Tag Archives: Violence

“We’ve Never Lived in Such Peaceful Times”

4 Jan

Time allowed(Image by H. Kopp-Delaney used under CC 2.0 license via)

 

“Is the world becoming a more dangerous place?” This is not a subjective question, but it is all too often answered by entirely subjective findings. Do you watch the local news and listen to a police scanner? Do you see graffiti as street art, or cause to clutch your valuables and not make eye contact with anyone? Do you know someone personally who has been robbed, attacked, or murdered?

The objective answer to the original question, however, is no. The world is in fact safer than it has ever been in human history because we humans have become drastically less violent. Never before has there ever been a place of such high life expectancy and such low levels of violence as Western Europe today. Around the globe, there are lower rates of war and lower rates of spankings. There is no guarantee that the decline in violence will continue. But most of us have a hard time even believing that it exists at all.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker proves that the human emotional response to perceived danger—especially danger towards ourselves or someone with whom we can easily empathize—always risks distorting our perceptions of safety. One of the problems of empathy, he argues, is that we more readily feel for those we perceive to be more similar to us. This results in our investing more time, money and emotion toward helping a single girl fighting cancer if she speaks our language and lives in a house that looks like our own than toward helping 1,000 foreign children fighting malaria. We are more likely to disbelieve a victim of abuse if we can more quickly identify with the accused, and the same is true for the reverse scenario. And if you have been the victim of a horrendous crime or are struggling to survive in any one of the countries ravaged by war this year, you may become angry at any suggestion that the world is getting better, lest the world ignore the injustices you have suffered.

Those of us working in human rights must beware these problems whenever we trumpet a cause. Every activist’s greatest enemy is apathy, and fear of it can lead us to underscore threats while downplaying success stories in order to keep the masses mobilized. But any method founded on the claim that we have never lived in such a dangerous time is spreading lies.

As Pinker and Andrew Mack report in a recent article:

The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count. How many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities? And is that number going up or down? … We will see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news junkie would guess.

To be sure, adding up corpses and comparing the tallies across different times and places can seem callous, as if it minimized the tragedy of the victims in less violent decades and regions. But a quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. And it holds out the hope that we might identify the causes of violence and thereby implement the measures that are most likely to reduce it.

There is a risk that some will see the decline in violence as reason for denying crime (“Rape hardly ever happens!”), dismissing others’ pain (“Quit whining!”), and justifying their disengagement (“See? We don’t need to do anything about it!”). Pinker and Mack, however, claim the decline can be attributed in the modern era to the efforts of those in the human rights movements. In the example of violence against women:

The intense media coverage of famous athletes who have assaulted their wives or girlfriends, and of episodes of rape on college campuses, have suggested to many pundits that we are undergoing a surge of violence against women. But the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ victimization surveys (which circumvent the problem of underreporting to the police) show the opposite: Rates of rape or sexual assault and of violence against intimate partners have been sinking for decades, and are now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past. Far too many of these horrendous crimes still take place, but we should be encouraged by the fact that a heightened concern about violence against women is not futile moralizing but has brought about measurable progress—and that continuing this concern can lead to greater progress still…

Global shaming campaigns, even when they start out as purely aspirational, have led in the past to dramatic reductions of practices such as slavery, dueling, whaling, foot binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.

The decline of violence undermines the arguments of those who invest their energy in fear-mongering (“People are evil and out to get you!”), self-martyrdom (“I’ve tried for so long—I give up!”) or indifference (“There’s no point to even trying.”). In his excellent book, which is well worth your time, Pinker demonstrates that all humans are tempted to use violence when we are motivated by feelings of greed, domination, revenge, sadism, or ideology (i.e., violence for a greater good), but we have proven that we can overcome these temptations with our capacity for reason, self-control, sympathetic concern for others and the willingness to adhere to social rules for the sake of getting along. There is much work to be done, but the decline is ultimately cause for hope. 

Happy New Year!

 

 

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“ ‘I Am So Sorry’ Is A Start”

23 Dec

Last week 20 children and 7 women were murdered as I was celebrating my birthday.  Hearts leapt into throats and the urge to hug the little ones in our lives pushed the tears further down the cheeks.  As you absolutely undoubtedly know, the Internet has since been inundated with debates regarding gun control, violent video games, and even gender roles.  Amidst all the vitriol and special snowflake lecturing, it’s the lackluster discussions of psychiatric disorders that seem the least helpful.   

Too much of what has been said about mental illness has been too simplistic, too unscientific, too dismissive of the fact that accurately diagnosing a deceased individual often requires years of research.  Liza Long’s piece “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” is brazenly presumptuous and fraught with problems, while most of the outraged responses obscure their excellent points with a few too many personal jabs at her.  Of course everyone wants to know as soon as possible why 20 children were chosen as targets, but in this quest our commitment should be to accuracy, not promptness.

Although much of my work is in disability rights, I rarely write about mental illness or psychiatric disorders.  I have family members who are mentally ill and many friends who work in psychiatric fields, but I do not know nearly enough about it to speak with any authority and all too often hearsay is copy-and-pasted as fact.  Genuine concern is sometimes obscured by sick fascination.  The term “mentally ill” is a gigantic umbrella that covers everything from paranoid schizophrenia to anorexia nervosa to hypochondria.  Those with psychiatric disorders make up what is perhaps the most misunderstood and diverse minority on earth.  Casually tossing out easy-reading explanations before the news cycle gets bored and moves on usually does them more harm than good. 

I’ve been reading as much as I can about the complexities of Asperger’s syndrome, schizophrenia, psychopathy, and the countless articles reminding everyone that most mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.  I plan on getting my hands on a copy of Richard J. McNally’s What Is Mental Illness? in the new year.  Meanwhile, I can only hope that news readers and viewers do not perpetuate the media’s easy-answer approach to something as complex as medicine.

And while filtering out the less helpful material, I found two beautifully honest pieces by Rev. Emily C. Heath and Linton Weeks about what to say to grieving parents.  People in bereavement are traditionally not classified as minorities, but fear, misconceptions, and snap judgments usually surround them.  (I wrote earlier this year about what loss has taught me about the complexities of grief and the prejudices I used to hold against it.)  As we continue the debates aimed at preventing future tragedies, we should learn how to deal with what this tragedy has done to those closest to it.

 

 

Female Privilege

14 Apr

(Rates of violence worldwide, used under CC license via)

 
 
Recently at Feministing, Cara Hoffman wrote about violence that targets men, setting off an angry debate. Most commenters rightly supported the idea of feminism openly discussing the ways in which men are specifically victimized, but there were some who said this had no place in the movement. Such a women-only approach to feminism is indeed sexism that, like male chauvinism, will never be successful as long as it is determined to concern itself with only one half of the population. The hero and heroine gender tradition oppresses men, women and those who identify as neither. As women, we should never be so insecure as to ignore anyone’s true disenfranchisement or to deny the privileges patriarchy automatically bestows upon us.  

Yes, being female comes with certain privileges under patriarchy. (And no, I don’t mean Phyllis Schlafly’s you-get-your-restaurant-meals-paid-for-so-be-happy-staying-out-of-the-workforce sort of “privilege.”) Privilege is granted by society to certain people based on things we had absolutely nothing to do with: our gender identity, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our physical traits, our mental capabilities, our class background. That is why any privilege—like any form of disenfranchisement—is the essence of injustice. 

Men face oppressive double-standards in dating and the family unit that I will address in a later post, but, in the wake of the arrest of Trayvon Martin’s killer, I want to focus for now on prejudices against men that are truly life-threatening. Beginning at the personal level, my husband has been beaten up twice by strangers. My brother and several guyfriends have been attacked outside clubs by strangers. Others were shoved down the stairs and slammed against lockers in school by bullies. I’ve never once been challenged to fight as they have, just as they have never experienced sexual harassment as I have. Of course far too many women are beaten by both men and other women, just as far too many men are sexually assaulted by both women and other men, but my personal experience and my husband’s are representative of the increased risk each of us face for certain kinds of attack in our society. There’s no need to try to decide which is worse: the threat of sexual assault or the threat of coming to blows. Both can end in the worst possible way, both are always inexcusable. Both target people based on their apparent gender. 

As a woman, I am far less likely to be challenged to fight or to be suspected of violence by authorities. As a woman, I am automatically more trusted to be around children. As a woman living in the United States and Europe, I have never been asked to die for my country.  As a woman, I can express more affection to a member of my gender without fear of gay bashing than a man can. As a woman, I can buy products of any color without fear of gay bashing. As a woman who’s not physically strong, I don’t have to worry as much as a man does about being picked on by bullies looking for an easy target. As an achondroplastic woman, I’ve always been less likely to be confronted by an assailant looking to engage in dwarf tossing than an achondroplastic man is. As a woman, I am permitted to choose emotional fulfillment over professional success without being considered a failure. This is why homeless women attract less contempt than homeless men. And part of why men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. 

In a previous post discussing female sexuality, I quoted Chloe S. Angyal’s point that traditional gender roles consider sexuality a no-win situation for women, that any type of behavior we choose can be seen as an invitation to sexual assault. For men, the same Catch-22 can apply for men regarding violence. Looking tough? You’re a threat that needs to be knocked down. Looking vulnerable? You’re the perfect victim to pounce on. If you are identifiable as a minority through your appearance or behaviors, you’d better make sure you avoid the wrong parts of town, which, in some cases, may include your entire home town or country. Or shoot first. 

Like the virgin/whore cycle with which women are encumbered, men are confronted with the brute/wuss standard from the earliest of ages. You’re a monster if you use your fists to solve your problems, but you’re a sissy if you can’t. Non-violent young men must endure society’s suspicion that they are prone to be violent while at the same time enduring their own vulnerability as a victim of violence. The reality of violence against women can never be denied or downplayed, but neither can violence against men, who are 2 to 4 times more likely to be killed by violence than women. Because of the pressures of the traditional model of masculinity, men are far less likely than women to seek help after being threatened or assaulted. 

Most violence enacted upon boys and men is by other boys and men, and this proves that, as with violence against women, the solution is not to condemn a gender, but to condemn an attitude. Googling “female privilege” results in some very creepy websites, wherein men rage about women who won’t sleep with them after they held the door for them, and patriarchy relies on this polarization of the genders for survival.  Despite what so many of those misogynistic websites claim, women who identify as feminists demonstrate less hostility toward men than women who embrace traditional gender roles because we know that those traditions screw everyone over, including men.  That’s why we unite with men against them, taking them apart bit by bit, non-violently.