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We have the knowledge and the ability to stop school violence like the shootings that just occurred at Northern Illinois University (NIU). Practical proven strategies for ending violence are available, and we are not using them. Why? Perhaps because we are culturally unaware of them.
Many people seem to think that we cannot predict or prevent violence. That the best we can do is to try and protect ourselves by expanding our security systems to guard against violence, and by severely punishing anyone who uses violence. Ironically these two strategies, more guards and more punishment, not only don’t work, they are major contributors to the very violence they are thought to protect us from.
To develop and implement practical and effective strategies for eliminating violence (and school violence, like the shootings at NIU, is just one example of what we can prevent) we must understand both the causes of, and effective strategies for preventing, violence. In two books, “Violence, Reflections On A National Epidemic” (1996) and “Preventing Violence” (2001), Dr. James Gilligan (former mental health director for the Massachusetts state prison system), offers an in depth theory and understanding of violence that has been tested and proven with some of the most violent people in our culture. Gilligan’s theory explains both the causes of violence and the factors that effectively reduce violence.
I strongly support Gilligan’s theory of violence because of my own experiences. From my military service, to martial arts, to graduate school, to counseling sex offenders, to post 9/11 airline security, to law enforcement, to working in the prison system, I have studied violence extensively. My experience and understanding of violence, and violent behavior, is completely consistent with Gilligan’s theory.
According to Gilligan there are three preconditions for violence. The first, and most important fundamental factor is emotional. It is the experience of shame. Not just a little shame, but shame so deep, so intense and overwhelming, that a person’s personality begins to disintegrate, threatening the person’s sense of self and their psychological survival. Violence occurs when some (often minor) conflict triggers overwhelming feelings of shame in the presence of the other two preconditions.
The second precondition is that, at the moment of their violent behavior, the person cannot think of a nonviolent means of resolving the conflict they are experiencing. Third, the shame they are experiencing prevents them from feeling the emotions (love, fear, and guilt) that normally stop us from being violent.
In our efforts to prevent violence, it is paramount that we understand and address shame, because of its central role in acts of violence. We must understand what shame is, where it comes from and, if we are to prevent acts of violence, then we must understand how to prevent and how to heal shame.
In its purest form, shame is not just self-hatred, or self-loathing, it is the complete absence of self-respect or self-esteem. The essence of shame is an absolute lack of self-love. It is the overwhelming nature of pure shame that so destabilizes and threatens a person’s inner sense of survival. Gilligan’s analogy is that “the self needs love, like the lungs need oxygen.”
Where does our sense of shame or self-love come from? It does not come from just one experience or event but from many years of experiences, and it all begins in childhood. We learn to value ourselves from the way we are valued by our parents, our family, our teachers, peers, and classmates. It is well known in the treatment of troubled children, that positive self-esteem is linked to experiencing success and social acceptance somewhere in life, such as in sports, or academics, or with peers.
Gilligan’s experience in the prison system was that two powerful forms of supporting a person’s self-esteem were education and employment. That is why we see so many acts of violence perpetrated in schools and workplaces. Since these places are powerful sources of self-esteem, they are also be powerful triggers for shame and violence. Additionally, since poverty can play an important role in a person's resources for success in school and in becoming successfully employed, poverty is also often connected to self-esteem and thus to violence.
After the shooting incident at Virginia Tech, we learned that the shooter had experienced years of shaming treatment from his classmates. There were also other shaming experiences in his life that included poverty and family. It was the disintegration of self caused by repeated shaming that put him on the edge, and some event, that to most people would have probably seemed insignificant, that pushed him over the edge. The violence occurred at school because throughout his life it was a place where he often experienced shaming events from his teachers and peers.
I have little doubt that we will discover a similar pattern in this most recent shooting event. Gilligan’s theory predicts that we will learn that the shooter had experienced a series of events throughout his life that led him to feel so ashamed of himself that the only way he could see to gain self-respect was to kill the source of his shame. When killing others did not heal his pain and bring him self-respect, the only way he could see out of his nightmare was suicide. This is often the psychology behind murder suicide.
This pattern is common to most if not every school and workplace shooting tragedy we have experienced. It is predictable, and therefore preventable. It is not preventable by constantly adding more metal detectors and more guards and more locks and more alarms. Building more and bigger security systems contributes to more violence because it takes our attention and resources away from addressing the true causes of violence. When we fail to address the true causes of a crisis, the crisis only worsens, just as in a fire or medical epidemic.
Punishing people who are violent also makes violence worse, because punishment shames people. Punishing children creates shame (psychologist Alice Miller has written extensively on this topic) and punishing adults creates shame. The problem is not that punishment never works, sometimes it does cause people to change their behavior in a positive way. However, there are much more effective ways to encourage change that also contribute to positive self-esteem.
Violence is preventable. It is not preventable by trying to out-violence the violent, because they are as violent towards themselves as it is possible to be. Think suicide bombers, visualize the Trade Towers; the first ones to die are the perpetrators themselves.
Violence is preventable by educating ourselves, our school staffs, and our children about the causes of violence. If we wish to prevent violence, then we must stop emotionally shaming others, especially children. We also need to learn how to identify those who have been attacked and harmed by shaming so that we can reach out to them and provide them with the care and healing they need, before they destroy themselves and whoever happens to be nearby when they blow up.
The most powerful tool we have to prevent shame, and to prevent violence, is love. Love really is the answer. Love, human compassion, embracing one another, listening, sharing the pain and the joy of life is the answer to violence and the only means by which we can possibly bring peace to our world. As one powerful, practical application of love, we need the awareness and human compassion that creates an economic system where no child lives in poverty.
We humans have used violence as a strategy to achieve peace for thousands of years. If violence led to peace, the violence of punishment, and of war, and the violence of poverty caused by vast disparities in wealth and the hoarding of resources, our world would be more peaceful now than in the past. That our world is at least as violent as it has always been, if not more so, is all the proof we need that in the long run, violence does not bring peace. We have tried violence long enough, it is time we tried something different. It is time we tried something different together.
Why not try love?
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Eric Mosley's approach to life, and to happiness, comes from a variety of training and experience. At 53 he is a retired military officer, a current airline pilot, a counselor (Masters in Counselor Education from VA Tech in '99), and father of two children who are married adults. He has been a union contract negotiator, a sworn law enforcement officer (Federal Flight Deck Officer), a CASA volunteer in Bedford, and he currently does volunteer work for the Department of Corrections.