Taking the Battle Out of the Boy

It’s odd how details can lodge in the memory. On an annual basis, my parents would take me on the short trip over the border from our home in New Jersey to The Renaissance Faire in New York state. Each ended with a joust and hand-to-hand combat over a noble lady’s honor, and the children in attendance were permitted to run out onto the field, when the dust cleared, and gather up chunks of the lances, which were invariably made of soft, easily broken wood.
These lengths of weaponry — one year cedar, one year pine — were ideal for the important work of battling a particular bush behind my apartment. When the villain swallowed my souvenir beyond reach amidst its innards, one year, I learned that lances are best wielded as swords than as spears. My mission had apparently already been accomplished, however, as evidenced by the many years of peace at the apartment complex.
Those of us who were formerly boys are likely to have ample examples of such martial exercises to bring to mind when reading entries into culture-war literature such as Sally Thomas’s explanation that “a desire,” among boys, “to commit violence is not the same thing as a desire to commit evil.” When a spring morning at the tail end of the millennium staggered at news of a school shooting in Colorado, there was much familiar about the perpetrators. The difference — profound in outcome, although perhaps subtle in origin — is that my in-school fantasies were of repelling attack, not initiating it. Whenever a helicopter flew overhead, it was Red Dawn, calling for heroic resolve.
The cultural and personal shifts that lead in these two opposing directions are likely manifold and difficult to tease from the rest of life, but I can’t help but see something significant in an anecdote that Thomas presents:

Meanwhile, psychologist Leonard Sax, author of the 2007 book, Boys Adrift, cites the example of a typical junior-high literature assignment on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies that a preteen boy has crumpled and left, with other unfinished homework, in the bottom of his backpack. “Write a short essay in Piggy’s voice, describing how you feel about the other boys picking on you,” reads the assignment. This is stupid, the boy says, and he isn’t doing it. Why not? “I’m not Piggy,” the boy says. “I’m not some fat loser. If I’d been on that island, I’d have smashed his face myself!”
I can’t think of a mother, myself included, who could hear her child voice that sentiment and not cringe. To consider that your baby not only could want to smash another person’s face but could assert with perfect certainty that he would if the chance arose, is to recoil in horror. It is to realize, as Anne Roche Muggeridge did while watching her sons take turns throwing each other into a brick wall, that what you have in your house is not a human like you but a human unlike you. In short, as Muggeridge puts it, you are bringing up an alien.

The author of the assignment was, clearly, seeking to encourage empathy in the students, and empathy is a valuable trait for both caregivers and heroes, alike. But as with much else in modern educational culture and psychology, the above example is crafted in a form more suitable for girls than for boys. It’s been some years, but as I recall, Lord of the Flies was not bereft of good boys. This young reader was reacting to the enforced feminization of the question itself and rebelled by associating with the rougher, more viciously violent characters. A healthier, more productive question might have been, “If Piggy were your friend, how might you have defended him?” Implicitly, then, not protecting the downtrodden would have been evidence of fear.
There will always be those, male and female, who seek to dishonor the noble and innocent. There will always be students who incline toward meanness. That reality, however, is not evidence of a need for sensitivity training, but of a need to produce sufficient numbers in each generation who feel called to engage evil in battle. Not the least is this true because, as we’ve had cause to relearn in the past decade, the enemy will not always be within.

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Sally Thomas
14 years ago

Your comments on the Piggy assignment are spot-on, especially regarding how it might have been reworded. The choices that the assignment, as written, sets up are between being bad (ie violent, because violence is bad, period — in fact, it’s a marker for “bad”) or being a loser-victim, also bad. No surprise that the kid in question opts for being a non-player.
Anyway, thanks so much for the mention and for your illuminating expansion on what I said in the article.
Sally Thomas

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
14 years ago

This reminds me of Hasbro’s experiments with doll houses for boys. They set up an observation room and sent the girls in first, they behaved as girls are expected to. They then sent in the boys. The boys constructed a catapult and shot the “babies” across the room. This does not indicate to me that they would do the same with real infants.

14 years ago

I recall the time I was assigned a paper on ‘a minority group that is disappearing, but trying to maintain relevance in modern times.’
All my classmates handed in papers about either African American or Latino groups. I handed in a harsh critique of the KKK website.
The professor was not amused, and I had to explain to her that I wasn’t at all aligned with KKK values, I’ve even counter-protested them before. I was just trying to follow the assignment and point out how poorly the KKK is doing with modern technology, and how it will affect their future recruitment.
I got an F.
Soon after I withdrew from that university. A degree from an institution that can’t respect playful academic dissent isn’t worth going into debt for.
As for violence, gender, and the subject at-hand… I’m glad I went to a high school that forced us to participate in some competitive sports, it was an excellent way for my ‘trench coat outcast’ type to find common-ground with the rest of the community, and it was highly effective at channeling adolescent rage and a maturing body towards something that constructively satisfied the natural hunger for brutality.

14 years ago

“They then sent in the boys. The boys constructed a catapult and shot the “babies” across the room.”
Conversely, Dave Barry wrote that in an effort to avoid gender-stamping (not his term) his daughter, when she was 15 months old, he bought her a toy truck, “a big, studly one”. He reports, “She uses it as a baby carriage. Sometimes she gives it a bottle.”

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