Reasons for violence

Left 4 Dead 2Violence is much in the news. Stabbings, bashings and glassings are recorded and deplored. And now the violent video game Left 4 Dead 2 has been banned. Premiers, columnists and correspondents all deplore violence and propose remedies. In such a heated atmosphere, it may be worthwhile to reflect more broadly on violence and on the strategies which societies, including our own, develop in order to deal with it.

Violence goes with being human. It may be avoidable, but it is not likely to be avoided. So in the Bible murder is one of the first human actions described.

The raw materials of violence are simple, although the way in which they come together are complex. Frustrated desire, usually detonated by anger, expresses itself in violence. A child wants food, and on being refused by parent or thwarted by her brother who competes for it, lashes out in anger. States want another nation's territory, and when frustrated go coldly to war.

Here the desires are simple and the frustration direct. But children may be raised in brutal families, their desire for love and respect continually frustrated. Their accumulated anger may lead them to displaced violence against strangers.

Because unrestricted anger and violence will destroy a society, all cultures develop and communicate ways of addressing desires and of responding to anger and frustration. They usually commend to their young a response to life in which the natural inclination to violence is understood and inhibited.

Most cultures propose a view of human life in which desires for immediate things like pleasure and possessions are weighed against higher desires, whether for conversation, beauty, harmony, love, knowledge or for God. A bored child who demands to go home from an extended family dinner will learn that relationships with family outweigh his desire. So we learn what really matters, and are able to bear frustration of our less deep desires.

Many cultures encourage us to place a high value on other human beings. They are not simply obstacles to our desires, but people like ourselves. They deserve respect. We learn this as children by the way in which we are required to address other people, to greet them, negotiate our conflicting desires and handle our angers. Other people are not primarily competitors but people who make a claim on us. Our relationships shape who we are.

Cultures also develop ways of reflecting on anger and violence. Violence is ritualised in play, in religious symbols and in art. Children can explore violence in games of make believe and in stories. Competitive games, too, provide safe structures for competing and expressing anger and frustration.

Finally, societies develop regulations that penalise violence and prevent people from dismantling the inhibitions against violent self-expression. So in times of interracial tension, the gathering of mobs will be controlled. Extremely violent videos and films are restricted.

These reflections suggest that in order to deal with violence we should first ask how it is encouraged and discouraged in our culture. The broad answer is encouraging. There is general agreement that the individual's body is inviolable.

But some aspects of our culture, and particularly the priority given to commercial gain, weaken the inhibitions against violence. It puts a high priority on individual choice and privileges the desire for consumer goods.

The emphasis on what can be bought leaves little space for higher goods. It also marginalises those deprived of stable upbringing and education. They can rarely attain these goods. The emphasis on competition further alienates those without the resources to compete.

The result is a high level of frustration and a thinning of the hedges that protect us against violence.

The commercialisation of play and popular art also hinders their use as a catalyst for exploring violence and anger. Indeed they often celebrate violence. Elite sport emphasises competition, massive financial rewards and the view that losing is shameful. In junior sport frustration will naturally express itself in violence.

In many television shows and films the appropriate response to violence is seen as further violence. Tabloids and shock jocks focus on violence, demanding the punishment and humiliation of wrongdoers. All this is commercially profitable. But it diminishes the sense that perpetrators and victims of violence share a common humanity and make it more likely that the violence they condemn will be perpetuated.

The approach to alcohol in society expresses the same priority given to individual choice and commercial values. Alcohol clearly reduces inhibitions to violence, and so makes it more likely. But the right of the individual to drink as they please and the economic profit to be made from selling alcohol make effective regulation impossible.

So we return to the remedy of more intensive policing. It makes as little sense as it would to distribute matches to children on a north wind day and then call for more firefighters to extinguish the blazes.

Violence does raise large questions about what we value in society and whether those values promote a non-violent society. In Australia there is a large conversation to be had.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, violence, Left 4 Dead 2, violent video game, violent television, violent films



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Existing comments

I agree that we need a 'large conversation' about violence in contemporary society but am surprised that there has been no real recognition in this article of the gender issues related to violence in human history. This is not to say that females cannot be violent, indeed, with a new generation of young females who have grown up against a backdrop of liberation and feminist thinking where they have been taught that they can do just about anything, we have yet to witness how this will impact on their ability or tendency to violence.

However, until now, male violence tends to be the dominant factor and, perhaps, is one of the most significant issues that needs to be looked at.
Marian de Souza | 24 September 2009

Thank you
Always appreciate your lucid response to difficult issues
No Answers or possibilities????

Judy | 24 September 2009

We are taught that independence is our goal, so we grow up thinking that our rights and desires are more important than anyone else's. There is little or no regard or respect for anyone who does not agree with us or benefit us. Sometimes we are violent aggressively and sometimes passively … and both are just as destructive.

This topic is huge and the responsibility of each of us … as a society, as families and as individual members of the communities of which we are all a part. I don’t think that Maria’s pointing the finger at male perpetrators is helpful to the discussion … many women also act violently in society… though their expressions might be a little more socially acceptable, it does not make them more right and nor does it make them less destructive in our society.

But this should not merely be a discussion on gender or race or belief … it is about respect and humility … something that we don’t hear much of now …
dennis | 24 September 2009

Both articles today are very timely. But apart form the things at work today, I reflect on the emphasis on punishment in the air during my boyhood in the 30's and 40's - in the Church, in educational practice and even in the family ambience. It went deep into the psyche of some of my generation, as it was settled into that of the generation that raised us.

I often reflect, too, on the cult of emotional extremes, approaching violence of a sort, that seems to be offered as an attraction, it seems to me, of much popular music of the last 40 years, especially in the frenzy of moments at big rock concerts.

Awareness, I suppose, is the necessary thing.
Joe Castley | 24 September 2009

An interesting article, but what to do? How does one restrict the overt violence including sexual violence on t.v , not to mention DVD's`and words of popular songs. What effect does this have on those watching, especially the young, before they have had a chance to form any mature values in their lives.If something is constantly dished up , and watched frequently, is this not a form of brain washing, albeit not forced, but an insidious force anyway. The more we see something the more it appears normal?
How do we, who are concerned for our youth,prevent or even slow down this unhealthy exposure? How do we fight big money makers, where the Govt. may get such a huge amount of
revenue from this modern media culture?
A conversation ..yes.. but with whom, and how?

bernadette introna | 24 September 2009

Sure the big conversation is needed but who with whom?

Media in Australia are not free, just internet is left to discuss.

The above link to my webpage shows the government initiated violence on page "stop mafia rule". It is violence against innocent children and their parents.

I am sure that for as long as media is not free in Australia, violence will definitely grow.
Michal | 26 September 2009

See also Jacques Ellul, Violence, 1969 and Paul Tournier, The Violence Inside, for further Christian perspectives. Letter of James 4:1-3 is also relevant.
Fergus Garrett | 27 September 2009


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