Cobra Kai, Netflix’s spin-off Karate Kid series, which ended its third season earlier this year, offers an alternative to two grave dangers to moral education today: the troubling rule of administrators or the use of Tocqueville’s language, the reign of the schoolmasters and the violent reaction against it gentle despotism, rule of the strong. In this way, the series corrects Cobra Kai’s original mantra “Strike first, hit hard, no mercy” to soften temperamental self-awareness with grace and forgiveness. The series offers a much-needed reminder that democracies require moral education because human dignity is based on our ability to make moral choices.
Cobra Kai takes up 30 years after the events of The Karate Kid (1984). Johnny Lawrence, once Daniel LaRusso’s Cobra Kai rival, is now a loser and a bad father but is learning how to make it up by teaching bullied students karate and standing up for himself.
Johnny restores the Cobra Kai Dojo and welcomes a group of nerdy outsiders who thrive on his “hard love” and healthy doses of 1980s heavy metal – Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, Poison, AC / DC. The music is not accidental. It’s big, brave, and outrageous. This is exactly what these thin, reed-minded students need. Eli Moskowitz, a painfully shy, nerdy young man who was bullied for a cleft lip, is unable to move due to fear and self-doubt. Johnny teaches him how to “flip the script” and accept to be viewed by others on his own terms. Eli, who is now nicknamed “Hawk”, gets a blue mohawk, a colorful hawk tattoo on his back and lots of brazen self-confidence.
Being a “badass” is what Johnny sees as an ideal for the students. While Johnny teaches students how to defend himself through karate, being a badass is more than protecting yourself from attack. Badasses act confidently and with confidence, especially when times are uncertain because they know that what happens is up to them. That’s the exciting and liberating side of being a badass, but as Johnny learns, training a badass must be geared towards doing the right thing and showing compassion. Showing mercy is not weakness, but as Portia says in The Merchant of Venice, it is “most powerful in the most powerful”. We show mercy to those who wrong us out of our goodness, not theirs, in the hope of receiving it in return.
The gentle despotism of “Hugging it Out”
In contrast, the school administrators pretend to promote the dignity of all people and to drive politics forward to make students feel valued. The aim of the administration is to “make this school a safe place for all students”. The administration demands little of the students, but that they willingly submit to its processes and scripts. After a school fight, cocky administrators promise parents that it won’t happen again because they launched a “new initiative called Hugs Not Hits.” Without irony, the school advisor boasts that “it’s like DARE, except that it actually is is working. ”
Tocqueville warns against the gentle despotism that “can humiliate men without tormenting them” because it is “responsible for ensuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate”. Tocqueville fears that Americans will give up their freedom and surrender to the rule of the schoolmasters as long as they can live in ease and comfort. Individuals withdraw into their isolated private circle of friends and family and leave the maintenance of the community to the administrators.
The Cobra Kai series shows that Tocqueville is partly right. He is right that administrators do not prepare young people for adulthood and instead aim to “completely take away from them the difficulties of thinking and the pain of life”. On the other hand, the reach of the administrators is incomplete. There is little you can do about what happens online or off campus. There will be sufferings and life trials which the administrators cannot prevent but which the students did not prepare to face.
Moral education is one-sided if it only teaches how to protect the self. There is a risk that you will just focus on number one and avoid the introspection that it takes to admit a wrong.
The problem with expert rule is that it doesn’t do what it says it does – protect the weak from the strong. Bullies and mean girls are not deterred. They know how to play administrators and find countless ways to belittle and taunt others. The school advisor teaches students how to choose “culturally sensitive” Halloween costumes. Of course, all costumes are culturally sensitive in the Halloween dance, but Yasmine, a blonde popular girl, shows a short video online of Aisha, a heavyweight African American girl who eats cheese balls with a virtual pork layer on her ears and snout.
Make no mistake, schools should create environments that promote student safety and respect for others. However, secure spaces cannot be a substitute for developing the internal resources that enable a person to hold their own against bullies. It doesn’t hurt to know karate either.
Honor and “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy”
Not everyone is excited about Cobra Kai’s return. Daniel knows that the teachings of Cobra Kai lead his students to act underhanded and merciless. In response, Daniel opens the Miyagi dojo to teach students how to defend themselves as Miyagi-san taught him. Additionally, Daniel teaches his students how to control their anger and self-doubt and how to rise above their needs. The wisdom of Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on and wax off” teaching is that the humble daily tasks that require discipline and care add up and prepare the individual for greater trials.
Johnny readjusts the teaching of the Cobra Kai to include honor and athleticism. Dirty tactics are dishonorable. Winning fair is more choosy because you are defeating someone at their best and thus demonstrating your excellence. Honor curbs the deception of what it sees as beneath the dignity of Cobra Kai students, but it is no mercy. The honorable person follows a code of conduct and treats compassion like good manners. Honor is not enough to make us admit our mistakes because it is not sufficiently thoughtful and honest about the mistakes we have made.
Melting the generation of snowflakes
Honor cannot capture the imagination of young people who consider it a luxury. John Kreese, the original Cobra Kai Sensei, deceives Johnny into giving him a second chance and allowing him to teach the students. Kreese’s goal is to “melt this whole generation of snowflakes”. Real life is tough and only the strong can thrive. For Kreese, honor is fools, because there is no such thing as a fair fight. Fair play is intended for tournaments which are controlled environments where the goal is to gain points. In the real world, however, the goal is to win at all costs. He teaches: “Life is not always fair. Sometimes the world can be cruel. And that’s why you have to learn to be cruel yourself. “
For some of the students it is all too easy to see the world as cruel. Her childhood was not protected and screened. Kreese uses her anger and pain. Tory, Kreese’s best student, works two jobs to support her young brother and mother on dialysis. But she falls behind in paying the rent and has to defend herself against a sexually predatory rent collector. For Tory, Kreese’s teaching on cruelty is an engaging way to overcome her unequal share of pain and suffering.
Kreese not only teaches students how to ruthlessly win against an opponent, but instructs them to “finish” the person – deal an extra blow to add to their pain and humiliation. Kreese gives students permission to vent anger, which provides temporary relief from their misery when directed to another person but does little to heal the internal wounds that ache within themselves.
Cobra Kai doesn’t worry about how difficult it can be to do the right thing. The real world is chaotic and broken. Those who wrong others today were often wronged by someone in the past. But moral education is one-sided if it only teaches how to protect the self. There is a risk that you will just focus on number one and avoid the introspection that it takes to admit a wrong. The task is to encourage self-reflection and figure out what to do when we are wrong. Doing the right thing means accepting our mistakes.
The real world is not irreparable
The temptation is to cover up past mistakes by starting over from what Johnny is trying to do. Johnny cannot restart his mistakes with his son Robby by being a father figure to his best student, Miguel. After a brutal fight between Robby and Miguel, the real fresh start Johnny needs is the one by asking for forgiveness and fixing his relationship.
Drunk and desperate, Johnny crashes a service where a Cobra Kai from high school is now pastor. He interrupts a sermon on forgiveness in which Pastor Bobby says that “our hardest fight” is forgiveness of the self. God is ready to forgive the penitent, but so often we resist because we do not consider ourselves lovable while we are so imperfect. Johnny thought he was doing “the right thing” to overcome his past mistakes by teaching his students “to be tough and show mercy”. Bobby corrects Johnny: “You’re not doing the right thing because it always works. You’re doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. . . whether it works or not. “Doing the right thing does not offer immunity to hardship and failure, but rather enables us to keep track of what we are supposed to be doing and to accept the challenge of making amends.
Mercy is not motivated by self-preservation, but by a sincere desire for the well-being of an undeserved but lovable person. Johnny apologizes to Ali Mills, who inadvertently started the rivalry between Johnny and Daniel for being an idiot to her in high school. Ali forgives him, forgets the injustice that has been done to her, and says, “The good times far outweighed the bad, and so I will always remember them.” Ali decides to hold onto the best of their friendship. Ali’s action suggests the spiritual dimensions of mercy and imitates God who forgets how to forgive.
Johnny’s little act of asking Ali for forgiveness becomes the basis for a much greater and unexpected reconciliation. Through Ali’s efforts, Daniel and Johnny end their 30-year rivalry. Mercy and forgiveness are our turning away from the tragedy that comes when vengeance, rivalries, and grievances go unchecked. Cobra Kai really turns the script around with Johnny and Daniel becoming friends and uniting their dojos. Showing compassion is part of being a badass because it makes the previously impossible possible.