It’s really not as complicated as you might think
The Riverview Center proclaims as its mission: “to create a community free of violence,” a mission that I firmly and passionately believe in. Yet when I share this mission with others in the community, I am met with responses that range from polite acceptance of naiveté to defiant dismissiveness and an unwillingness to consider this as even remotely possible.
“We’ll always have violent people and violence in our communities and throughout the world,” I am frequently told. “Violence is too complicated to solve,” they argue.
Let me tell you why I respectfully disagree.
First, though, let me acknowledge that while I believe a community free of violence is attainable, I also understand that it is not going to be an easy task to achieve. And although I believe the solution is actually fairly simple, I fully appreciate the complexity of what we are up against.
Violence is not something that is innate to human beings; violence is learned behavior. If it is something that is learned, can we stop teaching (or modeling) violence or “unlearn” it? I believe we can, though I cannot promise to fully articulate why I believe this in a few short paragraphs. Please, stay tuned and join in this discussion!
We are born with survival instincts, and violence is just one way that humans have tried to guarantee their survival. We are also programmed to resist anything that we perceive to be a threat to our survival or a threat to our sometimes comfortable existence. In other words, when we fear that our lives are in jeopardy we will go to any extreme – even killing another human being – if we believe that is the only way to remain alive. This same instinct, I believe, kicks in when our way of life is threatened. We will balk at the prospect of losing our property, losing our freedom, taking a cut in salary, having to pay additional taxes, (even if we are convinced that it is ultimately for the common good), because we fear that we will be required to give up comforts and conveniences to which we have become accustomed. And, while we are willing to risk our lives for some of these (freedom, for example), we have learned how to negotiate and compromise for others.
There are many different “kinds” of violence: domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, bullying, dating violence, child abuse, war between nations, exploitation, manipulation, stalking – even sibling rivalry, in some cases, can be violence. We categorize these in a variety of ways and for different reasons, for example, the manner in which the violence is manifested (domestic violence), the population impacted (child abuse), to determine the appropriate response or healing that needs to occur, or to distinguish characteristic components (sexual harassment is more than just bullying).
All forms of violence, however, have at their core the dynamics of power and control, and this, I think, is one key to understanding prevention. If we look at the root of any violence, we find these two dynamics of power and control at work. People use their size and strength, their position of responsibility, authority or leadership, their heritage or ancestry, their gender, status, wealth, age and many other characteristics and opportunities to gain power and control over individuals, groups, even an entire county, culture or civilization.
Understanding the dynamics of power and control, and how they are used to perpetrate violence, we are then able to explore how to counter the impact of this violence. For example, most violence against women is committed by men (although most men are not violent). We might believe this occurs because historically, most males have been bigger and stronger than females. Yet some men who are not physically imposing perpetrate violence against women without the advantage of physical strength. How does this happen?!
We now recognize and understand that issues like gender stereotypes, male privilege, paternalistic attitudes, systemic policies, media influences and more all play roles in creating and sustaining a culture that allows violence against women to thrive. When we understand how all of these issues contribute to establishing and maintaining current cultural norms, we recognize that physical strength might have played a key factor in establishing an initial position of power for men, but because of the norms that have been established since, physical strength is no longer necessary.
If power and control fuel violence, then safety, equality and respect are the antidote. Safety is identified by Abraham Maslow as one of our primal basic needs. Without a sense of feeling safe and protected, we cannot, according to Maslow, ever reach our full potential or achieve self-actualization. When we are afraid, especially for our well-being, we are in full survival mode and safety becomes the most important of all priorities. Of course, we also understand now that the concept of being safe includes much more than physical protection. Fear can impact our psychological, spiritual and social health which can then impact our success in school, work and/or relationships.
Equality is a revered aspect of our constitution, yet we continue to accept and tolerate a cultural norm of inequality. I think many of us accept the status quo out of fear – for a variety of reasons, many of which are linked to issues of power and control. We also haven’t universally defined the concept of equality, perhaps because we recognize that we really are not equal – at least not in all aspects. Some people have superior intellects while others suffer from mental disabilities. Some have tremendous physical strength, while others struggle to take a breath. Some are fearless while others live in constant fear. Perhaps the signers of our declaration and constitution simply meant that we are all equally human.
Respect, too, is not universally defined, of course, but that is precisely the point. Mutual respect is achieved only when all parties demonstrate a willingness to accommodate each other and work toward an environment that allows for peaceful coexistence. And while some forms of respect and trust must be earned, the right that each of us has to being respected simply because we are human is not negotiable. By definition, being human means that some of us will make poor choices, big mistakes and even commit large atrocities, but as soon as we accept that “some humans are less deserving of being human than other humans,” we all become vulnerable to extinction. And that goes against our innate instinct for survival and self-preservation!
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” In our culture, fear is expected and perceived as inevitable. Similarly, violence is accepted as normal, tolerated and excused because that’s just the way it is. I don’t believe it has to be that way, but I know it will remain so – at least until a majority of others become determined enough to challenge the norm. And that won’t happen as long as we remain afraid of those who have power and control over us.