When I was six years old I walked (yes, walked) to and from school, past the house of the biggest bully in the neighborhood. What began as taunting and teasing evolved into his pushing and punching me regularly. Most days I came home crying.
Nietzsche said those things that don’t kill you make you stronger, but I neither knew nor understood this at age 6. Fortunately, my mom possessed great wisdom and after several weeks of the daily bullying, sat me down for a life lesson. She began by reminding me that our religious faith called for us to turn the other check when persecuted, adding this was always the preferred approach. Then she said something surprising, telling me there were some times when we needed to stand up for ourselves.
Mom said she didn’t want me to come home crying or complaining about this bully one more day. My two choices were to either stop the crying or to confront the bully. Even though she had taught me not to hit people, she told me to punch this kid in the stomach as hard as I could. She would stick up for me if the bully’s mom or anyone complained.
I was afraid. He was bigger, meaner and had demonstrated he could hurt me. I made up my mind to stop this daily harassment. The next afternoon the bully was up to his old tricks, but he was surprised when, instead of cowering, I assertively told him to stop it. My nemesis took that as a challenge. “Sez who,” he asked? “Sez me,” I replied with more bravado than I actually possessed. “Make me,” he said, so I scrunched up my courage, balled my fist and punched him in the stomach as hard as I could.
Guess what? He was the one who started crying and backed away. The interesting outcome was that we became friends, however we always remembered that day.
There are many instances of bullying and harassment today. It might occur in the school, the workplace, among the races, and especially in politics. At some point we must determine where to draw the line and call out bullies who threaten, intimidate, exert undue influence or take advantage of others or us.
Let us be clear in saying that violence is not the solution. Two wrongs still don’t make a right, but there comes a point where sitting and suffering quietly doesn’t bring change; bullies are emboldened in the belief that they can continue to get away with it.
Sometimes there are unpleasant repercussions when the person speaking truth to power is either ignored or punished. But when enough people stand up and push back great change can occur, as we’ve learned in recent sexual harassment revelations.
Are we still a people who believe in civil virtue and moral right? These qualities supersede one’s sex, race, status, wealth or political affiliation. Being a good person, a good citizen, requires that we stand and speak against wrong. When a collective number effectively and loudly demand change it can happen — perhaps not as soon as we might want, but ultimately the right will prevail. With enough force bullies inevitably back down or lose their power.
We must be the change we want to see.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.