As a kid, I got in a few fights. Not many, and the ones I did get in were more wrestling matches (“wrasslin’’’) than punches thrown.
In high school, I had a brief three-bout run in the Boys’ Club Golden Gloves Program. After college, I stumbled into the early world of PKA Karate and for a couple of years competed routinely in tournaments around the Southeast.
Playing sports, I understood what it meant to get physically whipped. I can remember playing against guys that I knew were just better than I was; guys who I knew could hurt me – and probably wanted to.
There were fights in my high school. We called them “gang fights,’’ but we were pretty much suburban white kids, and the conflict was usually between the groups we referred to as the “socialites” and the “hoods.” Back in the day, we had shop classes in our high school, and I remember one episode where a fight was supposed to be staged in a lower parking lot, behind the building where the shop classes were held. That’s only important because in drafting class, we had something called “T-squares,’’ which came in handy in a fight involving multiple people because you could sometimes come up behind some unsuspecting combatant and hook them in various places, causing a lot of pain.
I’ve been hit with bare fists, padded fists, kicked, and even had a guy take a swing at me with a 2x4 one time (he missed, fortunately). I’ve swung from iron monkey bars and busted the back of my head; tried to climb a tree only to lose my grip and slide down, the bark pulling up my shirt and turning my stomach and chest into bloody rivulets; gone head-over-the handle bars of my bike when I was not wearing a helmet (I didn't own one or know anyone who did); ridden a skateboard downhill on asphalt with no knee pads or helmet (again, because we didn't have any) and, unable to stop, turned into the curb, throwing me head-first into prickly bushes; once went diving into a pile of leaves, unaware that the leaves were piled around a fire plug … in other words, done a lot of stupid stuff that kids of my generation did. We played “Army,’’ and one day decided since we couldn’t figure out how to determine who had actually been shot used B-B guns, because that would leave a mark (boy, did it; fortunately, that was a one-time thing and no one lost an eye).
All of that is not to suggest that I’m a fighter (I’m definitely not), or I’m tough (again, I’m not), and surely it won’t be read as if I’m bragging (there was nothing worth bragging about).
The point is that, like a lot of people of my generation and certainly those generations older than me, we grew up understanding the threat of physical violence, of getting hurt. Not to the level of some places and some people. The point is, I knew I could get hit, it would hurt, but I’d be OK; I learned it was better to not get hit if possible; I figured out that verbal insults were much preferred over having a guy swing a 2x4 at your head with the intent to do bodily harm; and whenever a buddy had what seemed like a ‘great idea,’ let him try it first (Famous last words: “Hey ya’ll, watch this!”).
Apparently, understanding both the threat of physical violence, and the knowledge of how to engage in physical confrontation, is being lost.
This is what social scientists are calling the “iGen,’’ meaning this generation that has grown up in an era of small families, protective parents, padded playgrounds, knee pads and helmets, “nerf” balls and bats, and, of course, computer simulated games rather than getting out and actually driving a go-kart over a homemade course laid out through streets and woods, complete with ramps and jumps and hair-pin turns and wipe-outs.
According to an article I was reading, these kids grew up being told safety was a priority. A study done by Dr. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, reports fewer kids today (as compared to those from the early 2000s) liked to take risks or got a thrill out of doing something dangerous. The number was something close to double that of the previous survey/study that say they don't get a thrill out of taking a chance.
The good news, according to Dr. Twenge, is that fewer kids today get into automobile accidents, fistfights, engage in binge-drinking, or “sneak out” to do things they know their parents (or authority figure) would not approve.
So with physical safety apparently taken care of, what’s left?
Emotional safety. Words that hurt. Verbal altercations that cause one to become anxious or feeling unsettled.
As a 19-year-old told Dr. Twenge (who wrote a book called “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood”), “I believe nobody can guarantee emotional safety. You can always take precautions for someone hurting you physically, but you cannot really help but listen when someone is talking to you.”
When I was in college, we loved hearing “radical” speakers, who we disagreed with, that we could argue with and test our fledgling ability to make an argument and prove a point.
Today, if you read the headlines, you see where college kids want nothing to do with hearing from people who might upset them. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, campus “disinvites” have risen steadily, “reaching an all-time high of 42 in 2016, up from just six in 2000.” In a survey of freshmen college students in 2015, 43 percent agreed that campuses should be able to ban speakers who might have “extreme or unsettling ideas."
And when controversy does come up, students want a ‘safe space’ where they can go if they feel upset, to calm down with coloring books or some similar "comfort" activity from their childhood. This is a generation that grew up with the "reset" button - that button on the side of the game console where, if you found yourself behind by too much, you could hit 'reset' and the game started over. You didn't lose. You just got to start again.
While older generations of college students thought college administrators were out of touch and clueless, and the less we had to do with them the better, today’s students want – no, expect – the college administration to settle disputes, create a “safe” environment because, as one student said, “It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students … It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! It is about creating a home here!”
Get that? They expect adults to take care of them.
They are in college to be prepared to make money (and avoid being on the wrong-end of that dreaded “income inequality”), and don’t want to be disturbed with challenging thoughts and new ideas.
And so we find this generation heading straight into George Orwell’s “1984,” where they actually want “Big Brother” watching over them, monitoring their words (social media?), conforming everyone to the same “group-think,” not trusting their peers to govern them and certainly not believing that the great masses are capable of appropriate government.
“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness,’’ Orwell wrote. “And for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”
Is “1984” even required reading anymore? Or “Animal Farm?”
When I first read those books, I understood Animal Farm to be an indictment of Communism, or the Soviet Union’s version of Communism, anyway. But as for 1984 – I couldn’t imagine a time like that described by Orwell (writing back in the late 1940s).
Who would want to be watched that closely? Well, that was before YouTube and twitter.
Who would want to have their words not only parsed but then broadcast world wide for everyone - including strangers - to read? That was before facebook.
So now I fear I'm seeing 1984 come true, not by force of some totalitarian government but by the willingness of the people (the 'proles'?), from kids who want protection over taking risks, emotional security over maturity, and who are more comfortable dealing with the programmed artificial intelligence on a hand-held device than the unpredictable, often irrational, frequently upsetting views of their fellow human beings.
Maybe what they all need is just an old-fashioned fist-fight, to understand you can hurt people physically and be hurt, and survive. And learn that hearing unpleasant words hurts a lot less than getting whacked in the gut with a stick.
Heck, they might even get up from the grappling with a new appreciation for the other person; maybe even become "friends." (Even, as I heard one young athlete once say about another athlete from a different team, "We're friends that don't like each other very much.")
I'm not advocating that we all go start a brawl, like a bunch of Irishmen in a pub (think the ending of "The Quiet Man'). But I am saying maybe we need to put the coloring books aside and have a little old fashioned, unpredictable, unsafe, even dangerous human interaction.
Heck, some of us think that's kind of what makes life fun.