Tag Archives: violence

Modelling Behaviour

Children copy what they experience – most especially what they see their adult primary carers doing. Patterns for behaviour, a sense of place in the world, ideas about self, family, community and life are absorbed unconsciously early on, and often taken in through that act of mimicry. However, there’s not an age at which this entirely goes away. We’re primates. Monkey see, monkey do.

Affirmation and a sense of belonging follows from doing the things we can see other people doing. It’s one of the reasons clothes fashions and counter culture clothing are so powerful – they identify us with our people. There’s no inherent reason why we see suits as smart and jeans as scruffy, that’s just a consensus to help us fit in with the company we’re keeping. If the convention was to wear jeans to the office and suits for lounging around in, we’d do it that way instead. Neither being that physically comfortable.

When people encounter expressions of anger, hatred, violence and prejudice, some will respond by wanting to repeat that behaviour. Obviously it has to tap into personal attitude, but the more visible it is, the more comfortable it feels to be part of it. When the majority are calm, pleasant, cooperative and friendly there’s real pressure on people who tend to hate to fit in with standard behaviour.

Many people aren’t comfortable with standing out from the crowd.

This is why, for those of us who can and will buck the trend, it’s important to keep modelling the kind of behaviour we want to see in the world. Be calm. Be reasonable. Avoid aggressive and abusive language. Avoid shouting back. Model something better. It has a real effect. On the other hand, if we’re lured into expressions of rage and violence, what we do is fuel the rage and violence that we were trying to oppose. There’s an allure in verbal and physical violence – it can make us feel powerful, it can allow us power over others, and if we feel self-righteous, knocking the ‘idiots’ down can feel exciting, and that’s a trap to avoid, because at that point, we’re just a bunch of people attacking each other and the values we thought we stood up for are likely lost in the mix.

Situations of self defence aside, the ‘fight’ here is first and foremost at a conceptual level, it’s about what kind of people we are and how we think people should be, and the best way to achieve this is to keep demonstrating it.

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No Excuses

Whenever there are acts of terrorism or public violence, we wait for the explanations. Sooner or later, the media will tell us which outfit is claiming responsibility. So often, there’s a professed cause to be highlighted or announced, some political agenda supposedly being served, and we’ll get that out and air it. The net result tends to be that the majority become more hostile to the perceived implicated minority. That can in turn lead to ‘reprisals’ as though bashing some innocent bystander from ‘the other side’ somehow evens things up. All this gets you is more anger, more hatred, more violence and more suffering.

Effectively what we do is give terrorists a media platform to sell us their useless excuses and justifications. This is a big part of the incentive. A few minutes publicity for your hate, alongside whatever sick jollies you get out of hurting random victims. I can feel a bit more understanding for people who kill specific people for specific reasons – that at least makes sense. To kill an unsuspecting stranger in the name of some kind of political idea? Some person who might have agreed with you, potentially. Some person who might have cared, might have been sympathetic (you’ll never know). To kill children. What does that prove? That other horrors happen other places and should not happen, is never going to be sorted out by blowing up random victims. It just makes people angry, and rightly so.

I think it’s really important that we stop caring what the bullshit excuse is. Don’t give the cause airing – not if people have died. Any kind of fair and legal protest should get media time and recognition, but if you set out to kill people, I think we should respond by not naming your cause, and not giving you airtime. We should name the killers, and label them as psychopaths and not give any space to talk about the excuses. Every time we air the excuses, and debate them, we validate them. It’s counter-productive.

So, I want to know the names of the people behind the Boston bombing and I want to see them sent to prison for a very long time. I don’t want to hear one word about what they claim to have been doing it for. It’s irrelevant. No one who really cares about a cause goes anonymously to blow up strangers. If you have a cause, then speaking, publicising, legitimate protest are the ways to go. Non-violent non-cooperation is fine. Actually, I’m in favour of pretty much any kind of protesting that does not lead to bloodshed. As soon as someone dies, what you’ve shown me is that really, you don’t give a shit about your cause, you’re just some sick creature that wants to kill, and latched onto this as an excuse. You’re probably insane. You have also undermined my sympathy for your cause, whatever it was.

If you want to resist this kind of violence, the place to start is by not putting information out there about the alleged reasons. There are no reasons, there are only lame excuses. Don’t talk about the excuses, don’t acknowledge them, don’t share the articles on, don’t buy the papers that give a space to the justifications of the mentally ill when they act out their deranged fantasies. None violent non-cooperation, is something we can all participate it. Let’s not co-operate with hate.


What nature does

In the comments recently, Alex observed that nature is sex, violence and death and went on to make some suggestions about how we might relate to it, ourselves and the fluffy safety of facebook, off the back of that. I’ve pondered this at length. I took that ponder down the towpath last night, and saw a fox in a field of lambs. I stopped to watch. The lambs were really curious about the fox, two of them started trotting about after it. The fox moved away from them. Nobody died. Of course ultimately everything dies, and things are dying all the time, and eating each other, and breeding. But this is a fragment of the story.

I’ve watched swans mating. The seconds of that were far shorter than the strange, almost courtly dance that came afterwards, and are nothing compared to the long weeks of sitting on eggs that will follow, and the months of teaching cygnets how to be swans. Trees spend quite a lot of time having sex – and usually attempt to get it on with my nasal passages for good measure. They have their cycles of dying back and growing, but what trees seem to spend most of their time doing, is sunbathing.

I spend a lot of time outdoors and have direct contact with wild and natural things on pretty much a daily basis. Nature sleeps when it can, and a lot of it sunbathes. I see social interactions, and yes, I see fish die in the beaks of cormorants, and small birds hunting for insects. I saw the pigeon the otters got, or at least, what was left of it and I saw a gull take a baby coot. Comparing the moments of drama, violence, sex and death to the hours of very little happening leads me to believe that while sex, death and violence are part of nature, there’s a lot of other stuff going on too.

One of those things, is play. I’ve watched the buzzards riding the thermals, drifting up into the sky until they are almost invisible flecks. They can’t hunt from up there. It serves no practical purpose. I listen to the dawn chorus most mornings, to the blackbirds singing at sunset and the settling sounds from the rookery at night. Communication, expression – there may be things about group bonding and territory there, but it’s a big part of their lives. Maybe it ultimately serves the sex and death agenda. Or maybe what the sex and death get us, is opportunities to sunbathe, sing, and ride the winds. I’ve watched the gulls ride on the wave behind the Severn bore, and get airbourn in high winds apparently for the express purpose of being blown about. I’ve watched the huge flocks of starlings wheel across the sky at twilight, and the water voles diving exuberantly into the canal because they could, not because it was practical.

Reducing the world down to the basic mechanics of the selfish gene busily reproducing itself and ousting competitors misses a lot of what nature does. Some of nature is co-operative. Some of it is playful. Most of it likes to lounge about doing very little, when it can. Spending a lot of time with the wild things, sex, death and violence look like a tiny part of the whole, and aren’t always the most important bits. I say this because I believe that whatever you are doing right now has to count as one of the most important bits. However, nature programs, with their emphasis on drama and desire for narrative are terribly prone to giving misleading shows of sex, death and violence. I can see how watching a lot of nature on the TV might leave a person with a distorted sense of what ‘nature’ actually means. We need to get away from the human storytelling with its tabloid obsessions, and get out amongst the trees, where the birds are singing, things are growing, and there is life being lived, not just the bits that go at either end of life.


Becoming a non-person

It’s well known that if you want to destroy a person, or a minority group, it’s best to start by dehumanising them. This makes it easier for your people to feel comfortable about the destruction process, and it also makes the victim more passive and easier to destroy. In fact, do a good enough job of the dehumanising and the victim will sometimes destroy themselves and spare you the effort. What further complicates this already nasty issue, is that most of us assume (until it happens to us) that we could resist. We think we’re clever enough to see through the propaganda, smart enough to get out of the violent relationship, capable of resisting government led denigration. The people who don’t, are therefore stupid and probably deserve it, we imagine. This actually makes us easier to take down too, because we refuse to see what’s happening. We don’t want to believe we’re falling, we want to beleive we’re clever enough that it couldn’t be hppening to us. Once someone is starting to go under, it gets easier to push them all the way down.

There are a number of ways to turn someone into a non-person, and you can start small. Constant criticism of lifestyle choices, personal appearance, preferences and so forth undermines confidence. We judge by economic contribution (our elderly suffer as a consequence.) Ridiculing of opinion – which we see all the time online and in the media. “Only a stupid person could think the way you do.” Doing things and then lying and saying they never happened (as is so often the way with workplace bullying). Minimising damage. We only pushed him, it wasn’t really a thump. It was only a joke, we didn’t mean for her to kill herself… Blaming the victim – we aren’t doing this to them, it’s happening because they are weak, stupid, lazy and irresponsible. Labelling them – note the way in which the word ‘benefits’ is so regularly publically linked to the word ‘fraud’ so that when you hear the first the second is more likely to show up in your head. (Illegal) Immigrants, Muslim (terrorists) Unemployed (scroungers) … there are many more, but you get the idea. We build the associations.

Becoming a non-person isn’t an event. It isn’t about a single occasion of someone being a bit mean (really, you’re a man, you can take it). It isn’t weakness (thin skinned, melodramatic, making a fuss). Note how we can further denigrate people for becoming victims. No, this is a process, and it can happen so slowly and over such a long time that you don’t even notice your personhood being stripped away. Or your participation in doing it to someone else. You slowly become an object, an expense, a nuisance, a scrounger. You stop being Bob who can tell a good joke and likes the footy, and you become that useless man. You stop being beautiful Esme who is a great mum, and become that lump of meat he shoves round the kitchen of a Friday night before using for sex. And somewhere, maybe you stop looking at yourself in the mirror because you can’t bear the eyes of the person looking back at you. Somewhere in the process you start to believe, as you are being told, that this all makes perfect sense: it’s happening because you deserve it. If everything around you reinforces your status as a non-person, are you going to hold out against that?

Disbelieving everything you are told starts, after a while, to feel a bit crazy. So you try harder, do more, work longer hours, try to humour the boss, accept the benefit cut, accept the brutal sex, and the labels, and you let yourself believe it is all your fault this is happening, and you lose a bit more self.

I’m watching my government undertaking this process aided by the gutter press, and every day the news items, and the shit in the media makes me sick. The language of denigration, the deliberate, relentless dehumanising. Right now, the victims of preference are the poor. We’re hounding the poor into ghettos. We’re doing it by forcing people on housing benefit out of more affluent places, especially London. We’re well under way with forcing them to work unpaid for the state, with the welfare to work scheme. We haven’t moved them into camps for that yet, but maybe we don’t need to. Does this sound familiar to anyone yet?

Are we going to wake up one morning and find that the Tories have come up with a bold, final solution to poverty? And by then, will we have dehumanised the poor so thoroughly that, as the Germans did with their vulnerable people in the 1940s, we let the state kill them? That’s where you ultimately go with this kind of logic.

When they came for the disabled, I did not speak out, because I was not disabled. When they came for the single mums, I did not speak out, because I was not a single mum…

The bottom third of the UK population is now experiencing poverty, from what statistics I’ve seen. We have to start speaking out and we have to actively resist all attempts to dehumanise the vulnerable. No more labels, no more blame culture, no more robbing people of their basic dignity. You don’t need gas to kill people. You can freeze them to death with homelessness, or inflated energy prices. You can starve them to death. You can drive them to suicide. You don’t have to be as obvious as a death camp. You can make your whole country a death camp for the ones you don’t want along.


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.


Rioting

We’ve seen violence, looting, burning and mayhem not only in London, but also Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool. “Mindless criminality’ is a phrase that has been offered a few times by way of explanation. Which is no explanation at all. Sat in a quiet corner of the UK, I’m not directly affected, but so many people are, or must be fearful this morning that they too will be caught up. Others, no doubt, are looking at the TV footage and feeling an urge to get their piece.

Civilizations are made up of individuals. They only work so long as enough people co-operate with the systems, institutions, laws and habits that the civilization purports to uphold. In my occasional posts about the idea of quiet revolution, I keep saying that if there are enough people who want a thing, change will happen. But what we’re seeing here isn’t coherent protest or revolution, it’s theft, arson and violence. The homes and property of ordinary people are coming under attack, as the ordinary people themselves. Whatever else is going on here, the people out rioting clearly don’t have much empathy for others or much concern for their communities, or even their own futures.

As a country, we are in financial crisis. Services are being cut all over. Mounting a police response on the scale these riots require, is going to cost a fortune. We are all going to have to pay for that. Damage to homes and businesses is damage to jobs, incomes, communities, futures. Some of us will pay for that more than others, but we will all pay. Part of the problem is that our rioters have no sense of their own involvement, their own relationship with community and state and they probably have no thought for the consequences.

There are a lot of issues underpinning what’s happening here. Loss of hope, lack of opportunity, poverty, lack of work, a materialist culture that stokes demand but can’t pay people to buy what they are told they must have. Lack of social engagement. Widespread isolation. If people feel engaged with each other, if they have meaningful relationships that inspire care and a sense of belonging, they don’t go out and burn each other’s cars. Disenfranchisement is a word that springs to mind.

The people on the streets did not spontaneously wake up at the weekend and decide, out of nowhere, to be destructive and irresponsible. Every single one of them has been through a process, a life, a series of experiences that have brought them to this point and made that action seem like a good idea. That’s something we ignore at our peril. And if the media reporting is much to go by, for every rioter, there are hordes of quieter, but no less angry people. The Metropolitan Police are appealing for people to clear the streets so they can sort out the ‘criminal element’. I fear they are missing the point a bit. Why are all those non-violent folk also on the streets, witnessing but not participating? Why are they taking the risk? What is motivating them? Those interviewed talk about racism, social breakdown, loss of opportunities. The quiet people are angry too. They might not be going to join in the looting spree, but there are a lot of troubled, frustrated people out there empathising with the rioters. They too have been through a series of experiences that have brought them to this point.

Over the weekend, listening to radio reports about the financial crisis, I heard a lot of people questioning the very concepts on which our current, capitalist system is based. We have built a system that is entirely about winners and losers. We’ve gone for competition, not co-operation.  Buy now, pay later. We have an advertising industry that sells us fear, greed, social anxiety and a sense of never being good enough, so that we spend money we don’t have on products we don’t need. We have a government paying a fortune on war that can’t house and care for its poorest people. This is not working.

We need radical change.

Rioting and violence are not answers to social problems, but they are symptoms of despair and alienation. We are not going to make those underlying problems go away just by arresting a few people, labelling the problem as ‘criminality’ and trying to sweep the causes under the collective carpet. I am absolutely opposed to violence. But we have to recognise that what is happening on the streets of our cities, is happening for reasons. Lots of reasons, none of them good. We are all part of this. How we get out of it, I have no idea, but inspired, and inspiring leadership would be very welcome right now, not the language of dismissal or attempts to diminish the wider social issues underpinning this.