Friday, November 28, 2014

Bully Pulpit

Yeah, I know—"bullying" isn't such a hot topic now that we've moved on to "diversity," but I'm going to write about it (again) anyway.

In my teens, my friends and I spent a lot of time at dance clubs, bowling alleys, keggers, house parties, and other places where we could do whatever we felt like doing with minimal adult interference. Sometimes we had fun, more often it was boring, and occasionally things got scary. I was never a tough guy. I tried to avoid trouble. But when you are a teenage boy and you hang out with a bunch of young men in an unsupervised situation, sooner or later someone will want to punch you in the face and kick you in the balls. This is a fact of life.

For those of you who have been blessed with a life sheltered from face-punching ball-kicking young men, here is how it happens. The exact words might vary, but the overall structure of the interaction is, I think, universal.

“Hey, asswipe!”
“Who, me?”
Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction
“Yeah, you. You insulted my girlfriend!”
“I don’t know your girlfriend!”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“No, I just…look, I didn’t say anything to anybody. I was just leaving.”
“Damn right you’re leaving, you piece of shit.”
“Okay, whatever, I’m a piece of shit.”
“You swearing at me, dickhead?”
“No, I—”
Face punch; crotch kick.

This ritual confused me. I didn’t understand why the bully wanted to have a conversation before beating the crap out of me. And it’s always the same—two young men rarely fight without a ceremonial verbal prelude.

Eventually I came to accept that this is the way it is, and once the ritual conversation is underway, it’s run or fight. I learned strategies for avoiding such situations before the talking begins, but it was years before the core motivation became clear to me.

Satan Exulting Over Eve - Wm. Blake
Everything we do, everything we say, is moderated by the need to feel good about ourselves. We have these hormone-driven primal urges—eat, copulate, kill—but at the same time, there is an overriding need to protect our self image, and I believe that urge predates civilization, religion, and language. I think maybe dogs have it. Whatever we do, we need to make ourselves believe, if only for the moment it takes to do whatever questionable thing we are about to do, that we are good.

I think about this a lot when I’m writing about “bad guys” in my novels. However reprehensible their acts, there must be an internal, or external, or implied rationale for their acts. Even Satan has his self image to consider.

1 comment:

Jamie Masters said...

Ah yes, I remember those ritual conversations well, luckily I was mostly an observer, having figured out how to avoid participation in these encounters, through a combination of cleverness and cowardice.