It is very difficult indeed to watch the new documentary “Bully” without experiencing both an intense sadness and a feeling of helplessness. The film opens with the heartbreaking ruminations of a father whose son committed suicide after being brutally bullied by his classmates.
We hear a number of similar stories throughout the film, and we also are allowed to watch and listen as very real kids are pestered, belittled, mocked, and in some cases, physically assaulted; just because they are; in some sense; different. The most memorable figure in the movie is a young man, around 12, named Alex. He seems to be a good-natured kid, happy in the embrace of his family, but because he’s a bit uncoordinated, geeky, and odd-looking (his brutal nickname is “fishface”), his fellow students mercilessly pick on him. Alex’s daily ride on the school bus is like something out of Dante’s Inferno.
What would be funny; if it weren't so tragic, is the cluelessness of the school officials (and of the adults in general) who should be doing something about the problem. We get to watch the vice principal of Alex’s school as she deals with aggressive students, and as she tries to mollify Alex’s parents. What we hear is a pathetic mixture of bromides, self-serving remarks, boys-will-be-boys platitudes, and; worst of all, a marked tendency to blame the victim. When the parents complain about the bus that Alex rides, the vice principal vapidly comments, “Well, I rode that bus once, and the children were like angels.” I mean, is she really naïve enough to think that their behavior in the presence of the vice-principal is even vaguely typical? I will admit, however, that I sympathized with her confusion when, at one point, she gazed into the camera lens and sighed, “I just don't know what to do.” A lot of the adults in the documentary seemed to share that sentiment.
Well, I know someone who knows what to do. Some time ago, I reviewed a book by Dr. Leonard Sax called "Why Gender Matters," an incisive study of why boys and girls benefit from very different approaches to education and character formation. Just recently, Dr. Sax sent me a copy of his 2007 study titled "Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men." As the subtitle indicates, the book examines the problem of the "slacker dude," the teenager who would rather watch video games than attend class, or the 20-something who would rather lounge around his parents’ home than start an ambitious career. To get all of the details, please peruse Dr. Sax’s informative and eminently readable book in its entirety.
But with the problem of bullying in mind, I would like to focus on one chapter of Boys Adrift; titled “The Revenge of the Forsaken Gods.” Echoing in many ways the reflections of Joseph Campbell and Richard Rohr, Dr. Sax bemoans the fact that our culture has largely forgotten the subtle art of transforming boys into men. Despite (or perhaps because of) our scientific predilection, we think that this process just happens naturally. Our “primitive” ancestors knew that it did not and this is why they developed sophisticated rituals of initiation, designed to shock boys out of their natural narcissism and habits of self-protection into moral and spiritual maturity.
Whether we are talking about the Navajo, Masai warriors, or Orthodox Jews, traditional cultures understand that boys have to be brought through a period of trial—some test of skill and endurance—during which they learn the virtues of courage and self-sacrifice. Sometimes; these initiation rituals are accompanied by a kind of ceremonial scarring, for the elders want the boys to know, in their bodies, that they’ve been tested and permanently changed. Sax astutely observes that many of the great American authors—Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Studs Terkel, James Dickey—wrote passionately and persuasively about this very topic. Any great films, from “The Hustler,” “On the Waterfront,” and “Rebel Without a Cause” to “Braveheart” and “Gladiator,” dramatically display the process by which a boy becomes a heroic man of selflessness and courage.
The principal element in the initiation process—whether real or fictionally presented—is a mature man who embodies the virtues to which the boy aspires. Finally, men of valor, charity, ambition, and grace transform boys into men of valor, charity, ambition and grace. When this mentoring dynamic is lost, Dr. Sax argues, the result is boys adrift and young men taking their cues from Eminem, 50 Cent, Akon, and the Situation.
Now you might be wondering what all this has to do with the phenomenon of bullying. One reason why boys turn into bullies is that they have no one around to turn them into men. Boys are filled with energies meant to be channeled in a positive direction, toward protecting the innocent and building up the society. Without strong male role models, and without a disciplined process of initiation into maturity, these energies remain either unfocussed (as in the case of slackers) or directed toward violence and the exploitation of the weak (as in the case of bullies). Dr. Sax comments that you might not be able to turn a bully into a flower child, but with the right male mentoring, you could certainly turn him into a knight.
If a son of yours is either bullied or becoming a bully, I would strongly recommend that you read "Boys Adrift" and, above all, that you introduce your son to a strong, morally upright, focused and courageous male mentor—fast.