The few vs. the many: the Martin Higby Phenomenon
When I was in grade school, our entire class of thirty-odd marched more or less in lockstep from grades one through six. The community in which I was raised wasn't very transient; people stayed put, and so we got to know those same kids awfully well by the time we went to junior high and dispersed somewhat into the larger crowd.
There was Glenna (all names have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty), everybody's favorite nice girl, a motherly and protective soul who was the only one who was nice to Jerry, a nervous pacer and pretty much of a nervous wreck. There was Melinda, gossiper and partygiver; Brian, the ruthless achiever whom it seemed even then would have climbed over his own mother to succeed; Elizabeth, wild child who later ended up a heroin addict.
And then there was Martin Higby. Today I suppose his diagnosis would be ADHD, but then he was just labeled "bad." He couldn't sit still; he was loud, angry,disruptive, and aggressive .
The things that scared the rest of us didn't intimidate Martin in the least. He didn't much care if he spent his life in the assistant principal's office or in detention--or even in jail, as some darkly predicted. I seem to remember a bit of corporal punishment, too--in those days not illegal--and one memorably nasty teacher who made him stand for an hour or so in a large metal garbage can, because he was "dirt."
Whatever was tried, it didn't work. Martin continued to disrupt things. It was bad enough when the teacher was in the classroom, but it got really bad on the occasions when she (and it was always a "she") had to leave the room for a few minutes, which happened every now and then.
With stern warnings, and leaving the reliable Glenna in charge, the teacher would let us know that our behavior was being monitored even though she would be out of the room. She'd be able to hear us, and the neighboring classes would be able to hear us. If she got a report that we'd caused too much of a ruckus and been too loud, we'd all be punished by getting a detention.
That was music to the ears of Martin. The chance to get everyone else in trouble, as opposed to just himself, was an opportunity not to be missed. So he set out to do just that. Our ever-escalating efforts to stop him only added to the confusion and the noise level. I still remember my feelings of impotent rage at Martin (and the teacher) as I sat at my desk after school in detention with the entire class--my restless hands folded neatly, as required, watching the beautiful day go on outside the large school windows while we sat cooped up inside for an extra hour.
I thought that the teacher showed little knowledge of the nature of people like Martin, who for whatever reason wanted to ruin things for others. But lately I've been thinking that maybe it was a valuable lesson after all.
In fact, even though it's a pseudonym, I'd like to nominate Martin for notoriety by coining the phrase "the Martin Higby phenomenon." That stands for the idea that it doesn't take many people to wreck things (or come very close to wrecking things) for everyone else--just a few will do. That's what the police (and teachers) are for, of course--to try to keep those few in check. But in any situation in which the authorities are weak or absent (when the teacher leaves the room, metaphorically speaking) the Martin Higbys of the world see their chance, and they pounce. Whether it be looting after a natural disaster like Katrina, or the so-called "insurgents" in Iraq, the nature of the Martin Higbys of the world is to love a vacuum.
A police state, of course, is not a desirable response, although in some ways it "works" (Soviet Russia had a lot less crime than post-Soviet Russia, for example). The aim is to balance control with freedom, a tricky undertaking. It's the one we're trying to get at in areas as simple as theater fire regulations. It's what's at stake in arguments over the Patriot Act.
It also relates to my previous post on sheep becoming sheepdogs. I've begun to wonder what would have happened in that long-ago classroom if more of us had figured out a way to become sheepdogs rather than sheep. What could we have done, short of violence to Martin? What would have happened had we gotten together, for example--some of the strongest among us--and held him down and put a gag on him?
Well, in that setting, we probably would have gotten a lot more punishment than just a detention. But there must have been some sort of group sheepdog action possible.
Back in the 1950s I don't think we children were even capable of conceiving of the idea, much less carrying it out successfully.
In the end, though, countering the Martin Higby phenomenon requires an interaction of public and private responsibility, both group and individual. With the growth of the technology of destruction, and the possible availability of nuclear weaponry to ever smaller fringe groups, it has become vital to counteract the tyranny of the few.