Monday, November 18, 2013

The interesting case of Jonathan Martin

In the news there has been stories about Jonathan Martin (formerly of the Miami Dolphins) being bullied by Richie Incognito (also a former team mate).  Martin alleges he was bullied, Incognito alleges they were friends and what Martin terms "bullying" was merely attempts to toughen him up.

Those who have been in the military or who have pledged a fraternity or sorority will immediately recognize this as "hazing".  Hazing, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, is "an initiation process involving harassment; the practice of playing unpleasant tricks on someone or forcing someone to do unpleasant things".  Doing calisthenics in the mud, drinking games, doing chores while dressed in some ridiculous outfit are all milder examples of hazing or initiation rituals.  Hazing though can quickly become a nasty practice involving humiliation, physical injury or trauma and even death.  The US military has regulations against hazing and most universities crack-down on cases of hazing in fraternities and sororities.  Yet hazing still remains as part of the culture for many elite groups.

The Jonathan Martin story gives us an opportunity to look again at the rites of initiations into elite groups and how those same reasons can be used to encourage people to join terrorist groups.  Jonathan Martin, from all reports in the press, is an extremely bright young man from a well-to-do family and graduated from Stanford University.  Despite his size and chosen profession, Jonathan Martin does not appear to be a man who chooses to solve things by sheer physical dominance.  If this assessment is correct, this may be the root of his problem with his right of passage into the NFL and Miami Dolphins.

In comparison, Richie Incognito is nothing if not a physical presence.  Going back to his college years, Richie Incognito embodied the in-your-face physicality associated with lineman.  He was accused of spitting in another player's face, fighting during practice (resulting in a suspension), and the following year he was involved in another fight at a party and was charged with three counts of assault.  In comparison, Jonathan Martin attend a prestigious college-prep school and studied the classics at Stanford.  Despite their polar opposite collegiate experiences, they both ended up pursuing professional football careers and ended-up on the Miami Dolphins.  Incognito alleges they were best friends prior to the allegations that ended-up with both players being suspended.

While we may truly never know what happened, the basic problem seems to have been the Miami Dolphins valued more players being like the aggressive Incognito than the more cerebral Martin.  It is this dichotomy that I believe can help us understand why radical groups (such as terrorists) are able to recruit people you would never guess are interested in becoming terrorists.

Incognito represented the traditional, physically aggressive type player favored by the Miami Dolphins and other NFL teams.  This likely means his behavior was condoned directly or indirectly by other players and the leadership.  The NFL is an elite organization that only the best of the best can play in.  The players recognize this elite standing and take great pains to maintain that mystique.  You see the same thing in Special Forces Units, SEAL Teams, Marine Corps Force Recon, Delta Force, SAS, etc.  You have to measure up just to try out and even if you make the cut, you have to be willing to be tried and tried again.  Often this is accomplished through hazing, which is to remind the rookie that just because he or she has made it, they still have to prove themselves to the veteran members.

Sociologists will tell you this hazing/initiation reduces the sense of self in relationship to the group.  You see this in basic training, the military excels at taking individuals from all walks of life and turing them into a unified group (soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, etc).  Those that can't  be transformed into this new sense of group over self are the ones most likely to receive the harshest form of hazing (much like the treatment of Pvt "Gomer Pyle" in the movie "Full Metal Jacket).

It appears from the press the Joseph Martin fell into this later category.  His mild-mannered, well-educated background caused some to question his toughness.  As a result, Richie Incognito was called in to toughen him up and this is when things went south for the Miami Dolphins.  Individuals being hazed under these conditions are usually left with a Hobson's choice of complying with the group's identity or dropping out of the program.  Joseph Martin chose a third option and went public with his treatment and file suit.  In reaction, Richie Incognito has now filed a grievance over his suspension.

If we now look at most radical or fringe groups, our first thought is to ask why would anyone follow these ideas?  Why would anyone want to be subjected to the verbal threats of Richie Incognito?  It is because of the need to preserver in order to gain admission into an elite group.  Think about how any fraternal groups tends to initiate new recruits.  No matter how good natured, there is some requirement for the initiate to undergo a series of trials that causes them to forsake their own identity or beliefs for that of the group.

Whether is is a professional football team, elite military unit or simply your local college fraternity, they all share the need to protect the mystique of the group and those that don't measure up are made to endure harsher tests often in the form of hazing.  I said earlier that the US military has regulations against hazing but this does not mean individuals from units don't haze new recruits, especially those that like Joseph Martin are felt not to measure up.

Radical groups can get away with even more by finding people looking to belong to something bigger than themselves yet may not have been interested in more traditional routes (church, sports, the military).  They may be individuals that became disenfranchised with one of these groups.  Regardless, by making memberships something that requires sacrifice of self it actually makes it more attractive to some people.

Many people are having an adverse reaction to the revelations of the culture within an NFL locker room.  Yet many of these same people have been casual fans of the sport for years and never questioned how you can get men to play one of the most physically dangerous sports each fall seemingly without regard to their own safety and well being.  How do you get young men (and now increasingly young women) to take on dangerous missions without regard to their own peril?  It is by establishing and maintaining such a demanding initiation process that one's thought of self is made secondary to being a member of the group (vive le guerre, vive le mare, vive le sacre legionnaire!)

I hope social psychologists will pay attention to the case of Jonathan Martin and develop some theories that may better help analysts predict which groups have the right set of rights of initiation or hazing to become threats.