“the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation” – World Health Organisation definition of violence, 2002.
The UK has a violent history, a violent present and what is looking like a violent future. For all that we talk about change, very little seems to be happening. Conversations around the prison reform agenda have stopped, youth centres are closing at a rapid rate, housing is getting more and more like a dream of the past, violence against the person and hate crime are on the rise.
So this poses the question: how do we become a less violent society?
Well, to me that has always been an easy question to answer. We have to want to become a less violent society. To really want to. I think part of the problem is there are very few of us that actually want this, and even less that are willing to do the work needed in order to create change.
The lack of commitment to change has come about for different reasons. We either cannot afford to think about society as a whole, because we are struggling to survive in the face of the violence of poverty and oppression. Or we are the people who benefit from the violence and enjoy the comfort that it brings. It is easy to turn a blind eye when you are living comfortably. Yes, there’s a whole lot of grey area between this very black-and-white conclusion. But from my experience it has been those on the polar opposite
ends of the spectrum that can tip the scale in whether or not change is manifested.
In my experience physical violence stems from a wider systemic context. For example a person with schizophrenia may walk down the street and stab someone in what is seen as a random act of violence. However, their local context may be that they may live in a community that does not have the mental health facilities needed to identify and support a potentially dangerous person. This is in the context of a society that might prioritise funding for tourism, in order to make more money rather than focus on the development of the infrastructure of society.
Or take something we’ve seen a lot more of recently: one young person stabbing another to death in a street fight. Here, it can be argued that this particular young person does have some agency over his or her actions (although that in itself is a point that can be challenged). But we also need to take into consideration the social context of the incident and young person.
It is for these reasons, that if we wish to create a less violent society, we must focus on structural and cultural violence rather than on (or at least not solely on) direct, physical violence. For it is the violence in our thinking and in our infrastructure that can be the most violent of them all.
This means that to create a society that is less violent, we must aim to create a society that is more self-aware and to increase our ability as citizens to critically think about the issues that cause us harm.
For example, I read a lot of comments on social media aimed at young people who stab and murder other young people. Too many times I hear the call for the death penalty or harsher prisoner sentences, despite research telling us that these things do not work, not to mention the moral implications of living in the world of ‘an eye for an eye’ or even ‘a life for a life’. We have to ask ourselves, what do we want more: justice for those killed or a society where murders do not happen, or at least happen at a far lower rate?
When we as society talk about violence we are constantly focusing on those who commit the act of violence and looking for solutions in the form of personal intervention. But there has to be a collective response to every type of violence from the physical to the societal.
For society to get a better handle on violence, we each have to become more open and curious to what violence really is, and the part we play in it – because we all play some part whether we like it or not. Violence is all of our problem and we need to face it rather than hide from it.
We have a personal responsibility to become more active in our struggle for peace, but this is done by working on our self. Now that might seem simple, a bit ‘away with the fairies’, but the reality of it is, work on self is hard work. Our mind is a complete mystery to most of us, our programming deep and complex – how many of us can truthfully say we have explored the deepest darkest parts of our mind, understood and transcended them. It is the things that we don’t know about ourselves that drive the majority of our actions.
It can be argued that the problem with a lot of the training around violence, is that it is focused on a very surface-level understanding of violence. It gives rise to strategies focused very much on creating a mere negative peace. Take the prison estate, for example. A solution-focused strategy to combat violence within our prisons would need to focus on developing peace. This means a change of culture and systemic processes, where those working and living in prisons are allowed to develop their internal, deeper, more complex selves. A complete overhaul is arguably the only thing that will work at this stage but for that to happen the wider society needs to call for it.
This goes back to my original point: we as the wider society need to be more proactive in asking the difficult questions which can develop our knowledge and understanding of self. Why we think the way we do? Where do our thinking processes come from? Why do we believe what we do? Why do we take part in a society that is harmful? In what ways are our actions harmful? The problem is, too many of us get overwhelmed by this. We do not wish to be responsible for the harm we do. We want an easy life: we are tired from work, from school, from being parents, we are tired from life. Could we argue that society has been set up, so we do not get a chance to be truly proactive in our lives?
Is there an argument to be had that technology could play a major part in handing over more power to the people? What would happen if I had an app on my phone where I could vote each month, quarter or year on what my borough spends its council tax on? How, if anything, would the system change? Would this also mean that there would be more responsibility placed on the individual to understand more thoroughly their own role in society? Would this then have a knock-on effect to revamp an outdated schooling system, so our following generations are taught to be more politically aware from a younger age?
We might ask ourselves, “Why have our school lessons not changed in the last however many years?” “Why are our children not taught about critical thinking skills, economics, morality, politics, financial skills?” etc. etc. If the majority of our violence is systemic, then why are we not laying the foundations of system change: putting resource into those who will be responsible for being part of that system in the future? In other words, why do we not teach our children how to create peace and create a peaceful society for themselves?
Read the full book here: Curing Violence – How can we be a less violence society.