By Robert J. Burrowes, Australia
The tragic shootings in Connecticut again raise the perennial question ‘Why are human beings violent?’ Are we genetically programmed to be violent? Is violence socially learned? Or are some individuals just ‘psychotic’?
Perhaps the most important question is this: Can we do anything to end human violence?
Because of the death of my two uncles in World War II, I have been researching the question ‘Why are human beings violent?’ since 1966, including spending 14 years living in seclusion from 1996 to 2010 with Anita McKone, undertaking a deep psychological examination of our own minds.
In essence, human beings are violent because of the ‘invisible’ and ‘utterly invisible’ violence that we adults unconsciously inflict on children. And this is in addition to the ‘visible’ violence that we inflict on them consciously.
So what is ‘invisible’ violence? It is the ‘little things’ we do everyday, partly because we are just ‘too busy’. For example, when we do not allow time to listen to, and value, a child’s thoughts and feelings, the child learns to not listen to itself thus destroying its internal communication system. When we do not let a child say what it wants (or ignore it when it does), the child develops communication and behavioral dysfunctionalities as it keeps trying to meet its own needs (which, as a basic survival strategy it is genetically programmed to do).
When we blame, condemn, insult, mock, embarrass, shame, humiliate, taunt, goad, guilt-trip, deceive, lie to, bribe, blackmail, moralise with and/or judge a child, we both undermine the child’s sense of self-worth and teach it to blame, condemn, insult, mock, embarrass, shame, humiliate, taunt, goad, guilt-trip, deceive, lie, bribe, blackmail, moralise and/or judge.
The fundamental outcome of being bombarded throughout its childhood by this ‘invisible’ violence is that the child is utterly overwhelmed by feelings of fear, pain, anger and sadness (among many others). However, parents and other adults also actively interfere with the expression of these feelings and the behavioural responses that are naturally generated by them and it is this ‘utterly invisible’ violence that explains why the dysfunctional behavioural outcomes actually occur.
For example, by ignoring a child when it expresses its feelings, by comforting, reassuring or distracting a child when the child expresses the child’s feelings, by laughing at or ridiculing its feelings, by terrorizing a child into not expressing its feelings (e.g. by screaming at it when it cries or gets angry), and/or by violently controlling a behavior that is generated by its feelings (e.g. by hitting it, restraining it or locking it into a room), the child has no choice but to unconsciously suppress its awareness of these feelings.
However, once a child has been terrorised into suppressing its awareness of its feelings (rather than being allowed to have its feelings and to act on them) the child has also unconsciously suppressed its awareness of the reality that caused these feelings. This has many outcomes that are disastrous for the individual, for society and for nature because the individual will now easily suppress its awareness of the feelings that would tell it how to act most functionally in any given circumstance and it will progressively acquire a phenomenal variety of dysfunctional behaviours, including some that are violent towards itself, others and/or the Earth.
From the above, it should also now be apparent that punishment should never be used. ‘Punishment’, of course, is one of the words we use to obscure our awareness of the fact that we are using violence. Violence, even when we label it ‘punishment’, scares children and adults alike and cannot elicit a functional behavioural response. If someone behaves dysfunctionally, they need to be listened to, deeply, so that they can start to become consciously aware of the feelings (which will always include fear and, often, terror) that drove the dysfunctional behaviour in the first place. They then need to feel and express these feelings (including any anger) in a safe way. Only then will behavioural change in the direction of functionality be possible.
‘But these adult behaviours you have described don’t seem that bad. Can the outcome be as disastrous as you claim?’ you might ask. The problem is that there are hundreds of these ‘ordinary’, everyday behaviours - many of them perpetrated in school - that destroy the Selfhood of the child. It is ‘death by a thousand cuts’ and most children simply do not survive as self-aware individuals. And why do we do this? We do it so that each child will fit into our model of ‘the perfect citizen’: that is, obedient and hardworking student, reliable and pliant employee/soldier, and submissive law-abiding citizen.
The tragic reality of human life is that few people value the awesome power of the individual Self with an integrated mind (that is, a mind in which memory, thoughts, feelings, sensing, conscience and other functions work together in an integrated way) because this individual will be decisive in choosing life-enhancing behavioural options (including those at variance with social laws and norms) and will fearlessly resist all efforts to control it or coerce it with violence.
So how do we end up with people like Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, Pol Pot and all those other perpetrators of violence, including political leaders who conduct wars and those who perpetrate their violence in our homes and on our streets? We create them.
And can we do anything to end human violence? Yes we can. Each one of us.
Here is the formula, briefly stated: If you want a child who is nonviolent, truthful, compassionate, considerate, patient, thoughtful, respectful, generous, loving of itself and others, trustworthy, honest, dignified, determined, courageous and powerful, then the child must be treated with - and experience - nonviolence, truth, compassion, consideration, patience, thoughtfulness, respect, generosity, love, trust, honesty, dignity, determination, courage and power.
And if you need an incentive, ask yourself this: Do you think it is possible to successfully tackle the many manifestations of violence - war, terrorism, street violence, the ongoing climate catastrophe, the ongoing exploitation of Africa, Asia and Central/South America ... – without addressing its fundamental cause?
It’s a big task. But we have a world to save. Literally.
Robert has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach’, State University of New York Press, 1996.