Toughness, Race, Insecurity and the Culture of Fighting

Opinion by Al Alvir

To state that any generalization has its exceptions and that any cluster implies “not all” is a disclaimer only for children and confounded idiots, bigots or simply the ignorant. So, I’ll just say it to satisfy any unintended readers: this is not a condemnation of any group of people but the pretend tough-guys who may be more conspicuous in some cultures than others.

There is a difference in cultures in the wide world of conflict, and even war. Many of us have been in fair fights, and many of us have been in brawls. Almost every one of us must have been in near fights, and countless more have probably witnessed people at odds.   Society inculcates people into violence, gratuitous to necessary to politicized.  Many of our morals are based around it.  It is, historically, culture in America (and beyond).  Within America, divisions are their own continents when it comes to aggressiveness and toughness. 

But what is toughness?  What makes a tough guy?  Of all notions of it, the most elemental feature should be “the unwillingness to discern threats before and upon attack.”  Basically, a true tough-guy does not size-up anyone. He treats everyone equally.  I know some generally gutsy people – men who have not turned-down a fight, command their respect, walk with dignity, and who have taken on battles they were supposed to lose.  I’ve known strong-willed guys who would probably take on difficult battles believing they could overcome.  But the toughest guys take on fights even if they were sure they would sacrifice their well-being and their dignity – they fight with nothing to gain and everything to lose.  Because the toughest guys don’t fight to save face; they fight despite probably losing face.  I’ve known guys who carried themselves like true tough guys, hardened by life’s unfortunate turns.  But I have never really found out if any of them really were tough, in the essence of the paradoxical definition.  Does anyone know someone who behaves like a tough-guy when an altercation arises?  Perhaps, I’m sure, but would he have acted in the same manner if the other guy[s] were Mike Tyson or Brock Lesnar or Shaquille O’neal (or any man with a knife or bat) in a place where no one could help, call the cops, or break it up?  One may wonder, “Do you have to be dumb to be tough?  Do you have to be crazy?”

How a person acts in a climate of dangerous men or “hired guns” is the barometer of a real fighter.  In professional combat sports, tough guys are the norm.  In the upper echelon of those combat sports, a given fighter may act the part of the tough guy who can beat anyone, usually because he has proven that he is capable of beating anyone.  And even then, history teaches us that his ego will be burst.  In society, however, to spot a true tough guy is like spotting someone with a high IQ in a retail store’s boardroom – everyone wants to act exceptionally smart, but so few probably are.  And almost all of them will never take an IQ test.  Do so-called tough guys fight?

Cultural differences may dictate what is tough.  My experience growing up in New York, a giant city, impersonal but with a perpetual climate for confrontation, taught me that there was always someone tougher, better, stronger, more ruthless and more violent – so real tough guys avoided fights, didn’t talk tough or put on shows, and spiritedly fought only because it was the “only” convenience.  In smaller towns that I’ve lived in or visited, I’ve found that big guys were typically the ones who owned the roles of tough guys.  They tended to puff their chests and readily exhibit their perceived superiority.  Of course, this is how it is everywhere to some extent, but it is more evident the farther you are from urban sprawl – fewer people, less competition.  Even in high school, a microcosm of society, it’s easy to know who the strongest is out of everyone you know, but in a big city’s largest schools you may only know a small fraction of the student body.  The irony is that the perception from both dynamics cause conflicting aesthetics when altercations arise – depending on the situation, the perceived tough guy often seems to rear his head even without a fight occurring.  So is he really tough?  All talk?  Who is a sissy? Who is not?  Those are the questions.

On an episode of Prime Time: What Would You Do on ABC (aired January 14, 2011) a group of actors posing as construction men sexually harassing another actress in the street were approached by an unbeknownst big guy who challenged them all to fight.  At first glance, a layman to fight antics would assume that this guy was the quintessential tough guy.  He was willing to take on three men for a damsel in distress.  I don’t buy it for one second.  I don’t think that so-called tough guy would have acted similarly if one of the guys were his size or of the same aesthetic toughness.  He was probably not a tough guy, as he probably assessed the situation and thought he would win or that he could intimidate the group of workers.  Also, approaching those construction men could have made an avoidable situation much worse.  He later said, “I was gonna knock them out.”  To the TV I facetiously replied, “How does he know that?”  I don’t care if that guy was a trained fighter; his approach was indulgent – he seemed to want to display his toughness.  The other three guys could have been trained too, and they could have tried to kill him if it wasn’t an experiment.  Other good Samaritans, in this similar scenario, managed to de-escalate the situation intelligently without “acting” tough.  Men tend to use intimidation and they tend to size up every situation, but the rare tough guy doesn’t necessarily size-up anything because he is either going to fight or not – “Who cares about what the guy looks like or if the environment is somewhat controlled (meaning someone may stop the fight)?” This doesn’t mean that the guy shouldn’t assess the conditions, but it should never dictate whether he will fight or not – remember, the tough guy always tries to avoid the fight, period – unless he’s the crazy type of tough guy.  Is that an oxymoron?  And the tough guy is going to fight even if he believes he has a good chance of losing; that seems to be a feature more compelling than anyone stupid enough to feel invincible.

The aesthetics of toughness are all baloney.  Football players stare-down their opponents after every play, but they almost never really fight even with the excessive protective gear.  Basketball players trash-talk and mush their faces together and almost never swing.  The rare occasion any of these athletes do fight, they fight in situations in which their hearts cannot be tested.  They won’t be lying in their own blood being soccer kicked while trying to get up.  How are any of them seen as fighters when there are numerous people around who will not allow a fight to continue?  Most seemingly tough guys would punch Mike Tyson in the middle of a basketball game if things got “heated,” but who would want to shoot a fair one (ibid) with him? Maybe he knows he is going to be bailed-out.  In the street, when fights don’t actually happen, the guy who doesn’t back down seems like the man, and the other, a coward.  But sometimes the coward becomes the tough guy if the fight actually happens and persists. More often, these fights get broken up.  In a club, for example, it’s much easier to swing on a group of guys who outnumber you knowing the altercation could not last that long.  The imminent danger is not lasting.  Not to say that you can’t get killed in seconds, but there is a definite intervention very nearby even if no one gets hurt – bouncers, friends, cops, bystanders, etc.

The overwhelming speculation, when it comes to near-fights, is that the guy who backs down is the sissy.  That is actually not necessarily the case.  Some of the toughest guys turn down fights because they are secure enough to recognize that they don’t want to go through the trouble of fighting – and if a fight is avoidable, what is the point really?  Is it to display how superior one is?  Is it to preserve some self-defense that almost never justifies fighting in itself?  Is it to prove oneself to someone else or to oneself?  Is it some other insecurity?  Or is it fun?  Whatever the cause, fighting is almost never the safest way out; contrarily, it is usually the most dangerous.  So the only reason to fight is on behalf of overwhelming indignation and the idea that you would fight the person no matter who he was, what he had in his hand[s], what he looked like, or who is around.  All too often, the big, mean-looking guy presses to want to fight, but counts on the other guy to back-down.  This is so common that it breeds a climate among men that is almost solely based on image. 

 “He looks like I could beat him” is a common sentiment in someone who is about to fight.  But it is just a lousy guess.  Even size means nothing in deciding a fight’s outcome (it’s overrated in almost every other way outside of organized competition).  But image as a whole is nonsense.  One’s psyche may help decide to fight upon countless factors of image.  But that confidence to fight is only “perceived confidence,” or lack thereof, and fluctuates from situation to situation.  This does not include organized competition.  Organized and controlled fighting is different because there is preparation, and confidence is expected to be absolute – fighters are supposed to feel like they can beat anyone put in front of them never based on image, but training.  No one, however, can ever know what to expect in a random encounter in the street.

Since no one can be fully “prepared” for uncontrolled situations, even the best trained fighters know better and choose to avoid fights.  Conversely, the typical group of people who get into fights in the street harbor biases and prejudice that can be misleading.  Socioeconomic dynamics may be the cause in the varying mentalities of fighting – bullies (perhaps more of a middle and upper class dynamic), gangs (perhaps more of a lower-working class dynamic), populations, and other social pressures.  People consider it all when they are about to get into a fight. 

The two types of farcical tough guys that seem ubiquitous are bullies and gang members (not necessarily actual gangs, but it is a reference to people who act in groups).  Neither type of person exemplifies anything of what a true fighter should be, but they are the two typical profiles of people who get into fights.  Bullies tend to use their size to dictate who they pick fights against.  Gang-types tend to fight emboldened by being with other people.  Gang-types, however, don’t necessarily “pick” their fights; they don’t size-up people, but they act because they have buffers.  In my section of Queens, a prototypical example of America with its cluster of classes and ethnicities, the pronounced bevy of black young men used to have a conviction, “White people are [sissies] who only fight if they are bigger than someone.”  White men, on the opposite end, used to share a collective view that “black and [Hispanic] people only fight when they have people with them.”  In the smaller towns that I have been acquainted with, both views were even more profound, as I’ve found in my own sociological observations on numerous occasions – whites, with resounding effect, would show to be inferior to blacks and Hispanics in conflict of equal groups and equal sizes, and when a white guy was big and menacing he would be the bully (other minorities not mentioned fall on either side of the spectrum).  It sounds so prejudicial – some may say, “isolated” – but maybe it’s all valid even cross-culturally and through adulthood.  And both notions exploit cowardice and a façade of toughness.  Whether or not any of this seems typical to you, both notions may encompass society as a whole regardless of base notions of race – a bunch of people who are really not tough, just empowered by the perception of others’ voids.  That’s not braveness.  That’s not toughness.**

Through road rage and bumping shoulders in a club, it is common for people to never fight fair fights.  Sure, one-on-ones sometimes happen, but they’re seldom fair.  One guy usually “sets it off”with a sucker punch in the middle of groups of people – again, the buffer of people standing around is comforting or a proper outlet to show-off.  The most overwhelming number of fights occur with groups against groups.  Real fair fighting doesn’t happen.  Even in America, arguably the most violent social climate in the world, people tend to be intimidated when someone wants to shoot a fair one where no one can intervene.  It’s easy to look tough in front of cops or to a man at his job who does not want to risk losing it.  It’s easy to look tough if you have more guys with you.  It’s easy to look tough if you’re bigger than the other guy.  And it’s easy to look tough if you have a gun.  The point is that looking tough and being tough are two completely different things that rouse the line of being mutually exclusive.

With that, here is one prevailing rule when it comes to fighting in the street:  the toughest don’t. (A life rarely depends on it.) 

*Remember that, though most fights end up on the ground and start on the feet (I’ve seen fights start with people kicking each other from chairs in a movie theater), almost all fights occur with 4 or more people (2 vs. 2, 2 vs. 3 and up)…. And almost every single person is a sissy deep down or right on the surface.  But all of them – in every situation and any location – can get you killed.

**The idea of culture will be explored in “The Psyche of Tap-outs, Knock-outs, Street-fights and MMA”

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One response to “Toughness, Race, Insecurity and the Culture of Fighting

  1. RacoonKillerKyle

    There are probably more white people that subscribe to this site, that might not like insulting middle america. Where are you on the tough guy fake tough guy spectrum? It’s very hard too to make a determination who is tough or not tough. Blacks are always acting like they are going to kill whites in fights.

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