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Inner City Culture

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by Izzy Kalman (November 2003)

In this newsletter, I am making a call for my colleagues who work and/or live in the inner cities to provide some information. I need to know if I am missing something and would appreciate your response.

Many of my seminar participants protest that my methods won’t work in the inner cities, that I don’t understand their mentality. Some get the impression that I have no experience with minorities and lack sensitivity for their subcultures.

I am aware that life in the inner cities is closer to the cruel lawless jungle than middle class neighborhoods, and that the tools for survival are not identical. However, like a couple of my idols, Desmond Morris and Steven Pinker, I believe that people from all cultures and ethnic groups have the same human nature. I have difficulty accepting the idea that the Golden Rule doesn’t work in the inner cities. In fact, I have difficulty believing that the Golden Rule isn’t the ONLY HOPE for the inner cities.

Wherever I go I see streets and schools named for Martin Luther King, Junior. Didn’t he preach the Golden Rule? In his famous “I have a dream” speech, he himself said, “Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” Since so many Blacks reject this teaching, why aren’t they holding demonstrations demanding the name of Martin Luther King Jr. be removed from these public places and replaced with, say, Mike Tyson?

Inner city residents have traditionally turned to Jesus for guidance, and more recently to Mohammed. How are their ethical teachings different from my interventions?

Mental health professionals who work with inner city populations come to my Anger Control Made Easy seminars looking for a way to help their populations, but it seems to me that many are saying, “Teach us how to make our clients less angry and aggressive, but without expecting them to give up anger and aggression.” Frankly, I don’t see how it can be done. The naysayers come to my seminar because their way isn’t working. They leave disappointed because they can’t imagine mine working, either.

I suspect my approach is often rejected because the teaching of “you can’t let anyone get away with disrespecting you” is so deeply engrained in the inner cities that the mental health professionals have a steep uphill battle. Convincing others to practice the Golden Rule is particularly difficult, especially when the mental health professionals themselves were raised to stand up to aggression with aggression. But just because something is difficult to accomplish, does it make it the wrong way to go?

And from my own observations, the idea that inner city people are constantly fighting just isn’t true. There may be more aggression than in middle class neighborhoods, but it is only a matter of degree. We are still the same creatures and the same basic rules are at work.

The way I see it, the fact that there are so many social problems in the inner cities is not a sign that the Golden Rule doesn’t apply to them, but that it makes teaching the Golden Rule that much more important. Many inner city residents turn to Mohammed and Jesus for guidance, not because their teachings are irrelevant, but because they so desperately need the principles for living in peace.

Why is it so hard to live by the Golden Rule? The explanation can be surmised from an interesting fact brought by Dr. Gregory Lester in his wonderful book, Power with People. He says research shows people react eight times as strongly to aggression as to niceness. That is because hostility is an immediate danger to us, so it is much more urgent to respond to it than to niceness.

But this doesn’t invalidate the Golden Rule. If you give in to your impulses and respond aggressively to aggression, then both sides become engulfed in aggression. But if you stand firm and remain friendly in the face of hostility, before long you both become friends. The Golden Rule works, but it requires persistence because the biological programming to respond to aggression with aggression is important for our survival in the wild.

By the way, inner city minorities are so tough because they grow up with much greater adversity than most whites do. I truly admire their toughness, for they are quite good at handling both verbal and physical aggression amongst themselves. So why do I have to walk on eggshells when we deal with each other? If cultural diversity is such a great thing, why can’t we speak openly about our cultural differences without fear of being accused of insensitivity? I can’t tell you how worried I am about sending the current newsletter because I don’t know what hostile responses I may receive. Please know that I am writing from love of my fellow man, and am honestly seeking to increase my understanding.

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