Saturday, October 22, 2011

You wanna fight about it?

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
-Sun Tzu 

I need some help understanding a way of thinking that I run across weekly as I work with teens and their parents.  My supervisor once told me that people's knee-jerk reaction to emotional stress most often is either: avoidance or aggression.  I seem to be accumulating anecdotal evidence to verify this claim.  I am an avoidance person, mostly.

I, personally, recall only one time where I decided to try aggression.  I was about 11, I think, and I got my tail handed to me.  Luckily the kid I tried to fight decided I wasn't worth getting in trouble for and let me go.  So, I really don't understand the whole aggression stance.  I've worked with many teens who tell me about the fights they've gotten into and, from my perspective, they were all avoidable.  Usually, the cause of the fight has something to do with the teen feeling disrespected or hurt in some way.  However, their worldview has validated that physical fighting solves problems and so they don't ever develop other resources or options.  To them, fighting the other person is THE way to solve their problem.  Except that it is not... because there is always another fight about (whatever), so the problem isn't ever really solved.

It seems that Hollywood glamorizes and validates this worldview.  I think about movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid, to name a few (and date myself).  Sure, they discourage out and out street fights, but even with the structure of Boxing or Karate Tournaments, the message is still: beat up the other guy and you'll have respect.

Talking to a kid about his fighting, I tried to help him think through the consequences of his worldview.
Me: So, let's say you felt like some guy was talking smack about you... how would you handle it?
Him: I don't let people talk about me like that!
Me: Yes, I know... we're just pretending right now.
Him: I'd let him know he'd better stop. (an attempt to preserve his self-image as tough and fearless)
Me: Or else...
Him: I'd whoop his @$$!
Me: Okay.  So let's say that you fight him and teach him the lesson.  But... he's just like you and doesn't want people to think he is a wuss.  What might he do in return?
Him: Probably get his homies and try to jump me.  But it wouldn't be a fair fight (there seems to be a misguided attempt to believe in some sort of honor code among tough guy teens) and even if he beats me, people will know he's a chump because he couldn't take me one on one.
Me: Let's pretend that even in a two-on-one scenario, you manage to beat both of them.  If he still feels wronged, what might he do?
Him: I don't know, use a knife or something like that.
Me: So, if he used a knife on you, what would you do?
Him: I would make sure my homeboys got my back.  It'd be on!
(I draw a quick flow chart noting the escalation of the argument)
Me: So... when does this scenario end, if it keeps escalating?
Him: With someone dead, I guess.  But it wouldn't be me...

So, I have a meeting with his dad...
Me: So, in talking with your son, I noted that he seems to have a way of thinking about solving his problems that gets him into a position where he thinks the only way out is to fight with someone else.  I'm trying to challenge that thinking and plant some seeds that there are other options.
Dad: Yeah, I know.  I mean, I try to help him with that, too.  I guess he learned it from me.  I mean, he has seen me fight before when I was drunk.  I mean, I don't always fight, but sometimes.
Me: Well, I wanted to let you know so you could give him support and talk with him about looking at other options.
Dad: Well, yeah.  But sometimes, you know, you have to fight it out.  I mean, if you try and the other guy won't back down...
Me: I'm not advocating that he doesn't need to defend himself if someone attacks him, but I think that you're hitting on the mentality he's demonstrated.  It is one thing to say that when faced with the choice of defending yourself or letting yourself get beat up, you shouldn't fight.  I'm talking about making choices BEFORE you get to the point that some guy is angry enough to fight with you.  For instance, choosing to drink to drunkedness is a good way to put yourself in a situation where you might be forced to defend yourself against an angry drunk.  But if you make the choice NOT to drink, or hang around with people who get drunk and fight, you are less likely to have to fight.
Dad: Well, sure.  I try to make sure that he makes good choices and support him.  One time, this boy and his whole family came to the house and wanted to fight my son.  Their kid was bigger then my son, so I told him it was his choice to fight or not.  I knew my son could fight well, though, because I taught him some good boxing, so he started to fight anyhow.  By the time the cops showed up, he'd got in some good hits.  The cops stopped the fight and was all asking everyone questions.  One cop said, "The next person to say a word, except to me, is going to jail!"  Well, this guy from the other family was all flipping me off and stuff so I cussed at him and I ended up getting arrested.  Anyhow, I try to tell my son, that you'll never know how things are going to turn out.  Him and that other boy are pretty good friends now, so I told him he should find out other ways to solve problems than fighting.  Because, if they'd hurt each other somehow, they wouldn't be able to be friends now.
Me: ...
Dad: But also, I get you.  I stopped drinking because I know it is bad for me.  The last time I drank was this weekend. (It was a Thursday and he'd missed a session with his son on Tuesday because he was hungover - according to his son, anyhow)

I understand that I am not going to change a person's worldview in a short period of time, but I am still astounded from time to time.  So, I looked up some stats on teen fighting:

A survey asked teens to identify the causes of fights they'd seen:

  • Someone insulted someone else or treated them disrespectfully (54 percent).
  • There was an ongoing feud or disagreement (44 percent).
  • Someone was hit, pushed, shoved, or bumped (42 percent).
  • Someone spread rumors or said things about someone else (40 percent).
  • Someone could not control his or her anger (39 percent).
  • Other people were watching or encouraging the fight (34 percent).
  • Someone who likes to fight a lot was involved (26 percent).
  • Someone didn't want to look like a loser (21 percent).
  • There was an argument over a boyfriend or girlfriend (19 percent).
  • Someone wanted to keep a reputation or get a name (17 percent).
 These assumptions fit with my anecdotal evidence and go to reinforce that worldview of "might makes right".
Further, the website mentions: 

Teens who are frequently involved in fights often don't know how to control their anger and prevent or avoid conflicts. They often believe that fighting is the only acceptable solution.

For example, students who fight at school are much less likely than other students to believe that it is effective to apologize or avoid or walk away from someone who wants to fight. They are also more likely to believe their families would want them to hit back if someone hit them first.17
Students who have trouble controlling their anger or who are predisposed toward fighting (agreeing with statements such as, "If I am challenged, I am going to fight," or "Avoiding fights is a sign of weakness") are at least 50 percent more likely to get in fights.18

Anyhow, there are all sorts of ways to think about this sociological phenomenon.  I'm just curious, dear reader, what is your worldview or how would you go about convincing someone who has this worldview to adjust their way of thinking?

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God" Matthew 5:9 

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