On a hot Baltimore afternoon, a young boy sits in the basement of a Church and tells two members of the ORANS team and seven of his fellow summer day campers about the last time he got in a fight. He details how the kid next to him came up and grabbed him from behind on the playground, so he threw the kid on the ground and began punching him. The other kid adds to the explanation, modifying the story as he saw it from his perspective. The two of them couldn’t have been older than 8, and yet even by that age, the response seemed like a no-brainer; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If someone swings at you, the two kids agreed, you should swing back.
This conversation came up in a conflict resolution class we were teaching for a group of Baltimore City children attending a summer day camp. The group seemed to have tension between “the big kids” and “the little kids” at the camp. We spoke to each group separately, but both shared similar perspectives on the issue. When we asked “the big kids” if they thought you should swing back when someone hits you, all of them said, “Yes!”
“You don’t want to look like a wuss,” one said.
Should you swing back? The idea of using physical force in self-defense is so engrained in our culture that many of us might not think twice before saying, “Yes” also. But Being Relational, we want to look harder at our options and the possible outcomes of each possible option.
So, let’s imagine that someone- a bully – hits you, or maybe just acts toward you in some very aggressive way – whether physical force is used or not. You are being attacked and your reactivity to the situation is being powerfully triggered.
What is your response? Swing back? Read on to look harder at some of the options.
The ORANS Perspective: Changing the Interaction and Being Relational
The journalistic mission of ORANS is to comment on situations where changing the interaction between people can create better outcomes for everyone. When people interact in a relational way, we believe better outcomes will emerge. ORANS wants to provide skills and ways to help you: find solutions to difficult problems, deal with difficult people, handle a bully, stop stonewalling, avoid triangling, use non-violent methods to resolve conflict, become a negotiator, become a master communicator, create lasting change, engage in quality dialogue, stay centered and mindful, control personal reactivity, become more self-aware of personality differences, live in the now, use no labels, be more grounded, be more generous, be more humble, and be more kind.
The ORANS Perspective in this Situation: Be Kind
Let’s start with the obvious. When someone hits you, you can swing back. Isn’t force used in self-defense or in defense of innocent others okay? Legally—Yes. Morally, in many faith traditions—Yes. But what if there really is no ongoing threat to you, only injury, and your swinging back is merely retaliation? Is it still ok?
One way of looking at this issue is through the lens of national defense. In justifying the use of military force there is the concept of Just War. There are different versions of its formulation, but all basically provide conditions under which it is considered just and morally acceptable to go to war and use military force against an enemy. Under Just War doctrine, as with any definition of the circumstances where force is considered justified in response to aggression, in self-defense or in defense of others, a person (or nation!) using force must conclude that all other means of responding to the aggression are “impractical or ineffective.” It is the idea that war should be a last resort. The same goes with any use of force.
So, if force should be a last resort, maybe you should give the bully a second chance. Sure, they’ve harmed you, but at the very least you can pause. Breathe. Get centered. Relax your reactivity. In that space you have a wide variety of options. Here are a few. You can try to talk to the other person. You can ask for help from someone else. You can walk away.
But what if you show them mercy and they hit you again? You talked to them and it made them angrier. Or you asked for help from someone else and the bully came back and hit you again when their back was turned. Or you walked away and the bully followed you, or found you later. In that situation, it would definitely be okay to swing back, right? You showed the bully mercy, and they chose to hurt you again. They are obviously going to continue to hurt you until they get a rise out of you. Swinging back, then, would be justified, right?
Maybe, maybe not. Being relational says that using force is not relational, except in very rare circumstances, regardless of whether or not force seems to be your only option or not. Why? Because you have options you might not be considering and you have sources of power that you might not be tapping into. In almost all situations, you simply don’t need to use force. If you are not absolutely required to use force, it is unacceptable to use force.
The challenge is to use our intelligence, creativity and imagination to conceive the means to defend against aggression without resorting to forceful coercion, violent or otherwise.
So you choose to respond to the bully with kindness. So how does kindness respond to the bully? With kindness. But that’s not weakness or cowardice. Rather it is kindness in strength and with courage. You don’t ignore the conflict; you engage with it. You engage with dialogue, not with violence or coercive power. You stay centered, grounded, and clear. You seek to persuade, but you respect the bully’s self-determination. You seek change through conversion, not coercion.
You are brave because you are vulnerable. You are strong enough to be vulnerable. Which is braver? Stopping a bully by beating them up, or facing a bully without resorting to violence? Being kind means you expose yourself to possible harm—be it physical, emotional, economic, reputational, temporal, and so on. You take the risk. You refuse to use the ways of the bully in response to the bully. You also don’t run away from conflict with a bully unless it is just to buy some time, to retreat temporarily, in order to organize, consider your options, and find your sources of power. You don’t passively submit to the bully.
So when a bully hits you, you forgive them again and again and again. You continue to use your other options and sources of power. These are outlined in depth in the book, Being Relational. You relentlessly engage with the bully using dialogue. You continue to alert others to the problem the bully poses. You call in friends to help you hold your ground against the bully in a non-violent way. You consider mediation. You consider what will show the bully how unkind their actions are and what will help lead them towards reform – without responding to their violence with violence.
You don’t swing back.
The classic advice is to stand up to a bully. Being relational means you don’t stand up to a bully by returning the bully’s violence with violence, intimidation with intimidation, lies with lies. You sit down with a bully—if possible. If need be, you wear them out with dialogue—relentless engagement. When you are afraid or angry, that might be the hardest and bravest thing you ever do.
This idea was new to these Baltimore City kids. They talked it over that day and decided together that they would give it a try. The camp counselors liked that idea and hoped there might be fewer fights on the playground.