6 Ways to Replace Violence With a Culture of Caring

News & Politics

The Newtown tragedy compels Americans to consider the ways that both our society and our attitudes contribute to creating a more violent society. Much has been written about gun control, but we also need a focus on the widespread attitudes and beliefs that contribute to violence and how we can identify and change them. Here are six ideas.

1. Beware of Media Traumatization

After I heard the news about the Newtown school tragedy, I decided to avoid the news media's inevitable, obsessive, insight-void replays of footage. Neuropsychological science has discovered that either seeing, or imagining actions directly impacts our neurology. Repetitive viewings of violent occurrences can install trauma triggers, even inducing nightmares and flashbacks typical of post-traumatic stress. While it’s important to follow trustworthy news sources to serve as a well-informed citizen, repeated viewings of violent scenes without any clear purpose engraves terror into the neurology of the populace. There’s a difference between getting the information you need and getting traumatized.

2. Steer Clear of All-Knowing Cops and Detectives

Changing channels to get to a viewing of Les Miserables, I heard a snippet of commentary in which a local police officer promised, "Don't worry we'll find out why this happened."

To which my response was: "Really? How? The shooter is dead."

Commercial television—both news and entertainment -- depicts criminal procedural methods as the universal panacea. The programming of crime dramas encourages the belief that finding the criminal, reaching for guns, and confining folks to lockups are the solutions to a culture of violence. Although crime dramas love to portray detectives as a fantasy blend of enforcers and trustworthy confessors for those driven to acts of violence, it's not a cop's job to heal a broken heart or a broken life. But that is precisely where healing is needed if violence is to be avoided.

Dusting for fingerprints can never account for the pile of pain and lack of caring that drive people into the stew of trauma, numbness and hurt that prompt recurring incidents like Newtown. Neither can the erosion of a society's ethical fiber and caring be arrested by a pair of handcuffs.

Law invites the populace to heave a sigh of relief when the designated bad apple is indicted (literally or figuratively). But when lawmakers and regulators lack the moral courage to contain powerful lobbies that create mass damage, we shouldn’t be tempted to affix a label to one person. Instead when each of us notices and checks the belief that designating a villain makes us safe, we begin to seek out and address systemic contributors.

3. Don’t Apply Psychological Stigmata

In order to assuage the sorrow, dread, terror, and outrage evoked by this tragic incident, people rush to assign a "reason why," hoping that laying on a psychological or medical diagnosis or designating someone as "just evil" will protect oneself, or help make sense of an act that transgresses the boundaries of what we wish to believe about ourselves and our society.

But all too often, the band-aid diagnosis displaces true understanding. One available label is that one who performs a heinous act must be "mentally ill." Someone asked me, "Well, if he wasn't mentally ill what would you call it?"

"One among the many, many people who are hurting or angry or traumatized, who could get his hands on a gun," I responded.

Counselor and mental health professional Fred Erwin writes, "Spent the day with mentally ill folks whose lives, already hard, will be made harder by the association of this recent shooting with an autistic man, who killed because he was angry and could not control his emotional life, not because he had autism."

From his long experience working with traumatized populations, Erwin adds, "There is no more link between mental illness and violence than there is between red hair and violence, or green eyes and violence, or being tall, or short, or white, or black, or communist, or capitalist."

4. Face Up to a Violent Culture

Wanting simple answers so they can return to normal, people fail to ask whether "normal," as this society defines it, may in fact be part of the problem. Societal norms themselves combine to contribute to a culture of violence.

As we mourn the senseless loss of young life in this horrible incident, can we stop to consider how many ways our choices as a society harm the well-being of the young and future generations— through unleashing toxicity, or through destabilizing the ecological balance of the earth?

Biochemical interventions into the population, whether through poor quality, obesogenic food, endocrine disruption, pharmaceuticals in the water supply, pharmacology to control the behavior of young children (without studies to determine the long-term effects on neurology, cognition and behavior), and then later SSRI use, have compound effects we fail to tally.

Violent cultural attitudes, including neglecting to provide for the ill, needy, elderly, impoverished, or suffering, also contribute. Even in seeking spiritual solace, some undertake the necessary inner work of self-healing, but all too often fail to give priority to healing social ills.

Unresolved acts of war, violence, perpetration, or abuse, both individual and collective, tend to repeat and perpetuate. The victims of violence are at risk to becoming the perpetrators of violence. Who is ready to bear witness and intervene in the cycle, rather than condemn after the fact?

5. Banish Belief in the “Bad Seed”

It’s time to take a long, hard look as to whether attitudes that demonize some people as "evil" or innately a "bad seed" lessen or contribute to the tendency toward violence in a society. When I believe or act as though someone is different than me, beyond help, beyond the reach of caring and kindness, and should simply be locked up so I can feel protected, do I increase (or decrease) my community's store of compassion? Doesn't barricading oneself either emotionally or physically from people in pain reinforce the sense that a person in trouble has nowhere to turn and nothing to help himself but a gun?

As Fred Erwin writes, “So much condemnation, fear and loathing directed at these souls who are already beset enough without burdening them with America's shadow-- your shadow, by the way, and my shadow. And if you think yourself in any way less capable of such a thing than this poor young man was, then you have not reckoned deeply enough, perhaps never met your own shadow. The time would be now.”

Before distancing ourselves from those who suffer by wrapping ourselves in a self-conferred mantle of purity, goodness and righteousness, let’s first do as Erwin suggests, and take responsibility for our own stuff. Perhaps it would be fruitful to ask, Who in their heart has never entertained a moment of anger towards a loved one, the most frequent targets in violent episodes, as in the Newtown case?

Anyone honest with themselves can take inventory of their own relationship to their own more painful feelings. Further, from what you personally know of family life and group dynamics, is it likely that the young man, who acted out through senseless killing, was the first and only member of his extended family (or his community) to ever be angry, neglectful, dismissive, hurtful, insensitive, harsh, or abandoning? While it’s not our business to fix a label on other individuals, living or dead, what we can do is understand the context for such a terrible act, in order to mitigate going forward.

6. Care More, and Mean It

My friend, Valerie Kean Staab writes, “We are failing our children!! Wake up America. Our babies are turning into killers. Our babies are committing suicide at unbelievable rates. We can't even get past the blame game. Something is wrong and it starts and ends with us. Take the time to be a better parent today. Take the time to be a better friend to someone else's child today.”

I couldn’t agree more. If you care about any child, open your heart to all who suffer. It’s not simply that children you care about could become the victims of violence within a culture of violence. It’s also that they could become the perpetrators. When you close your heart, you perpetuate a social context that increases that risk. Love, not lockups—that’s the answer. 

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