Boundary Setting and Anti-Social Subcultures – Malcolm Rivers

Recently, I asked Malcolm Rivers to apply the concepts of the Everyday Boundary Setting Matrix to his understanding of inner-city boundary setting for urban youth. The following article is his response.  The Matrix is a flexible framework that can be used to help understand and teach the basic elements of boundary setting and apply them to specific environments. – Erik Kondo


I like the ideas and expression here a lot. I think of particular use are visuals. The boundary setting matrix is a great tool that really encapsulates the ideas involved. I like the boundary zones a lot too. The underlying adjustment that I think would be useful is based on the interplay between peer relationships and institutional relationships.

In many ways, schools are microcosms for society so the model I’m using is based on an inner-city school and interactions with the neighborhood. Within that school you have school rules and peer rules which are comparable to society’s laws and street law. The difficulty is that for students, peer culture is often based on variations of real street law. For all intents and purposes, society, as represented by social workers, teachers, cops, etc. only visits and the networks that dictate street law and peer relationships live in those communities, making them, in many ways, the true dominant force. Young people in those communities might spend 6 or 8 hours in school but have to spend the remaining 18 or 16 hours in environments dominated by street law. Moreover, school and society often can’t protect these young people from consequences of peer/street code violations which often carry significantly higher penalties than most that institutions can dish out. Thus, respect, as understood in those communities, is a crucially important currency that can literally be the difference between life and death and is governed by different factors.

The version of respect that exists in these environments is based on a couple of factors: willingness to resist or stand on principle, adherence to cultural rules, goodwill and respect for others, and determination to enforce boundaries. Of particular importance is boundary enforcement, which, in many ways, lays the foundation for the rest because respect isn’t so much earned as enforced. Due to various forms of social disorganization, young men have outsized influence in inner cities, leading to environments where respect is an invaluable commodity due to its role in the young men’s competition for dominance. This makes the concept of mutual respect a harder sell because the individual or group with the most respect “wins” and respect can only be earned by enforcing their boundaries or violating others’. If a mutual respect has been established, the first person or group willing to violate that respect, if successful, can shift the balance of power toward their favor. Thus, challenging the boundaries of others is frequently a good way to grow resources (peer respect, etc.) and can even be a form of preemptive defense. Contempt borne of underenforcement can lead to loss of resources or even something more permanent, thus, the willingness to enforce boundaries becomes paramount in this version of respect.

One of the elements that affects this matrix, however, is the role of noncombatants: those who are, for whatever reason, not participating in the pursuit of peer dominance. Most of these noncombatants don’t have much in the way of respect and are more ignored than anything else which can make them safer but keeps them powerless, should a combatant turn their attention in their direction.

“Trying” and “testing” are a big part of the aforementioned competition in these schools and neighborhoods. The idea is that in many interactions, even with authority figures, young people test the boundaries of others, looking to see whether they’ll enforce them and to what degrees. It’s an aggressive way to establish a pecking order or to “score points” off of someone they perceive as weak. The additional difficulty is that, as a result, giving respect to get it can be seen as weakness, especially when combined with a perceived inability or unwillingness to enforce boundaries. This perception of weakness can invite a greater number of respect violations which necessitate more regular, or more extreme, enforcement. On some level it’s almost beneficial for folk working and living in these environments to be tested so as to give them a chance to be seen enforcing their boundaries because the perception, at least, is that everyone is watching and looking for someone to “score points” off of.

In many communities and schools, the perception that the peer group is watching to see how an individual reacts and to assess the level of respect to give them is a significant factor. It’s this consideration, the balance of society/school’s rules and peer/street law, that causes individuals who know they’ll be caught and face consequences to use violence to enforce boundaries anyway. This seems ridiculous from the perspective of the larger school/society but when the goals are adjusted for peer respect, it makes a lot more sense. If the peer audience values the willingness to enforce boundaries and stand on principle, even in the face of consequences, using violence, even when you know you’ll be caught, makes perfect sense. Violence in these instances is just another form of communication to the victim and the larger peer audience: “here’s what I’m willing to do because someone violated my boundaries. No one can protect you from my wrath, so leave my boundaries alone.” In such cases, “overenforcement” is a variable concept, because extreme violence as part of boundary enforcement can be beneficial, depending on which matrix we’re considering: peer/street or school/society. This can lead to inability to code switch and contextually inappropriate communication and enforcement like the woman making a scene in a grocery store, etc.

Thus, the boundary setting matrix works perfectly but is goal dependent. If a young person wants the respect of peers who’re associated with the types of subcultures prevalent in inner cities, their boundary setting matrix, by necessity, will look different than a peer whose focus is on success in the larger school/society, etc. The big challenge is finding ways to balance the two boundary matrices so that the young people don’t have to choose between putting themselves in danger with peers or sacrificing their futures in society. Another potential solution is to significantly damaging the street/peer hierarchy to establish the school/state/society as the dominant force in the environment more directly. This derails the insertion of street consequences into school environments and such. As for respect for institutions, I think you hit the nail on the head. Ultimately, those balances of communication and enforcement contribute to institutions remaining functional and not breeding significant contempt.

ASSUME, making an ASS out of U and ME – Terry Trahan

Wow, after three separate intense conversations a couple days ago, where it was soul draining, and at times intelligence straining, I took yesterday off. Spent the day with Jae, and also spent the time contemplating all that went down, and how disappointing the engagements were. Bad enough that for a little while, the best looking option was to say fuck it, and just ignore that kind of stuff from now on.Three totally separate and different topics, yet there was a common theme in the responses I was dealing with, and that really intrigued me. So much so that it inspired this post.

The first response is large assumptions not based in really wanting to understand the other position. I have noticed in these debates I’ve been engaged in for the last few months, at least half of the people involved don’t want to discuss, debate, or even try to address a problem. They simply want to be heard. Not even listened to, they just want to be heard, content doesn’t seem to matter. Due to this, all of their responses, insults, or questions are based off of assumptions made from a very narrow understanding of the topic at hand, or of the other participants. What is worse, when this is pointed out, the next response is to attack you for pointing that out.

The second thing thrown out is a demand for purity of thought, as long as it is their thoughts. No acknowledgement of differing world views, different possible meanings or understandings, or even different definitions of words. Nope, you must believe exactly as them, or you are the same as the enemy. This also leads to thinking that they are the smartest person in the room. Considering the circles I run in, that in and of itself is laughable, but yet, it always seems to happen. Something these kinds of people need to realize.

Sometimes the best you are going to get is someone that cares enough to listen, and try to fix things, even if they don’t believe the same as you, or even if they think you are wrong. Not everyone in the world even sees there is an issue, much less give a shit enough to attempt to address it with differing tribes of thought. But, keep on insulting those people, that is sure to make them want to keep working on it with you.

The thing that bothers me the most is substitution of emotion for intellect. Once this occurs, any rational problem solving, or even ability to learn goes out the window. I don’t care how much you care about an issue, the minute it becomes an overly emotional thing to you, the ability to actually solve the issue goes away.

The absolute worse part of this is the dismissal of people, ideas, and alternatives, if it doesn’t involve slavish submission to one group. This is insidious, and in my opinion, the poison that keeps these problems going.
Remember, in any discussion, there is responsibility. To the communicator to state his case the best he can, and to the listener, to honestly listen, extend the benefit of the doubt, and to seek clarification in the case of misunderstanding. That is not possible when the above factors are in effect.

Predatory Niceness in Everyday Life – Teja VanWicklen

  Listen to Teja’s story.

This year at my son’s school has been problematic to say the least. Both his teacher and the administration have shown themselves to be old dogs, mired in bureaucracy. Things had been going well, but at the end of last year a new super intendant of schools was installed and his first move was to change everything, including many things that seemed to be working. One semester of inconsistency and lack of focus on the kids and my son’s longstanding A/B average has dropped fully to a C. He is acting out, disregarding authority and rushing through work – all behaviors that had vastly improved and which we thought were behind us. The details here are not important. I do not think I know better than others and prefer to let people do their jobs. But I know my son, and I know his work ethic. And I know it has changed drastically in tandem with the new administration.

At the beginning of the year, I met with the new teacher. She smiled. She loved children. She assured me she had my son’s number and all would be well. I know myself. I am quick to judge. I have to remind myself to be forgiving. I wish it weren’t this way, but it is. My first reaction is often to go in for the kill. To stop the bleeding before it starts. So my Neocortex steps in and convinces me to take a step back. I do, I try to have a little faith in people, to give them a chance.

It really doesn’t help when after I’ve calmed my inner monster to make way for the nicer, fluffier me, people disappoint me anyway.

At one point, we called a meeting with the teacher and the administration and went over the specific issues we were having. The teacher admitted to being unfair to my son and did so in front of her peers and the principal. My husband and I were so impressed by this we wrote her a letter thanking her for taking responsibility and showing such character. We left the meeting feeling we had reached the core problem and solved it. Instead, this teacher went straight from being unfair to my son and calling him out on every little childish indiscretion, to allowing him to get away with everything. New problem. So we asked ourselves: is she clueless, or is she actively playing the system? Is she simply doing whatever it takes to keep us off her back rather than helping children succeed?

And so it went, numerous correspondences with the administration. The word document I created from the emails is twenty pages long. Each email reply is the same, “We have met with teacher, we have addressed the issues and feel everything is back on track. Have a nice day.” The word ‘nice’ has so many meanings.

Whether someone is deceptive, untrustworthy or otherwise damaging on purpose or due to laziness or ignorance is for the most part irrelevant. The damage is still done. Some people use charm or niceness on purpose, most don’t. It is simply a habit that has persisted due to its efficiency. We are conditioned to expect bad behavior to be obvious. But, low level predators, victimizers and troublemakers (and bureaucrats!) live under the radar. They keep you off-balance but never push so hard that you push back. This kind of behavior is so much more complex and certainly more prevalent than most of the behaviors you will learn to guard against in a self defense class. As a general rule you are probably unlikely to be mugged several times a week.

I could of course have listened to my instincts early on as Gavin to Becker tells us to do and demanded a change of class without giving the teacher a chance at all. I could have, in other words, listened to the overwhelming voices in my head that said this teacher is steeped in old habits and just telling you what you want to hear – that, in effect, all my concerns were justified. For that, there likely would have been ramifications. For instance, in demanding a class change once classes were solidified on the books and teachers and children matched (more effectively than in our case one would hope) it would have raised hackles. It likely would have been more difficult to request help the next time since the alarm had already been raised. I would have given away my element of surprise – the fact that I am willing to fight if it comes to that.

So I held back in favor of diplomacy.

I could have, at any point, called an advocate or the State Department of Education and had someone intervene. An advocate would force the school to change my son’s class or address the issues in some other way. This too would have raised hackles and caused a closing of ranks against my family. In short it would have been a declaration of war. And my son still has a few more years at this school unless I want to home-school him.

Again diplomacy.

At any point I could have confronted the teacher, told her “I had HER number,” and I wasn’t going to let my son fail socially and academically without a fight. But what would that have accomplished. If I scared her it would make it difficult for her to do her job. More likely it would challenge her, piss her off and cause more problems.

Life is so much more complex than a good old-fashioned brawl.

Or I could wait and see – and put in the time. A lot of time. I could do the best job possible of working regularly and diligently with the school and with my son to make things work. This is the path I chose since this will likely be my son’s school system in the coming years. It is not ideal, we are in a holding pattern. I’m spending hours a day negotiating, writing letters, having meetings and tutoring my son (this, in addition to the usual daily grind). Now we wait for the next report card to tell us if any of it is working.

Ultimately none of this is about anything so fanciful as making a right or wrong choice. It’s about spotting problematic behavior as early as possible, making strategic choices and changing course, even multiple times, if the situation calls for it. It’s also about living with the fact that there is no perfect choice – no building theme music to herald the culmination of a long journey. And hindsight and second-guessing are futile and distracting. There’s often in reality, no way to know if you did the “right thing” or even “the best thing”.

In this case, I’m feeling a bit stupid. Even with years of training, I was blindsided by niceness. We often are. It’s such an excellent tool. It takes us by surprise. Who wants to punch the nice guy. Who wants to look like a bully and turn others against their cause. So often the preemptive strike can backfire.

So I continue to recalibrate. I have my eye on next year and hope to be well ahead of the game. The teaching staff next year is not stellar, I am told, and that is a formidable obstacle. But, there is still time and I am on it. We are creating allies and setting up the groundwork for a more successful year. It takes time and patience. Two words I’m not always fond of.

Strategizing – mental self defense – is underrated and underexplored. The issue at hand is how to spot low-level predators, victimizers and trouble makers as early as possible; to give name to the benchmarks of predatory niceness and create some sort of vetting system. Many date rapes happen this way – creeping niceness that builds trust.

It’s all well and good to talk about heeding your instincts and criminal ploys to watch for. But, what happens when someone says all the right things, always apologizes, smiles and never does anything obvious enough to point to. What happens when it’s not a matter of life and death, just quality of life and sanity. Or your child’s educational future.