Violence is easy to get used to from an early age, which makes it even easier to perpetuate as we grow up and create an increasingly violent world.
A few mornings ago, my local news ran a small story about research showing that social violence is a learned behavior. Learned from both our caregivers and society at large. They showed typical images of children doing things like knocking a ball out of someone’s hands, calling each other names and tripping each other. All “part of childhood,” right? But also part of what creates a society that ultimately condones and supports violent behavior. They issued forth the obvious and important truth that we all need to hear: We are teaching our children to accept violence and to become violent. And they are growing up into adults who do the same thing.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have been the victim of violence more than once in my life. Probably the most obvious violence I suffered was at the gun-wielding hand of a stranger who broke into my home and raped me in my own bed the summer after I graduated from high school. But there have been other, subtler forms of violence that I have experienced both personally and vicariously, (including working with both victims and offenders) and all of them spin around in my soul to make a cycle that is at least slightly tangible to me.
One thing that is clear to me is that the cycle of violence is completely dependent on 3 components. It is a cycle that is fluid and it is hard to find the beginning or the end. No single part of it can exist without the other two. But, if you can remove any link, you can at least slow the flow. As I see it, what violence needs is: 1) An offender 2) A victim and 3) A society that supports it.
Sounds simple. It isn’t. Partly because you have to figure out how to define violence, and understand why it’s a problem.
It is safe to say that a violent act is an act that causes someone to put up their defenses. When one person throws a punch, for instance, the other person will put up their hands to defend themselves. That is clearly violent. Likewise, we probably all agree that people who use guns are violent, throwing things is violent, even extreme yelling fits are commonly seen as violent. All of those obviously violent acts include one person “offending” and another person “defending.” Simple enough.
But what about subtler offenses? What about all the little ways that we throw barbs at each other and put each other on the defensive? What about nasty teasing? Belittling language? Name-calling? Unreasonable expectations? All of those things put people on the defensive. Things like language, economics and prejudice can be as powerfully manipulative, coercive and inhibiting as physical violence. And society condones those.
Why does it matter? Because energy that is spent defending ourselves can’t be spent growing, learning, achieving and making a positive contribution to society. It wears us down and immobilizes us psychologically, and in extreme cases, physically. It costs us – both as individuals and as a community.
But more than that, we start to get used to violent behavior. Like getting into water that is just too cold to be comfortable, if you stand in it long enough, you can get in further. First to your knees, then your belly button, and next thing you know, you’re swimming in it.
Accepting violence in society is the same thing. We accept the teasing and the little bullying, then we accept it in more intense forms. Suddenly, we’re swimming in it. And it seems not only acceptable, but perfectly normal.
It’s bad enough from strangers, co-workers or kids on the playground, but when we are teased and poked and prodded – much less hit and threatened – by people who we believe love us, it becomes possible to confuse pain for love. After a lifetime of that, it becomes possible to believe that someone can simultaneously love you and intentionally hurt you. Just ask the thousands of people each year who are victims of domestic violence. Or just ask the 70 or so who are hospitalized in Seattle each day.
Why does it happen? I don’t know. But I do believe what it says on the Seattle City Attorney’s website about domestic violence, “When violence has occurred once in any relationship, the probability is high that it will reoccur.” In any relationship. That means in a home, on the playground, in a dating relationship, at work, or between friends. IN ANY RELATIONSHIP.
So what do we do to stop it? We look at our own lives. We look at what we do and say to create a society that supports violence, because we are ALL responsible for it. None of us can solve the whole problem, but each of us can make small differences that will add up.
If you accept that continued violence requires an offender, a victim and a society that supports it, then we need to intervene with offenders, empower victims and change society. Which part of that can you do in your life?
INTERVENING WITH OFFENDERS
– According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, of the nearly half a million children in the country’s juvenile detention systems, a majority of them have experienced violence in their homes or communities.
– A study of young adolescents in the Cleveland area found that “recent exposure to violence at home… was one of the most significant predictors of a teen’s use of subsequent violence at school or in the community.”
– Violence breeds violence, and early intervention is the most effective way to slow the spread of violence.
– We must stop blaming victims and making them responsible for their assaults.
– A while ago, Oprah lauded as a hero a woman who stopped her own rape by killing her assailant. What a horrible message that was. First, it perpetuated the myth that you can fight violence with violence. But it also made victims responsible for their victimhood. It was all made worse when Oprah, in talking about the circumstance of the would-be rape, said “I would rather die.” Really, as someone who was raped at gun-point and had always been very proud that I had chosen to live, I felt as if she had just said it would be better to be dead than to be raped. That’s the wrong message. The problem is the rapist, not the millions of women who ARE raped each year.
– Understand that the victims of chronic violence genuinely feel trapped. Help them find help.
– You can’t fight violence with violence. That only makes more violence.
– Look for, recognize and stop violence wherever you can – whether it’s teaching a child not to grab a ball from another child, saying please and thank-you, thinking about how your words and actions make others feel, or taking a stand against obvious physical violence around you.
– We need to understand that violence impacts our community as a whole in terms of neighborhood and workplace safety, medical costs, lower economic productivity, costs associated with treatment and prevention of violence, as well as the devastating psychological effects on both children and adults.
– We need to know that violence, even domestic violence, does not happen in a vacuum. We need to talk about it and think about it. We need to take it seriously. We cannot brush it under the rug and hope it goes away. If you know that it is happening, you can help. If you think it is happening, you can help.
People have often told me that I have a thin skin when it comes to violence and teasing. But I don’t. What I have is a no-tolerance policy. Although there are obvious differences between punching, beating, bullying and teasing, it is all violence to me. I won’t have it in my home, I won’t put myself or my family in a situation where they are likely to occur, and I believe they all need to be stopped.
A while ago, I was watching Oprah (again) and the Wayans family was being interviewed. This is a family that I personally find hysterically funny, and I admire them to no end for their art as well as their involvement in community. (Seriously, I have an almost unnatural love of the Wayans.) That said, they launched their careers by making fun of people in a way that was often hurtful, that put both individuals and entire segments of the population on the defensive. In fact, Kim Wayans was, for many years, best known for her wicked, and flat-out mean, impersonation of Oprah. So, on this particular Oprah show, Kim Wayans came on stage, and before she said anything else, she apologized to Oprah. “What for?” Oprah asked. And Kim Wayans explained that she was terribly regretful for all the nasty impersonations she had done of Oprah. She very quietly, and brilliantly said, “Being funny at other people’s expense isn’t funny.” And I cried. Kim Wayans is right, and I applaud her for so beautifully, strongly and publicly helping to turn the tide.
Perhaps we are finally getting it. Being funny at other people’s expense isn’t funny. Being strong by making others weak isn’t strong. Being a winner by making others into losers isn’t winning.
And ignoring the violence in our society isn’t working. It’s just making us numb and motionless in the very cold water of social hostility.
So keep your eyes peeled for the little things you see everyday that may be more violent than you realized. Things that caused you, or anyone else, to throw up defenses – physically or emotionally. And let me know what you see and what you think, this is a dialogue I want to keep alive. Maybe if we can actually define violence, then we can figure out how to stop it.