Mar 16, 2015

Bullying, Basketball, and Courage

What I consider to be some good news came out of my home state recently -- actually occurring a year ago, but back in public view again just this last week.  By now likely many readers have already glimpsed  in their news feeds the inspirational (but all too brief) story coming out of Kenosha, Wisconsin.

It is about three middle-school basketball players coming to the aid of one of their classmates -- a cheerleader with Downs syndrome who was being made fun of by some fans attending a game.  The players walked off the court in the middle of a game, and up to the stands, where they confronted those fans, and told them to "knock it off."  That would seem to both require and exemplify a certain kind, or at least measure, of courage.  It also raises a number of interesting questions, particularly when we add in some additional background information -- at least from a virtue ethics perspective.

Confronting Contemporary Bullying as "Courage"

If you look at most of the summaries of the story readily available on the internet -- most of which seem content to replicate the WISN news story (a nice exception being the story by basketball-loving city Syracuse.com, providing the boys' names) -- what stands out immediately is the contemporary context in which whatever it was that those abusive fans were doing was perceived under the rubric of "bullying."

I would be the first to admit that there's a lot that gets called "bullying" that, frankly, from the perspectives of earlier generations, stretches the meaning of that term so far as to strain credulity.  We are indeed at risk of pushing the pendulum to such an extreme from that of our own childhoods that we might be raising a crop of all too thin-skinned kids, far too ready to take and perceive not only offense but also the heightened level, the sustained practice, the malicious intent of offense that better deserves the title of "bullying."  This doesn't seem to be that sort of case.

So, let's assume, since we don't know the facts of what was being said or done, that what was going on really does deserve the name of "bullying".  That seems reasonable enough, if it provoked three kids engaged in an active game of basketball to break out of the structure of the game, walk off the court, and head to the stands -- in effect taking a chance on setting their team behind or getting themselves in trouble (since you can never really predict how adults, who do after all have the real power, are going to react to one's actions, as a kid!)

Was what they did courageous?  It's being labeled as such -- but as every virtue ethicist worth his or her salt knows all too well, there's two things one has to bear in mind in these sorts of cases.  The first is that anyone can use any sort of name -- anyone can talk the talk about virtues.  That on its own means almost nothing, and just because a number of people reshare the story while appending a few words about courage doesn't have anything to do with the question whether any genuine courage was really displayed.  The second is that, as Aristotle said, "one swallow does not a spring make" -- virtue is a matter of what one does characteristically, not what one happens to do once.  We'll come back to those two points in a bit.

Another particularly interesting feature of this case is that the news stories point out that this school, and its associated community, have been the sites of some pretty active and extensive "anti-bullying" initiatives and campaigns.  That's probably a good thing overall, but it might raise some interesting moral questions as well.  For example:  does it take less courage to stand up against bullying if one already has all the moral resources -- a "social sanction" as Bentham liked to call it -- of public opinion behind oneself?  Does it take or display less courage to confront those who are dumb enough to cross a criterion-tripwire that allows them to be labeled "bullies," when standing up against bullies has become something like a norm or an expectation? 

Is Confronting Bullies the Right Action Today?

A devil's advocate might go even further and ask whether a lot of the labeling of "bullying" -- and the condemnation of it, the "standing up to it" -- doesn't really betoken a type of conformity to new norms that have supplanted the old.  In earlier generations, it took guts to stand up to a bully, not least since when one stood one's ground, one tended to do it on one's own, isolated from the rest of the crowd, who receded, pulled back, watched to see the outcome.  One could say that the person who stood up against the bully was, if not courageous, at least acting in accordance with it (or perhaps rashly, foolhardily, if one is an Aristotelian).  And one could say that the people who didn't get involved, didn't have and stand at one's back against the bully, well. . .  they were, if not straight-out cowards, certainly acting like cowards.

But now, everything is upside-down, isn't it?  Anti-bullying has become a thing.  The kid who stands up against a bully -- or even just calls an act or agent of bullying by that name -- does have someone at his or her back.  In fact, they've not just got someone, they've got just about everyone.  The school, its teachers, its functionaries, its parents, its posters even stand at the ready to come to one's assistance once the word has been spoken.  Gone are the days when a kid had to stand on his or her own, or as part of a lonely group, back to back, displaying, and thus developing real courage.

When I play out those arguments in my head -- I'll admit that there's a part of me quite nostalgic for what I see as  (or perhaps just imagine, through the long, treacherous tunnel of memory) tougher, colder, braver times of my generation -- and I'll also mention that I tend to see that part as rather retrograde and off base! -- as a virtue ethicist, I see several glaring errors in those and in similar arguments.

One of them is simply factual.  While there are indeed bastions -- or rather bizzarro-lands -- of political correctness (and corrections, understood in a penal sense!) in which people get wrongly labeled as "bullies" for merely engaging in normal, even natural position-jockeying that kids (and adults -- just watch an office for a while) inevitably devolve into, that's not the case in most places I've seen.  Kids still do have to deal with bullying, and they are still in many cases very much on their own, hung out to dry as usual by the gutless, who are unwilling to put any teeth behind all the nice talk about ending bullying.

But there's another, more normatively-structured issue that's in play as well -- and one really much more to the point. 

Why It Doesn't Matter If There's a Culture of Anti-Bullying

From a virtue ethics perspective -- and here I very explicitly have Aristotle's version in mind -- there's some very good reasons why the question whether the culture is now pushing anti-bullying or not doesn't really matter, if our concern is determining whether these three boys can be right said to have displayed courage or not.  Why not?

For Aristotle, the virtuous person not only provides a model for the non-virtuous person who is aspiring towards virtue -- or at the very least recognizing virtue as such (and vice as what it is as well).  The virtuous person also in a certain sense supplies the norm or the rule.  And the virtue itself also provides a kind of measure -- an action is virtuous when it is done from virtue, that is when the agent who does the action does so as an expression of virtue, enacting virtue one might say.  Virtue also works as a norm in a secondary way -- an action can be good by being in accordance with virtue.

The action -- in accordance with virtue -- that a person who is not actually virtuous, who hasn't developed a disposition to act in that way yet, but who is choosing to act in that way (perhaps going against or fighting against some of their own impulses, reactions, and desires) engages in is for that very reason a good action.  It is good both in the sense that, while not being from virtue, it is in accordance with virtue.  And it is good also precisely because it is through consistently choosing and doing such actions that they eventually become woven into the fabric of one's character -- they are the means by which virtue is gradually produced.

And after all, courage is a virtue.  So, let's say that these three middle-schoolers aren't yet virtuous (though I have to say that, with respect to this virtue, courage, I tend to think that 12-year-olds can actually have developed the virtue) -- they're not yet courageous in terms of their characters.  Still, the action they performed was certainly in accordance with courage.  They took a risk, and stood up to what is in certain respects fear-producing or provoking (confronting others who are engaged in wrongdoing, breaking rules for which there are likely consequences).  They did so to stand up for a genuine value -- the personality of their vulnerable classmate, under actual attack.

It really doesn't matter if it was easier for them to do than it might have been for students in previous generations where there was little to no cultural or institutional support for those who were going to call out and stand up to bullies.  What they did from a virtue ethics perspective was objectively the right thing to do, because in accordance with virtue.  It would be best if they acted from virtue -- but even if they didn't, it's still pretty damn good -- and it deserves praise.

In fact -- and this is the last I'll say on this particular occasion -- Aristotle would likely consider it a sign of moral progress that we've actually started criticizing, rather than giving a nervous pass too, or even praising and rewarding bullying.  Our culture, in that respect, has become a bit better.  Sure, there's lots of silly nonsense that also crept in alongside anti-bullying -- but on the whole, if making that theme a focus for schools, or even more broadly in our culture, leads to more actions like that of these three youths (and soon enough, young men), to more actions in accordance with courage, that's a good thing.

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