I’ve been paying some attention to the Jonathan Martin story, not because it’s a sports story but rather because it’s a microcosm of the contemporary crisis of being an American male. To oversimplify it, on one side there is the traditional (albeit perhaps vulgar traditional) idea that a man deserves ridicule rather than support from his peers if he is having problems he can’t solve by himself (an … d this might be particularly acute in American culture, with its emphasis on individualism, pioneers, cowboys, bootstraps, private property, etc.). On the other side there is the idea that it behooves a man’s peers to “be there” for him, not to coddle, but at the very least not to aggravate his wounds. To the first side there’s an element in which sensitivity is equated with weakness and weakness is considered worse than sociopathy. To the second side there’s an element of personal ethics, self-governance being a greater order (a more essential element of “being a man”) than is getting away with whatever you can so long as the victim isn’t making you stop.
Yes, it’s a good adage that “we teach others how to treat ourselves” — sound, practical advice. Yet it’s assuming that “the other” is using no ethical compass other than your fist, or at the very least your strong words or assertiveness. It doesn’t say that the other is occupying superior ethical ground until you “teach ’em a thing or two”; it’s just prudence for dealing with folks whose development has been arrested in something along the lines of a lower stage of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development (or who is ethically more capable, but errs, as we all do). While Martin would likely admit that he could use continued assertiveness training and maybe some codependency therapy for “people pleasing”, he ought not be judged an inferior man merely over his lack of skills in some of the more twisted spaces in which we often operate any more than he should be judged an inferior man if his chess game is weak. The inferior man is the man for whom “ethics” is just an empty slogan on a corporate website, the man who knows wrong only when he is spanked — the baby man.
One of the reasons why I’ve been drawn to Martin is that as a kid I was physically on the small extreme and intellectually on the large extreme. As one might imagine, especially for a boy this creates a special set of problems and fears. Fortunately (even if by necessity) I was able to parlay my general intelligence into social intelligence — interpersonal sychology and politics. Another thing that worked to my advantage in some ways was the fact that I was so small that even most teenage boys realized it was in poor form to pick on me — not much sport to it, makes you look bad. Not only that, but there’s something of a code between really huge guys and really small guys — the huge guys like to have an excuse to “be huge”, and defending a tiny guy is second only to defending a girl. So at various times and places all the way through college there were these huge guys with whom I had temporary symbiosis (at parties, playing sports, etc.).
Martin himself is one of the huge guys though, which I would guess means he’s expected to be a “the buck stops here” kind of guy. He’s not supposed to need support — he IS the support.
But back to ethics, Martin’s lack of assertiveness is only “bad” because of the much more harmful lack of ethics and empathy in others (Richie Incognito and company in this case). There’s a hole in Martin’s skill set, not in his character.