"Bullying is what happens when an individual with power exercises that power against people who don't fit in. By threatening to expose or harm or degrade the outlier,the bully reinforces the status quo in a way that increases his power." - Seth Godin
A freak is someone who is weird, strange and unusual. Freaks are exceptional. They stand out. They're not normal. They're odd.
Heroes are freaks. They are freaks because they do things that most people would not do and they refuse to do things that most people do. They stick out. They stand out from the crowd. They don't fit in, especially when fitting in means attacking another person or watching silently while someone is attacked.
Heroes also allow others to be freaks. They don't push people to fit in. They don't enforce conformity to a certain standard. They accept others for who they are.
And heroes encourage others to be freaks. They don't just allow people to be weird. They aren't passive and quiet about their own weirdness or their acceptance of the weirdness of others. They encourage strangeness, uniqueness and difference. They celebrate deviance. They promote it.
"When there isn't a race to fit in, bullying those that don't fit in loses much of its power. This is incredibly brave and risky for those in charge. It involves trusting people to become something wonderful, as opposed to insisting that they fit in at all costs." - Seth Godin
Robert Quinn, in his book Deep Change, argues that "excellence is a form of deviance." Greatness is strangeness. Heroes are freaks.
But it is difficult to be a hero. Because it is difficult to be a freak. It is risky to be different. It is scary to stand out. It makes you vulnerable and exposed.
Quinn warns that "deviance will always generate external pressures to conform. When you perform beyond the norms, the systems will adjust and try to make you normal." Greatness is dangerous. Heroes and freaks encounter resistance.
"I will punish you because you don't fit in, and I will continue to punish you until you do." - Seth Godin
Parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, managers, and many others often directly, and indirectly, block our attempts to be heroes. This is because they value conformity, being normal and fitting in. They are skeptical of deviance, abnormality and sticking out. By thinking this way, and acting on those beliefs, people in positions of power and influence unintentionally reinforce the very problems, like bullying, they are trying to solve.
You might think I'm exaggerating. Certainly, no one would block someone's efforts to be heroic. We encourage people to be heroes, don't we? It turns out that we don't.
For example, 13-year-old Briar MacLean is a 7th grader at Sir John A. MacDonald school in Calgary. He saw a student threatening another student with a knife and he got involved. MacLean explained, “He pulled out his flip knife so I came in and pushed him into the wall. It was just to help the other kid so he wouldn’t get hurt.” Briar's intervention was enough to knock the knife out of the boys hand and effectively ended the incident.
After the incident, the school called Briar's parents. It seems obvious that they would call to praise Briar's actions and inform his parents that he is a hero, someone to be admired and emulated. Maybe he should even get an award or a medal.
But that is not what happened. Instead, the school notified MacLean's parents that their son's actions were inappropriate! The vice principal explained that the school "does not condone heroics." Briar had broken the rules when he helped the boy who was being attacked. He wasn't a hero. He was out of line. He wasn't right. He was wrong. And he was punished with detention. His parents were brought in and, along with Briar, were told that his behavior was unacceptable.
Before moving on, let's take a moment to consider what the school's vice principal said. The school does not "condone heroics." Condone means to accept or allow. It is not the same as supporting or encouraging heroic actions, which is what schools should be doing. But MacLean's school won't even allow heroic actions, much less promote them. As Michael Platt of the Calgary Sun writes, "MacLean has been left to believe he’s done something wrong. . . To condemn a student who likely saved another from serious injury or even death is a terrible lesson."
A terrible lesson indeed. Any child who witnessed the official response to Briar's heroism, or read about it, would be forced to conclude that, if they ever see someone in trouble, they shouldn't get involved. Better to play it safe, follow the rules and mind their own business. The school's focus on safety, rules and liability is at odds with the heroic values of sacrifice, morality and responsibility.
It would be easy to dismiss what happened to MacLean as an isolated incident, but it isn't. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed at a book signing, hit by a brick during a march, jailed by the police and, ultimately, killed because of his efforts to promote civil rights. It is important to note that he was attacked by both individuals and institutions because of his heroic actions.
We live in a world that is desperate for heroes. But that same world is also desperately trying to enforce normality and conformity. The two cannot coexist.
As Seth Godin explains, "Bullying persists when bureaucracies and hierarchies permit it to continue." If we want to stop bullying, we need to create heroes. If we want more heroes, then we need to promote weirdness, instead of conformity. We need to foster freaks, instead of forcing people to fit in. We need to do more than just condone heroic behavior, we need to support and model it.
Are you trying to fit in or fighting the status quo?
Are you conforming or freaking out?
Are you forcing others to conform or allowing and encouraging them to be freaks?
Are you ready to be a hero and a freak?
If you want to learn more about being a hero and encouraging others to be heroes, join me at the Hero Roundtable on November 9-10 in Swartz Creek, Michigan.