Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Living with the paradox of compliance

It may sound like I’m really going off the deep end, but I have to admit that sometimes I have these thoughts:

  • I wish I had done more drugs as a teenager.
  • I wish I had been less obedient and compliant as a teenager and young adult.
  • I wish I had gone “wild” as a teenager, and caused more trouble.
  • I wish I had attracted more attention to myself.
  • I wish I hadn’t been so focused on a good future for myself.
  • I wish I’d been more focused on being considered a “bad boy.”

I grew up in the 1970s and my teenage years in the mid-part of that dreaded ’70s decade were years of frustration and loneliness. Girls had zero interest in me and I tended to fade into the background in school. I was a decent student, and in some ways school was a refuge into which I could lose myself. I had a few friends, but was terribly lonely and frustrated.

Still, I believed that through conformity, obedience and accomplishment I could break out of that rut. And when that didn’t work, I tried nonconformity in one of the most conforming ways imaginable: I decided to go into the military.

At the time, military service was considered the least-preferred outcome for a high school graduate. The memories of Vietnam were still strong in the late 1970s and the perception that the military was a waster of human lives and tax money was prevalent, and a cause of condemnation of the service. (Today, the military is still considered a waster of human lives and tax money, but the military is worshipped. Go figure.) The draft had ended, and no one was being forced to sign up, but there were still those of us who saw that the military offered something different from the college grind and the presence of parents. The fact that I’d be trading one grind and one set of parents for another grind and set of “parents” did not yet register in my mind. I was young and naïve.

Looking back from my early 50s, I am sometimes amazed at the boy of 17 who decided to challenge his parents in late 1977 and do something they didn’t want him to do. I wanted my parents to sign the papers that would let me enlist early in the Marine Corps on the delayed-entry program, and set a course for my life in the late summer of 1978 before the Christmas decorations were even up in December 1977.

I wanted to get away, and see something new, and become someone new. All my obedience and conformity had gotten me was more criticism. I had friends who did drugs, failed all their classes and were defiant in school – if they were still in school – and they didn’t care what anyone thought of them. Caring about what people thought of you, I learned later in life, gave others ammunition to use against you because they could withhold good evaluations in order to control you and make you more obedient, and then criticize you more.

It was ironic – and very, very frustrating.

I won that battle with my parents, my very first victory, and eventually found myself – after basic training at Parris Island – at the Naval Air Station in Millington, Tenn., which is about 20 miles outside Memphis.

What struck me as odd was that while I was still hiding in the background there was a definite pecking order. Of course, the officers were on top, then the sergeants and at the very bottom, we the “slick-sleeved” and “shower-shoe” Marines (privates and privates first class, respectively) who were attending our first training schools after Parris Island.

There were others, though, corporals and sergeants who had re-enlisted from the infantry for retraining in aviation fields. They often were put in charge of the rest of us, though like us they were in training for aviation.

The thing was that in that mass of male humanity, only those who were less obedient and compliant really stood out as individuals to those in charge. I was nearly invisible, with one exception.

I was known to one staff sergeant at the barracks for a pretty odd reason. I was stuck in receiving because after arriving at NAS Millington I had been put on mess duty, and had not moved into one of the training squadrons. One day, I noticed that he had a chessboard set up on the desk, and I asked him if it was his. He said it was, but that no one wanted to play chess with him.

I started playing chess with him, mainly to pass the time while he was on duty and I had nothing to do. Suddenly, I was known to someone in authority as more than just another “boot” Marine.

But there was this one fellow called with the last name of Eustace – we dubbed him “Useless” – who was everything you weren’t supposed to be at this point in your military career. He was defiant, disobedient, loud and had minimal respect for superiors. Those superiors, in turn – loved him.

He stood out, got lots of attention, had one-on-one meetings with officers and senior NCOs who tried to straighten him out and was known to everyone in authority. Those of us who obeyed and complied might as well have been invisible. We were heavily reprimanded, even when we were obedient and compliant, though the group anonymity meant there were no individual punishments, mostly, just group punishments.

More annoying was the fact that Eustace lorded it over the rest of us that every officer and NCO knew him by name and talked to him a lot. He was flooded with attention and his “efforts” to improve got him a lot of positive reinforcement. At a time in life when some of us were reprimanded even if we did something right or well, or just for being alive and collecting a government paycheck, it can cause serious resentment.

But in fact this kind of resentment has always existed because people in a position of authority tend to gravitate toward those who refuse to conform in an effort to get them to conform. In the process, they isolate themselves from those who are conforming and conclude that young people are all totally disobedient – because those are the only young people with whom they come into contact.

When you’re in a system where only those who make great strides in improving their behavior are noticed or rewarded – and those who are already performing as they should are ignored – the result is that those who are obeying are not only ignored, they may be blamed for problems and condemned as part of the problem, not the solution.

On a recent episode of “This American Life,” a segment on twins who had become co-principals of a high school noted that two students who were always being sent to the principals’ office were twins who didn’t get along.

Naturally, the principals saw the twins as extraordinary students despite their lack of respect and discipline; had they behaved themselves, the principals wouldn’t have even given them the time of day. Instead, they had prolonged contact and attention, and the resultant “turnaround,” for which – of course – the adult twins took the credit.

But had those two girls remained obedient and stayed in the background, they never would have come to the attention to the principal, and their supposed good qualities never would have been noticed.

It’s the same way that local elected officials will gravitate toward organizations that mentor “troubled” youths, and talk on and on about the success stories while ignoring the fact that plenty of young people don’t get in trouble and get zero attention or recognition.

It’s a paradox. If you’re operating at “A” you just don’t seem to be achieving as much as someone who’s gone from “F” to “C.”

It’s a shame that there are so many people in the world who are doing so much good, and their work is never noticed because they never get in or cause trouble. Then again, as I’ve always heard, life is unfair.


June 25, 2013 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , ,

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