Monkey Bars in the State of Nature

Bullies, Thomas Hobbes and a $10 Bet


I found this cool painting of my main man, Thomas Hobbes, and I bet the editorial board five bucks I could turn it into an article about, oh, say, bullying that people would stick with to the end. Ten bucks if I could make it funny. True, these are ambitious goals considering that a) nobody has ever gotten all the way through anything by Hobbes, the dryest writer in the history of man, and b) bullying is (usually) not funny. But surely you know by now that Affirmative Action Dad is always ready to fly into the danger zone, even if it takes an extra paragraph or two.


Hobbes is a Dead White Male, author, in 1651, of Leviathan, which you may have been forced to read in college. It's a Great Book of political philosophy, full of theories about human nature, civil society, social contracts and the power of government. It's a Thick Book as well, which makes it good for Hot Wheels ramps. Zoooom!


Inside the cover, however, the guy's got lousy spelling, loves words like "consisteth" and "peradventure," and Throws Capital letters, extra E's and italics arounde like Poker CHIPPES in the Cheetah Roome. But stick with him and you find that his stark analysis of human nature makes him like cabbage, an unfortunate part of a nutritionally complete diet. 


But let's leave Tommy H. aside for the moment and talk about bullying. Today, parents and educators are taking the problem of bullying among children more seriously than previous generations had, in large part because we understand more about it than we used to. In the good old days, bullies were simply big boys who physically tormented small boys. 


Bullies were "bad kids," thuggish temperaments from lousy homes. As such, they were seen as one of the unavoidable miseries of childhood. We didn't know what to do about them, so we threw around cliches like,"boys will be boys," or "the real cowards are big kids who only pick on smaller kids." And we offered helpful advice like, "you kids will just have to work it out on your own," and, in our best throwing-the-Christians-to-the lions moment, "the best way to stop a bully is to stand up to him." 

We're a little more reflective now. First, we look at bullying as a behavior, not the manifestation of a defective personality. And it's a behavior not restricted to knuckle-dragging males. Indeed, the greatest focus these days is on the "relational aggression" girls use to establish social pecking orders as strict and vicious as those on the boys' side of the schoolyard. (A good book on this is Little Girls Can Be Mean)


Mean indeed. The object is power, and both sexes are remarkably resourceful creatures who adopt the tools that best serve them, whether they be words, fists, money, iron or YouTube.  

We also admit that bullying is not always a problem kids can handle on their own. It's different than "fighting." Two kids, more or less equal in power, often can work things out on their own--in essence, pounding out a kind of non-brokered swing-set accord that's always up for renegotiation. I know I'm not the only conscientious parent who quietly considers this kind of conflict to be a necessary part of growing up, so as long as I don't have to make a trip to the ER or principal's office.


Bullying, however, starts from a imbalance of power--a strong child, or group of children, seeking to establish total mastery over a weak child. What's more, bullying works. Power feeds on power. The terms are never negotiable, and the threat of escalating violence only reinforces the unofficial code of silence that prevents kids from seeking our help. The victim of bullying is in a state of abject powerlessness. 

It's not pleasant, and it's consequences can be tragic. Too often, severe bullying drives children, and especially teens, to desperation. Karate Kid was just a movie; Columbine was real. 

OK, now that I've bummed you out, let's lighten things up by bringing back Hobbes. And in case you've forgotten what he looks like... 


I agree that it is helpful to think of bullying as a behavior. Behaviors can be corrected. The danger, however, is that when we label something a behavior (as opposed to a natural or moral defect), we have a tendency to let our guard down. "Oh, our kids are in good shape, they have programs in school to address that kind of behavior." 

But looking through our Hobbes-colored glasses, we see that bullying is more than a behavior. It's an inescapable part of our nature. And it's not just bad for civil society, it's the very antithesis of civil society. 

Hobbes is famous for his description of the State of Nature, where, in the absence of established government and law, every human being has the right to use any means necessary to defend himself against others, who have the same right. It is a war of all against all.


In this state of lawlessness, power is the only thing that matters. Fear for your survival drives you to seek the power necessary to get what you need to survive, even if it belongs to others. But you also need power to protect yourself against others who are going after what they need (your lunch money, for example). Your best bet is to acquire as much power as you can to suppress others from the start. Bully or be bullied. And make no mistake, Hobbes says, even the most civilized human beings never lose this instinct, however well they may repress it.  

What's even more disturbing, we don't bully simply to survive. It also feels good. Hobbes pulls no punches when he says that we have a natural love of power for its own sake--we relish the feeling of dominating others. "Behavioral issues," the most dreaded of phrases in parent-teacher conferences, seems a little inadequate here. From a social perspective, this is a fundamental human defect, and a universal one at that. We're all, in essence, "bad kids," my children, yours, me, you. I know I'm not the only one who's savored the evil joy that comes from planning and executing the methodical torture of a younger sibling. There's a Little Napoleon living inside all of us. The consolation is that he's better looking than Hobbes. 

napoleon horse

We all have shameful moments of diabolical genius that we'd rather forget. But if we're serious about addressing the problem of bullying, we have to be honest about what we're up against. It's a lot like the difficulty sex educators face: "Hey kids, sure, sex feels really good, just don't have it until you're old enough to make good decisions." 

This brings us back to the question of what to do about bullying. Hobbes said that, in political terms, the only solution for the chaos of our natural state is an overwhelming authority (a Leviathan, as it were) that more or less levels the playing field by keeping everyone's desire for inordinate power in check.  


That's our role as adults. We can talk about giving children positive strategies for non-violent conflict resolution until we're blue in the face, but that won't mean a thing unless we're ready to step in and stand up (literally and figuratively) to the bullies. Kids need to trust that we're committed to doing more than just telling the bad actor to stop, and then assuming the problem is gone. We've got to be persistent and consistent. Parents should never have to debate about whether calling the school will make it worse for their child. 

Yes, it'll be a pain. And we're going to have to make tough calls: not all bullying leaves bruises, and not all bruises are from bullying. But take heart, there is a bright side. As Hobbes himself says: "Considereth howe Goode it will Feele when YE grabbeth one of Those Little THUGGES by the ear, and TWISTETH unto the Pointe of Teares."

Now gimme my money. 

Copyright 2013 Paul J. Rasmussen