Keaton Jones and the question we refuse to confront -- ‘Why do they bully?’

By now, many have seen the viral video that has captured the heart of our nation – and in the process put a new, innocent and bewildered face on the world of adolescent bullying.

The face is 11-year-old sixth grader Keaton Jones from Knoxville, Tennessee. The boy laments to his mother on camera how bullies “make fun of my nose, they call me ugly, they say I have no friends.” And in what appears to be the final straw for Keaton, they poured milk on him at lunchtime. 

It seems nearly half of the entertainment world – including Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, as well as star athletes – have reached out to Keaton, inviting him to movie premieres and to football and basketball games as a VIP. 

We can see why this video went viral. Many of us have been Keaton Jones – broken, scared and soaked not in milk, but flop sweat, due to bullying at some time in our lives. We witness the tectonic plates of anguish, innocence and sadism collide and we can hardly take it.

This may be Keaton's first real experience with adolescent bullying, and our nation weeps along with him, because we’ve felt his pain.

Keaton asks his mother a question we all want answered: “Just out of curiosity, why do they bully?” This may become our nation’s next anti-bullying slogan, our next cultural T-shirt. 

The answer has been before us for a long time, but we refuse to confront it. Contrary to the many myths about bullying, most serial bullies don’t have low self-esteem. They attack others due to inordinate self-love, not self-hate.

Contrary to the many myths about bullying, most serial bullies don’t have low self-esteem. They attack others due to inordinate self-love, not self-hate.

The offenders bully because they can, because it is pleasurable, and because it helps them gain and maintain social power. And we as a nation are also increasingly rewarding adult bullying, applauding it on television – especially reality television.

Unfortunately, most serial bullies know exactly what they’re doing – and they love it. 

In this short video, Keaton also makes a statement that is dear to anyone who loves democracy and fairness: “People who are different don’t need to be criticized about it. It’s not their fault..... But if you are made fun of, just don’t let it bother you.” He speaks with tears running down his cheeks. 

It’s the mantra of our time, but it’s clear that it’s not true for Keaton, nor is it true for millions just like him. Because we are born and imbued with an innate sense for justice and personal dignity, we are more than bothered when bullied. We’re harmed by it, and tears are usually our first form of recognition and protest.

The compassionate Chris Evans, who plays Captain America in the upcoming film “Avengers: Infinity War,” has invited Keaton to the movie’s premiere, making a cinema-inspired lesson about bullying especially helpful.

As in many great superhero movies, both the protagonist and the antagonist want the same thing. In the case of Batman and the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” both want control of the heart and soul of Gotham: Batman for good, the Joker for destruction.

Like you and me, Keaton wants control of his thoughts, hopes, reputation, social status, dreams, and more – all the things that make life magical. But here’s the sick part – so do his bullies.

Batman thinks the Joker can be reasoned with, just like most Americans believe their child’s bully can be reasoned with as well. But then butler Alfred enlightens Batman, telling him: "With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man you don't fully understand.… Some men ... can't be bought, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn." 

Bullies sadistically enjoy burning the psychological flesh of others. It makes the bullies feel alive. 

So America, quit psychoanalyzing bullies, and instead, like Alfred, start putting wisdom in the hearts of our children. Train your children to pretend that bullying doesn’t bother them, even when it does. Train them to adopt assertive body language and facial expressions, as well as short and quick verbal comebacks, such as “Whatever.”

Role-play this with your children because it works. Grow your children’s network of friends, and help them be proficient in at least one endeavor, such as a musical instrument, which grows their self-confidence and raises their esteem among their peers. 

This is how we’ll help Keaton and the millions he represents overcome the bullies in their lives.  

Paul Coughlin is an expert witness regarding bullying and the law, a former newspaper editor and is the author of numerous books, including Raising Bully-Proof Kids. He is the Founder of The Protectors: Freedom From Bullying-Courage, Character & Leadership for Life, which provides a comprehensive and community-wide solution to adolescent bullying in schools, summer camps, faith-based organizations, and other places where bullying can be prevalent.