R-E-S-P-E-C-T

All of us crave the regard of others. Some of us kill for it.

Posted Jun 23, 2018

Yesterday’s newspaper contained a sad story from Chicago. A 19-year-old man was murdered by another of similar age, shot 11 times and left in a doorway.  The immediate cause of the incident, or so the paper said, was a dispute.

What was their disagreement?  One might imagine it as some protracted confrontation in the street, with angry shouting, shoving, and brandishing of weapons. Perhaps one them had refused to pay a debt, hurt a friend, or interfered in a love affair. Instead, and oddly, it was an Internet exchange. In an emoji-spiked presentation on a social media account, the victim reputedly had connoted bad things about the perpetrator’s group affiliation and worse, about his mother. At least that was the paper’s account. The shooter concluded that the other young man had gone too far, that he had to die.

I add, reluctantly, that the newspaper also related that both perpetrator and victim were members of gangs and that they were involved in the drug trade. Fierce in-group loyalty and taunting of rival groups are ordinary parts of that world. Under such conditions, living is difficult. Dying, as the victim wrote in one of his final tweets, is easy.

That is, of course, no reason to deny the tragedy of the affair. A hotheaded outburst destroyed one life and effectively ruined another. Be clear that the two young men were neither statistical abstractions nor shadowy figures but persons with appetites for life, charming qualities, and treasured companions. Their families mourn them as the world turns to the sports page and funnies.

What was the disagreement about, really? One element, and the theme I develop here, is every person’s desire for respect—and their resistance to the opposite condition. When respect is denied, or when it is circumscribed too narrowly, bad things may occur.

I take special interest in this story because it reminds me of the years I worked as a public aid caseworker in the housing projects of Chicago and later, pursued graduate studies in that city.

I know well that poor and otherwise disadvantaged people are often hungry for something the rest of us take for granted—public acknowledgement that one is a decent, worthwhile person with much the same concerns and aspirations as anyone else.

For those of us more highly positioned in society, there are many sources of such respect. Without difficulty, we can point to jobs, houses, and bank accounts as markers of personal accomplishment and stable identity. Some of us can claim envied educational credentials. We may possess cars, boats, or other fancy accessories. Memberships in social clubs suggest that others find us acceptable and desire our company. We have our churches, teams, and unions. With discretionary income in hand, we eat at restaurants, go to movies, attend sports events, travel to distant places, restore and decorate our bodies—and do many other unnecessary things. All this lends credence to the idea that we are persons of “substance,” someone others should take note of.

Ideally, people have wide circles of family, friends, and co-workers who support their idealized images of self.  In consort, such people vouch for one another’s good name.

The welfare clients I worked with—and their children—found it difficult to attain these markers of success. Although they varied widely as individuals and as families (the only common denominator being that they lacked money), the people I knew lived in environments that marginalized them from the more economically successful members of society. They shared those neighborhoods with unscrupulous people who sought opportunities to rob them. For such reasons, it was important that everyone—men, women, and children—appear “tough” and ready to defend themselves.

Whatever their defensive capabilities, those city dwellers feared for their own—and for their children’s—safety. Neighborhood youths threatened their sons if they did not join a gang; they hounded their daughters for sex. Ever imperiled, families lived from paycheck to paycheck: any special expense derailed them entirely. Indeed, getting through each day without incident was a triumph.

It surprised me back then that some welfare clients would race off to the dry cleaners after receiving their monthly check. Lacking cars, houses, and other badges of accomplishment, they saw clothing as a key marker of reputability. Casually dressed myself (as was customary for my generation), I couldn’t understand the urgency. But that was because I had all the other symbols—and of course the stable job—that they lacked. My clients usually reproved me when I “dressed down” for a day at work. To them, I was showing my disregard—and in effect, mocking them—for something they longed to have.

It is difficult for any of us to realize the urgency that other people feel about certain things. Such is the theme of Edward Albee’s short play, “Zoo Story.”  In that drama, a publishing executive encounters a marginal, perhaps delusional man during a visit to a zoo. At a park bench, the poorer man forces the wealthier one to engage him, to listen to his stories about life. The conversation becomes more involved, even desperate. At some point, it becomes clear that the querulous fellow is willing to die for control of the bench. Is the man who seemingly has everything willing to make the same commitment? The plot thickens.

Why should people care so much—even give up their lives—for issues the rest of us can set aside? The great psychologist William James once observed that he cared little if other educated types pointed out his errors in Greek. But it wounded him deeply if those same people showed his knowledge of human psychology to be faulty. All of us have places where we make our stand, “hot-button” issues to which we feel obliged to respond.

So people have their latitudes of pride and shame, boundaries that must not be crossed. Our identities depend on our being able to assure ourselves we are the people we say we are. In direst circumstances, most of us will fight. But usually, we—or at least those of us who are more protected—can evade those challenges. We effectively ignore the threats, make deflecting verbal retorts, quit the scene—and then in more secure surroundings remind ourselves why we were right and the other person was wrong. Really, who cares about a seat on a park bench? How odd, even sad, that other person was! I should report him to the police.

From a comfortable distance then, it seems incomprehensible that one person should kill another for a pair of fancy athletic shoes, team jacket, or gold jewelry. Why should gaudy apparel matter? And who cares if some kid taunts you or insults your mother, whom typically he has never met?  Just go home and have your parents remind you of all your wonderful qualities!

Of course, many assumptions undergird the view just stated. Not everyone’s sense-of-self is grounded so firmly that they can resist assaults on their dignity. Young adulthood is a tender—and volatile—time. Many people do not have stable families to keep them on safe ground. And the choices available to some people are quite different from those available to others.

Many of us wonder—sometimes in mute astonishment—why other people do the things they do.  Why does that person spend so much time and money collecting ceramic figurines? The same may be asked of countless hours spent golfing, going to costume conventions, collecting guitars, and viewing social media sites. Other activities, at least when pursued excessively—think of gambling, hoarding, drug use, and pornography—seem deeply problematic. And these pale in comparison to full-fledged flights into a social underworld, where violent and illegal activity is the norm.

Why would someone join a cult, become a suicide bomber, or leave an explosive device in a trashcan so that it kills innocent people? They must be “crazy,” or so we think.

We impute irrationality to such people but often their behaviors seem reasonable enough to them.  At least their behaviors make sense in terms of the social worlds they occupy.      

All this suggests that a psychological view of deviant outbursts—stressing the importance of a healthy self-concept, impulse control, alternative behavior strategies, and the like—does not sufficiently account of these matters. To be sure, these are legitimate themes. But some sociology is needed too.

Most of us do not have to choose whether to join a gang, or more accurately, to choose one gang rather than another. (I do not count here people’s proclivity to join varieties of clubs and associations, sometimes “secret” in their rituals and bodies of knowledge.) But many young men throughout American history have been confronted with the difficult choice to become gang members. Usually the men have diminished career choices in the legitimate economy. Often they share connections of class, ethnicity, religion, and neighborhood that create feelings of shared heritage. Frequently, they earn their living through illegal doings. To that end, they defend fiercely their market share and the “territories” they consider their own. Gang activity of that general sort is endemic to many societies. For its part, the U.S. is said to have more than 30,000 gangs. Chicago is a purported hotbed of involvement and a distribution center for illegal goods.

Whatever their pledges of reciprocal loyalty and fraternity, gangs are not confabulations of equals. Like brothers everywhere, some are positioned higher than others. That ranking is based on experience, leadership skills, interpersonal connections, and feats of daring-do. Younger members must earn respect within the group, sometimes by committing violent acts against rival groups.  People become “sealed in” by the fact of their own criminality and by commitments to secrecy.  Everyone should be willing to display their membership by clothing, scars, tattoos, and other coded communications.  A jail term is a punishment proudly borne. So are the injuries of a fight. As is sometimes said, there is only one way out of the group and that is through the morgue.

In our Internet age, groups produce and distribute their own videos proclaiming their superiority over rivals. Credit goes to those who do these well. So does condemnation—from those discredited by the displays.

For such reasons, disrespect is not just a personal matter. It is an assault on the group at large.

We who pride ourselves on our level of civility are appalled that people kill others for such reasons—and that they receive esteem from their fellows for doing so. But this system of vengeful assault has gone on for centuries. In-groups declare themselves the only humans worthy of regard. They identify outsiders who threaten their territories and interfere with their economic enterprises. They cultivate a warrior class to defend themselves and to further their ambitions. They exterminate trespassers without sympathy. All that matters is the glorification of the group and the expansion of its holdings. 

Aggressive states laud their armies in such terms. Within those states, subgroups create their lists of enemies and take pleasure in their humiliation and demise. So it is that gangsters have their heroes, histories, rituals, and codes. 

All of us should be alarmed that such naked partisanship abounds in the modern age. We should also be honest enough to acknowledge our own relationship to these matters. Who buys the drugs and sex that the deviants market? Who glamorizes the thug-life in movies and music? Who disregards the misery that exists in many sectors of our wealthy society? More pointedly, who supports social policies that make it difficult for some categories of young adults to find meaningful work, in effect, encouraging their movement into the underground economy? Who responds by criminalizing and condemning rather than by addressing the causes of these occurrences?                      

So we turn away. As long as the dangers are quarantined in neighborhoods we do not visit. As long as they confine their murders to themselves. As long as prisons continue to be built.

Such is the list of disavowals.

But we know—or at least the better parts of us know—that we should not abandon people in this way. Gangsterism flourishes when people believe that the official culture does not support them and that they have better prospects operating beyond its limits.   

Vows of brotherhood are important things—and not to be disregarded. But they are not enough.  Men must also be sons and fathers and husbands and uncles and grandparents. Those unglamorous roles are commitments in every society. People must be supported in those directions. No one can abandon the project of growing old.

Nor should brotherhood be envisioned so narrowly. Social circumstances may set us against one another. We may exult in our rivals’ failures. But fundamentally we—and they—are the same. That comprehension must inform not only our view of the young men who shoot each other but also our judgments of everyone who lives in this society. Enmity, however we cherish it, is a manufactured affair.