I was listening to a political discussion and there was a hypothetical question posed of why so many bullies and aggressive men seem to be endemic to New York politics and the people in the discussion had no answer to this. I believe that like the proverbial frog it is because they’ve been in the heated water so long they can no longer recognize dysfunction, but their question brought me back to my childhood and my early days as a European girl in a New York school.
The first thing you notice about the USA as a newcomer is that aggression is rewarded not diminished. Bullies are rewarded with laughter and social capital.
The basic tenant in New York and many parts of the USA seems to be: You either eat or get eaten.
In my family, too, there is a bit of this ethos at play. It doesn’t come naturally to me but I was able to give over to a certain veneer of toughness that is necessary to surviving live in on the New York playground as much as a Wall Street office.
There is a language that comes along with the way we raise children in America. Language that the late Marshall Rosenberg breaks down as Jackal versus Giraffe.
I’d further gotten a distance from my culture of origin when I first became a parent in another unexpected place. This was reading the illustrated book designed to help parents communicate with their teenagers, but it was a real eye opener.
It changed the way I view communication among everyone. And although I still fall easily into my Jackal-speak, I’ve become far more attuned to how we speak to children. I think the awareness has helped me in every facet of life. Now, when I see grandparents in particular emotionally negate children it is risible how unaware I was of the tendency before.
On a recent field trip a little kid started crying and the older grandmother literally said, “You’re not sad, it’s just a stick, you don’t need to cry.”
Well, but damn it, maybe her stick breaking did make her feel sad!
So back to why this relates to New Yorkers.
Growing up it is clear that it’s eat or be eaten and the boys who were tough guys got a lot more respect. Yeah, people will call him an asshole, but they’ll stay out of his way or he’ll get what he wants in the short term. His whole life, he’s learned that trampling on feelings and bullying gets him what he wants.
This is the atmosphere of hostility we all live in and we’re unaware of it as hostile as a baseline because it is so pervasive. It’s all over TV, radio, daily interaction at home, school, and work, it is online and in person.
When the baseline hostility overflows into persona aggression no one is surprised. School fistfights were an almost daily event at my elementary school and I didn’t even think it was weird after a couple of years there. Now, I’d be shocked if there were fights breaking out among kids almost daily at my daughters’ school. But then we moved to other countries like New Zealand where bullying is a problem but it’s not celebrated the way it is in New York.
Where he was once the child.
He is now the adult.