Understanding Violence

care        duty         shame        anger      rage     violence
safety                                                    danger
secure                                                    insecure
belonging                                                 isolated
cooperation                                               competition
win-win                                                   win-lose
life                                                      death
helpfulness                                               helplessness
justice                                                   injustice

Violence, defined as physical assault or the threat of physical assault, against a person or property, occurs in almost every society. All aggression and violence can be seen as attempts to correct a perceived injustice. We see so much violence in the world today because serious injustices do in fact exist. As I now assert, the expression of violence can be seen as falling on one end of a continuum, a reversible progression between six interconnected states: care, duty, shame, anger, rage and violence.

As naked human beings, we are rather defenseless. We have no claws, no sharp fangs, no armor, nor can we run very fast, and most of us would not survive for very long alone in the wild. Yet we do survive, and flourish, because we are sociable, and can work together. Our complex language, acute senses and adaptable motor skills have all evolved to support our social instinct. We are successful as a species because we cooperate in taking care of each other. This makes it possible for each of us to live a much better life than what each of us could achieve alone. Our lives feel especially safe and secure within a social structure of love, care, acceptance, usefulness, and belonging. Indeed, we all have a universal need from birth to know absolutely, that we are valued, wanted and important. Such is the basis for healthy self-esteem. Within such an environment of equality, mutual support, respect and understanding, violence does not occur.

In order to take care of each other and maintain a comfortable state of security, each society requires that everyone contribute, imposing upon each of us, a set of duties or social obligations. We all know we have an obligation to work, to take care of our families, to educate our young, and to contribute to the community. It is natural and pleasurable to help our families and friends. Indeed, this is what brings us happiness. Fostering the social interest is a prime goal of both education and therapy, so that each of us can find successful ways to fulfill our duties (Dreikurs, 1953)

When we are unable to fulfill our usual social obligations, we feel an emotion called "shame." We may feel inadequate, unneeded, selfconscious, exposed, inferior, defective, and abandoned. For example, if I am out of work and someone asks: "What do you do for a living?" I might blush or lower my head in shame as I answer. Paradoxically, much of our behavior is motivated to avoid shame, yet we consider its discussion, taboo (Kaufman, 1996). As a result, we get caught in traps, unable to talk to about shame, and thus unable to discover ways of successfully resolving it. Shameful feelings can be excruciatingly painful. Often drugs are used to dull the pain. Perhaps the most intense feelings of shame are reported by those incarcerated in prison (Gilligan, 1996). Unrelenting shame kills the soul, and the physical body will do anything, including extreme violence to prevent this event from happening.

When we are unable to meet our obligations, others, such as families members may remind us of them, often resorting to tactics that are really less than helpful, such as put downs, criticism, scolding, or blaming. Then the feeling of shame becomes joined by feelings of hurt, hostility, anger and resentment.

In many situations, the problem of fulfilling our obligations cannot be solved easily. For example, it is not easy to find a job if we live in a ghetto. Or joblessness may the result of training in a skill that is no longer useful in today's rapidly changing society. Or a disabling accident prevents us from performing the same kinds of things we did before. Or we lack the resources to take care of our baby. We feel trapped. If this happens, the constant reminders from our family or others can increase the stress to the point of provoking rage and then violence. And while all violence is deplorable, it nevertheless is an act of communication, an effort to say something when words no longer effectively convey the message. What, then, is the message?

Emanuel Marx, a social anthropologist who has studied violence in its less severe forms, suggests that it can be classified into two major types: "coercive", and "appealing" (Marx, 1976). We are most familiar with coercive violence, which is expressed via a direct threat, and used in a premeditated and controlled manner to achieve a particular purpose or social objective. For example, a mother warns a child not to cross the street without looking, and when he dashes out and gets nearly run over by a car, she screams and spanks him. Or, on a much grander scale, our President warns Saddam Hussein that it is a violation of international law to have invaded Kuwait, and threatens violent retribution if he does not immediately withdraw.

On the other hand, appealing violence is used on the spur of the moment, without thinking in advance, such as when a person perceives himself as having reached the end of his rope. For example, an individual attempts to pursue a goal, such as find a job, but is at a complete loss on how to do it. He is stuck. He then gets into an argument with his wife, and when she calls him lazy, he beats her up. The victim (wife) inadvertently but often intentionally makes the assailant (husband) aware of his impossible situation, calling forth the violent response. The message embedded in appealing violence is a "cry for help." In Marx's words: "the violent person demonstrates that society has treated him unfairly, for instance by making demands on him which are incompatible with the resources placed at his disposal." The purpose, then, of appealing violence, is to make a plea to the other person for help. In the above example, the husband is asking his wife to assist him in finding a way out of his impasse. He is forcing her to share his responsibility, making a bid to renegotiate the terms of their relationship, rather than allowing her to stand idly by just pointing out the difficulties. Note, that what happens on the individual level, can also be extended to the larger scale, in which case we have social unrest.

At present, we tend to see all violence as coercive, and thus our response is to control and punish, which begets only more violence. We fail to realize that expressions of violence have more than one meaning. Violence can be a person's last ditch effort to say "I need your help." According to Minuchin (1984), "In families characterized by child abuse or spouse beating, perpetrators of the violent act often experience themselves as helpless responders to the other person's baiting. In these circumstances, the "helpless victimizer" pleads for an increased understanding of his or her impossible plight. Regardless of our emotional response to such a distortion of facts, it is obvious that punitive control of this kind of violent person will increase the subjective experience as victim and will maximize the chance of further violence."

Beyond violence, there is one more state, helplessness. If a violent cry for help is misinterpreted and just punished, the result may be depression. While this seems to be a peaceful state, don't be deceived. It often represents the end, the final stage of dissolution, hopelessness and death.

So what can be done? Essentially, we all need to engage in actions that move us away from violence and towards care. We can be more helpful to each other, rather than punishing. What is so helpful about putting someone down? This only provokes anger or a violent response. It is far better to point out the good, even if it seems barely perceptible. Lives have been changed with the smallest bit of encouragement. This reminds me of a story told by Dr. Raymond Corsini. He relates that a man once came up to him and thanked him profusely for changing his life. Corsini could not recall at all, who this man was. The man then said that while he was in prison, he gave him a test, and said to him "You are intelligent." Just three words, and all of a sudden, things began to click. He realized why he felt different, why he liked to read, listen to the opera, etc. and subsequently started to study, so that when he got out, he was able to get a job and be successful. Incredible as it may sound, this person may have never received a single encouraging word prior to his incarceration.

Nevertheless, one does end up on the receiving end of criticism. Rather than hurting back as a response, we can try turning it around to our benefit, such as asking for advice on how to do something better. Indeed, I like to ask for advice, simply because it makes the other person feel good. A more assertive response to criticism could be the reply: "You may be right" followed by a request for clarification and advice. If I don't want the advice, I could even reply: "I'm doing the best I can, and that is good enough!"

One of the problems of our culture, is that asking for help is considered weak. Our culture says that it is not good to need or depend on other people. We believe in rugged individualism, and that it is good to be independent. Thus, we get into trouble, because we don't ask for help, and when we finally do, it is almost too late, and it comes out in the terribly distorted way of violence and abuse. We need to dispel the belief that it is weak to need other people. Needing other people, having relationships with others, is strength, not weakness. Asking for help takes courage.

There are other subtleties regarding requests for help and advice. Exchange theory models social behavior using ideas borrowed from economics, such as rewards, costs and profits. For example, do I ask for help from my supervisor? I get an expert opinion, but at a cost of disclosing my incompetence. My net profit would be greater to consult with a coworker. I may get less expert advice, but then I don't disclose my incompetence. And my coworker benefits by getting esteem from me, although at a cost of some loss in time. My colleague could save the time by refusing, but then would incur the greater cost of being rude to me, and forgoing the benefit of receiving esteem. Thus, for workers who are able to interact as equals, it is mutually beneficial to help each other out (Brown, 1986).

On a broader scale, we need to address the obvious injustices already present in the world. Ghandi states: "Poverty is the worst violence." Today, the top 300 or so billionaires in the world own more than the bottom half of the world's population (2.5 billion people). Yet, despite their vast wealth, they feel it is not enough. (This materialistic feeling is set up in early childhood.) And they meet in secrecy (secrecy is their only defense), to discuss ways to coerce the disparity even further! (Have you heard of the Trilateral Commission or Bilderberg? The Spotlight is one small newspaper that reports on their activities.) Their constant pressure to increase the already tremendous inequity causes incredible suffering. A lot of this abuse is born by children, who repress the awful pain (Miller, 1984). Indeed, here in the US, "Both major political parties hailed balancing the federal budget and impoverishing over a million children as a great victory for children; CEO's who 'downsize' breadwinners, again impoverishing childern, become rich." (Dentan, 2000).

We have constructed a winner take all society, (Frank, 1994) where the best gets all the fame and profit, and the second best gets virtually nothing by comparison. While some disparities are justifiable, the extreme wealth disparity produced by present day capitalism violates at least my sense of fairness. We need to examine what is the true role of our economy? Is it to just produce more and more things? Or is it to produce a world filled with free and happy people? I, for one, would rather live in a society where everyone freely interacts on terms of equality and mutual respect, and where everyone can profitably do creative work for mutual benefit. The latter is the envisioned goal of a democratic society.

Brown, Roger (1986). "Social Psychology, 2nd Ed." New York:Macmillan.
Dentan, Robert Knox (2000). "Trying to Tell the Truth about Violence: Some Difficulties," in Teaching About Violence, The HFG Review, Vol 4, No. 1 (Spring 2000), pg 55.
Dreikurs, Rudolf R. (1953) "Fundamentals of Adlerian Psychology," Chicago: Alfred Adler Institute.
Robert Frank, "Talent and the Winner Take-All Society," The American Prospect no. 17 (Spring 1994): 97-107
Gilligan, James, (1996) "Violence, Our Deadly Epidemic and its Causes," New York: Putnam.
Kaufman, Gershen (1996) "The Psychology of Shame, 2nd Ed.," New York: Springer.
Marx, Emanuel (1976) "The Social Context of Violent Behaviour," London: Routledge Direct Editions.
Miller, Alice (1984). "Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, Society's Betrayal of the Child," New York:Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
Minuchin, Salvador (1984) "A Family Kaleidoscope," Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Note: The HFG Review, A Publication of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation has published an excellent collection of scholarly articles on violence, aggression and dominance.

Last updated 30 June 2000

Copyright © 1998-2000 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.

E-mail: yen@noogenesis.com

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