Tag Archives: cruelty

In search of a culture shift

I’m following on from a review I’ve posted today about a Book called Overcoming Depression. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/390492284?fb_action_ids=394855587245705&fb_action_types=good_reads%3Awrite&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%7B%22394855587245705%22%3A10151158810115638%7D&action_type_map=%7B%22394855587245705%22%3A%22good_reads%3Awrite%22%7D&action_ref_map=%5B%5D

When I was a kid, people thought it was no big deal to drink and drive. Awareness of the consequences has led to a culture shift and it’s now sufficiently shameful that people do it less, and are less likely to claim a right to do it. It used to be culturally fine for smokers to subject non-smokers to smoke, and not culturally ok to object to this. The police would not, until relatively recently, come out for a wife beating, much less seek to prosecute. We used to beat children, we used to bait bears. Cultures change when the people in them reject a behaviour, or a way of being.

Here’s the culture shift I want: That mental cruelty and abuse should be seen as just as damaging, unnecessary and despicable as physical abuse. If someone takes a hammer to me and breaks my bones, they will go to prison. If someone takes words to me and causes me to have a nervous breakdown, destroying my mind, there will be no consequences for them. The bones would heal. The mind often doesn’t. We need to treat psychological violence as a serious issue.

One of the things I noticed reading the Overcoming Depression book, is the number of case histories where the sufferer had been the victim of psychological abuse – often in childhood, but also in the workplace and at the hands of lovers. While we find destructive criticism socially acceptable, while it’s fine to put down, harass, demoralise, nit pick, devalue, publicly humiliate, patronise, and so forth, this is not going to change. Depression, it should be noted, is widespread and on the increase. Do we want a culture of people who are so miserable and messed up that all we do is wound each other, or do we want to fix it? We have the knowledge in our culture about how good relationship works, how to build self esteem, how to increase happiness. We just aren’t using it.

We have ideas like might is right. Survival of the fittest. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Keep em lean, keep em keen. Being nice or polite is just political correctness and worthless. Revenge is a good thing. Winning is everything. Law of the jungle. Do unto others before they do unto you. And many, many more. All of these thought forms are basically about justifying greed, aggression, and acting like a total shit. They are denials of social responsibility and they tell us that if we can get away with it, then it’s fine, and if we didn’t someone else would, or they’d do it to us. NONE OF THIS IS NECESSARY OR INEVITABLE.

And in that law of the jungle world view, you never get to relax, or draw breath. You’ve always got to watch out for the faster, smarter predator who is going to take you down. You can’t enjoy anything. You can’t trust anyone. You know it’s all conditional on what you earn, on status, power. When you lose, they’ll cut you to shreds. This is not conducive to happiness. It is about as far as you can get from being happy without having a painful and terminal disease, at a guess. With the game set up this way, nobody wins. Remind me about the intelligent ape bit again. This is intelligent?

Criticism is good. Pointing out the flaws is good. You can’t learn if you cannot make mistakes and recognise them. Success is not much of a teacher. However ‘you are rubbish’ is not teaching anyone. “You will never get anything right” is of no use. Broad, negative statements designed to denigrate, are just forms of attack. They need treating as such, and the people who dish them out need treating as aggressive and antisocial. In terms of jungle law, abusive people need identifying as social dinosaurs. And we know what happened to dinosaurs. Time to consider some evolution.

People did not get to current civilized status by trying to dominate each other. Most real progress owes more to co-operation than competition. We do most, and best, and happiest when we play as a team. We need to stop socially reinforcing the people who trade on insults and criticism. We need to stop seeing anything clever or macho about aggression and tyrannical behaviour. Culture shifts all start somewhere. Or probably, they all start a lot of places in small ways and gradually converge. Racism used to be a fact of life. Sexism used to be entirely institutionalised and on the statute books. Mistreating LGBT folk used to be considered normal, if not a legal requirement. We’ve come a long way. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. We need to recognise that psychological violence destroys lives, and we need to stop pretending that this is somehow less of an issue than hitting people about the head with blunt objects.

Taking no prisoners

I read a letter recently in which it said something like “drivers cite congestion frustration around the school as the major cause of their speeding through the village.” That people feel comfortable saying this astounds me, but its part of a much wider culture and one I feel very strongly about.

We may not have much control over our emotional reactions to things, but we do, all of us, choose how we behave as a response. The idea that something, or someone else is ‘making’ you behave in a dangerous, violent, cruel or antisocial way is ridiculous. No one is holding a gun to these people’s heads to make them go faster. As they aren’t emergency services, the few minutes of differences made to journey length is largely irrelevant. We do what we want to do in these situations, and then we deny responsibility. If a child is knocked down and killed as a consequence, will the driver still blame the frustration of congestion and imagine they aren’t responsible? Maybe some people would.

We get cross. The heat of angry emotion rushes through us, so we shout. We are entitled to shout, because we’re being made angry by someone else. And then the anger means we want to take the offending person and shake them. We are so angry we hit, we push, they fall. It’s not our fault, they made us do it, they made us angry.

Now let’s take a step back. What did the person do to make us so angry we were violent? Maybe they insulted us. Said we were stupid, or wrong, or that we’d let them down. Told us they weren’t happy, or that we’d hurt their feelings, or we’d frightened them, that we weren’t perfect. Not had the dinner cooked on time. Not ironed the shirt perfectly. They made us angry. They made us do it. You said ‘no’ and I wanted to hear ‘yes’ and now you have made me angry, and when I beat you until your bones break, that will be all your fault.

See how it works?

Every day, anger leads to violence in someone’s life and violence leads to serious damage, or to death. More often than not we aren’t talking about big, heroic reasons for getting angry either. We aren’t talking about thumping the guy who raped your daughter, or beating off a mugger, or anything justifiable. No, we’re talking the kind of people who, being slowed down by the traffic around a school think that breaking the speed limit, in an area known to have children, dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, horses and tight corners, is just fine. Ordinary people. Normal people.

Once we’ve established that “you make me angry and therefore my reaction is not my fault” is a viable idea, we can escalate. I shout at you. Tomorrow I shove you. Next week I’m going to slap you in the face and in a month’s time I will push you down a flight of stairs, and then I’m going to get so angry that I kill your dog, just to show you that making me angry is a bad thing. And even then, I still feel like I have the moral high ground. It’s not my fault. You made me do it.

“You” might be a five year old child. You might be a pregnant nineteen year old or a brittle boned granny of eighty. It doesn’t matter, apparently. Your power in causing anger, is too great, and you therefore deserve to be punished. You were asking for it.

In case you aren’t squirming with discomfort already, I’d like to mention a news story this week, the jailing of a man from Cornwall who gouged his girlfriend’s eyes out. She has young children. No one was talking about why he did it, and that’s brilliant, because all the reasons, the justifications are imaginary. He did it because he was a sick and evil bastard. But I’d be prepared to bet you that in his head, in the moments when he reached for her to do that, he was telling himself it was fine. Justified. He was angry. She made him do it.

Evil starts small. We don’t wake up one morning and decide, spontaneously to torture, murder or otherwise destroy another human being. We go slowly, building our confidence and our justifications. Most importantly, we hear or see things we don’t like, we allow ourselves to feel angry about them, like a spoiled child who isn’t getting their own way and then we IMAGINE that feeling this way entitles us to retaliate. Or speed through the village. Or take it out on the next person.

“It/he/she made me angry, made me do it” should never, ever be accepted as an excuse for appalling behaviour. It’s bad enough in small children, utterly unacceptable in adults.