Tuesday, March 26, 2013

CofV11: The Status Seeking Show

In Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” a young Ender in his first fight escalates the event to a brutal beating as a warning to others.

Deadwood, Dakota Territory,  1876.  Jack McCall shoots James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock in the back of the head.  Though McCall is acquitted at his first, irregular trial, he is retried and found guilty after bragging about the shooting.

Long a staple of prison literature, the fish (new prisoner) must prove to all that he is more brutal than anything he will face.  As Jack Henry Abbot wrote: “The first…I forced him to his knees , and with my knife at his throat, made him… This is the way it is done.”  (In the Belly of the Beast, Jack Henry Abbot, 1981 pp 93-94)

This is the Status Seeking Show, a very particular type of violence aimed at achieving a very particular social effect.

Some societies and sub-societies are relatively dangerous.  People beat and stab others over insults or drug deals gone bad.  It’s not just dangerous, it’s also stressful and it feels like there is no way out.  Humans are smart and adaptable however, and some have found a clever way to feel safe in that environment.  They get a reputation.

It’s a very specific reputation.  They want to be known as ‘hard’ or ‘crazy.’  They want to be seen as someone ‘too dangerous to mess with.’  The way to get this reputation is simple: You break the rules of social violence.

Social violence has rules, and most of the previous articles have introduced some of the rules:

  • Individuals Monkey Dance at their own level.  Lieutenants vie with lieutenants, not generals.  Men Monkey Dance with other men, not with women and not with children.
  • The Educational Beat Down requires that a rule be broken, that the person be told why they will be punished, it comes from higher in the hierarchy and it ends when the target acknowledges their guilt.

The Status Seeking Show breaks the rules.  Shooting an authority figure or shooting a child.  Beating someone who has not broken a rule or refusing to acknowledge the signal to stop.  Using extreme violence when it is unnecessary specifically because it is unnecessary.

Of the types of social violence, the status seeking show may be the most dangerous.  The group monkey dance variations are brutal, but often preventable (don’t betray a group that enforces rules violently) or predictable (groups of young men raising hell and heading your way are usually easy to see coming).  When someone wants to send a message that he doesn’t follow the rules, predictability and preventability go way down.

It can be as brutal as any predatory violence, moreso since it is about the show, not about getting stuff.  The brutality of a status seeking show is inefficient when the goal is money or drugs.

Identifying a Status Seeking Show
The SSS can present like a Monkey Dance, an Educational Beat Down or like a Bonding Group Monkey Dance.  The key is differentiating.

A MD traditionally starts with the hard stare and the challenge, e.g. “What you lookin’ at?”  The MD is predictable and there are ways to prevent it.  You can apologize, change the subject… almost anything but play the game back.  When these tactics fail, it is likely that this is not about status, but about show or fun.  Either is dangerous.  In a normal MD, the threat’s attention will be focused on you and internally.  On you because he is reading subtle signals about your status; internally because he is afraid of not being man enough.  In most SSSs, the threat is consciously playing to the audience.  I hope you never experience enough of these to be able to tell the difference at a glance, but you can.

An Educational Beat Down almost always starts with a statement about the rule you have broken (unless the rule is blatantly obvious in that culture) and often comes with instructions.  It can range from, “Apologize to the lady.” to “Don’t disrespect me or we are gonna throw down.”

Unless the rule is egregious, like (probably the most common in situations that lead to violence) having an affair, a sincere and respectful apology almost always sidesteps escalation.  It must be sincere, without smirks or eye-rolling.  It must be respectful, without any comments about lower orders of being or stupid rules.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” Has gotten me out of missteps from Baghdad to Quito.  Tagging on, “But that’s a dumb rule,” would have ended badly.  If an apology doesn’t work, you may be looking at an SSS.

There are other clues as well. An EBD usually comes from a high-status member of a group.  Not the highest, but high.  If the person attempting to correct your behavior is low status, he may be trying to build a reputation.  Because of the status levels, a person doing a ‘proper’ EBD will not be looking to the group for approval.  A low status individual will, and he often won’t get it.  I’ve worked with populations of criminals mostly and in this situation, old cons well know the insecurities that drive this behavior and do not respect it.  They won’t interfere, that would be against the code, but they won’t approve, either.

Be very, very careful.  De-escalation and prevention must be sincere and your pride is one of the biggest traps waiting for you.  A sincere apology or not playing the Monkey Dance back at the threat almost always works.  But a part of your brain, especially if you are a young man, is going to kick in and try to save face.  A part of your brain will want you to say something nasty under your voice while walking away.  Will want to let the other person know that you still think he is beneath you.  Will trigger a crisis that you could have prevented.

And if you are one of the people who wants a confrontation, an insincere de-escalation will fail…and you might tell yourself “De-escalation failed!  This isn’t a Monkey Dance!  This is a Status-Seeking Show!” and go for a level of force that is unjustified or unnecessary.  DO NOT FOOL YOURSELF.

A Status Seeking Show may precipitate a Group Monkey Dance.  Sometimes you will have successfully de-escalated a situation only to find one member will not let it go or begins to egg the others on.  It is an SSS if the member initiates an attack and sometimes, emotions being contagious, others will join in.  Related dynamic is the mouth in the group egging the others on, "You gonna let him walk away?  He's playing you!"

Two things become clear in an analysis of the SSS.

1) Your own pride, as the potential victim, can be a dangerous pitfall.  Not because there is anything wrong with standing up for yourself or standing up to the bad people of the world.  Pride is dangerous because it prevents you from seeing the situation, or even your own actions clearly.  Pride in self-defense may be easy to see, but the mechanism is the same in little things: “I was perfectly clear, so if my employees didn’t understand what I wanted it is their fault.”  Same mechanism.

2) Preclusion is important.  In most jurisdictions one of the tests to establish if an act of force was self-defense includes whether or not there were valid non-violent options, like leaving or apologizing.  Not only is a sincere attempt to de-escalate valuable in a claim of self-defense, it can give you valuable information about what is really going on.

I want to expand on point two.  There are types of violence that have very similar (or not) outcomes and similar dynamics that have very different causes.  You must distinguish them because the necessary deescalations are different.

That's too obscure.  A Monkey Dance is low risk.  A Status Seeking Show is high risk.  But the pattern will be the same until the very end.  Preclusion (trying to walk away, trying to apologize) is not a good idea just because of self-defense law but it is the easiest test to find which you face.  Same with the two date-rape dynamics-- there is a test to tell you which you are facing.  Sharks and tigers are both dangerous, but they are avoided in different ways.  You have to be able to tell what you are facing.

There is also an individual dynamic with the SSS.  It starts as a low-status, low-esteem, unrespected member of the group.  As mentioned before, the old cons don't respect these guys.  They're punks.  But once they have the rep, they sometimes need to feed the rep.  And in an more organized outlaw group, they will be used as disposable enforcers.  But some of them get good at it and some of them get addicted, and they become very dangerous provided they stay alive and out of prison.  Their dangerousness is based on being crazy, unpredictable and violent.  Not cool under pressure or skilled.


  1. I am a new Correctional Officer. I'm seeing a LOT of this behavior...from inmates...and other (and almost always younger) COs.

  2. Ben Cerasi6:50 PM

    Whats a dispoable enforcer sarge? And what are they good for?

  3. Thanks heaps Rory, you diverted me to this from Budo Blog. I had been digging your blog since mid year but have not gone through the archives - yet.