Friday, September 09, 2005

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.


At 10:07 AM, September 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 12:54 PM, September 09, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

another good one, Neo.....

At 2:21 PM, September 09, 2005, Blogger maryatexitzero said...

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??

Not sure - in grade school, I was pretty anti-authoritarian. If the teacher was really mean, I probably would have played along with Martin - who can resist a rebel with a cause? Anything that would make a bad teacher's life miserable was good, even if it meant detention.

But if the teacher was nice, that's different. Grade school kids are pretty good at sizing up other people's strengths and weaknesses. Martin types usually want attention (positive or negative). If the other kids were tired of his antics, a Martin would be shunned, or dismissed as a dork.

If Martin was a witty rebel type, his antics only work against an unpopular authority figure. But if he's a bully himself, he can bully other people into supporting him. Like the insurgents, you can't fight this kind of bully by winning hearts and minds - people don't support them because they like them, they support them because they're afraid of them. You've got to beat the bullies up.

At 3:14 PM, September 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you tried to look him up to find out what really became of him? It would be interesting to know if he ended up as a criminal, for example.

At 4:51 PM, September 09, 2005, Blogger David Foster said...

The point about a small number of people ruining it for everybody is developed in my post "Penny in the Fusebox":

At 9:45 PM, September 09, 2005, Blogger Dymphna said...

The Martin Higby Phenomenon is a top-down problem. The children should never have been left to deal with him and certainly should never have been punished for failing to control what the adults couldn't shape or control.

Talk about an abdication of responsibility!!

Ol' Martin had a kind of spoiling rage, didn't he? Certainly anyone who had been publicly shamed (and who knows what went on at home) as much as he was hadn't much chance to self-soothe or calm down. And he probably had nooo experience in having anyone else attempt to calm him -- actually soothe him.

This is a very sad story, neo. Those adults were certainly ignorant and mindless. To put it kindly.

At 10:32 PM, September 09, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

In most groups, social pressure goes a long way to regulating behavior. It's a rare Martin who doesn't have someone encouraging him to misbehave by laughing at his antics. The Martins of the world usually overestimate how many people think they're funny, but they seldom are entirely mistaken.

It is when social pressure fails that rules and punishments have to be instituted. It is a two-edged sword. The stereotypical American writer has been the escapee from the midwest who resents the social pressure he grew up with, down to Keillor and Bryson in our own day. But try and live without it, and you get New Orleans after a hurricane.

At 11:21 PM, September 09, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say Martin higby is like Bush, and the rest of the classmates are bunch of incompetent democrats, who are not smart or mature enough to handle his 'ruckus'

At 1:15 AM, September 10, 2005, Blogger TmjUtah said...

"Martin Higby" closely resembles my "Drunk Uncle With Shotgun At The Wedding Reception".

It only takes a miniscule part of a population to make the society unlivable, if that part is not confronted and corrected.

Yes, there's scale to be considered. There's a long way from class clown to stone sociopath, but after a few months of observation even a product of our pathetic teaching corps can tell the difference. The problem with most of the teachers I've met during my daughters' education experience is that they have little or no interest in deviating a jot from the NEA SOP for reducing liability. The program could be called "Failure In Fifteen Pointless Steps" since it invariably keeps truly terrible kids in classes long enough to make sure that at least five or a dozen other students education is seriously damaged, too.

I remember when "alternative school" was called "juvie".

Kids are very smart where discipline and leadership are concerned. In a system consciously dedicated to shielding teachers from having to display either, kids learn some pretty sad lessons right off the bat... and then everyone acts surprised by a thirty percent (even with the ludicrous curriculum we have now) failure rate.

Then they ask for more money.

I agree totally with dymphna about where the responsibility lies, at least on the part of the institution.

At 9:03 AM, September 10, 2005, Blogger Dymphna said...

tmjutah said--

Kids are very smart where discipline and leadership are concerned. In a system consciously dedicated to shielding teachers from having to display either, kids learn some pretty sad lessons right off the bat... and then everyone acts surprised by a thirty percent (even with the ludicrous curriculum we have now) failure rate.

You said what I would've if I'd been thinking. Kids are savvy and responsive but they have to have -- to coin a phrase -- sheep dogs to help them mature.

I agree the schools are creepy places. Neo-neocon, were she a student today, would be observing many more types of deviant behavior: the exquisitely sensitive machos in the ghetto gear, the ho's who hang with them, the pierced and sullen, the blanked out ones, the too-kewl, etc.

It's one of hte reasons we home-schooled for the first six grades. Then the Baron's Boy went to a Friends' School on a scholarship for awhile. He found the kids less-than-Friendly but very elitist. He was their token conservative; he and one history teacher who wore a shirt and tie and disliked the fact that the children were permitted to call him by his first name.

BTW, teachers in private schools don't fit your description. They're usually retired something-or-other and have very interesting life experiences to share with the kids. Of course, they have retirement income which allows them to teach in places where the pay is a pittance.

tom freeman--

my brother was much like Martin Higby but he was real smart so he could play the crowd much better than ol' Martin. He sure did tend to live in the principal's office, though. Someone paid his way to a private boys' school in Atlanta --Marist College Academy -- where he proceed to accumulate so many demerits that his record probably still stands. He had all male teachers and they called him on his behavior.

How did my "Martin H" turn out? He's a croupier in Las Vegas and pretty much a recluse. Never made a lasting relationship. It's sad...just like Neo's story is sad...

Shoot. I'm so ADD. I came over here to grab a link to give another blogger...sure do get distracted.

At 9:11 AM, September 10, 2005, Blogger Dymphna said...

Just thought of a connection, Neo. I think -- I know, actually -- that my brother was a guard dog. He flourished while he was in the Army -- he was an MP, a medic, and a paratrooper. Had he been of a mind to stay, he could've forged the family he needed. He was fair but hard; very hard.

He left because of the on-going, ceaseless racial tension. It never let up and you had to be on guard all the time. When he came to visit me at a Marine Corps base where I lived at the time, he was amazed at how free it was -- women walked around unaccompanied at any time and never felt afraid... there's environment for you.

At 12:48 PM, September 16, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The Marine Corps were the most resistant to racial integration. But once integrated, they didn't give a damn about your color, so long as you could shoot the enemy, stand your line, and follow orders.

The Army, didn't have the same esprit de corps. They didn't have the same discipline as the Marine Corps, as little as a decade ago. Then there was the drug problem in the 60s and 70s, that was horrible. Along with conscription, which totally messed up discipline when it wasn't necessary.

The all volunteer army is an interesting evolution in military science. Socially, it has made a big difference. Wars don't hurt, in building unit cohesion and respect either.

About the few blowing up the many?

Just take a look at the documentary about the Flight That Fought Back that aired without commercials on 9/11 2005.

Here you have a bunch of hijackers, 3 to 4, killed some old guy as an example. Knifed another airliner attendant, all as a way to intimidate the many, but feckless sheep on the plane. Then suddenly, we had the terroists running to the cockpit, away from the mob that was trying to kill and eviscerate them...

Hrm, I wonder how that happened.

Global Communications helped, definitely, and a bit of luck in the fact that Flight 93 was delayed 30 minutes. That's 30 minutes to learn about your fate, and to do something about it.

A lot of people keep talking about how the world is flat, in that technology has compressed it and made us all vulernable. While they should rightly try and find a solution, I do believe they are missing some perspective. If we are in range of the enemy, so are they. If they can hit us, we can hit them.

The terroists found that out the hard way on Flight 93.

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At 2:26 PM, June 16, 2006, Blogger gcotharn said...

Reading this, I'm reminded of the group of anti war protestors who target military funerals(or, at least they targeted them for a few months). There began to be talk of passing legislation to prevent protest within a prescribed distance of a funeral. Powerlineblog commented that we have too many laws already. What was really needed was for a few good men to leave the funeral and "persuade" the protestors to depart.

This scenario has stuck with me over the past months. The protestors have the right to protest, and to make asses of themselves. Certain juries(in Texas and elsewhere) would never convict funeralgoers of assault or battery in that situation. HOWEVER, what is really needed - to return to my continuing theme(!)- is for almost all such funeralgoers to have enough confidence in Western values, and in Western principles, to rise en masse in a derisive group, and to use that energy to drive the anti war protestors away in shame.

Maybe I'm dreaming and idealizing. Maybe the Marin Higbys of the world thrive on derision. However, since the anti war protestors do have a legal right not to be assaulted; and since we definitely do have too many laws already; the solution is for our society to regain our moral confidence and vigor. When we lose enough confidence in Western principles and values, our society shall fall.


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