Monday, April 15, 2013

Let's refocus the debate on violence.

The recent debates on gun control and gun violence, the constant news of people committing acts of violence... it all has my head spinning. Have we lost all that is good? Are we just more ill-willed now than ever before? No. and no.

It is my opinion that as a people, as a species, we need to reconsider how we think of violence and the people that perform these heinous acts; Violence is hateful, it is intentional, it is something that will never cease to exist but I do believe that it can be controlled. To do this, we must understand that people commit violence because something has impacted their lives in such a way that has changed them.

Humans are not inherently evil. Each of us has the potential to commit acts of violence, although very few ever do. There are far more people in the world who jump to help when events like the one in Boston occur; they face fear directly to help others. 

So who are these people who can so easily detonate a bomb that is intended to harm innocent strangers? How can we ensure that this doesn't happen, or happens a whole lot less often than it does now? To answer these questions we must look at human nature itself and the factors that drive our behavior. We must stop thinking that 'we' are good and 'they' are bad. We have to stop thinking about violent behavior as some predetermined condition that bad people possess that we have to endlessly protect ourselves against.

Perhaps we should shift our focus from 'how to protect ourselves against violent criminals' (these 'bad' people who are running around like monsters trying to kill every 'good' person) to 'how can we realistically create a safe, stable environment for every human being where they feel valued in the community/society.' It's a huge proposition, and I recognize that. I am pointing a finger to broken institutions such as our prison system that incarcerates so many people in this country, often on petty crimes, for far far too long, shaming them and taking away their value and worth in society. It is merely an example, there are many others (our mental healthcare system, for one).

I urge you to refer to the very controversial study, the Stanford Prison Experiment, that was conducted in the 1970s by Phillip Zimbardo. I first learned about this study as an undergraduate in a Social Psychology course; it gives me the chills now just as it did back then. It is a rare glimpse into human nature by looking at the effects of prison life on a person, as well as the effects of the assigned roles of prisoner (powerless, anonymous) and prison guard (authority); how quickly a 'good' person can become sadistic and evil due to simply being thrown into an 'evil' environment. It took 6 days (ONLY 6 DAYS) for the participants of the study (who were assessed to be normal by every standard before the study began) to begin to show unsettling signs of change. Imagine what decades of poverty, hunger, imprisonment, etc might do to an individual!

I am in no way condoning violent acts. I am certainly not pitying those people who turn on others, who intentionally harm. Violence against others is always wrong. I recognize that some people have real chemical imbalances that contribute to their sanity, warping their ability to tell right from wrong. I believe nature has it's place in this debate, and surely our mental healthcare system is severely broken and could (should!) be serving those who require it much more effectively and holistically. I am suggesting that we take a look at the various social institutions that contribute to why a person may become violent. Let's support and nurture our neighbors, the people in our communities. Let's reduce isolation, increase individual self-worth, and in doing so, protect ourselves from all of this senseless violence. 

Here is Phillip Zimbardo, the Psychologist behind the Stanford Prison Study, giving a Ted talk regarding this very thing: What Makes People Go Evil? I really, really hope that you watch it because I know that my ramblings just aren't doing this very important topic justice. Listen to the experts. 

My deepest thoughts go out to Boston today.


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