We can all agree that we want to live in a society without violence. A society where respect is a shared value that we all understand and live by. Wouldn’t we flourish? Not only would it give us the foundation of safety but it would create space for us to try new things without the fear of being punished, bullied or abused for making a mistake. We would have the confidence to set healthy boundaries and speak up without being shamed or criticised. Differences would be accepted, or at least tolerated, without them being perceived as an attack or insult.
Of course, we are a long way from this daydream on planet earth. We are bombarded with violent TV programs, video games, and media reports. War and political disharmony is commonplace and corporate leaders are battling for power and control. So how can we change violent behaviour at a personal level? Well, the traditional views are harsher penalties for violence, more police, longer prison sentences, or severe punishment for offenders. But does this apply to all violent offenders? I mean the obvious violent acts are murder, assault, and torture. But what about the wife who constantly berates her husband, leaving him feeling battered and lifeless? Or the girlfriend who isolates her partner from his friends then punishes him if he does not comply with her wants. Or how about the young man who constantly puts down a friend, highlighting his weaknesses and making him feel worthless?
Often media portrayals of violence are extreme and graphic. It usually involves a short story of a male perpetrator and female victim in often tragic and horrific circumstances. But does this capture everyday violence in our society? While we are getting much better at creating safety for some survivors to seek help and healing, there is concern that our understanding of violence focuses on physical assault perpetrated by men. Now this is interesting, because when we look at statistics in relationships it shows that women are more likely to start an argument with their partners and escalate situations with verbal aggression. We are also finding that women are becoming increasingly engaged in risk-taking behaviour and physical violence in this modern era.
So what does this mean? Well firstly, as human beings we have this tendency to focus on the imperfections of others while minimising our own shortcomings. This is a risky business as it means that we can become super invested in the abuse we see on TV without taking stock of our own violent tendencies. It means that as women, we can become focused on men who are physically abusive and controlling without acknowledging our propensity for verbal and emotional violence. It also means that men can become over-invested in the emotional and psychological abuse perpetrated by women without taking ownership of their ability to physically intimidate and scare others.
Outside of relationships, we can also observe violence in popular opinion or even political campaigns. We advocate for the killing of people through death penalties to teach people that killing people is a bad thing. We express desires to starve people and deny them of basic human needs when they are serving prison sentences. Then, like the perpetrators of any violence we justify our reactions (i.e. “it’s necessary or they won’t learn”), minimise our statements (i.e. “it’s not that bad, you are just PC”), and rationalise our beliefs (i.e. “they deserved it”). At this point, it’s important to say that there is a place for anger and natural consequences. But let’s be brave here and just notice how violence is perpetuated in our society.
More subtly, we use phrases and content as part of our everyday language that has violent undertones. We might find ourselves using sayings like “when push comes to shove,” “getting away with murder”, or “it was a stab in the dark.” We also rely on very old statements like “as a rule of thumb” which was originally said in the context of being able to beat your wife with a stick no thicker than the thumb.
So, back to the original fantasy of a violent free society. We are slowly changing and there is progress. Sexual violence is being exposed and discussed, survivors of domestic violence are accessing services, and it’s no longer traditional culture to use physical punishment in the parenting of children. But we still have work to do. Some strategies that might help include:
- Be mindful and aware of the language and phrases that we rely on;
- Acknowledge all forms of violence, including physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, financial and cultural abuse;
- Be conscious not to stereotype violence as one groups problem;
- Reflect on ways we can express anger and frustration without behaving violently;
- Supporting individuals who are survivors of violence without shaming them;
- Reflect on the difference between natural consequences (i.e. time out for a child who breaks the rules; suspending a teenager for inappropriate behaviour; performance management for an employee who doesn’t comply with company policy) and abuse (i.e. beating a child out of rage; humiliating and degrading a teenager in front of their peers; or bullying a colleague).