I remember a film called Three O’Clock High – mostly because I may have had a crush on Annie Ryan, the female lead. If I remember correctly, the story involves a new high school student – some glowering bully in a leather jacket with a larger than life reputation – deciding to beat up the resident nerd, and said nerd’s attempts to avoid being beaten up. It’s a film that explores and exploits the intricacies of a stereotypical high school trope: there’s gonna be a fight, news of which spreads throughout the school to everyone who breathes air and is not an adult. It reflects the two worlds that exist under a single roof in most schools: the world inhabited by teachers and staff, and the nebulous, dark waters precariously navigated by kids.
I’m thinking about this movie because there was a fight at my school recently – a bad one – and an administrator trying to break it up was hit multiple times. So many adults were surprised by the fact that so many kids not only watched and cheered on the fight, but also recorded it on their phones as well. Our principal sent out a thoughtful response about how what happened is not consistent with “our values.”
While I know that my school strives to be a safe place, what happened is a textbook example of how US schools reflect the broader American culture; a culture that has always commodified and capitalized on violence as a spectator sport and a way to solve problems. We do say something when we see something in America, and it’s usually “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
There’s a large segment of society that applauded the rise of ultimate fighting, and professional slap fighting, just as previous generations celebrated boxing. We bemoan how athletes see their lives and careers shortened by the abuse they take, gasp when that violence spills out of the game and into their personal lives, then applaud these "warriors" week in and week out for laying their bodies on the line for our amusement.
As I write this, the tattered flag in front of my school sits at half-mast because of yet another school shooting. We light candles for victims of mass shootings and watch them burn out on the altar of the second amendment.
We have no right to wring our hands after we’ve used them to build and applaud the violent institutions we celebrate. It’s disingenuous and hypocritical.