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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Garbage In/Garbage Out: A Culture of Violence

From comes an article, titled “A Culture That Condones The Killing Of Children And Teaches Children To Kill,”  by Lucinda Marshall, Founder and Director of the Feminist Peace Network, posted on Dec. 15, 2012.  It is a summary of many of the elements that make-up our culture of violence.  Because it is set forth in a staccato-type manner, I have chosen to quote most of it to introduce today’s subject.

“The Sandy Hook massacre isn’t just about the need for gun control laws, it is about a culture that condones the killing of children and teaches children that killing is okay.”
It is about a country addicted to violence on television and movie screens.
It is about cuts in education spending.
It is about environmental and health policies that expose our children to all manner of toxins in the air, land and water.
It is about thinking we have the right to kill children with drones or by dropping toxic munitions on their countries that cause birth defects and miscarriages.
It is about telling boys (and men) they have to be tough and to fight and kill for what they want or think is right.
It is about a national policy that denies children basic rights and systemically teaches them that violence is okay.
And it is about a media so insensitive that it thinks it is okay to shove a microphone in the face of young victims in the name of sensationalized 24/7 cable “news” while under-reporting the root causes of this tragedy.
Sandy Hook did not happen because of a lone, disturbed young man and it is not an isolated incident. It is an epidemic and we are all to blame. And today (and tomorrow and every day after that) is the time to confront this self-inflicted tragedy.”

Unfortunately, it is about even more than that.  Our culture of violence has grown and prospered through many phases and over many decades.  And, the elements of that culture are ingrained in us so deeply that we do not recognize either their origins or their cancerous growth.  We are, in some sense, destined to repeat what we inherited because we accept without question the premises and the myths and the ideologies that have been handed down.

It is about a culture and a government that was conceived in a revolutionary war  against its own ruling country, but is mostly seen as a new nation and government conceived in liberty, freedom and equality.  Yet, that new nation was mired in a system of enslavement of native peoples from Africa, about which we did nothing at our founding.  The violence against America’s own native people was oft repeated when this nation’s white settlers ran into, and violently destroyed, the lands, families, settlements as well as the peaceful culture of these native Americans.  We were unfortunately as much conceived in violence as we were in liberty.

It is about a culture that had violence in its background as well.  That is, the violence of European culture was transferred to the new world.  Bull-baiting and cock-fighting, hangings, drawing and quartering, the glorification of the military, and the violence visited on many countries by invaders, by conquering armies, by marauders, by bands of thieves, by the elite overlords of the manors, and by kings and queens who had to protect their holdings and lieges (not so much their citizenry).  In most cases, our settlers brought cultural violence with them.

Do we even have to mention the “Wild West”, where lawlessness was epidemic at times, and where individuals often had to join together in posses and associations and antagonistic groups in order to defend their property and their livelihoods (e.g. sheep herders vs. cattlemen).  We need to recall the many skirmishes and battles fought  against native Americans to keep them on reservations and to end their battles against settlers and each other (Wikipedia mentions around 90).  And, how about drunkenness (yes, alcohol-induced violence was a problem), or the violence perpetrated on women who had few rights even in their own homes.  (Did you think all those men & women settlers got along like the Engle’s in Little House on the Prairie?) 

The frontier was not the only place where our violent culture reared its ugly head, after all, there were major urban areas growing up in our developing nation, and the crowding, the menial jobs and the threat of new immigrants taking those jobs, were factors in urban violence.  When the industrial revolution moved in, so did the violence of child labor, low wages, long hours, and few rights. 

We could go on like this, but there is little room and your time is precious.  Shall we just mention: the prejudice and discrimination, not only against blacks and native Americans, but against the Irish, Chinese, Roman Catholics, Italians, etc.   And, don’t forget the Civil War during which we afflicted violence upon each other for several years.  Yes, I know: at least we freed the slaves.  But do you recall Southern Reconstruction during which freedmen were subject to laws that demeaned and treated them as second-class citizens?  Oh yes, and then there were the “carpet-baggers” and other charlatans from outside the South who came to take advantage of the defeated South. 

Are we a bellicose nation or a peaceful nation?  We like to think of ourselves as the latter, but our history of war with peoples, nations, and religions belies our tendency toward peacefulness.  Shall we mention a few, beginning of course with the Revolutionary War, and moving onto:

War of 1812
Mexican-American war
Civil War
Spanish-American War
Philippine-American war
Occupation of Haiti
Occupation of Japan
Korean War
Cuban Missile Crisis
Vietnam War
Sinai multi-national
Haiti Operation: Uphold Democracy
Bosnian War
Desert Storm (Kuwait)
Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)
Operation Iraqi Freedom

Are there some in that list you didn’t recognize?  That’s just the tip of the iceberg.  If we count up all of the Battles with Native Americans, the putdown of Slave revolts and insurrections, range wars and boundary disputes, labor-management disputes, state secessionist attempts, riots and public disorders, plus counting all of the extraterritorial and major domestic deployments, as well as deployments in other countries to protect U.S. interests, we are left to wonder when we ever had time for anything other than violent intervention.  It is not an inspiring record, and it reads like America was simply an armed camp ready to fight about everything! (Take a look at Wikipedia’s Timeline of Military Operations).

So where do we begin to change this culture of violence?  There is no one answer that stands alone.  Perhaps we should think a bit about a few concepts:

We must examine the history books we use in our public schools and rid ourselves of those that teach myths, distorted facts and ideology, rather than the true facts of our culture and history; we must not continue to hide from our history and heritage of violence, but must face its implications for our culture head-on (a “People’s History of the United States 1492 to Present” is perhaps a place to start).  Better that young people understand our flaws from the beginning than discover later that they have been fed untruths.  After all, is it not a stronger argument for our greatness as a nation that we have forged admirable outcomes in spite of our flaws, and that reform is achievable even against great odds?
There is a saying from the early years of desk-top computing which may have some relevance here: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”  In the realm of physical health, we say that a healthy diet of food that goes in our bodies will help to produce a healthy body.  Yet, we do not often enough hear of the bad effects on our minds and spirits of a constant diet of violent images from news, movies, books and video games. 
In fact, there are those who say that such images might only affect the already disturbed mind and “trigger” a violent episode, but they do not produce violence in otherwise healthy individuals.  While I do not argue with that hypothesis on its face, I do wonder if any in-depth studies have been conducted to show the long-term effects of such violent images on our minds and our psyches?  It is my contention that we are all affected in mind and spirit by a steady diet of violent images and programming going into our heads, not necessarily in terms of triggering violent acts, but in terms of skewing the way we perceive our culture and the way we look at what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in terms of other violence that is prevalent in our culture.  Have you ever seen the short documentary reports on television about ordinary students or adults of solid backgrounds who were led to give electric shocks to others in ever increasing doses, simply on the suggestion or command of an authority figure?  Most did do so, in spite of the painful cries of the recipients. 

In other words, I’m concerned about how this bombardment affects our outlook on violence in all its forms.  There is some evidence that we are becoming immune to many forms of violence, including attacks on women, for instance.  Are we more tolerant of damage being done to the environment (hydro-fracking, for instance) because we are more accepting of violence done to our planet in exchange for profit?  What manner of violence lurks in our minds because of what we are fed constantly by media?

“Garbage In, Garbage Out” is for me a phrase that should not be ignored as too many wish to do.  And, I have to wonder: how much of our ability to ignore violence in our culture is partly the result of the steady input of violent images into our minds by our entertainment culture?  I believe we are fooling ourselves when we recognize the truth of this phrase in terms of data entry and physical health, but ignore its truth when we discuss our mental and intellectual health, as well as our cultural health.  According to, “Neuropsychological science has discovered that either seeing, or imagining actions directly impacts our neurology. Repetitive viewings of violent occurrences can install trauma triggers, even inducing nightmares and flashbacks typical of post-traumatic stress. While it’s important to follow trustworthy news sources to serve as a well-informed citizen, repeated viewings of violent scenes without any clear purpose engraves terror into the neurology of the populace.”

Is Ann Curry’s “26 Acts of Kindness” suggestion on Twitter partly “the cure” for our culture of violence?  Perhaps some would say: “not to a great extent“, but there is definite validity in attempting to replace our tendencies toward violence with kindness and charity and positive feedback as more appropriate responses to fellow human beings.  After all, responses to other humans is what determines the kind of world we are building, and that extends to relationships with other cultures and nations.  Take Iran, for example.  We are engaged in an effort to change the direction toward nuclear proliferation by that country’s government.  Our approach has been, as it so often is, to use sanctions and threats and negative feedback and hyperbole as the way to get a foreign government to change its ways.  Will it work?  Probably not.  Will it come to some kind of attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities?  Probably.  Does that advance world peace, and the security of our nation?  Hard to say: on the one hand, it will appear to stabilize the situation in the short-term, but long-term be assured that memories of past violence against such countries are not forgotten.  We are still paying the price of enmity from such middle-eastern countries for interventions and insults by Western countries in the past.
So what can we do?  Try “diplomacy” it is suggested by some.  Is that the best we can do?  Or is there something to be said for fostering relationships with countries built on acts of kindness?  Sounds very far-fetched, but it has worked before: the Hoover Plan and help for refugees and other projects through the United Nations, the Aids Project funded under George W. Bush.  These are but examples that come to mind of acts of kindness still remembered by recipient countries. 

So perhaps it comes down to how we want to be perceived and remembered in the world.  Acts of kindness rather than bellicose actions could change our image.  Unless of course, one prefers bellicosity and war and enmity as strategies for getting along with others.  Maybe I have missed the point: is the point to control the actions and destinies of others so that our lives are safer and more secure?  Is national security, and not national pride or international peace, the primary consideration in our relations with nations?  And, is bellicosity the way to get to that desired outcome?  Perhaps we should ask some hawkish Republicans, like John McCain or Lindsey Graham.  At least, they would mince no words in telling us how naïve we are!  But hawks are predators, and therein lies the problem!
Here are some other possible considerations for changing our culture of violence:
-- Enlist entertainment media in making documentaries and theme films that reveal the devastation caused by violence in our culture and that reveal the importance of acts of compassion

-- Toleration of bullying in schools and sports must be reduced to zero tolerance, and perpetrators must have do community service, see a counselor, apologize to the person(s) bullied and join with them in a project of caring and community uplift.
Dr. Philip E. Humbert says it is important to “acknowledge the connection between sports and violent behavior. Again, sports is a sacred icon in American culture, but it seems that sports have been separated from athletics. Instead of every child participating in gym class and competing in intramural sports, we have a culture of super-hero super-stars who are virtually above the law. Hockey, basketball, football and other sports all tolerate behavior that would result in arrest for assault outside the sports arena. Competition and fitness are valuable; organized violence is not acceptable!”  (Source:

-- Video games must be further regulated to keep them out of the hands of children, of troubled teens and young adults, and should be required to be scored for violence by appointed groups of parents and mental health practitioners.

-- Violence toward children must be dealt with severely; too often perpetrators of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and spiritual abuse are treated as though this can be excused, overlooked or reduced in some way; the time has come to let child abusers know that they are in danger of going to prison for life. 
-- Violence against children must include the topics of homelessness, malnutrition, starvation, and lack of health care; thus, responsible leaders and office-holders must also be held liable for their actions and inactions on behalf of children: is impeachment, community service, even jail time too much to ask for them upon proof of negligence or malignant intent?

-- We must also assess our own personal “violence footprint”; how often do we ourselves contribute to our culture of violence?  Can we do something to stop personal behaviors that are not appropriate to a compassionate life?  The answer is Yes and No: sometimes we can on our own; sometimes we need help.
On, writer John Hoffman comments: “To help reform our violent culture we can find strength and courage in a less dominant, far less celebrated and practiced American tradition: the culture of peacemaking, what the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. praised as “unarmed truth.” From the Quakers to the civil rights movement to our other religious and secular conscientious objectors to our famous anti-war politicians, we have many fine examples of nonviolent virtue in public life. And not all of our art, literature and entertainment depends on the shocks of gratuitous violence and the well-armed cowboy. Teaching peaceable conduct and the practical use of nonviolent resistance is possible.
“For we cannot depend solely on government to change our culture, however much we need better regulation of guns and other issues related to violence in our society. It is our own hearts and minds that have to change; if we want far less violent communities, a more peaceable nation and world, more of us must reform how we think and act, what we read and watch, what we fear and own.”

-- The effectiveness of incarceration as a strategy for reducing violent crime is limited. There is evidence that for many youth, the experience of serving time in a large detention center may actually increase the likelihood that they will commit violent crimes again in the future.  More emphasis is needed on rehabilitation while juveniles are in custody, and  on re-entry programs when they return to their communities.   This is an opportunity to educate and train young people who may have missed out on a public school education, but we must have more funding and especially more trained teachers.

--  The United States is the only major democracy that permits the killing of convicted criminals, and this too is part of our culture of violence.  The “death penalty” has long been touted as a deterrent to crime, but there is little evidence to support that concept.  It is undoubtedly a “hangover” from our brutish past that somehow we cannot let go, even though we continue to hear of the absolutely brutal nature of the procedure itself, and we continue to hear about innocent people being put to death.  It is simply a way of extracting revenge, having little to do with justice.  Using the State as an avenger and outright killer is an illustration of the hold that violence has on our culture.  It is nothing short of irrational, and must be abolished if we are to make progress on reforming our violent culture.

--  Violence against women and girls cannot be tolerated; it is a sign of deterioration in our culture and of failure in our governing structures.  Domestic violence is one thorny issue that continually impinges upon our commonweal.  Restraining orders, police intervention, forced counseling are not very successful in addressing this issue, partly because they are all reactive and not proactive.  We must begin our proactive stance in the schools, by producing curriculum and situations where boys and girls can learn the value of all persons.  Girls must be put in positions of responsibility in group exercises, in academic projects, in team functioning.  Boys need to have greater opportunities to work with girls in team functions - labs, sports, projects, etc. - that enable them to practice skills that promote equality and equanimity. 
We must, of course, promote legislation at all levels of government to give women equal opportunity, equal pay for equal work, and equal protections under law.  An attack against women’s rights and opportunities, such as recently emerged from a radical Republican agenda is not worthy of a democratic government system.  Any legislator who votes for legislation that targets women and girls for a discriminatory outcome should be targeted as unfit for representative office.

This subject is far too complicated to make a comprehensive set of suggestions here.  Suffice to say that we have a long and arduous task ahead of finding ways to promote non-violence against women and girls, including legislation to prevent sex trafficking, legislation to step-up punishment for domestic violence, legislation that confronts work-related, health-related and equality-related standards.  As one article put it, “the challenge now… is how to create the social, material and structural conditions in which women and girls can develop to their full potential. The creation of such conditions will involve not only deliberate attempts to change the legal, political and economic structures of society, but, equally importantly, will require the transformation of individuals, men and women, boys and girls, whose values, in different ways, sustain exploitative patterns of behavior.” (Beyond Legal Reforms: Culture and Capacity in the Eradication of Violence Against Women and Girls 2 July 2006,

Those words are perhaps applicable across-the-board in terms of the need of our society to confront the internalized, mythological, discriminatory stereotypes that plaque our society in terms of our unexamined, and perhaps unintentional, but nonetheless destructive internalizations, of the outward purveyors of violence in our society.  “Garbage In, Garbage Out” -- it is way past time to take-out the trash!