December 1983, No. 99

Danny Cockerline
and Chris Bearchell

p. 9.

Violence: what's the price of "protection"?

A full-colour, full-page photograph of an elderly woman with both eyes blackened -- the work of muggers -- peers out at commuters from the front page of Toronto's morning tabloid. The Sun knows the long-standing wisdom that violence sells newspapers. They're just a little more crass about it than most.

One could be forgiven for concluding, after a lifetime's consumption of daily papers and TV viewing, that violence has been increasing steadily since the dawn of time. That it has never been worse. But the picture of violence the media paints is neither accurate nor complete. Is the here-and-now really more violent than the slaughter a decade ago in Vietnam? Is starvation -- a form of systemic violence seldom acknowledged as such by the media -- any less horrible than the random muggings that get front page headlines? Can violence be claimed as a sign of increasing breakdown of the social contract when, as a recent Time cover story reminds us, the expression "rule of thumb" refers to an implicit clause once in that contract -- that a man coul beat his wife as long as he used a rod no thicker than his thumb? True, police accounts show the crime rate slowly climbing (never so fast that it would look like they're failing to do their job, mind you). But police statistics have never given a complete picture, either. To begin with, they can only reflect reported crime, which automatically excludes many cases of child- and wife-battering. And the police have their own reasons for collecting the data they do. Like the media they are not without a financial interest in the picture they present: a higher crime rate justifies bigger police budgets.

Whether or not the police/media view is responsible for creating the impression that violence is on the rise, or whether or not it is even useful to try to measure violence in such terms, it is nevertheless understandable that people want to do something about the violence that does exist. But among those things that might be done -- even among those things that seem logical -- are "solutions" that don't work. Or worse, contribute to the problem.

Before determining what can be done about violence, it is necessary to understand its source. A view that is upheld by much of the police/media hype is that violence results when the inherent nature of the species is allowed expression by permissive societies. The less control society exerts, the more likely people are to succumb to ther baser natures. Such a biological explanation gives rise to a psychological analysis that violence is caused by uncontolled, sick indiviuals. The solutions to violence that these analyses pose include therapy (or if this is not enough, incarceration or even death), stricter morality and larger doses of law-and-order.

This view that human beings are inherently violent obscures the fact that violence is rooted in the way society is structured. People react violently when they are threatened by their environment. Or when they think they are threatened. Or when they are frustrated -- often by our economy's denial of the means to meet their daily needs with dignity.

The psychobiological view sees violence as a simple problem with simple solutions, but violence, like the rest of life, is a complex phenomenon. Even the attempt to divide violence into public and private categories is not without its problems. The September 5 Time cover story included rape in its definition of private violence: as many as half of the women who have been sexually assaulted were at least aquainted with their attackers, the magazine points out. But the oither half, obviously, are attacked by stangers. This privatization of violence has served to perpetrate it by protecting it from public scrutiny.

The Time feature is a classic example of the psychological analysis. It consists of a compendium of horror stories, statistics, study results aand psychological profiles of offenders. The offender -- always a he except in cases of child battery -- is usually an alcoholic or drug user with low self-esteem. He is inevitably the product of abusive parents -- yet another stage in an unending "cycle of violence."

Time's analysis parrots current middle-class "conventional wisdom" that violence is suffered and perpetrated randomly, regardless of social position. In an article in the Toronto-based tabloid Mudpie, Leroy Pelton of the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services dubs this notion "the myth of classlessness." The myth, he explains, denies what common sense tells us: that poorer people who live in more dangerous surroundings with fewer resources and under greater stress are more likely to commit and suffer violence. Pelton cites a number of studies, including a 1976 American Humane Association survey of 19,000 validate cases of child abuse from more than 20 US states which found that only nine percent of the families involved had yearly incomes greater than $13,000. Child abuse undoubtably occurs in all social classes to some degree, but Pelton notes that if all children were abused as much as those in poorer families are, the evidence would be too massive to hide, even among classes that aren't as carefully scrutinized as the poor are by social workers and other police.

"The myth of classlessness permits many professionals to view child abuse and neglect as a psychodynamic problem," Pelton writes. It also "does a disservice to poor people and the victims of child abuse and neglect: it undermines development of effective approaches to "dealing with their real and difficult problems," he says. [minimizing the experience and impact of poverty]

The solutions proffered by the psychobiological view not only do not solve the problem of violence, they contribute to it. Treating violent individuals with therapy that encourages them to see their problems as personal rather than societal, drives them to deeper despair. One day this October a woman was shot and seriously injured by her husband who then, more successfully, turned the gun on himself. The same week a mother of three died when her husband slit her throat. Both men were unemployed. Both families were among the 10,000 being counselled by the Metro Toronto Family Service Association.

If these men had an understanding of their plight as part of a wider social problem of unemployment, rather than as a personal failing, the blow to their self-esteem could have been softened. And rather than seeking personal solutions to a personal problem -- an exercise in futility which, as in these cases, can end tragically -- they could have been encourged to work with others toward a collective solution.

Equally ineffective in dealing with violence is the law-and-order solution of increased policing and increased police power. The police's insistance -- backed up by media sensationalism -- that violence is a growing problem frightens people. and, as Jane Jacobs points out in The Life and Death of Great American Cities, when "people fear the streets ... they use them less, which makes them still more unsafe." Her thesis is that, "the public peace of cities is not kept by the police ... No amount of police can enforce civilization when the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down." That breakdown is accelereated when, instead of taking responsibility for their own safety and the safety of others, people turned to the authorized violence of the armed constabulary for protection.

While increased policing may work in the short run for those whom the police are willing and able to protect, the experience of those most vulnerable to violence -- visible minorities, the poor, women and gay people -- is that they are no more likely to be treated with respect by the police than they are by the rest of society. In fact, they are more likely to be mistreated by the police. Raped and battered women have long experienced police negligence and the attitude that they are in some way responsible for their own vicitmization. Gay people, whom the police define as criminal, and racial minorities are too familiar with police harassment and brutality to have any faith in increased policing.

Nor are minoritiws who have endured the brunt of hypocritical moralities likely to be safer from violence if the pro-family lobby, which blames feminism and gay liberation for the breakdown of the family, has its way. In a recently issued policy paper, the Ontario conservatives advocated a "leaner and meaner" approach to social services -- perhaps taking a hint from the hatchet job premier Bill Bennett is doing in British Columbia. Premier Bill Davis lauds a return to the basic values of "the family, decency and civility"; these cutbacks hurt services like sheters for battered women and children, throwing them back into the family where they too often find nothing like decency and civility.

While solutions which fail to acknowledge the social roots of violence can worsen the problem, the analysis that the psychological view offers still has its appeal to ostensibly progressive people. The National Film Board's anti-porn smash hit, Not a Love Story, consults a lab-coated male "expert" who describes the spectre of evil men with uncontrollable appetites losing their grip on reality and committing barbaric acts against women and children. The contention by anti-porn radical feminists that male sexuality is by nature violent and therefore in need of control -- while female sexuality is inherently nurturing -- fits nicely into this psychobiological view. It is sadly reminiscent of the anti-feminist argument that male and female natures are predetermined, and that women and children need protection both by and from the aggressive male. This notion used to be called chivalry, a pleasant name for what is really a heterosexual protection racket: in return for defence, women and children submit to men's control -- children until they grow up and can escape, women forever in a lifetime of monogamy that legitimizes jealousy in the guise of love. Violence committed in the name of the code -- in defence of honour, in disciplining wife and children, in fits of jealous rage -- is still seen as a man's prerogative, tacitly approved by society.

British feminist Elizabeth Wilson, in hjer book What is to be Done about Violence Against Women?, warns anti-porn feminists that "the creation of moral panics to help secure reforms is likely to lead to unwelcome and oppressive measures. Moreover, any campaign that orchestrates itself around a picture of women as hapless victims can never be wholely progressive."

The organizers of the 1982 "The Scholar and the Feminist" conference on sexuality dismissed the notion that men are inherently aggressive. Instead, they point out that male sexual nature is the product of a repressive culture. Their Diary of a Conference on Sexuality says this "can only be altered by the elimination of sexism and the increase in women's freedom. Increasing women's freedom, and by extension men's freedom, makes women vulnerable during a time of transition. The issue is freedom versus safety; there's no quick solution to the problems associated with increased freedom."

Gay men and women are in a similar predicament. The more visible and assertive we become, the more we are subject to the threat of physical attack. We have the choice of resigning ourselves to the closet indefinitely and enduring the accompanying loss of self-esteem and freedom. Or we can resist our oppression and do what we can to minimize the risk of physical violence.

While violence remains a problem that people must contend with, it is important to keep in mind that it does not exist because human beings -- or just men -- are programmed to behave violently and are therefore in need of control. Those of us concerned with extending freedom should see this for what it is: the self-serving doctrine of the forces of control -- the governement, the police and the media.

As the women's movement has drawn attention to domestic violence and provided a critique of the institution of the family to explain it, governements are retrenching on social services that provide women and children with a means of escape from economic dependence on men. It is not surprising that as women have gained more independence they have suffered more violence as well. As our movements for social change grow, our opponents resist them more. Violence is part of that resistance.

So is the seductive offer of protection. The protection of the closet and of the family. The protection of the state. It is this protection that we must reject. And the violence of self-denial, wife- and child-battery and loss of self-determination that accompany it.

Those in a position to do so should provide as much help as they can to those who have suffered violence. The rest of us have a lot of work to do to tackling the social problems at the real root of violence.

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Created: December 9, 1996
Last modified: February 20, 1999

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