A Note on Thugs and Thuggery

23 Jan

Justin Bieber is not, and will never be, a thug. He is always the potential victim of thugs, either through their bad influence, or their targeting him. Marshall Mathers (Eminem), and other poor whites are another story, especially if they are from the inner city or the American south. Black and brown people are thugs until proven otherwise. The thug is an uncivilized element, a person resistant to civilization, and enjoyment of the fruits of empire.

Not surprisingly, the word “thug” comes to us via settler colonialism, adapted, the Oxford English Dictionary tells me:

Etymology:  < Hindi ṭhag, Mahratti ṭhag, ṭhak a cheat, swindler.

The 1816 citation from Asiatick Researches is especially helpful: “The term ‘Theg‘ is usually applied, in te western provinces, to persons who rob and murder travellers on the highways, either by poison, or the application of the cord or knife.” Thomas Carlyle applied it to Glasgow (1839), George Washington Cable noted that “A few ‘thugs’ terrorized the city with… beating, stabbing, and shooting” (1883), while “J. Burns” in the Westminster Gazette warned of some who “even engage ‘knockers-out’, who..belabour and disable voters as they are entering the booths… They [the ‘knockers-out,’ I think] are called ‘election Thugs’.” Even the fears of the New Black Panthers and the “knock-out game” isn’t new. In 1982, the most up-to-date reference in the OED, someone pleaded that corporal punishment be retained in schools “as the final deterrent for school ‘thugs’.”

These citations trace the transformation of the threat from colonial to domestic concern, but maintain the sense of the irrational, expected but unpredictable threat that lies beyond civilization’s borders. Like L. Brooks Patterson, an elected official, warning “You do not, do not, under any circumstances, stop in Detroit at a gas station! That’s just a call for a carjacking!” The thug interferes with the processes of empire, and is the other of liberal democracy. Unresponsive to reason, preventative violence is the only response. Uncivilized, the thug still participates in Hobbesian war of all-against-all. Hobbes also, perhaps, explains the reasons for the particular anxiety the thug engenders:

To have done more hurt to a man than he can or is willing to expiate inclineth the doer to hate the sufferer. For he must expect revenge or forgiveness; both which are hateful.

Fear of oppression disposeth a man to anticipate or to seek aid by society: for there is no other way by which a man can secure his life and liberty. (Hobbes scholars correct me, but I understand Hobbes to mean “strike first” when he says “anticipate”)

Recent history–from Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis to Reneisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell among so many others–show us that being a “thug” means being subject to violent death with the state being reluctant to act. The thug is presumed guilty, the one who murders the thug presumed innocent. The thug is beyond the reach of law–the law can’t protect the presumed victim of the thug’s violence, the law will not recognize a murdered “thug” as victim. Richard Sherman is right to distance himself from the epithet (though not cautious enough in his use of it): those who belong to the category of the “thug,” originally an association of professional robbers and murders, cannot be the victims of crime, and always lie in wait for those foolish enough to enter their territory. Smart people avoid “their” territory and kill when “they” stray into the wrong territory.

Lately, I’ve been revisiting Foucault’s comments on the importance of racism to the state’s power to kill. “[R]ace or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable”:

When I say “killing,” I obviously do not mean simply murder as such, but also every form of indirect murder: the fact of exposing someone to death, increasing the risk of death for some people, or, quite simply, political death, expulsion, rejection, and so on.

The thug is obviously a racialized figure of killability. But in the wake of Freedom Industries’ poisoning of West Virginia’s water, BP’s poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico, the three-story pile of coke in Detroit and Chicago, and countless other disasters and instances of what Rob Nixon has called “slow violence” in the Niger River valley, Ghana, Ecuador, and so many other places, thug retains its initial territorial sense. If you can kill the lawless/outlaw thug with impunity when he comes into your area, then it does not matter if you kill the thug in the thug’s territory. For the thug invites thuggery, the lawless exposure of the thug to violence and spectacular exclusion from the protections of society and societal norms. Violence follows the thug, not like something hunting it, but like a constant companion. And as Robert Louis Stevenson observed, “Sometimes it [sc. death] leaps suddenly upon its victims, like a Thug.”

Update: This piece may over-emphasize vigilantism, so I want to offer one final speculative word: Scholars like Vesla M. Weaver have argued persuasively that there is a causal relationship between mid-1960s Civil Rights legislation and the reinstatement of the death penalty, the revival of felon disenfranchisement, mandatory minimum sentencing, and other “tough on crime” legislation. Like the “Global War on Terror” and its vaguely defined “militants,” “Tough on Crime” may be the state’s way of appropriating a generalized threat of thuggery and meeting it with anticipatory violence. In both instances, I think, the target of anticipatory violence is also unthinkably other and exterior to a well-functioning society. Stevenson’s comments on death’s sudden leap are especially apt in the era of drone warfare and policing that has been steadily militarizing since the late-1960s.


One Response to “A Note on Thugs and Thuggery”


  1. Thug Culture | In Pursuit of Sacred Words - February 16, 2014

    […] time in what the press took to calling the “loud music trial,” I wanted to return to my previous post on thugs with a slightly different focus. I earlier argued in essence that the designation […]

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