Strike First, Strike Hard, and Show Mercy?

Cobra Kai, Netflix’s Karate Kid spinoff series whose third season wrapped up earlier this year, offers an alternative to two grave dangers to moral education today: the enervating rule by administrators, or to use Tocqueville’s parlance, rule by schoolmasters, and the violent reaction against soft despotism, rule by the strong. In so doing, the series corrects Cobra Kai’s original mantra of “strike first, strike hard, no mercy” to temper spirited self-confidence with mercy and forgiveness. The series thereby offers a much-needed reminder that democracies require moral education, because human dignity is grounded in our capacity for moral decisions.

Cobra Kai picks up 30 years after the events in The Karate Kid (1984). Johnny Lawrence, once the Cobra Kai rival to Daniel LaRusso, is now a loser and bad father, but learns how to make amends by teaching bullied students karate and how to stand up for themselves.

Johnny reestablishes the Cobra Kai dojo and welcomes a group of nerdy misfits who thrive on his “tough love” and healthy doses of 1980s heavy metal—Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, Poison, AC/DC. The music is not accidental. It’s big, bold, and unashamed. That’s exactly what these thin, reedy-spirited students need. Eli Moskowitz, a painfully shy, nerdy young man who has been bullied for having a cleft lip scar is immobilized with fear and self-doubt. Johnny teaches him how to “flip the script” and embrace being looked at by others on his own terms. Eli, now going by the nickname “Hawk,” gets a blue mohawk, a brilliantly colored hawk tattoo across his back, and heaps of brash self-confidence to boot.

Being a “badass” is what Johnny holds up as an ideal for the students. Through karate, Johnny teaches the students how to defend themselves, to be sure, but being a badass is more than shielding oneself from attack. Badasses act confidently and with certainty, especially when times are uncertain, because they know that what happens is up to them. That’s the exhilarating and liberating side of being a badass, but as Johnny learns, the education of a badass must be oriented toward choosing to do right and showing mercy. Showing mercy is not weakness, but as Portia in The Merchant of Venice says, it is “mightiest in the mightiest.” We grant mercy to those who wrong us out of our goodness, not theirs, and out of hope to receive it in return.

The Soft Despotism of “Hugging it Out”

By contrast, the high school administrators purport to promote the dignity of all persons and to advance policies to make students feel valued. The administration’s goal is “to make this school a safe space for all students.” The administration asks little of the students, but that they readily submit to its processes and scripts. After a school fight, overweening administrators promise parents that it won’t happen again, because they have implemented a “new initiative called ‘Hugs Not Hits.’” Without irony, the school counselor boasts that “it’s like DARE except it actually works.”

Tocqueville warns of the soft despotism that can “degrade men without tormenting them” as it “takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate.” Tocqueville fears that Americans will give up their liberty and give in to being ruled by schoolmasters so long as they may live in ease and comfort. Individuals will withdraw into their isolated private circle of friends and family and abandon care for the community to administrators.

The Cobra Kai series shows that Tocqueville is partially right. He’s right that administrators do not prepare young people for adulthood and instead aim to “take away from them entirely the trouble thinking and the pain of living.” On the other hand, the reach of the administrators is incomplete. They can do little about what happens online or off campus. There will be suffering and life trials that the administrators cannot prevent but have failed to prepare the students to cope with.

A moral education is lopsided if it teaches only how to protect the self. It risks devolving into nothing more than looking out for number one and avoiding the introspection that is required to admit to a wrong.

The trouble with rule by experts is that it fails to do what it purports to do—protect the weak from the strong. Bullies and mean girls are undeterred. They know how to game administrators and find myriad opportunities to belittle and sneer at others. The school counselor lectures the students on how to choose “culturally sensitive” Halloween costumes. To be sure, at the Halloween dance, all the costumes are culturally sensitive, but Yasmine, a blond, popular girl, shares online a short video of Aisha, a heavy-set African American girl, eating cheese puffs with a virtual overlay of pig ears and snout.

Make no mistake, schools should create environments that promote the safety of students and encourage respect towards others. Safe spaces, however, cannot be replacements for developing the interior resources that enable a person to stand up to bullies. It doesn’t hurt to know karate either.

Honor and “Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy”

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the return of Cobra Kai. Daniel knows that Cobra Kai’s teachings lead its students to act underhandedly and without mercy. In response, Daniel opens the Miyagi dojo to teach students how to defend themselves as Mr. Miyagi taught him. More than that, Daniel teaches his students how to control their anger and self-doubt, and how to rise above their hardships. The wisdom of Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on and wax off” teaching is that the daily humble tasks that require discipline and solicitude add up and prepare individuals to tackle greater trials.

Johnny readjusts the Cobra Kai’s teaching to include honor and sportsmanship. Dirty tactics are dishonorable. Winning fairly is more choiceworthy because you defeat someone at their best and so demonstrate your excellence. Honor curbs deceitfulness, which it sees as beneath the dignity of the Cobra Kai students, but it is not mercy. The honorable person follows a code of conduct and so treats mercy like good manners. Honor isn’t enough to make us admit our mistakes because it’s insufficiently introspective and honest about the wrongs we have done.

Melting the Snowflake Generation

Honor can’t firmly hold the imagination of young people who view it as a luxury. John Kreese, the original Cobra Kai sensei, deceives Johnny into giving him a second chance and allowing him to help teach the students. Kreese’s objective is to “melt this whole snowflake generation.” Real life is hard and only the strong can thrive. For Kreese, honor is for suckers, because there is no such thing as a fair fight. Fair play is for tournaments that are controlled environments in which the goal is to win points, but in the real world, the goal is to win at all costs. He teaches “life isn’t always fair. Sometimes the world can be cruel. And that’s why you have to learn to be cruel yourselves.”

For some of the students, it is all too easy to see the world as cruel. Their childhoods have not been protected and shielded. Kreese taps into their anger and pain. Tory, Kreese’s best student, works two jobs to support her young brother and her mother, who is on dialysis. But she falls behind on paying rent and must defend herself against a sexually predatory rent collector. For Tory, Kreese’s teaching in cruelty is an appealing way to overcome her unequal share of pain and suffering.

Not only does Kreese teach students how to ruthlessly win against an opponent, he instructs them to “finish” the person—to strike an additional blow to augment their pain and add humiliation. Kreese gives the students license to vent anger, which offers temporary relief from their misery when directed at another person, but does little to guide them on how to heal the internal wounds that ache within themselves.

Cobra Kai pulls no punches on how difficult doing the right thing can be. The real world is messy and broken. Those who wrong others today were often wronged by someone in the past. But a moral education is lopsided if it teaches only how to protect the self. It risks devolving into nothing more than looking out for number one and avoiding the introspection that is required to admit to a wrong. The task is to encourage self-reflection and identify what to do if we are in the wrong. Doing what’s right means owning up to our failures.

The Real World Is Not Beyond Repair

The temptation is to cover over past mistakes by starting over, which is what Johnny tries to do. Johnny can’t reboot his failures 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 that Johnny needs is the one provided by seeking forgiveness and repairing his relationship.

Drunk and in despair, Johnny crashes a church service where a fellow Cobra Kai from high school is now a pastor. He interrupts a sermon on forgiveness in which Pastor Bobby says that “our toughest battle” is forgiveness of the self. God is ready to forgive the penitent but so often we resist because we do not think of ourselves as lovable while so imperfect. Johnny thought he was “doing the right thing” so he could overcome his past wrongs by teaching his students to be “tough and show mercy.” Bobby corrects Johnny that “you don’t do the right thing because it always works out, you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do . . . whether it works out or not.” Doing the right thing offers no immunity from hardship and failure, but enables us to keep our sight on what we’re meant to do and to take up the challenge of making amends.

Mercy is not motivated by self-preservation, but by an earnest desire for the good of an undeserving but lovable person. Johnny apologies to Ali Mills, who unintentionally sparked the rivalry between Johnny and Daniel, for being a jerk to her in high school. Ali forgives him, forgetting the wrong done to her, and says “the good times far outweighed the bad and that’s how I will always remember it.” Ali chooses to hold on to the best of their friendship. Hinting at the spiritual dimensions of mercy, Ali’s act imitates God who forgets as he forgives.

Johnny’s small act of asking for forgiveness from Ali 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 off-ramps from the tragedy that results if revenge, rivalries, and grievances are left unchecked. Cobra Kai truly flips the script in which Johnny and Daniel become friends and unite their dojos. Showing mercy is part of being a badass because it makes possible the previously impossible.