Eldredge finished the segment with:
“And aggression is good. I mean, you want a boy to stand up as a man to apartheid, right? You want him to stand up to injustice, then he has to have something in him that’s learned that there are good forms of aggression.”
However, perhaps more telling is the “nurture” side of why the boys in Syria “felt it was their duty.” They look around, see the dominating and abusive men in power, see the way girls and women are treated, and all the while they are being groomed and encouraged to grow up and be like those dominating and abusive men in power. If there’s something innate within them, so too is there a cultural influence channeling the “warrior in the heart” in destructive ways.
We’ve known of the influences that shape adolescent aggression since the 1970’s, when Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory took root. Now considered essential study in most academic departments of criminology around the world, Bandura’s theory put forth the notion that violent tendencies are modeled, and that children in particular learn aggression from observing others. “Virtually all learning experiences resulting from direct experiences,” Bandura wrote in 1976, “can occur on a vicarious basis through observation of other people’s behavior and its consequences for the observer,” (See PDF).
Might this difference in natural and experiential physicality and aggression be why boys, according to most reports on modern slavery, are used more often as disposable “hard” labor slaves, such as in cocoa fields, whereas girls are more often subjected to domestic work slavery?
In circling back to the word “trained,” as used in the UN report on children in Syria, I think instead of the term “brainwashing” and particularly of a child’s vulnerability to both the short-term and long-term effects of it. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child:
“Adverse conditions such as abuse, neglect, community violence, and persistent poverty can disrupt brain architecture and place children at a disadvantage with regard to the development of their executive function skills.”
With all of this in mind a twofold purpose for “training” surfaces:
(1) To use boys until they can’t be used anymore (i.e. until death, injury, disease, prosecution, the job is done). Some mistakenly believe their culture can flourish even when boys are expendable because even in death the labor garnered from their expendability leaves behind development (e.g. railroad tracks, tools built from the steel of dismantled ships, homes paid for with cotton harvest money, etc.). As a refugee aid worker once told me, “When girls are only valued for their future ability to give birth, and boys only for the sweat of their labor…we’re in a bad place.”
(2) To instill within the boy slaves the attitudes and behaviors that will make of them physically strong leaders. There’s the assumption that if boys don’t become disabled, diseased or die from the work that the work will make them into “real” men—the definition of which is at once represented by and habitually manipulated by those in power for the sake of exploiting those who are not.
This assumption, to use another example, plays out in different but equally devastating ways in Cambodia.
When I visited First Step Cambodia, an NGO in Phnom Penh that works to rescue and heal boys who have been victims of sexual abuse, I learned about a phrase that translates as “boys are pure gold.” It’s tempting to think this first means “valuable” but that definition is secondary. What the phrase truly means is that boys can be burned, beaten and smashed and yet still be gold. The meaning here is that they’re tough, they don’t complain, they grow to be men where they enter into another phase, one that translates as “man with 5 hat chest.” A hat is a measurement term in Cambodia that equals about ½ meter. A “man with 5 hat chest” can be likened to our version of the macho man, the tough guy. While the body undergoes dramatic changes when going from boy to man, the masculine psyche merely congeals. This culturally-rooted idea can then be applied in sweeping layers when a boy finds the courage to tell an adult that he was raped. Because it’s believed that he can endure great punishment and yet still be “pure gold,” often there are times when no action will be taken (either against the perpetrator or to support the healing of the boy) until that boy can show the damage done or, to put it bluntly, until there’s blood.
This assumption is by no means merely the problem of “other” countries. Let’s take a look at just one aspect of our own. The United States has defined itself as perhaps the world’s greatest believer in the myth that subjecting its boys and men to “punishment,” i.e., incarceration, will somehow magically resolve the underlying problems that brought them to be incarcerated in the first place. We don’t see our young boys in the juvenile justice system, for example, as pure gold; rather, we see them as the specks of dirt within their gold. We see them as the sum of their crime.
I once taught poetry in an all-female juvenile detention center, even wrote a book about the experience, so I’m fully aware of the lack of services and resources that girls receive in this regard. However, in working with boys who have been in and out of the juvenile justice system I can’t even count how many of their conversations or essays or poems were about how members of their family and staff members within the system regarded them—their full human selves—as nothing more than their crimes (a vast majority of which were petty theft). They were often “treated like a monster.”
The go-to method for helping them get back on track wasn’t through understanding and attempting to address issues within their family (often broken homes), their environment or their mental health, but through attempting to “scare them straight” by combating their release of often frustrated and confused expression of aggression with, you guessed it, bigger and badder forms of aggression (you know, huge, muscular men with deep voices who can get in their faces and yell).
Additional research into the justice system revealed the brutal result that the school-to-prison pipeline has on boys, especially African-American boys. Here’s how the ACLU defines the school-to-prison pipeline:
“A disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out. ‘Zero-tolerance’ policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in school lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school.”
Essentially we are punishing the boys in schools, pumping them into the juvenile justice system where we can punish them some more…
Note: The term restorative justice is still unfortunately likened to a curse word in many parts of the US. The reason? Because it’s viewed as challenging the prevalent and macho “tough on crime” school of thought. I once saw a renowned criminologist in my hometown booed for bringing it up when he was asked at a town hall meeting how he’d handle crime. Can we get over this already?
…and once they turn 18 we can funnel them directly into the overcrowded prison system.
Sure, the problem is partly our obsessive belief-despite-the-facts in the “punishment works with boys” myth. But considering how much money we spend on our justice system and how little of that goes towards efforts to address the roots of the offenses committed, it’s clear that we just undoubtedly hide our justice system absurdities better than the other countries to whom we ridicule when we hear, for example, how they cut off the fingers of their thieves. In some countries a serial thief has a finger cut off but can return back to society. Is enduring years of incarceration for similar offenses—in prisons where half of sexual abuse claims involve guards and where black offenders receive 10% longer sentences than whites for the same crime—really that much more civilized?
In his article titled Storming the American Bastille, Wilhelm Cortez opens with a question: “There is not a crisis of crime that fills our prisons; it is unjust conviction and sentencing. Can we re-envision the prison system?”
He then goes on to provide a common sense answer that simply isn’t being taken into account in the current model of our justice system:
“If a crime is committed it should be a social red flag that indicates an individual has somehow slipped through a social gap. The response should not be incarcerate, enslave and exploit. Instead, sentencing practices should take the role of finding the social problems at the root of the crime.”
For an additional read on the US penal system, check out Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.