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DURING the past 35 years I have used prisons and prison mental hospitals as “laboratories” in which to investigate the causes and prevention of the various forms of violence and the relationships between these forms and to what I will call (with a nod to William James) “the varieties of moral experience.” In the course of that work, I have been struck by the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners, or mental patients, why they assaulted or even killed someone. Time after time, they would reply “because he disrespected me” or “he disrespected my visitor [or wife, mother, sister, girl-friend, daughter, etc.].” In fact, they used that phrase so often that they abbreviated it into the slang phrase, “He dis’ed me.” Whenever people use a word so often that they abbreviate it, it is clearly central to their moral and emotional vocabulary. But even when they did not abbreviate it, references to the desire for respect as the motive for violence kept recurring. For example, I used to think that people committed armed robberies in order to get money; and indeed, that is the superficial explanation that they would often prefer to give, to themselves and to us. But when I actually sat down and spoke at length with men who had repeatedly committed such crimes, I would start to hear comments like “I never got so much respect before in my life as I did when I pointed a gun at some dude’s face.” On one occasion, the officers in a prison had become involved in a running battle with a prisoner in which he would assault them and they would punish him. The more they punished him the more violent he became, and the more violent he became the more they punished him. They placed him in solitary confineSOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) Shame, Guilt, and Violence JAMES GILLIGAN ment, deprived him of even the last few privileges and possessions a prison inmate has; there was no further punishment to which they could subject him without becoming subject to punishment themselves, and yet he continued to assault them whenever they opened his door. At that point they gave up and asked me to see if I could help them understand what was going on so they could extricate themselves from a situation that was only harming both parties to the conflict. (Incidentally, one can observe this same mutually self-defeating vicious cycle on a national and international scale and throughout history, both in this country and elsewhere , as in Chechnya, Israel-Palestine, and Iraq; and historically, as in the punitive peace settlement following the First World War that strengthened the revanchist political movements that culminated in the Second World War—to choose just a few among many possible examples). When I saw this prisoner I asked him, “What do you want so badly that you are willing to give up everything else in order to get it?” It seemed to me that this was exactly what he was doing. In response, this man, who was usually so inarticulate that it was difficult to get a clear answer to any question, astonished me by standing up tall, looking me in the eye, and replying with perfect clarity and a kind of simple eloquence: “Pride. Dignity. Selfesteem .” And then, speaking more in his usual manner, he added “And I’ll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it.” He went on to describe how the officers were, he felt, attempting to strip away his last shred of dignity and selfesteem by disrespecting him, and said, “I still have my pride and I won’t let them take that away from me. If you ain’t got pride, you got nothin’.” He made it clear to me that he would die before he would humble himself to the officers by submitting to their demands. Nor was that true just of this man. One of the most common fantasies I have heard from many of the most violent prison inmates is the scenario of going to their deaths in a hail of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1149-1180
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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