Monday, March 21, 2011

We (don't) need a hero

This is the wonder, and shame, of the internet. A kid gets bullied, snaps, picks the bully up and throws him to the ground (thankfully not breaking the bully's spine or cracking his skull, more on that later), someone else records it all on a camera phone.

The video is uploaded to youtube and through this and various other channels goes viral. It builds hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of hits across various mediums. It gets covered on Australian news, it gets covered on US news, it ends up on The View. The kid (Casey Heynes) ends up on a special event ACA. The bully ends up on an apparently competing Today Tonight.

Virtually every time the video plays, someone says "wow, good on him, what a hero."

And then comes the rage at the fact the school has suspended him for "standing up for himself".

He "snapped". The language around his "snapping" generally empathises with his response - the weight of the teasing was just so heavy that he finally reacted, without thought. And good on him! He's been teased for years, and this was the instance that finally made him stand up for himself, and show them who's boss.

But, as John Birmingham points out, he didn't just stand up for himself. He responded completely disproportionately to what he was facing. He picked a child three years younger than him up and threw him onto the ground, with force. And while this may (I don't remain convinced it will, either, try being the "crazy kid") stop him getting abused at school, what about the 12 year old who could potentially have been fatally injured in this response?

We have to put this in context - in how many situations as an adult would "I just snapped" be reasonable? And, in formative years, isn't it important that when children or teenagers overreact, or act in a way that is inappropriate, that we coach them this is not okay?

Hence the suspension. But who cares about a suspension when you're the king of every oppressed child everywhere (or their parent, or an adult who is apparently living through their teen years), right?

So while we all hold Casey Heynes up as a hero, we have to wonder what reinforcing this behaviour does in the wider community. If Casey intends to confront everyone who attempts to bully him in the future with this kind of force, then he's going to have bigger issues as an adult than a punch in the face from a twelve year old. He's either going to end up in jail, or he's going to bite off more than he can chew.

What happens when the next person being teased takes a leaf from Casey's book, uses their advantage and picks up a piece of timber and beats his oppressor over the head?

But, beyond all this, what about the bully? What if he'd had his spine broken in that reactive move? Would we still be championing Casey "standing up for himself? It wasn't very far from happening. Anyone watching the video for the first few times will breathe in sharply, then try and work out, as the bully hobbles around, if he's actually walking on a broken leg, or possible more seriously injured.

And that's a fair concern. The school has just as much of a duty of care for the bully, and the bully, while acting in a heinous manner, had every possibility of being seriously injured in that swift fall to the ground.

The very fact that we're talking about this in terms of "the bullied" and the "bully" is loaded. The "bully" is a kid too, a twelve year old at that, and I dare say he's got a reasonably long life ahead of him, and a fair amount of growing up to do. But hey, once a bully always a bully, hey? Life's over at twelve kid - just be glad it's not actually over - you were on the wrong side of the narrative.

So what's my point? There's not a person alive who won't have some experience of bullying - usually from both directions. Whether it's verbal, emotional or physical. It's easy to remember, and empathise with, the time we were the bullied, rather than the bully. But I'd like to think in those few times, pre-adulthood, where I was in the regrettable position of being the bully (I must say, never physical), that if someone potentially fatally injured me, that they would be reined in, and appropriately disciplined. And so should I be for being the instigator. But the threat of permanent injury should not be taken lightly.

So, does Casey Heynes deserve some understanding for the way he reacted? Damn right. Does he deserve a suspension to think about how he reacted, and for his parents to heed the warning signs? Definitely.

Is he a hero? No.

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