it needs the public to have heightened fear of bullies. So it spreads the description of bullying as a particularly heinous form of aggression that needs to be treated more seriously than other types of aggression, and has successfully lobbied for laws holding schools responsible for its occurrence.

It's actually quite strange that scientific psychology has determined that schools are to be held legally responsible for the bullying that goes on among students, while other types of social problems, such as conflict, are not the schools’ responsibility. Do the schools cause the bullying? Furthermore, research and plain experience show that when schools follow mandated policies for dealing with bullying, there is a good chance the bullying will get worse. So why do the experts hold schools responsible for a problem even they, themselves, don't know how to solve? Would they like to be held legally responsible for the bullying that goes on among their own children at home? So why would they place a similar responsibility on schools?

As absurd as it is to do so, the law has made schools responsible for bullying among students. And the populace loves it, because it's great to have someone to blame and to sue if their kids' are picked on. But in order to get schools to take responsibility, it is now advantageous to refer to all aggression as bullying, regardless of whether it actually meets the three criteria for bullying and regardless if it's committed by victims.

The truth is, we would be better off discarding the terms "bully" and "bullying" from our discipline policies. They do us no good. Despite the scientific-sounding definition created by Olweus, bully is an insult, not a diagnosis. Schools don’t label students as jerks, idiots, wimps, or sluts. They shouldn’t be labeling them as bullies, either.

The administration of justice does not require a determination that a perpetrator is a "bully." When people commit crimes against others, those crimes have more precise terms than "bullying." Those terms should be used, and the punishments meted out should fit the crimes and circumstances. The relative strength of the perpetrator in relation to the victim is irrelevant.

A final word to parents: Please don’t stop sending your children to martial arts. Just don’t expect it to guarantee what you’re hoping for.


What’s Wrong with the Psychology Underlying the Anti-Bully Movement