Punching Up

It was Grandparents’ week at school a couple of weeks ago. That meant Janene and I could go to school and have lunch with our grandkids—or, more accurately, bring them lunch from their favorite fast-food restaurant.

We sat at a table at one of those lunches, waiting for our grandchild’s lunch period to begin. So, looking around during the previous lunch period, I saw something that hurt my heart. Two kids, a boy and a girl, were eating alone. Sure, other kids surrounded them, but they ate alone without any friends to talk to.

My first thought was at least they were not being actively bullied by the other kids. But my second thought was, which is worse? Being bullied or being totally ignored? Or, as Helen Keller once said, “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” Unfortunately, too many of us are walking alone in the light.

Recently, I listened to a podcast featuring John Larsen. Here is his definition of bullying: “Bullies punch down. What that means is they attack populations or people or races, ethnicities, religions that have less social status, less power, less money, less influence than they do.” I like that. The next time you feel like saying something critical or cutting about someone who is transgender, gay, of a different race, less educated, or poorer than you, ask yourself first, what has this person or group taken away from me? How have they diminished my privilege? If you are honest with yourself, you will probably answer they have not affected my life in any meaningful way. Under those circumstances, does it make sense to say anything at all? 

In the film Mean Girls, the clique known as the plastics had prestige and influence in high school and let those around them know they were at the top of the social hierarchy. In short, they punched down. But Cady (played by Lindsay Lohan), who once had worked her way into the clique, said it best: “Calling someone fat doesn’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter. All you can do in life is try and solve the problem in front of you.”

Of course, the opposite of punching down is punching up—pushing back against the powers that be. That’s what Cady did to the Mean Girls. So we must punch up repeatedly to ensure that marginalized groups and individuals are protected.

In Where the Crawdads Sing,[i] the townsfolk bullied a “marsh girl” because of her poverty and resulting lifestyle. Here is the trailer for the film:

The marsh girl learned from the marsh, “Every creature does what it must to survive.” So if someone is punching down upon us, let’s figure out what we must do to survive. Maya Angelou said, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” Or, as I like to tell myself, “Go ahead, bully me, but in 30 years, the only thing people will remember is that I am your boss.”

One of my favorite films about bullying is Wonder.[ii] Auggie suffers from a disease that has left his face and head deformed. Accordingly, the school could be rough on him. One bad day, when someone Auggie thought was his friend betrayed him, Auggie has this conversation with his sister:

Sometimes, as a victim of someone punching down on us, we feel like Auggie did—that there are no nice people in the world. But his friend, Jack Will, redeems himself in this scene:

Jack Will learned this valuable lesson: Strong people stick up for themselves, but the strongest stick up for others. Or said a different way, if you turn and face the other way when someone is being bullied, you might as well be the bully.

At the recent Wyoming versus BYU college football game, BYU honored a group of black athletes known as the Wyoming Black 14. Although I grew up in Utah and am not a BYU fan, I remember the circumstances well. In 1969, 14 black members of the University of Wyoming football team wanted to wear black armbands to protest the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the “Church”) ban on African Americans holding the priesthood. (The Church removed that ban in 1978.) These athletes went to their coach, Lloyd Eaton, to ask permission to wear the armbands. If the coach said no, they would accept that decision. But Coach Eaton, without discussion, dismissed all 14 from the school’s football team. Then for two hours, the coach punched down on these young men, berating them with such statements as:

“Most of you don’t even know who your fathers are.”

“You’re going to be on subsistence programs for the rest of your lives.”

“I got you off the streets … picking up cigarette butts.”

“There’s no other university that will invite you to play football for them.”

 The University of Wyoming kept the story buried for forty years. But these young men were tough on and off the football field. They ended up living successful lives. Or, as one of them, John Griffin, said, “Never be defined by an incident.”

To the University’s credit, it recognized they had bullied the Black 14. So, in 2016, the University reunited the Black 14, presented them with the letter jackets they would have received in 1969, and, more importantly, issued a letter of apology, which said, in part: “As an institution, we believe we have learned and grown from what you had to endure.”

But as John Griffin described it, the Black 14 decided to turn “a tragedy into philanthropy.” They developed a partnership with the Church to distribute food to those in need. Over the past three years, the Black 14 and the Church delivered 800,000 pounds of food to the hungry near the homes of the Black 14.

If we have punched down on someone, I hope we can realize our mistake and apologize. And genuine apologies include restitution for the wrong. And if we see someone punch down upon another, let’s stand up for those victims. And let us be brave and punch up when necessary, speaking truth to power to help make this a better world for all of us.  

In closing, here are the lyrics to my favorite anti-bullying song, Don’t Laugh at Me.[iii] The daughter of the songwriter inspired the song when she confided in her dad that her classmates teased her because of her freckles. Mark Wills first recorded the song in 1968, but Peter, Paul, and Mary have also recorded it. The song helped inspire Peter Yarrow to found the non-profit organization Operation Respect, promoting tolerance and civility programs in education. The version below is the one recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary:

I’m a little boy with glasses, the one they call the geek

A little girl who never smiles ’cause I’ve got braces on my teeth

And I know how it feels to cry myself to sleep

I’m the kid on every playground Who’s always chosen last

A single teenage mother tryin’ to overcome my past

You don’t have to be my friend but is it too much to ask

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names

Don’t get your pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes we’re all the same

Someday we’ll all have perfect wings

Don’t laugh at me

I’m the beggar on the corner, you’ve passed me on the street

And I wouldn’t be out here beggin’ if I had enough to eat

And don’t think I don’t notice that our eyes never meet

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names

Don’t get your pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes we’re all the same

Someday we’ll all have perfect wings

Don’t laugh at me

I’m fat, I’m thin, I’m short, I’m tall

I’m deaf, I’m blind, hey aren’t we all

I’m black, I’m white, and I am brown

I’m Christian, I’m Jewish, and I am Muslim

I’m gay, I’m lesbian, I’m American Indian

I’m very, very young, I’m quite aged

I’m quite wealthy, I’m very, very poor

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names

Don’t get your pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes we’re all the same

Someday we’ll all have perfect wings

Don’t laugh at me

My country ’tis of thee

Oh, sweet land of liberty

It is of thee I sing.

I hope we can challenge those with more power than us, when appropriate, and defend those with less power every chance we get.


[i] Where the Crawdads Sing:

  • Production Companies: 3000 Pictures and Hello Sunshine
  • Director: Olivia Newman
  • Screenwriter: Delia Owens (based on the book by Lucy Alibar)
  • Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, and Harris Dickenson
  • Release date: July 15, 2022

[ii] Wonder:

  • Production Companies: Lionsgate, Participant, Walden Media
  • Director: Stephen Chbosky
  • Screenwriters: Stephen Chbosky, Steve Conrad, and Jack Thorne
  • Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, and Izabela Vidovic
  • Release date: November 17, 2017

[iii] Words and music by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin

   Copyright by Sony/ATV Tunes LLC/David Aaron Music/Built on Rock Music

   All rights on behalf of Sony/ATV Tunes LLC/David Aaron Music administered by Sony/ATV Music           Publishing, 8 Music Square West, Nashville, TN 37203

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