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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Touch Me If You Think


Dr. Lester CN Simon

It is a generally held view that one of the many and varied causes of aggression, crime and violence is low self-esteem. This is posited as one of the reasons for criminal behaviour among deprived young men in depressed social environments. So scores of counsellors, social workers and teachers have been on the march to assist these unfortunate, sad, young men to raise their levels of self-esteem. Maybe it is time to call in these workers and ask them to report on their findings.

One of the cornerstones of science is the imperative to find the truth and to be able to quote a referenced study or provide empirical evidence for your stated fact. This might mean that in the bright, dazzling light of truth, beautiful theories are knocked down by ugly facts. So who told you that low self-esteem was a causal element in aggression, crime and violence? Where are the data? Where are the studies?

In trying to understand some of the causes of aggression, crime and violence in Antigua and Barbuda, I turned to an article by Roy Baumeister in the April 2001 edition of Scientific American. Baumeister reported that he was unable to find any book or paper that offered a formal statement or empirical evidence to support the “well-known fact” that low self-esteem causes violence. He acknowledged that human behaviour is shaped by various factors. Yet there are some forms of aggression that require the perpetrator to have a high, not low self-esteem.

Baumeister registered the obvious fact that not all people who think highly of themselves are prone to violence. But when inflated, lofty opinion of oneself is questioned, disputed, threatened or undermined, it seems that the whole town had better run for cover.

Old school children should know that high rather that low self-esteem challenged by a threat is more likely to lead to aggression. The school bully takes away your homework, lunch money and your girlfriend (in increasing order of importance). He then beats you up because you are stupid enough to threaten to report him. The village bad boy accosts you with your tray of figs (bananas) that your grandmother has sent you out to sell. You tell him that the figs cost two-pence. He takes away all the figs and gives you two single pence. Then he smashes your tray because you are silly enough to bawl murder and threaten to tell your granny.

Some of us believe that white collar crime is perpetrated by smart people with high self-esteem and that petty, “naked skin” crimes are committed by deprived boys who cannot read or write and hence they must have low self-esteem. Maybe the difference between the two criminals is simply a matter of specific know-how and access. To be any sort of successful criminal, you must have high self-regard and a host of other attributes including good memory and excellent money management skills. To be a successful gang leader you require a practical, street version of a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) that some politicians would barter their souls for.

Based on evidence from studies he conducted, Baumeister concluded that the person with low self-esteem is not prone to aggressive responses. On the other hand, he warns that one should beware of people who regard themselves as superior to others, especially when their beliefs are inflated, weakly grounded in reality or heavily dependent on having others confirm them frequently (Yes, boss; you are the best boss; there is no one like you boss;).

Baumeister noted that conceited self-important individuals turn nasty towards those who puncture their bubbles of self-love. Professional work involving prostitutes, gangs and other groups in Antigua and Barbuda shows that all groups have ranks and files, different classes of members, leaders and rules and regulations. You can be ostracised or killed for “dissing” the highly-esteemed boss. And woe be unto you if it is a posthumous “dissing”.

So what should we be doing to our children to stem the aggression and violence? Simply put: Tell them the truth and do not be afraid to allow them to experience hurt. Baumeister noted with great irony that many parents and teachers are afraid to criticise kids because of the (alleged) serious psychological damage that criticism will inflict. He noted that in some sports, everyone, including the loser, gets a trophy. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! “T’all! T’all!” In my opinion, when you lose, you should bawl like a mongrel, throw yourself down in the gutter, run home and bawl again, fall asleep and wake up and bawl all night till fore-day morning, spend hours, days, weeks and months analysing and understanding why you lost and come back better and stronger for the next match.

In Baumeister’s view, there is nothing wrong with helping students and others to take pride in accomplishments and good deeds. But there are reasons to worry about encouraging people to think too highly of themselves when they have not earned it. Children must be allowed to understand losses and failures proportionate to their ages. Baumeister said that praise should be tied to performance (including improvement) rather than dispensed freely as if everyone had a right to it simply for being oneself.

We all need a favourable self-image. We all want to say like James Brown, “I feel good!” But we forget the next line, “I knew that I would.” You knew that you would because your feeling good, your good sense of self is not false or unwarranted. Maybe, just maybe, we need a national symposium involving all the tribes in this country to determine objectively, measure for measure, the degree of contribution and importance of our heroes. Maybe we need to broaden the national net to include more warriors so we can spread and balance the lineage of our highly esteemed leaders and fighters.

In so doing, we might reach a higher level of national development. When your team loses, there is no aggression based wrongly or even rightly on a erceived “dissing” of those held in lofty esteem. Truly great men and women do not need viragoes and vagabonds to be encouraged to sally and fight unfairly. You just take your bang-off, bawl like a ram goat, and use the time to study how to win fairly and squarely and come back piping hot next time with real fire and steel.

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