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East Pyne Hall.

Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

In the course of our education, employment, and lives in general, we are often encouraged to refrain from rocking the boat. If we become frustrated with the behavior of another, especially in the case of an institutional higher-up, we are told that we should pick our battles, that it is not worth the trouble of addressing the issue at hand.

While valid in many cases, when this pragmatic piece of advice becomes internalized and too liberally applied, it can reproduce the problems that, so long as our heads remain buried in the sand of short-term convenience, continually hinder us in our personal and occupational lives.

Ironically, children are sometimes better-equipped to exemplify the advocacy and assertiveness that the rest of us might do well to more frequently adopt. Socialized by a morality-obsessed culture to practice virtuous behavior, stand up for others, and speak up, the youngest among us can be amusingly forthright and straightforward. 

More than that, though, children are uniquely positioned to articulate and highlight inconsistencies and interpersonal wrongdoings. Despite attempts by elementary and secondary schooling to quash this impulse, children often demonstrate a refreshing candor that, though absent theoretical rigor, represents a departure from the go-with-the-flow attitude built into the fabric of mainstream discourse and straight-backed professionalism. 

When confronted by bullies, for instance, children often will defend themselves in a manner unacceptable according to "zero tolerance" policies, the first among measures in a long line of efforts to enforce docility and solicit self-restraint. 

Tragically, self-defense and solidarity instincts are not permitted to come to full fruition. Instead, they are forced to degrade through a process of maturation that, though it facilitates effective navigation of the adult world, also serves to curb the rebellious attitude so desperately needed in that very sphere.

In some cases, children are indoctrinated with a disarming “turn the other cheek” orthodoxy right away, facilitating an even smoother eventuality of mistreatment, exploitation, and passivity. Even in ideal cases where such a worldview is not so thoroughly inculcated, children almost invariably go from being told to stand up for what is right to being instructed to fall in line. 

This is clear in how we casually discuss nontrivial transgressions perpetrated by members of University faculty with comments such as, "after all, you're going to have employers you don't like, so you may as well get used to it now." Applied to the case of bullying, this is literally an argument in its favor. Its implications for life after college are even more depressing, as it normalizes and validates the capacity of those on the top to cement their dominance against timid and submissive subordinates.

In the abstract, it is reasonable to argue that ideals of civility, forgiveness, and non-confrontation have their place in the organization of our social life. Furthermore, they are necessarily and properly constitutive of how we approach any number of interactions in our daily lives.

Yet, absent an account of the actual nature of the bonds that tie us together, it is impossible to distinguish between battles that are and are not worth the effort. As a consequence of this moralistic muddling, we are unprepared to take on those who behave as genuine adversaries, from the schoolyard bully to the misanthropic manager.

Braden Flax is a junior from Merrick, N.Y. He can be reached at bflax@princeton.edu.

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