Bullying, Self Defense, and the Libertarian Imperative

Bullying is gaining greater and greater prominence as a social issue, marked by the recent debut of the documentary “Bully” but preceded by decades of books highlighting its destructive effects on our kids (see SE Hinton’s classic The Outsiders and Judy Blume’s Blubber). At first glance, libertarians might think they have little to contribute to this public debate: Bullying and intimidation are as old as the animal kingdom. But as anti-bullying programs make it into school curricula and civic life, examining the roles and responsibilities of individuals is likely to become a defining element of these solutions. And it’s here where libertarians have an important, if unlikely and as of yet unrecognized, role to play.

Part of the libertarian role, of course, is providing perspective and debunking myth. Reason magazine on-line editor (and former colleague) Nick Gillespie, for example, led an excellent on-line discussion on bullying based on a very pragmatic and commonsense article in the Wall Street Journal (April 1, 2012) pointing out the pitfalls of over protective parenting, that actual statistics suggest that violence is schools is actually falling, and that anti-bullying campaigns are being used to invite even further encroachments from the nanny state.

But, I don’t think this is the whole story. Bullying is real, even if its an age old problem, and a libertarian approach can proactively complete an overall framework for addressing bullying and intimidation by recognizing, 1) the solution must include a component of individualism and empowerment, and 2) sometimes the most severe types of bullying will have to be dealt with directly outside the formal authority of the school, immediate family, or law enforcement.

Many current anti-bullying campaigns ignore these elements and as a result may have a pernicious effect on a free society, something I discovered while researching my most recent teen novel with a bullying theme. As a parent of two teenage children, I don’t object to the traditional first round of defense and recommended anti-bullying strategies—seek help from parents, teachers and other adults. Try to talk your way out of the situation. Sometimes you can just walk away. These are often effective strategies and good tactics, and, in most cases, will stop bullying.

In too many cases, however, relying on others, particularly adults and formal authority figures, might not be enough. While educators, social workers, and psychologists might be reluctant to acknowledge it, direct action, mainly self-defense, might be the most effective way to address bullies and bullying. Moreover, ignoring self-defense strategies reinforces an emerging social problem that should concern libertarian-minded parents, adults, and policymakers: An unquestioned and uncritical deference to formal authority.

And here’s where the story turns. Bullies are predators. They target weak kids, those that won’t fight back and will put up with their physical and emotional harassment. The most destructive bullies intimidate their victims outside the normal protections of family and schools. Anti-bullying campaigns have largely failed to grapple with this element, and, as a result, most formal programs don’t equip kids with the tools and skills to address the more extreme types of bullying.

Why? Most curricula, especially those developed by the federal government and schools, are built on the principle of deference to authority, rational discourse, and adult-type reasoning, not self-defense or individual empowerment. Kids are not expected, trained or otherwise equipped to confront bullies directly by assessing the nature of the threat and applying the best tactics.

As a result, many curricula fail to grapple with one of the most effective tools a kid can have in his anti-bully arsenal: Fighting back. In order to truly combat bullying effectively, our kids need a full range of defensive tools capable of being deployed on their own, outside the authority of the school, family, Church or local law enforcement. They will need to be confident individuals capable of deploying self-defense tactics that  neutralize aggression and intimidation. This does not imply arming our kids with guns, knives, or other weapons. It does suggest thinking outside the box to include training such as martial arts or other personal self-defense programs.

This strategy isn’t without historical precedent. The history of Asian martial arts includes training for self-defense. While ninjas are popularly known as assassins, martial arts training was more often a way to empower ordinary farmers and citizens to protect themselves against better armed aggressors such as gangs, highwaymen, and pirates.

Continual deference to other authority figures absent a last resort defense that allows a kid to stand up on his or her own against a bully undermines individualism and self-confidence. It’s the ability to execute the last step as a choice and tactic of last resort that implicitly builds the foundation of a free society. That’s the libertarian imperative in the anti-bullying campaign. So, the next time an anti-bullying program is proposed in your local community, make sure it includes a healthy dose of self-defense.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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