How to threaten violence in an acceptable way.

I’ve been reading Dan Savage since the early 1990s, and usually think his advice is pretty good.  Especially now that he’s not as mean as he once was.  But sometimes he says something really “off,” and did so in a piece of advice he gave last year to “A Caring Loving Uncle.”

“A Caring Loving Uncle” asks for advice about a 14 year old boy, possibly gay, whom his niece is dating.  And Dan, concerned that the reaction formation of homosexual teenagers often leads to pregnancy, advises the uncle to have a talk with the boy.

You can read the column for yourself here.  (Scroll down.)

What I find troubling is the following:

“So here’s what I’d do if I were you, ACLU: Pull the boy aside for a chat. Begin with, ‘You seem like a nice kid,’ and then let him have it: ‘But if you get my niece pregnant, I will kill you.’”

“The boy will emerge from this harrowing chat aware that his girlfriend has potentially violent family members who are watching out for her—something all 14-year-old boyfriends should be made aware of—and that he can confide in you, the involved gay uncle, privately and about anything.”

I find this advice troubling because it reinforces the unfortunate idea that it is somehow necessary to deal with adolescent boys in a rough manner, in order to communicate with them.

Consider this:  From what the uncle’s letter says, the boy in question hasn’t done anything wrong other than be a fourteen year old boy.  Yet because of his age and gender, Dan feels it’s perfectly appropriate for the uncle to begin a conversation with him by threatening violence.  And implicit in this advice is a belief, shared by many “progressives,” about the thoughts and feelings and psychological makeup of most fourteen year old boys.

When Dan says that all fourteen year old boys should be made aware that their girlfriends have potentially violent family members watching out for them, this makes a pretty damning assumption about the inner world of teenage boys.  It takes for granted that they cannot be trusted, that their ethical reasoning is primitive, and that the only way to get their attention is through some kind of locker-room show of bravado.

The unfortunate corollary to this belief is that as long as a teenage boy stays out of trouble, everything is fine.  As though the only challenge for the adolescent boy is that he control his impulses.  And the consequence of this belief is unfortunate.  I “stayed out of trouble” as a teenager.  Didn’t date, didn’t have a lot of friends, and never had a girlfriend.  And nobody cared.  Not a family member, a friend, or a “caring uncle.”  And the last thing I would have needed when I was fourteen was a threat.

It would have been nice if a caring, older person had sat down with me, poured me a cup of tea, and asked if maybe there was a girl I’d be interested in.  But this isn’t the way our society thinks teenage boys should be treated.  We still seem to think that the only way to communicate with a fourteen year old boy is to tell him we’re going to bust his ass six ways from Sunday if he pulls any shit.  It’s sad, really.

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2 Responses to How to threaten violence in an acceptable way.

  1. Gah. says:

    People wonder why young men are violent. Okay maybe testosterone has something to do with it, but come on. We’re talking about KIDS who mimic what adults do to them. Best way to make a young man/boy violent? Be violent with him. Just saying.

  2. Ari says:

    Ugh. All this nonsense about threatening boys as a way to encourage them to behave civilly, usually towards their romantic partners, usually by an older male relative. Grates on my nerves. Human beings, most of them anyway, with appropriately developed internal morality, don’t need the constant threat of “inevitable authority figure”– whether it’s God, the Church, the King or an In-law, to keep them from acting immorally. And I personally take offense to the idea that I should feel “good” about the idea that my romantic partners need to be threatened by an older relative in order to “stay in line.” Fuck that noise. If they aren’t more scared of ME, not to harm me, and require my FATHER to scare them (or bother or uncle or whatever), then I’m dropping them like hot potatoes.

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