Most of the people reading this will be comfortable products of comfortable homes with significant education and socialization. This is the norm in North America, where I happen to be writing. The norm is so powerful and pervasive that it can be very easy to believe that the values of middle-class Americans are universal. They are not. There are societies and sub-societies where violence is merely an easy way to solve problems; where a beating is considered as easy and more effective than talking.
There are places in the United States where if you do something rude and improper you will get disapproving looks and people will whisper about you. They might snub you in the coffee room or not invite you to go bowling. And there are places in the U. S. where doing something that society considers rude will get you beaten without a second thought.
If that is news to you, take a second and let it seep in.
Once upon a time, an inmate was beaten in one of the dorms at my jail. I was called to investigate. The dorm housed 65 inmates in an open bay (no cells) and the man had been hit in the center of the day room while watching TV. He looked to have only been hit twice—a bloody nose and a black eye.
I was pretty good at investigations. The inmates knew and trusted me and in most “nobody saw nothing” situations I would have the attacker identified and removed in under an hour. This time nobody was talking. They didn’t seem angry or afraid, more . . . embarrassed. I talked to the victim. He wouldn’t tell me who hit him, of course. What he did say was, “Sarge, I had it coming. I forgot where I was. I was watching TV and I said, ‘Hey, look, you could kill three niggers with one bullet.’ Next thing I knew I was lying on my back. I deserved it.” He looked me right in the eye, “It was sort of an educational beat-down,” he said.
He was able to return to the dorm with no problem. The message had been sent and he showed that he had received it. His behavior was, to his peers’ satisfaction, corrected. In certain groups, this is normal. A casual beating is how rules are enforced and community standards, such as they are, are upheld.
Big Dog Theory
Generally, if you were stupid and should have known better the Educational Beat Down will be quick, sometimes just a single strike, almost off-hand. It is the exact same thing as when a character in a comedy thwacks another on the head, only with a bit more intent. It is a spanking between adults.
If the recipient of the EBD acknowledges that they were wrong, (unless the transgression was particularly egregious—for instance in certain societies it would be the duty of the brothers to kill a sister’s rapist), it is over quickly.
If the victim does not acknowledge that they broke a rule, if they argue or get indignant, then the assault will escalate. The person who delivers the Educational Beat Down is usually a respected member of the group. This is not a Monkey Dance, with two young puppies wrestling for dominance. This is a lesson, with the Big Dog batting the puppy to the floor and maybe pinning it there. (Still, it is not the same as predation, not in people or dogs.)
Not acknowledging the transgression sends the message that the victim does not acknowledge the Big Dog’s status. It is taken as a clear indicator that he either does not know or does not care about the rules and must be taught a lesson. The damage will escalate until the transgressor/victim acknowledges that the message has been received. That acknowledgement must be free of excuses.
Another circumstance where the EBD will escalate is when the lesson is less for the transgressor than for everyone else. On May 7, 1929 Al Capone had Albert Anselmi, Joseph Giunta, and John Scalise tied to their chairs. He then beat them with a baseball bat and had them shot in the head. The lesson taught and the message delivered wasn’t for Al, Joe, and John. It was for everyone else. Dead people don’t learn anything.
This escalation can be extremely violent and occurs most often, and slightly less predictably, when the Big Dog is insecure in his status as leader or elder.
The Educational BeatDown
All societies, subsocieties and groups have rules. Sometimes the rules are formal—states and nations have statutes and even the local gardening club has bylaws. Sometimes the rules are informal. Families don’t have constitutions, but the kids know what behaviors will get them in trouble.
In any given society, the rules will be enforced. Maybe not well or consistently, but they will be enforced.
In a healthy group (defined as one in which everyone agrees on the methods and goals) ‘enforcement’ may be merely a glance. Someone does something wrong, you look at him, maybe with a raised eyebrow, possibly say, “Really?” and he says, “Ah, dammit. I screwed up. Sorry.” Unless it turns into a power play, the verbal variation of the Monkey Dance, the member of a healthy group is grateful for the correction.
As groups become less healthy, they also become less secure. The methods for correcting behavior escalate, from informal gossip campaigns and chilling a person out to screaming at subordinates…
There are other factors at play. Different subsocieties have much different attitudes towards physical force. Some families spank, some do not. Some groups thwack the back of the head, some do not. Some nations execute, some do not.
These three factors: health of a group; security or insecurity of the group or its leadership and; attitudes toward violence shape if and when the educational beat-down will ever be a self-defense issue for you.
There are three cases where the EBD may be dangerous.
#1: If you are a dick. There is a pattern to the EBD. The first step is that you do something wrong. Yes, you. We all make errors and step on toes from time to time. If you think you never do or, worse, always have a reason why it is the other guy’s fault, you’re a dick. If you refuse to acknowledge that your group has rules or that the rules should apply to you, if you feel you are being oppressed by any rule you don’t happen to like… you’re a dick.
For most people, breaking the rules isn’t a big thing. You realize you violated protocol, acknowledge that there was an error and the error was yours, accept punishment if the group thinks it was merited, and move on. This is called “accepting responsibility,” and one of my personal rants is about people who want to skip the step about accepting the punishment. Merely acknowledging the error was yours is NOT accepting responsibility.
Rant aside, jerks have problems with every step of this. Most importantly, refusal to acknowledge that the rule existed and that you broke it prevents the EBD pattern from closing. It demands an escalation in correction.
“Toby! Apologize to your sister!”
“Then go to your room and stay there until you are ready to apologize!”
“Do you want a spanking?”
If you insist on being a dick, punishment will escalate until you are removed from the group, whether that means being fired or being beaten to death behind a bar. If you’ve been fired or divorced a lot, partner, it’s time to do some soul-searching. Cause you’re probably a dick.
#2) If the group or the leadership is insecure. This factor applies to all social violence but is especially obvious in corrective violence.
We are basically primates and a lot of our wiring is older than our ability to communicate. When we get tense, afraid or insecure, we tend to fall back on ancient patterns of behavior. If you are a good boss and people want your recognition and approval, they hurry to do what you say and work hard not to get you upset. If you are a terrible boss, people also hurry to do what you say and work hard not to get you upset. The emotional mind doesn’t really distinguish submissive behavior stemming from respect or submissive behavior stemming from fear.
When a boss feels he is coming under fire, he has a tendency to get loud and aggressive. This is what his limbic system is telling him to do. This will get submission signals from his group. This will make everything better.
From the outside, we see more clearly. We call this behavior “losing it” for a reason. If it happens in a society with a propensity for violence, it can escalate to a beating or murder. Like when Al Capone beat three of his lieutenants to death in 1929.
#3) Where you don’t know the rules. Most of us spend time around people that share our basic attitudes and beliefs. We know the rules and know, consciously or not, how they will be enforced. It can be a very dangerous situation when a person or a group travel to an unfamiliar place and expect or demand that the rules remain the same.
Whether it is a group of college kids going to the biker bar on the edge of town for a thrill or someone who hopes to backpack through another country, they will be exposed to new rules. It’s usually not a problem unless they possess that certain mix of arrogance and stupidity—unless they demand the right to follow their own rules.
In many cultures it is safe to be arrogant and stupid. If the culture is very homogenized and insular, silence or possibly stares are the worst that will happen. They will hate you, but they won’t hurt you.
In other cultures where violence is seen as an easy answer to many problems, it can be very dangerous. But even in a culture that regularly handles social disputes with knives or assault rifles, trouble is usually easy to avoid or evade.
Avoid trouble by not being there, of course, but if that is not an option:
Keep your mouth shut. Answer questions, be polite, but don’t offer an opinion or try to ‘fix’ the locals. And especially don’t feel magnanimous or superior enough to say something like, “You people are ignorant and you worship evil, but that’s your right. Don’t change.” A British tourist I overheard in Istanbul.
Be polite. That isn’t hard. Don’t stare, don’t back away, don’t argue.
Evading trouble is also easy. The Educational Beat Down follows a pattern and the pattern is universal. How does a child get out of a spanking? “I broke the lamp, mommy, I’m really sorry and I won’t do it again.” How does a killer get the death penalty taken off the table? Usually with a full confession and a show of remorse. How do you avoid hard feelings (or worse) when you try to speak Arabic to a Kurd? Or flirt with the bouncer’s girl? “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. It won’t happen again.”
Most of the time, if you acknowledge it was a valid rule, that you broke the rule and that you won’t do it again, there is no need to teach you a lesson. The behavior has been corrected and that is the sole purpose of the EBD: to enforce norms of behavior.
If you try to evade responsibility or say the rule was stupid or that the rule shouldn’t apply to you, if you put any weasel words into the apology, you don’t get it. The correction must escalate.
There is a fourth situation in which the EBD is dangerous, but it is more an historical artifact then a current problem. When resources are scarce, for instance, if a tribe expects a few starvation deaths each winter, people who don’t follow societal rules are a liability. Fewer things are punishable by death in an affluent society than in a marginal one.
There are very dangerous behaviors that can mimic the EBD. More accurately, many people use the underlying motivations of the EBD to attempt to justify viciousness. Abusers say, and may honestly believe, that they are teaching a lesson. Justified excessive force complaints arise when officers switch from subduing a suspect to punishing a perp. A fully justified act of self-defense can turn into assault with just a few extra kicks to send a message.
The dynamics of the EBD are also mimicked in the two most dangerous of the types of social violence: the Status Seeking Show and sometimes the bonding-style Group Monkey Dance. Social violence, unlike predation, is primarily a form of communication, dysfunctional though it may be. Even if the real goal is just to enjoy beating someone, it goes better if the beating is preceded by a provocation from you.
“I beat her up for no reason,” doesn’t get a lot of play even in bad crowds. “Bitch called me fucktard so I taught her a lesson,” plays better.
The person looking for an excuse to get violent will try to get you to do or say something that can be used as a rationalization. It is not a reason—they already have the reason in that they want to hurt someone. It just needs to sound like a reason. When someone tries to incite you to inflammatory language and anger, that is the time to slow down, and act thoughtful and cold. And check the audience.
If there is no audience, this is probably a lead-in to a predatory assault. Experienced predators will mimic social patterns so that YOU stay on the predictable (and much less violent) social script. If there is an audience and they are egging on the threat, be prepared for a Monkey Dance. Apologize and leave, but be prepared to crash through the crowd if necessary.