Patria-Kaye Aarons | Understanding poverty and violence
A man I know hit someone in anger who insulted him. It cost him his job. When asked why he allowed the situation to escalate to that level, with a cold calmness, he replied, "I'm a ghetto yute. All I have in this world is my pride. And if I don't fight to keep it, I have nothing."
That comment was so telling for me. The wrath I saw in his eyes, the pain I heard in his voice came from a real place. This wasn't a case of just another bruised ego.
As I drilled down in our post-mortem of the incident, he revealed that to him, the infringement was both what was said to him and the fact that it was said publicly. He kept repeating: "In front of everybody! In front of everybody! How mi woulda look if me never defend it?"
It explains so much of the violence in our communities. In the absence of worldly possessions, whether car or castle or cash, his honour is the only thing he feels he has worth defending. He hurt someone physically because being disrespected felt like being robbed of his last shred of dignity.
He has children. And in his mind, defending his honour with violence was a greater example of 'a man' to his son than walking away. Cost it what it will.
I share the story of another man I know. A man who spent five years in prison because he fought it out instead of talking it out. He, too, suffered from the affliction of a quick temper, but his reasons were different. Whereas the man in my first tale was motivated by the protection of his pride, this second man's reason was an inability to express himself.
He was the child in primary school who hated being called on to read. He struggled with literacy and it affected his performance in all his other subjects. Even today, he still doesn't have the vocabulary (or confidence) to communicate his point of view or the way he feels. His responses are monosyllabic.
As I grew to know him, I realised he felt inadequate in an argument. He took a lot of verbal abuse early in both his personal and professional life because he just didn't know how to retort. To balance the inequity in his matchups, when he felt he was being outwitted, he would fight back - literally. When sharp words cut him deep, he would cut back with a knife.
He genuinely is a sweet soul by nature, but violence has become his armour to shield inarticulateness. When I paid attention, I could see his frustration at not being able to find the right words.
Those two men have taught me so much about the inextricable link between poverty and violence. Understanding why they react to situations with brute force doesn't excuse their behaviour. At no time should one adult feel the need to put his hands on another person in an effort to settle a dispute.
I can't deny, though, that if Man A valued freedom and family more, and if Man B was taught to find his voice, their lives would have taken different turns. They would see their own personal worth differently and would feel more confident dealing with opposition. Perhaps trying to change them at this point is pointless, but we have to do right by the next generation.