Saturday, April 29, 2006

Respect My Gangsta

"The devil's most devilish when respectable."

-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

One of the hallmarks of gang ideology is the expression of wanting respect. In the gang culture wanting respect usually means demanding respect.

In speaking with gang kids over the years I’ve learned that their idea of respect is different than most people’s idea of respect.

For gang members, “respect” often is interchangeable with “fear.”

Gang members view fear as the ultimate and primary form of respect. But fear is not respect. Fear has nothing to do with respect. Fear is the opposite of respect.

When someone is afraid of you they may pretend to respect you. But inside they hate you. They do not think of you as powerful but only dangerous. Because you demand respect from someone using the threat of violence you are not getting the respect you think you deserve.

Any 8 year old can pull the trigger on a gun. This doesn’t mean that you respect him. What it means is that if he confronts you with a gun you do what is necessary to stay alive. Threatening with violence being tough, hard, or bad doesn’t make you respectable. It makes you in fact a coward.

There are two kinds of respect. There is a basic respect towards other human beings that we all are supposed to extend. Meaning we don’t generally threaten people. We generally respect other people’s property, personal space, and hopefully their freedom of speech. We respect others by offering them the same courtesy we hope everyone will extend to us. In other words, “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

The other kind of respect is the kind that is earned. When someone does something that is above and beyond to help society. When someone works hard to do the right thing. When someone proves themselves to be a good leader, often patient, kind, fair, and honorable we “respect” them. When someone overcomes a terrible situation to rise above we respect them.

Gang members often make the mistake of believing that other people respect them. But rarely is this the case. Most of the time people are afraid of them. Respect doesn’t come from the end of a gun…only terror.

When I deal with gang members I extend a sense of respect to them. To their beliefs and to their history of hurt. But this respect is not grounded in fear. It is grounded in understanding the pain.

Here’s the thing. People who try and make others afraid of them are in fact always the ones who are afraid.

They are afraid of being rejected. They are afraid of being hurt themselves. Like a cat in the corner who is being threatened by a dog they bristle their hair up to look bigger, hiss and howl to sound scary, and flash their teeth to appear as something dangerous. In other words the threat they pose comes from fear. Most of it is for show.

The same is true of bullies. The same is often true of gang members who extend their chest, talk tough, and threaten. This is not to say that they aren’t dangerous. In fact the person who is afraid is often the most dangerous. But it does tell a secret about them. One that they hope never gets out.

That they themselves are often afraid. So afraid that they are willing to fight and if need be die to keep that secret.

Real bravery comes not from following a crowd to fit in. It does not come from wearing the same colors that everyone else does in order to look “bad.” Real bravery comes from one who is able to rise above. Rise above hate, rise above the feeling that no one cares, rise above the notion that violence equals manhood.

A person who rises above these things is the person that is most worthy of real respect.