A news item crossed my desk this morning about a Florida school board member who is trying to get his district to agree to a “no-punishment-for-victims” policy in a revised “zero tolerance for violence” project. In his view, a schoolyard fight should not be seen as involving two mutual combatants subject to identical punishment (which is now the case there). Rather, if one student can be clearly identified as the aggressor and the other as a victim defending him or herself, then the victim gets off Scott-free.
The board appears poised to reject his proposal in favor of one that would mete out lesser punishment to the victim. Board members are concerned that a no-consequences policy signals that violence is acceptable.
This debate masks a deeper underlying philosophical discussion that our nation needs to have. That discussion centers on the cycle of violence in which we find ourselves as a society. Gang feuds, global turf battles, and our national policy of pre-emption on the world stage are all examples of this cycle. And like any cycle, the only way it gets broken is for someone to say, “Enough” and begin to act in a way that is morally more awakened than the norm. In other words, to stop the cycle of violence, someone has to respond to violence with love and non-violence. The first individuals who agree to do so for the sake of the greater good will almost certainly suffer harm, perhaps even death. But there is an undeniable fundamental truth at work here: violence never ends violence.
Hundreds of Americans were severely injured and killed during Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights revolution in this country. But if those people had chosen to fight back rather than adopt Ghandian non-violence tactics, do you really suppose any fewer would have died? Would the outcome have been as successful? Would the struggle have ended sooner? History suggests the answers to all three of those questions is “No.”
Vast human experience shows that you don’t stop a bully by fighting back. You can sometimes stop a bully by refusing to allow him or her to get your goat, i.e., by not fighting back thereby robbing the bully of the satisfaction of seeing you cower before him or her. That same experience is of course replete with examples of people who have responded passively and non-violently to a bully and been injured or killed in the process. In that case, there is a greater good for a greater number involved. The one who sacrifices does so — on some level at least — with the understanding that he or she is acting in the broader social context.
The zero-tolerance policy sometimes, perhaps often, leads to outcomes that are on their face absurd and unfair. But if that policy, rightly enforced, does indeed ultimately result in the banishing of bullying and aggression, then the greater good will have been served and the individuals who suffered the apparent injustice of the policy will have been vindicated.