Recently, there has been an “outrage” expressed in the media and in some communities about the continued increase in violence in our country. About two weeks ago an honor student was beaten to death by peers in Chicago — and the violence was captured by cell phones.
In response to this incident a number of community leaders have called for “action” — and from their perspective this means more government programs, more community-based interventions — with the accompanying government funding. This is an example of another misguided understanding of what creates behavior and what is needed to help people make better choices.
So let’s look at the issues that together create a violent response.
Anger. Anger is one of the responses that comes from one’s expectations not being met. People get anger when “X shouldn’t have happened” or when “You should have done Y” and you didn’t. So a key aspect to understanding anger (and violence) is the mismatch between people’s expectations and their experience of reality.
I believe a key contributing factor to the increase of violence in our society is a growing lack of realistic expectations people have. You may insert your own beliefs of what unrealistic expectations are but mine include: the right to have money even if you don’t work, the right to have (health care, housing, insert almost anything) at the same level as anyone else who lives in the U.S. I think we need to take a serious look at the expectations we are creating for our society — they are not logically consistent nor realistically sustainable. As a result, unrealistic expectations + not matching our daily experience leads to increasing anger.
Constant Violent Images. I continue to be amazed at our society. Why are we surprised that violent acts are increasing when we are flooded with violent images? When a majority of our TV shows (CSI, Law & Order, etc.) every night of the week are based on someone getting killed or raped, when our children and teens come home and spend hours every week playing video games which simulate stealing, shooting, and beating up others, and when our music idolizes sexual violence — how else should we expect young adults to act?
Poor impulse control. As a culture we do not really value nor teach impulse control. Impulse control is the ability to stop and think before you act. It includes the ability to delay gratification — just because I want it, doesn’t mean I get it right now. Our “enjoy the moment”, “buy now, pay later”, and “I have the right to . . .” culture undermines the development of children’s and adolescents learning to “do the right thing” even if it doesn’t feel right. Our culture’s focus on pleasure is a distorted view of “happiness”. Happiness doesn’t come from getting every desire met immediately — true happiness comes from living life in a way that helps you live in harmonious relationships with others and achieving goals and accomplishments that enhance the quality of your life over time. [Think about eating healthily and exercising vs. eating sweets all the time and laying around the house playing video games.]
Societal acceptance. When a community loses its ability to communicate acceptance or judgment of unacceptable behavior, the unacceptable behavior will continue to grow in frequency. The moral relativity we have accepted in our culture has lead us to be reluctant to call anything “wrong” — but then we don’t understand when individuals go ahead do “wrong” things [e.g. Bernie Madoff and taking advantage of others financially). Peer pressure works — both positively and negatively. People still want to be accepted, not be shunned or embarrassed — and group pressure from a person’s community can impact their choices. But we have largely given up the power of this type of influence.
So what do we do? First, understand that violence is a personal choice, not primarily a societal problem to be solved by governmental intervention. Second, start to attack the issues that create the propensity for violence. Individually, I think we should refuse to watch violent TV shows (and write the networks or advertisers) and not purchase violent video games. Third, teach our children and families both realistic expectations for life, and the ability to control their impulses. And lastly (although it may not be politically correct) communicate concern and disappointment when those around you make poor choices — if you don’t, then they will come to believe that lying, cheating, stealing, and treating others poorly is acceptable.