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Nov 12 2013

Weird ideas of friendship

The infamous Richie Incognito, who was suspended indefinitely from the Miami Dolphins football team when his racist and violent telephone messages to teammate Jonathan Martin were revealed, has broken his silence and given an interview to Fox News with his side of the story.

He says that this kind of talk that shocked everyone was the kind of banter engaged between good friends and buddies, especially in football locker rooms, and that he and Martin are actually close friends who look out for each other.

“The week before this went down, Jonathan Martin texted me on my phone, [saying] ‘I will murder your whole effing family.’ Now, did I think Jonathan Martin was going to murder my family? Not one bit. I knew it was coming from a brother. I knew it was coming from a friend. I knew it was coming from a teammate. That just puts in context how we communicate with one another.”

Asked about his alleged use of racially charged language, Incognito said: “Jon never showed signs that football was getting to him, or that the locker room was getting to him. When I see those words come across the screen [the words he texted to Martin], I’m embarrassed by them. But what I want people to know is that the way Jonathan and the rest of the offensive line, and how our teammates communicate … it’s vulgar. It’s not right. I understand why eyebrows get raised, but people don’t know how Jon and I communicate with each other.”

Asked about how he felt, as a white man, about using the word “nigger”, he said: “I’m not a racist. To judge me by that one word is wrong. In no way, shape or form is it acceptable for me to use that word, even if it’s friend to friend. It’s thrown around a lot. It’s a word I’ve heard Jon use a lot – not saying it’s right for when I did it in the voicemail, but there are a lot of colorful words thrown around in the locker room that we don’t use in everyday life. The fact of the matter remains, though, that the voicemail was left on a private voicemail for my friend, and it was a joke.”

The sad thing is that it is plausible that Incognito is telling the truth. There is a weird male subculture in the US that thinks that hurling scatological, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and violent language at one another, or subjecting them to dangerous and humiliating ‘pranks’, is a sign of closeness. I frankly find it bizarre and think that it is worthy of psychological study as to why people think that it is ever acceptable, funny even, to say that one is going to rape and murder one’s friend’s family members or defecate on them.

I suspect the fact that Martin left the team over this is because many people actually dislike this behavior and find it uncomfortable and even demeaning but hesitate to go against the prevailing subculture and may even participate in it in order to be seen as a ‘team player’, until it just gets to be too much and they can’t take it anymore. And that breaking point will be reached because once you breach the principle that others need to be treated with courtesy and their dignity respected, as happens in hazing and bullying cultures, a negative spiral of behavior becomes inevitable with worse and worse language and actions becoming the norm.

There is a milder form of this that I still find distasteful and that is the ‘roast’. This is, I believe, a purely American phenomenon (though I am willing to be corrected on that) where people gather together at a function to honor someone on some special occasion, except that the honoring consists of speeches and jokes and insults in which the honoree is the butt of the humor. The guest of honor is expected to be a good sport about being insulted publicly and laugh along with the rest.

I just don’t get it.

When my thesis advisor turned 60, his colleagues organized a big party for him and invited many people to such an event, a few of whom were asked to speak. As someone who greatly admired and respected him and still consider him and his family close friends, I was honored to be chosen as a former graduate student to be one of the few speakers but there was no way in hell that I was going to say anything bad about him, even if everyone knew that it was in jest. It would have been impossible for me to even get the words out.

So I ignored the guidelines and gave a speech that had jokes that either reflected well on him or were aimed at myself. It was out of place compared to the other speeches, but I didn’t care. There was not a chance that I was going to speak badly about someone that I care so much about.

But then, I am not a football player.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts

    Have I mentioned how much I love reading your posts, Mano? I greatly enjoy reading about your take on frat-culture, prank-culture, roasting, hazing… ect. Your thoughts mirror my own very closely, but you are able to express your indignation about what are clearly cruel acts without getting too pissed off to be coherent (like I would).

    I get so outraged just thinking about someone violating my personal space, or touching me without permission, and my friends know that any type of prank on me will NOT be appreciated. I think many pranksters/harassers known that the recipients of their antics do not appreciate them, and thus even if they, or their immediate friend-group, does find their shit funny, they are still intentionally harming someone else (and that is just assholish).

    If there really is a group of friends out there who really do enjoy pranking, hazing, and otherwise harassing each other, good for them. I do not, in any way shape or form, understand them, but I don’t need to as long as they are happy. However, On account of the fact that culture at large pushes all sorts of harmful tropes about harassment/hazing/pranks that normalize them, I worry that people are discouraged from voicing their own uncomfortableness with them. Pranks/hazing… are “just jokes, lighten up”, an unhappy recipient of a prank has no sense of humor, boys will be boys, … etc…

    I think they assumption should be that no one appreciates you making them the butt of your joke, or being hazed, or harassed in any manner, unless they clearly say otherwise. I think this should be obvious and that it is evil and pathetic that people support prank/hazing/frat culture uncritically (even as it interacts with people who do not explicitly sign up fr it.

  2. 2
    Raging Bee

    There is a weird male subculture in the US that thinks that hurling scatological, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and violent language at one another, or subjecting them to dangerous and humiliating ‘pranks’, is a sign of closeness.

    It’s part of how bullies make friends: if you let the overbearing asshole call you whatever names he wants, then he thinks of you as a friend because you’re not making trouble for him by demanding he change his act. It’s an unequal friendship to be sure, but it’s the kind of friendship he understands — and it’s the only kind of friendship you’ll get from him; the only alternative is him being your enemy. If you want a more equal friendship with such a person, you’ll have to kick his ass first, or otherwise show him you can stand up to him.

  3. 3
    Raging Bee

    As for why so many people accept bullying and hazing to the degree we do, the obvious answer is that we’re social animals, and bullying and hazing is how animals socialize each other and toughen each other up for whatever hardships must be endured for the sake of the family, tribe or species. And let’s face it — there are still huge parts of this world where human animals really do have to toughen each other up, because they have tough problems and tough enemies. (And that, of course, is partly because their enemies have learned to get what they want by bullying; so this is a case of a problem perpetuating itself because it’s also the solution to the problem.)

  4. 4
    Mano Singham

    I don’t know that I agree. Why is bullying and hazing necessary in order to toughen people up to be able to face life’s challenges and to socialize them? Parents don’t do it to their children, even though they have the greatest desire to help them face life.

    I hear this talk of ‘tough love’ all the time and except in a few rare situations, where it usually means one should stop being an enabler of bad or destructive behavior, I don’t see it as useful.

  5. 5
    Mano Singham

    I think the assumption should be that no one appreciates you making them the butt of your joke, or being hazed, or harassed in any manner, unless they clearly say otherwise.

    I totally agree that this should be the default assumption. Furthermore, it should be such that there is clearly no pressure on them to say otherwise.

  6. 6
    mnb0

    “This is, I believe, a purely American phenomenon”
    This is not known in either The Netherlands nor Suriname. But bad mannered as my compatriots can be it wouldn’t surprise me if the Dutch took it over sooner or later.
    You see, we have our equivalents, like chanting at football (not handegg) matches:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-3MBLzpKFE
    “Hi ha hondelul” (Hee hah dog’s dick)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gq8MhYT1cQ
    “Hamas, hamas, Joden aan het gas” (Hamas, hamas, jews to the gaschamber)

    You know, just joking.

  7. 7
    doublereed

    Yea, I have friends who seem to do that a lot. I don’t quite understand it. I don’t know how to react to it. It just seems unnecessary and bizarre. I generally just try to avoid them.

    Somewhat unrelated, but I’ve heard it said that people like demotivational posters more than motivational posters. Like they’re actually more motivating only because they’re funny and self-deprecating.

  8. 8
    Reginald Selkirk

    There is a milder form of this that I still find distasteful and that is the ‘roast’…

    At least with a roast, you can assume that the roastee has consented to the basic format and is there voluntarily. With hazing, it is not always clear that this is the case. Jonathan Martin consented to play professional football, which comes with physical effort and risk of injury, but does not obviously include putting up with racist death threats.
    I am waiting to see some follow up on stories about Incognito being asked to “toughen up” Martin. If the team leadership actively encouraged this behaviour in any way, they could be subject to a huge lawsuit.

  9. 9
    G. Priddy

    Many years ago, when my wife was a high school marching band director, first year band members were known as ‘scrubs’ during the annual (off-site, summer time) band camp. The scrubs underwent a very mild initiation ritual (harmless Nickolodeon-level activities that involved whipped cream and chocolate pudding). The initiation rituals were closely supervised by the director and parent-chaperones.

    They were also required to be responsible for some minor manual labor like clearing plates after meals, and carrying equipment to the practice field. Oh, and they had to wear a name sign around their necks during waking hours or be forced to run a lap. At the end of the week, the signs were removed and they were no longer scrubs, but band members.

    No student ever objected, and they all knew that everyone who advanced to second and higher years had gone through the same thing. It instilled a sense of belonging, of having earned one’s place in the group. Sadly, the administration deemed it to be hazing (without having seen it first-hand) and banned the practice.

    My point is, some of these rites of passage are actually good, but of course, human nature says that some people will take them over the line into the area of being counter-productive or outright dangerous.

  10. 10
    doublereed

    Uhm. That does sound like hazing, especially having to wear a name sign and running laps. Wtf?

  11. 11
    Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts

    G. Priddy,

    No student ever objected, and they all knew that everyone who advanced to second and higher years had gone through the same thing.

    I would have objected. Or maybe not, if I thought others would have shamed me for it. If it were truly voluntary, it may be fine, but it wasn’t. As you said, one was forced to run laps if they did not comply.

    To me, even these examples of minor hazing trotted out as examples of good hazing are harmful. They promote hierarchies of rank, they encourage authoritarian compliance with degrading/embarrassing rituals, and they pretend that it is all fun and games (no one objects!) but there is plenty of social pressure towards being subservient to the demands.

    It instilled a sense of belonging, of having earned one’s place in the group.

    Is there not a way to instill belonging and solidarity without authoritarian hazing/humiliation? Can one not earn their place in a marching band by their abilities and dedication?

    Sadly, the administration deemed it to be hazing (without having seen it first-hand) and banned the practice.

    Good for the administration for taking a stand against even minor forms of socially sanctioned humiliation and dehumanization.

    You classify this hazing as “harmless Nickolodeon-level activities that involved whipped cream and chocolate pudding”, but you do not know that no one involved was harmed. Maybe they were not physically, but public humiliation (with more shaming and consequences to follow if one does not comply) can certainly be mentally harmful.

    Stop hazing and public humiliation! You can do team building and rights of passage that don’t involve dehumanization and authoritarian social pressure.

  12. 12
    Mano Singham

    I love those demotivational posters because I like absurdist humor.

  13. 13
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Indeed. If people didn’t think that “toughening up” was needed, maybe it wouldn’t be – because the people who’ve been “toughened up” are the ones doing the things that one needs to be tough to face.

    It’s a tautology, IOW: you need to be tougher because people are going to treat you badly, and they’re going to treat you badly because you need to be tougher.

  14. 14
    Reginald Selkirk

    This one time, at band camp…

  15. 15
    AnotherAnonymouse

    Band camp in the 1980s was pretty damned sadistic toward the first-years. There was nothing “gentle” about what went on, particularly toward the female stuents.

  16. 16
    G. Priddy

    I knew I would take heat for posting that anecdote, and my opinion on this subject. What I’m about to write probably won’t matter, but here goes…

    I was there. Every year. AFAIK, none of you were. Context is everything in these situations. Those groups of students were very tight-knit, not only during band functions, but within the student body. Many of them are still close friends with each other, and with us, 10 or more years after graduation. They were disappointed when the scrub initiation was banned.

    Oh, and the signs served a practical purpose: a way for new and returning students to remember the names of the new students. The paperboard sign was durable enough to last the week, and didn’t have to be re-made and re-applied like an adhesive name tag. Again, context is everything.

    In closing, I’ll give a counter-example to those who say “safe” team building techniques are automatically OK. My former employer held a team retreat, and one of the ice breaker exercises was to play Two Truths and a Lie. I’m a horrible liar, and even worse at lying on the spot. It was embarrassing, and didn’t to anything to bond me with my co-workers. Safe. Boring. And still with the potential to make people uncomfortable.

  17. 17
    doublereed

    This is bad argument. You would have to describe why not doing stupid degrading things for the first week makes you stronger knit that without. Unless the group cohesion was actually wrose after your hazing practice was banned, it’s simply not argument for anything. But of course, you’re not thinking about actually test and falsify your belief.

    And I call BS on the sign-wearing. It’s an obvious humiliation tactic that you’re trying to justify. Poorly. Besides, you said you made them run a lap. What, was that just to make sure they’re in shape? Let me guess, nametags were too expensive? How about you stop being so intellectually dishonest?

    That’s not a counter-example. I have no idea why you think that’s a counter-example. It shows absolutely nothing and gives zero information. Yes, there are bad team-building exercises that are safe? Was this ever a question? The quiet game is a pretty bad team-building exercise, too.

  18. 18
    doublereed

    And may I say, your refrain of “context is everything” is an obvious sign that you’re rationalizing hard.

    Seriously, try reading what you wrote from an outside perspective. You’re not trying to prove anything to any of us. You’re trying to prove something to yourself.

  19. 19
    doublereed

    Wow, that first paragraph was terrible grammar and spelling. Let me try again:

    This is a bad argument. You would have to describe why not doing stupid degrading things for the first week makes you more tight-knit than without stupid degrading things. Unless the group cohesion was actually worse after your hazing practice was banned, you’re not giving an argument for anything. But of course, you’re not thinking about actually testing and falsifying your belief.

  20. 20
    Jared A

    Do you think the administration would have acted without (confidential) complaints?

    “I was there. Every year. AFAIK, none of you were. Context is everything in these situations. Those groups of students were very tight-knit, not only during band functions, but within the student body. Many of them are still close friends with each other, and with us, 10 or more years after graduation. They were disappointed when the scrub initiation was banned.”

    Except for the actual hazing practices, I can read everything you wrote and I can consistently hear my own marching band instructor’s voice. It was quite clear that he believed that his strategies were cohesive team-building. And yes, a lot of the students did like that kind of behavior; the students whose rose through the bands’ social ranks; the students whose opinions he cared about and listened to. Yeah, that bunch still is tight-knit a decade later.

    You say that context is important, and I’ll concede that it’s possible that all of us piling on are completely off-base, But I read your words and see someone who is suffering from major context blindness. You extoll the benefits reaped by the in-crowd. I am wondering about the misfits.

  21. 21
    Jared A

    I suppose I have been sufficiently vague to essentially gloss over my main point, which is that I am providing a counter-testimony to undermine your own. You related a story where, as an instructor using light hazing practices the students all benefited. My own experience is one of a student where there was even lighter hazing, but the exact same type of group dynamics were nurtured that you describe here. These practices were very beneficial for a core group of students, neutral for some, and extremely negative for others.

    The instructor had almost exactly the same perspective and rationalizations as you. He was also completely and utterly biased in how he evaluated the results, owning the pluses and shirking the minuses.

    This is why I don’t believe your self-assessment. Maybe I’m just damaged by my own life experiences. I’ll let the reader decide.

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