Upholding a Foundation of Violence

21 Nov

By Stacia Mesleh

About a month ago my husband told me that the person who was responsible for a home invasion in Cambridge this summer had been caught. I had no idea what he was talking about since I stopped watching the news months and months ago. (It causes me to feel sad and anxious.) I looked online to find the story that he was referring to. A man broke into a first floor apartment where a 48 year old man and his 11 year old son were sleeping and did the most horrific things to their bodies that can possibly be imagined. I would rather not write these things out and they can easily be Googled if you would like to know the details. This happened about a mile from our home and it left me feeling very vulnerable. It frightens me that I can do everything I know possible to raise my daughter with love and kindness and that it is impossible to be 100% sure that I can protect her from violence. According to the news source, there was no connection to the victims and the perpetrator. It was random. The father was not engaging in a risky activity that endangered his son. They were sleeping at one in the morning when the man broke in.

When these things happen, people generally maintain a narrow focus on the perpetrator. He must be an awful person, a bad seed, wasn’t raised right. Perhaps he had a head injury or a mental illness. What most of us do not do is think about how human culture contributes to the creation of a person capable of this behavior.

I was thinking about what has been learned about many disease processes. Often a genetic predisposition is a precursor to disease, but not everyone with the genetic predisposition will manifest the disease. Secondary triggers are sometimes necessary to cause the disease to materialize. I’ve read about this in relation to diseases as diverse as schizophrenia to colon cancer.

I have no idea if there is a genetic predisposition for violence, but I do know that many things affect brain development. Abuse and/or neglect of children are a few of the conditions that lead to suboptimal neural outcomes. There are probably many other things as well. Once a person is predisposed to violence by any means, what are the secondary triggers that cause it to rise up into action? What cultural norms uphold a threshold of cruelty that does not seem to wane regardless of what political party rules, how many law enforcement officers we have on the street, or how many people we incarcerate?

I used to think that if we could just put all of “them” in jail, the streets would be safe. The “them” I was concerned with were murderers, rapists, child molesters, child abusers, and the list goes on. What I didn’t realize is that as long as the conditions that create these behaviors are still in place, we will constantly replace the imprisoned “bad guys” with new ones.

What are some of the conditions that leave us perpetually battling our potential for brutality? I can’t imagine that I can possible have a handle on all of them, however I know where to start. Our choices. With each choice we make, we are deciding what type of world we want. However, we must beware of over generalizing. Two people may make the same choice, but it can mean completely different things. One person may make a specific choice because it was the only one available (therefore not really a choice) or the best one available out of a limited array and another may make the same choice out of habit or culture or for pleasure.

When I decide what to eat I am deciding the type of world that I want. I want a less violent world, so I choose to eat food that was obtained with less violent means. I decided not to carry forth the racism, homophobia, heterosexism, and sexism that are inherent to many of my family members because I do not want a world pervaded with oppression and inequality. When my daughter does something I don’t like, I explain to her what I find unacceptable about the behavior and then explain the behavior that I would like to see. When she was 18 months and began kicking every time I changed her diaper, it would have been easier and quicker to swat her legs or behind. But, I don’t want a world where people physically harm others to get them to do what they want. It took about a month for her to “get it” and stop kicking. Occasionally she will start to kick again and when I remind her that it “hurts Mama when you kick like that,” she immediately stops. It took longer and more effort on my part, but I don’t want my little one to grow up thinking that violence is an acceptable means to get what you want. I also don’t want to harm her or have her fear me. I want to be a safe space for her (both emotionally and physically) in a not always safe world.

Maintaining an “acceptable” level of violence via our cultural norms makes the leap to horrific violence shorter. Imagine a world where a person would only harm an animal for food out of necessity, not for pleasure or habit or culture. The leap for a human to harm a human would be huge and impossibly rare. This is the world I want. I do not believe that it is realistic to think that we will ever be violence free, but it does not have to be this violent. Our humanity can prevail over our inhumanity. We have to create the conditions that enable kindness to triumph over cruelty.

One of the problems inherent in making kinder choices is that unkind choices are normalized in the context of our surroundings. I will give an example where I fell short recently. Thankfully, my daughter is eating like a champ now, but 6 months ago we were having a difficult time. I knew that the vegan chocolate muffins at the bakery across the street were not made with fair trade chocolate, but Amalia liked them and would eat almost the whole thing. No one looked twice at me when I purchased one. I didn’t break any social norms. In spite of that, I knew I was breaking with my values. I do not think child slave labor is okay under any circumstances and since I know the chocolate is not fair trade, I cannot verify that it was not made by exploiting children and adults who have limited means of putting food on the table and obtaining shelter. I have fair trade chocolate powder and fair trade sugar at home. The best choice (and the one I will make from now on) is to make my own at home. I am sure that there are other choices I will make differently as I learn more and as I strive towards living in synch with my values.

It is often so easy to do what everyone else does. As a matter of fact, people often herd others to do what they do so they won’t have to evaluate their own choices. This is one way the unsavory parts of human cultures and habit stay alive. The human tendency to herd leads to complacency and laziness of thought. It is less challenging to go along with the crowd and to please others. But, this doesn’t lead to a more equitable world. The chance for a more equitable global society would require a flood of commitment to lifelong learning and a willingness to change as a result of acquiring and evaluating new information. Certainly if we evaluate every action every minute, it would strip spontaneous joy out of our lives and this is not the end goal I am aiming for. But if we refuse to evaluate all of our actions and live and raise our children by rote, we will not be able to lift humanity out of the violence that has characterized us from the beginning. Each of us can begin to change through our choices slowly and surely. I love the Helen Keller quote, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

With each choice, we create the conditions that encourage the goodness or the cruelty within us. We tend to think that the big news generating events shape our planet, but it is the small everyday choices each person makes that shape our world. That is, for people who have access to choice. How we use our privilege can make or break the lives of many and determine if we drive ourselves to an environmental cataclysm. The revolution is in the mundane.


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