We want to believe that we are not prisoners of our ethnic histories, but the reality is that we are.
A few days ago, Lebanese basketball fans and those who follow Lebanese news were consumed by the fight that broke up on the court at the last seconds of the game between Sagesse (الحكمة) and Sporting (الرياضي). You can read my related blog post here.
If you are the kind of person who does not like to spend more than 10-15 seconds reading, here is the twitter version of the blog post:
Lebanese are not violent by nature, they are raised in a violent culture and the right approach is to empower and train rather than punish.
This was before I started reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where in chapter six he talks about the culture of honor and family feuds. Although Gladwell is using violence as an example of how traditions and attitudes we inherit from out forebears can make a significant difference in how well we do in the world, I would like to take his mentioned studies about violence an apply them and relate them to violence among youth, specifically Lebanese youth.
Before I go into the studies and examples I serendipitously stumbled upon in Outliers, let me first share with you, what I would refer to as the “Tale of the 5 monkeys”.
Tale of the 5 monkeys:
Many of you may know this experiment already, but what you may not know is that although inspired by a real experiment that took place in 1967 by G.R Stepehenson, this was never a real experiment and is simply a tale created by Michael Michalko in a blog post in 2011.
Moral of the story?
Stating the obvious, very often we as humans behave just like the monkeys described above. We do not question our assumptions, and more importantly we do not assess the nature and origins of our behaviors. If we grew up in a culture dominated by fear and violence, we are often taught and trained to approach many of our challenges and vague problems in life with violence.
In many of our societies, the primary tool offered to the youth is a hammer. As they grow up, every problem becomes a nail and every action is a hammer swing.
Cultures of honor and inherited violence
Going back to the studies and references made by Gladwell in Outliers, in chapter 6 he refers to the small town of Harlan in the stretch of Appalachian Mountains in the southeastern corner of Kentucky. In the early 1800s, Harlan witnessed a cross-generational feud between the Howard and the Turner families. Generation after generation, the two families were killing each other over a crime that took place n 1806 between two individuals, and the two families kept revenging for each other until the 1930s. This family feud was not unique to Harlan, as there happened to be a pattern among identical little towns up and down the same mountain range. Patterns exist for a reason, and in the case of this appalachian pattern, consensus among sociologists was that this virulent strain was due to a “culture of honor”.
We Lebanese, and Arabs in general, know a lot about cultures of honor don’t we?
It happened that the original inhabitants of Appalachia were mostly herdsmen coming from the world’s most ferocious cultures of honor, the “Scotch-Irish”. Herdsmen, unlike farmers, have a strong culture of honor. The reason for that is that herdsmen are usually of by themselves, unlike farmers who depend on cooperation within the community.Herdsmen are worried about their livelihood being stolen at night, while farmers are not worried about their whole field being harvested in one night. This is why a herdsman has to make it clear, through his words and deeds, that he is not weak. He has to be willing to fight to even the slightest challenge to his reputation, and this is what defines a “culture of honor”. Ethnographer J.K. Campbell notes about herdsmen:“The critical moment in the development of the young shepherd’s reputation is his first quarrel. It has to be public, usually in a coffee shop, village square or grazing boundary.”
So basically a “culture of honor” is based on fear of losing resources, which establishes a culture where a man’s reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self-worth.
Let us look at that for a moment. Do we live in a “culture of honor” in Lebanon? Think of all the violent events you have hear of, whether recently or in the past. Usually they are a result of one group being insulted by the other group and retaliating, which spurs a vicious cycle. Think of the civil war, where men had to stand up for the honor of their towns and cities, or defend their sect or religion. Think of the feuds between university students who have to defend the honor of their religion, their political party, or their student club’s reputation, and proving themselves to be strong men in their niche culture.
Think of the last game between Sagesse and Sporting. How did it start? The players on both sides are coming from a long season of competition, representing two teams that have a long history of accomplishments and have a reputation to defend. After an hour and a half of intense and provocative sports action, the players are pumping with adrenaline and testosterone. Their fans are bustling with fury and excitement as they struggle to control their themselves in a charged atmosphere. In the last few seconds of the game, the result is settled and so the Riyadi players take the blow and accept defeat by greeting the Sagesse players. An excited and pumped up Sagesse player releases his tension by going for the open court and dunking the rim. This was deemed disrespectful by a Riyadi player who had assumed fair play and was not defending. This disrespect is a symbol of the culture of honor.
What is special about this last basket? The Sagesse had been scoring all night, but this one in particular was offending the honor already established. By dunking the ball, it felt like the Sagesse player was “rubbing it in” and adding oil to the fire already blazing in the defeated hearts of the Riyadi players. The small physical confrontation between the two players suddenly sparked the barely contained tension among the fans, and they were offended by seeing the Riyadi player attack one of their own players physically. In a society that offered most of them hammers as tools to confront conflict, this confrontation unfolding in front of their eyes was another nail to be hit hard, and so they burst with violence attacking not only the one player, but the whole team, as is usually the case with cultures of honor. The Riyadi players themselves had to react with violence, defending themselves as they felt outnumbered and threatened perhaps, also resorting to the hammer under fear rather than any other tool.
So after this lengthy analysis, we see another live proof of how violence is a cultural acquisition of some sort. A feud that started almost a decade ago, continues among the progeny of the grand-grand-sons of the original fighters. The fans of two teams in 2014, carry the sentiments, grudges and stereotypes of their previous fans from the 1990s and 2000s.
Ok, so it is one thing that violence is learnt and acquired through socialization, but isn’t it a far stretch to say that it is inherited? The inhabitants of Appalachia are surely still not engaging in an endless streak of killings in revenge, are they?
True, they are not, but there are clear remnants of the culture of honor in the modern era.
In the 1990s, Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett conducted an experiment at the University of Michigan to study exactly this question. Looking to test the heredity of culture of honor and violence, they discovered that being called an ‘asshole’ was received to be very insulting to young men eighteen to twenty-four years old. So they conducted a study based on using that word and other provocative behaviors to study their subjects’ reaction and anger, looking at their handshake, facial expressions, saliva samples, testosterone and cortisol levels. If you are interested in the full paper, you can read it here.
In short, the two psychologists discovered that the reactionary behavior of their participants was not based on how emotionally secure they were, nor whether they were intellectuals or jocks, physically imposing or not. The deciding factor was where they were from. Northerners seemed to treat the incident with amusement, and laugh it off while Southerners got really angry, their cortisol and testosterone levels shot up and they were itching for a fight. To Cohen and Nisbett, the fact that students at the University of Michigan, in one of the north most states in America, would show higher symptoms of adherence to culture of honor simply because they grew up in the South was remarkable. After all, these young males were not herdsmen themselves, neither were any of their parents, they were not living in conditions similar to their Scot-British ancestors and were cosmopolitan enough to travel across the country and go to college, but they still acted like they were living in nineteenth-century Harlan, Kentucky.
Ok, great? How does this relate to Lebanese youth?
In the case of Lebanon, there is no need to go a century back in time. Think of the age group born in the late 1980s and onwards, of which I belong to. In addition to growing up amidst wars, series of dispersed bombings, sectarian clashes, political tension and witnessing the 2004-2006 political events at the prime of their age, perhaps I should say our age, we have been shaped by violence, fear of the other and standing up for our group’s honor, be it political or religious group. We have inherited the culture of violence from our parent’s generation, even without our parents being violent themselves. Our grandparents had their own turf wars and honor battles to fight as well. Think of the early years of the building of this nation and the sectarian clashes, think of the wars between the inhabitants of the mountain and those of the cities in the late 1800s, think of the herdsmen culture that was dominant in Lebanon, think of the strong culture of honor that still exists very pervasively in Lebanon, how families revenge for the killing of their own, how patriarchal males “dispense” women that bring shame to the family, how a family castrates a young man for eloping with their girl and dishonoring their reputation.
So where am I going with this lengthy commentary?
All I am saying is that recurring incidents of violence in a community are a symptom of deeper roots than simply a personal quarrel, excited fans, or angry mob.
Think of violence as a disease. You can either inherit it from your ancestors and carry it in your genes, or you can simply acquire it from your environment, and most often it is both of those factors.
I believe that there has not been enough effort spent of addressing issues of violence among the youth in Lebanon. As an outside observer these days, I can see how those residing within are being fed violence on a daily basis and are handed hammers as their only tools. As someone specializing in youth and conflict transformation, I have also learnt how violence is inherited and passed on from one generation to another.
Often, we hear the older generation and the policy-makers blaming the youth for their violent behavior and their resort to fists and pistols to settle disagreements. These accusations tend to disregard the fact that these violent acts are symptoms of community, families, and educational system that fail to provide the necessary tools to handle conflict, and provide conflict management skills that surpass the natural instinctive reaction of fight or flight (I really recommend this TedX talk).
Just like you would not blame an individual for capturing a disease, you cannot simply blame a young man or woman for their violent behavior, IF it is part of a larger pattern of violence in a community AND without acknowledging the fact that such a violent behavior is because someone somewhere failed to provide them with another tool, show them another way to laugh it off and not fall hostages to their hormones.
If you have not read the whole post, the last quote in italics is what I would like you to go leave this page with before you move on to your next shared link on your Facebook news feed, or the next email in your inbox.
More about youth and violence? Start with the videos below:
Teaching with the World Peace Game by John Hunter – click here.
Every kid need a champion by Rita Pierson – click here.
M.S Electrical Engineering & M.A. Peace Studies and Conflict Transformation
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