In my seminar class at Fresno Pacific we read some articles about bullying and violence in schools, including one on sexual violence. It was my professor’s stance that violence is getting worse in our society. I have yet another professor with a similar opinion. While I yield to their experience in years, and trust that they have a solid sense of things, I cannot agree to this opinion yet, even though it is often reported in the media that violence is getting worse in this country and that gangs are worse now than ever, so on and so forth. I am still not convinced. Not because I don’t want to believe that it is getting worse, but rather because I do not have a rosy view of the past.
The press about the apparent rise in violence is often blamed on the media. Music, television, movies, and video games are often cited as contributing to the violent nature of our citizens today. “He listens to angry music,” someone might say, or “he learned it playing video games.” I am not sure that these things make people angry or violent or if violent people listen to angry music and play violent games. But my reasons for not trusting the prevailing wisdom is not a matter of the psychology of people committing violent acts, but more broadly, the violent nature of humans in general. Because of this more general perspective I doubt that there has ever been a peaceful time in our world. Because of this I feel that there are a couple things that are contributing to this sense of rising violence.
First of all I feel that there is a lot of violence in the world. Certainly one could not deny that places like Iraq, Israel, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Columbia, Kosovo, and many more are places were violence is common. If we understand then that in general the world is a violent place, then what we are really concerned about is violence in the Anglo-Saxon part of the world which is seen as “civilized” and peaceful. The kingdom pulled together by the British has been the new Rome for the last 200 years. England and her children have been the model of justice and gentleness. This of course is in spite of numerous wars and conflicts internationally, as well as domestic horrors such as mob lynchings in the US south, church bombings in Northern Ireland, and the October Crisis in Canada. Still people of these nations, in general, apparently believed that they were a peaceful society. It was the rest of the world that was seen as savage and violent, not the west. The issue then is not that the world as a whole is becoming more violent, because it has clearly always been that way, but rather that the “civilized” world is not besieged by violence from within. This perspective is wholly Eurocentric and the result of tunnel vision. Had we been paying attention to anything that went on in the last hundred years and beyond, we would know that violence has been a staple of human existence since the beginning of time. I believe that this is the first error in thinking that has led us to believe now that our society is growing in violence.
Middle Class Perspective
The second issue that I think may be getting in the way of true understanding when it comes to violence and society, is that we (WASPs) see things from a middle class perspective, and often times Puritan New England perspective. It is a simple fact that in the slums of New York there was much violence even as early as the first half of the nineteenth century. There was violence between Italians and Irish, “natives” (people born of English or German families who came before the revolution) versus immigrants. Violence against Jews and Russians was common. The difference was that it was something largely ignored by the middle and upper classes. They did not care if there were Irish immigrants getting killed in the streets of the five points. No one was worried if there were Italians dying in gang or eventually mob conflicts. The news did not even cover the countless stories of murdered women and battered children. Nevertheless the violence was there.
Besides this there was a historically violent south in the United States. More white people than black were lynched in this region, and it was not uncommon for there to be feuds between families that went on for generations. There were many gangs of robbers and other types that raided towns and terrorized people, only there was no national press that covered this type of violence. It was not uncommon in the south for two men to fight each other to the death over seemingly inconsequential disputes, yet we talk about senseless violence in this country as if it is a new thing.
Lastly one should bring up the West as another example of a violent era. Nevada, Oregon, and California all have a violent past. There are endless stories of bandits and robbers, cowboys and crusaders who were all violent. In California there was violence against the Spanish, Mexicans, Natives, Chinese, Japanese, and others. Rarely has there been a time when the state was not beset with violence, yet some speak of the present as if this is the first time that violence has surfaced.
I believe that all of this history is simply under reported and the media makes it seem as though it is only now that violence has erupted. Furthermore, I believe that the violence of the past went unnoticed because it was perpetrated mostly by and on the poor, as it is today, and the wealthy did not pay it heed. The bourgeoisie did not see it, hear about it, or talk about it. It is the old “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” strategy. This is no longer possible because television has brought the images, sounds and discussion into the homes of middle class people. This is the real rise in violence. Not that there is any real change in the number of violent acts, only there is now up to the minute reporting on it that reaches every American no matter how high the gates around the community reach.
Perhaps the perceived rise in violence is not due to an increase in the tendency toward violence, but rather the increased ability to kill people. The increase in technology coupled with the availability of weapons of any sort, have likely lead to a rise in the number of deaths from violent acts. In this country kids have access to rifles that are able to fire rapidly and accurately whereas before, even firearms were inaccurate and slow to reload. I am amazed when soldiers in Iraq or Kosovo conduct a raid of private homes to yield hand grenades, rocket propelled grenades and Kalashnikov assault rifles. This of course allows people to kill one another much more efficiently than before, and the likely hood of death from such an attack is higher than before in spite of an increase in medicine to treat gun wounds etc. Instead of treating a patient for one gunshot wound as was likely in the past until the last thirty years, victims are often shot multiple times making treatment much more challenging. Instead of fist fight that have always been common, there are gunfights. This is a fundamental shift in the nature of violence, not an increase in violence in general. I admit that such a change may in fact be more devastating than a simple increase.
As for the prevalence of sexual violence it is historical that women have been abused and mistreated since the dawn of man. The question is whether this sort of thing is increasing in modern society. I recognize that it seems that younger children are becoming increasingly more sexually violent. For this I am not sure of the reason, though it may again have something to do with the media and exposing children who do not understand their sexuality to sexually explicit material. However, I suspect that there is a certain amount of sexual violence that went unreported for a long period of time. This is evident in the number of molestation charges that are surfacing now from thirty and forty years ago. I believe that there has always been a significant rate of sexual violence but that it was unreported because of the shame factor. There is naturally a certain amount of shame that comes with being violated, and this is only magnified when one is violated sexually. Coupled with an immature understanding of what occurred and this is a recipe for denial and repression. Furthermore there is the sense that one should not “shame the family” that is rapidly fading in the USA among middle class people, that is allowing for more of these events to be publicized. In other countries, such a thing sometimes leads to the death of the girl involved because of the shame that it brings to other family members, which almost ensures silence on the part of the victim, and I believe that there was a similar force at work in this country until the past twenty years or so. Like the belief that violence is occurring more frequently in our society, sexual violence could suffer some of the same misunderstandings.
I want to conclude by first saying that I do not think that we should ignore violence in our society. It is a cancer that should be treated not ignored, because ignoring it will not ease it. Furthermore I am fully against children watching violent programs and playing violent games, while I do not believe that such things will make them killers, I suspect that it is nevertheless a poor use of time, and not beneficial for their social or scholastic development. Secondly I am not even sure that I am correct in my hypotheses. It is quite possible that violence in fact is increasing in our society, and that it is due to media, music etc. I am simply challenging the idea and asking for some proof. This I understand may be difficult as the means by which to record information improve, and the past is difficult to properly gauge. I also understand that I am painting with large brush strokes and have not been very specific. If I were to devote significant time and energy into researching this issue, I am sure that I could further develop my argument or perhaps find what I am looking for in the first place: evidence that violence is increasing, but for now I will have to settle for generalizations and nonspecific counter arguments. Feel free to enlighten me. I have not asked questions about this issue because I feel I know the answers, but rather because I wish to know the answers.