The wisdom of thugs

Mentioning The Catcher in the Rye is sort of like putting on high-end polarized glasses – it clarifies and contrasts. I knew a kid in middle school, for example, that really identified with Holden Caulfield.

* No, not me. And no, not everyone does. Even if we all rebel in some fashion, and even if some of us act that insufferably, not everyone thinks that he’s an example, much less a brave hero of sorts. In fact it’s an open question whether Salinger himself thought much of Holden, or if he wrote him in order to hold him up for ridicule in comparison to his younger and far-more-competent sister.

I’m thinking of this in light of Catcher’s inclusion in one of those “have you really read it?” lists that goes around the Web occasionally. (For the record, Catcher is one of the eleven books out of the twenty that I have read.) It’s also something of kismet since the Wil Wheaton flapdoodle about his “Hillary’s Harpies” tweet and subsequent cringing obeisance before crybully mob. What happened to Wheaton is actually a lot like what happened to Caulfield in his physical confrontations… which is depressing, because a Holden Caulfield who never grows up is truly sad to contemplate.

That all brings us here, and to this comment by e-migo Nate regarding bullies. Now, they’re bad, mind you. And bullies who never outgrow it are just as depressing as Holdens who never do. They become quite dangerous – in fact, the bullies and the Holdens grow in many ways to resemble each other. But when they come into conflict, well… as they used to say on the nature shows, “Sadly, there can only be one outcome.”

So bullying is bad. It’s also the main way that we all learn as children that badness exists, it doesn’t give two licks for you, and you ain’t all that special anyway. They are a useful corrective in a dangerous world. If we’re wise we realize that being Holden is a non-starter when it comes to our future happiness, much less our future survival. Brett, for example, never learned that lesson:

(Edit – got the wrong share link. This is the clip I was thinking of.)

And it’s so sad. And easily predictable. (I mean, if I can see it coming…) The reason is simple – crybullies aren’t really on each other’s side. They’re like a school of fish, in that they are safe only in vast numbers. Their signaling is designed to recruit bystanders into joining them in isolating the target, meting out punishments for defending the target or being seen with them. It’s also designed to signal internally that they’re all in step. They pressure is on to push into the center always, so they’re not caught out of step and gobbled by sharks.

Well, when fish push into the center of the ball, who are they pushing out? Exactly – their fellow fish. THEY ARE NOT ON EACH OTHER’S SIDE. They say so but in practice, better that someone else gets gobbled. That’s why I say that the innocent jokes they share today become People’s Exhibit A in their public show trial tomorrow. Wheaton demonstrated the principle to a T.

It’s kind of analogous to a lesson I’m learning through fatherhood: in nearly every way that counts, it’s easier to have to tame and discipline a child’s high spirits than it is to instill them with spirit. All the positives and negatives are right there on the surface every day: my son is into everything, he’s learning very fast, he works through problems systematically, he climbs and jumps and runs everywhere, he’s willful and won’t listen sometimes, he’s fearless, he’s curious… he’s a boy, basically.

I can work with all that. What would be much more challenging would be to get him moving if he were none of those things, if he was fearful and showed no initiative, expecting everything done for him always, and petulant when crossed. One of his favorite phrases is “no, ME” when he wants to do something you’re trying to do for him. And his newest, which he debuted to much fanfare just a couple of nights ago, is “Why?” (So it’s all over now.)


Absent bullying, it would be very difficult to teach certain lessons about handling oneself in the world – not being a bully, being prepared, capable at need, defending yourself and others. Absent my son’s high spirits, curiosity, and initiative, it would be very difficult to raise him at all. With discipline he can channel his energy and go very far; with no energy all the discipline in the world wouldn’t move him.

And with energy and no discipline… he’d become a bully. Perhaps not even the kind of bully who at least sticks to a code and knows how to handle himself, either… someone who could eventually see the light and try real hard to be the shepherd. He could be like the crybullies instead, and that would be a terrible fate. Or he could become self-destructive and wind up like so many who burn themselves out and suicide young.


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One thought on “The wisdom of thugs

  1. natewinchester February 9, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Absent bullying, it would be very difficult to teach certain lessons about handling oneself in the world – not being a bully, being prepared, capable at need, defending yourself and others.

    It’s probably a mercy of God that we can’t remember too much of our childhoods. Though I take it as a key sign of maturity by how much someone can admit they were a little shit growing up and have accepted it or not. (I actually had a friend once apologize to me. I’ll admit, I never thought he was that bad, certainly no worse than me.)

    I guess drill sergeants are examples of good bullies, eh?

    I wonder about how it was over time, but we’ll never really know. I mean, when almost everyone farmed, you probably “needed” less bullies because nature will teach the lesson of a hard world very quick. A thousand pound bull or horse will very quickly remind you that there are limits to how much of a little shit you can be (and the comment of many farmer is, “i warned you – hope you learn”). Then again I was raised around animals and I still had to have my head knocked around a few times. 2 lessons in particular I still remember: 1) sometimes just shut up and stop bothering people, 2) some folks can dish it out but not take it, if you strike back (even verbally) be ready for possible escalation.

    I don’t know, but I get where it comes from. Parents et al look back, see the things they hated, and resolve to never let their children go through it. If there are any lessons to be learned, the children can be taught another way. But maybe not. Maybe we just forget how hardheaded we were and that we needed pain that severe to learn. And by trying to teach without the hard knocks, we’re raising children who only “know” the lessons in their brains, but they don’t know the lessons “in their gut” (as the saying goes). I don’t know, but maybe it’s not for no reason that God made a dangerous world.

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