The Unbearable Choice
When we think about violence, it often looks 1) physical 2) taking place between a perpetrator and a victim and 3) worthy of intervention (prevention is always the goal). In schools, physical violence is often met with suspension or even expulsion, particularly as children get older and are capable of truly causing permanent damage even death.
As I have mentioned in a previous blog post (Getting Punched in the Face: On Masculinity, Recess, and the Tragic Irony of Boys being Boys), fights, particularly with boys, are terrifying. Being the adult who needs to intervene can leave one frazzled and a bit traumatized. By middle school and definitely high school, it is male teachers who often need to break up everything from confrontations to full on fist fights. Many of us have had our own experiences and memories of physical violence that get conjured to the surface at these moments. Fear and anger and aggression run high and, at the moment, no one is really thinking clearly.
Most boys you talk to have never been in a real fight. In the schools in which I have worked, mostly private and comprised mostly of middle to upper middle class families, the boys have a television version and movie fantasies of what it is like to be in a physical confrontation. They think fights last a long time, that a punch to the face is a momentary setback and everyone involved kind of has a game plan (a script!) about how this is all going to go. The reality is different. Most fights end up on the floor and are finished in 30 seconds. Most boys have little skills in terms of defending themselves, have no situational awareness, and stumbling and flailing become the art of self defense.
The dilemma that boys face is that, far from deterring and condemning the fighting that occurs, schools can actually normalise and perpetuate these dominant norms of masculinity.
...boys have a television version and movie fantasies of what it is like to be in a physical confrontation.
The relational forms of violence that girls face and perpetuate in schools are seen as serving a different purpose in their socialization than physical altercations. Girls look to ostracize and exclude other girls in an attempt to gain social status and to position themselves favorably within social hierarchies. When these acts are seen as meeting a certain threshold of socially unacceptable, we label it as a form of harassment, even abuse. The victim is seen as a real victim, their place in the community is threatened and school communities have come to realize that the psychological damage caused is real and has consequences.
The intimation, threats and physical abuse that boys experience is also considered a form of socialization. However, where girls are labeled as “conniving”, “underhanded” and “passive aggressive”, boys are often left with the impression that they are experiencing something normative and part of the game of growing up. Boys can be victims of this bullying and targeting, but they are also portrayed as “weak”, “small”, unable to defend themselves, and in the worst cases, “girlish”. They are punished both by other students and through the perceptions of the school community because they do not fit into the commonly associated characteristics of developing manhood.
The very language we use to describe how girls and boys perpetuate bullying and violence also leave boys in a type of double bind. Female forms of harassment are portrayed as being a part of a sneaky, deceitful, underhanded, hurtful form of social development. We imagine, rightly so, that the girls who are engaging in these types of behavior have malformed and not properly adjusted tool for emotional communication. Its form is also characterized as part of the gender bias we associate with young females as they navigate into adulthood. The physical violence and intimidation of boys is portrayed as straightforward, that there is something honest about a good fight and these physical confrontations. Boys who do not have these inclinations are therefore expressing a type of deviant masculinity, are effeminate, and ultimately outside of acceptable norms. There is something wrong with the male victim because they are acting like a girl, and while we do not condone the violence, the young male who commits such violent acts is seen as acting with clear lines of communication and falls into our comfortable zones of social approximation for a male.
The physical violence and intimidation of boys is portrayed as straightforward, that there is something honest about a good fight and these physical confrontations.
So, boys and young men are left with two choices: fight, confront, be engaged in unruly behavior or be labeled as girlish and therefore unmasculine. The results also show up in how “acceptable” it is for young boys to be unengaged with school, that it is just not for them; adults provide young males a narrow set of options, particularly when school seems to be going wrong. As mentioned in my previous blog posts, we never label girls in this binary way. 11-17 year old boys are left with two equally defeating narratives. Reject school culture (associated with the feminine) in order to establish your status as a man or find yourself labeled, by peers and adults, as unmasculine. In the moment, which is where most of our children find themselves in terms of cognitive ability and development, most young boys opt for the short term sense of psychological and social safety over the long term benefits of academic achievement and real self worth.