Place, Power, and Culture: Teenage Fighting at AHS
At the dinner table one evening our 17-year-old son, Jefferson, innocently asked us, "You wouldn't like it if I got in a fight, would you?" We answered predictably, "Certainly not." He then asked if it would be justified if someone crudely insulted Joelle, his girlfriend. We still answered that there are other, better ways to deal with even this situation. He thought that the honorable thing to do would be to hit the offender; we thought otherwise. After he assured us that this was just a hypothetical conversation, we all tried to come to an agreement of what would be acceptable, appropriate behavior if this happened.
Jefferson is awfully good with his mouth. He can and does reply with a comeback to almost anything. So my first suggestion was to use this particular gift of his. After reminding me that this approach two years ago resulted in a fist to his jaw and he had to drink through a straw for five weeks, he brought us back to the present and said that if he tried to deal with the issue that way, it wouldn't solve anything. Not only would he possibly end up hurt himself, but the offender would have no incentive not to insult Joelle again--a real lose-lose solution in his eyes. His justification for fighting was really twofold: one, to prove his physical superiority over his opponent in order to control his future behavior, namely, not to insult Joelle again, and secondly, to behave in a way appropriate to what was expected of a boyfriend at Annandale High School, namely to fight for his girlfriend's honor. Obviously my idea of verbal a comeback would not achieve either of these goals.
Jefferson still insisted that fighting was the only way. The way he saw it, either he won the fight and the other guy learned not to do it again, or he went down himself fighting for his woman--the only honorable thing to do at AHS. If he didn't earn the respect of the offender, at least he could hold his bruised head up high among his peers. Therein was the intersection of Place, Power, and Culture: in the place of Annandale, Jefferson's culture dictated that he must fight, but the authorities in his life, the school administration and his parents, would assuredly use their power to prevent this behavior. The school has rules against fighting, and the negative consequence if he chooses to do so is suspension. His parents were telling him outright (not that they had to) that he should not fight, even under this extreme situation, and although we didn't get around to specifying what the consequences would be, we all knew that they would be impressive.
A real conflict arose one time when he admitted to being in a situation fully ready to fight to support a friend. We (his parents)said he shouldn't have been there; he thought he should. The place that time was out in the woods, away from the authority figures and their controlling measures, where the high school male ethic of "to fight is right" could be acted out. The conflict took place back home when he told us about it.
Jefferson brought up the subject in the first place because in addition to the threat of the consequences, he has a real desire to adhere to the desires of his parents and the school, and he wanted to talk about his own inner conflict. The "code o' the halls" at AHS demands that in certain situations fighting is the appropriate male high school student thing to do. The culture in power, the parents and administrators, say that it is not. So whenever Jefferson has to decide which culture's norms to acquiesce to, to fight when his peers expect him to, or to back down as his parents expect him to, then the "contact zone" of the conflicting cultures is in his head.
We never did come to an agreement about acceptable, appropriate behavior for him if Joelle was insulted by another high school boy.
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