Youth Violence: A Solvable Problem?
We might agree that a local, private role in ending school violence is needed. But so far, we can't seem to agree on what exactly that role should be, and whether or not we are willing to do what it would take to execute a solution.
Since Columbine, our schools have implemented bully prevention programs that claim varying degrees of success. However, the larger picture shows little, if any improvement.
There are a lot of well meaning blind folks groping the elephant and offering their pet solutions.
The criminal justice system promotes zero tolerance, more surveillance and stiffer punishments.
The mental health system promotes medication and therapy for bullies and their victims.
The religious community thinks prayer, Bible reading, and extracting promises of abstinence from drugs and sex will do it.
Some blame the media for desensitizing us to gratuitous violence and explicit sex. Their solution is to censure sex and violence in the media, and in the video game industry.
Many think better gun control will prevent school violence.
Victims are encouraged to seek help from adults and bullies are scolded into obedience.
Problems of violence and bullying however are more pervasively entrenched in our society than any of these potential solutions or even all of them combined can solve.
The damage we do to each other is a predictable outcome of a violently competitive culture and a litigious system of justice that take problem solving out of the hands of those who are most affected by it.
Ours is one of the most competitive societies on earth, one where competition is laced with violence, coercion, and cheating.
The competition upon which our free enterprise system is based is not intrinsically harmful. However when competition is laced with violence and our kids are raised to condone violence as a means of winning, we have in our midst an insidious illness whose symptoms we don't even recognize.
For example, we seem to think it's harmless to promote violence as a means for winning at the level of games school children play. However when winners who use physical force are worshipped, as they are, we infect our children with a kind of mental illness. We ask them to deny their perceptions of reality tongues lodged so permanently in our cheeks that we don't even notice how they protrude, we tell our kids to solve problems non-violently while we show them how much we love football and worship the gladiators who compete in a game that cannot possibly be won without engaging in physical combat.
Football is not the only team sport where the importance of winning trumps the value of playing fair, and the winners are worshipped. It is, to my knowledge however, the only team sport that mimics warfare, a game where combat is required.
We encourage cooperation with members of our own team as a strategy for winning. However, cooperation shouldn't be reserved exclusively for the creation and maintenance of winning teams.
We need to teach our kids the skills with which to get along with each other even when they don't agree or when they don't like each other and when there is no prize other than a fair and safe environment within which to learn, to work, and to play.
A cooperative environment reduces the number and severity of violent interactions between members of a social system. Reciprocal interactions between members of a social system encourage the evolution of a cooperative culture. And, behaving in a reciprocal manner does not require complicated mental or physical dexterity. Reciprocity does not challenge mainstream core beliefs or attitudes. * Paraphrased from Robert Axelrod, The Complexity of Cooperation: Agent-Based Models of Competition and Collaboration, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey,1997.
According to Axelrod, reciprocity promotes cooperation in a context where individuals know they will be encountering each other on an on going basis for an unspecified length of time. The school, the workplace, the church or temple, and community organizations provide an appropriate environment for cooperation through reciprocity to take hold and become robust.
"The most promising finding is that if the facts of Cooperation Theory are known by participants with foresight, the evolution of cooperation can be speeded up."
Teaching our children the skills of reciprocal cooperation and providing them with a safe environment within which to practice these skills can reduce the number and severity of violent interactions.
How we deal with what happens after there has been a violent altercation is equally important. In our current system, as with violence prevention, we typically take problem solving out of the hands of those most affected by the violence.
Our litigious society supports adversarial, read competitive, relationships. Perpetrators are whisked away from the victims of their wrongdoing and plunked into a justice system that focuses on proving guilt and doling out punishment. This system leaves the victims of crimes to fend for themselves and the perpetrators with no way out of the corner into which they have been painted. Is it really so hard to understand why offenders go on to offend in more and more vicious attacks on a society that literally throws them away? Victims and perpetrators are denied the opportunity and lack the skills to cooperate with each other in structuring the conditions under which perpetrators can be reintegrated into the community and victims can find satisfactory closure for their grief.
We could learn some important lessons from ancient tribal practices of the Aborigines in Australia. Their system of justice involves victims, offenders and their families and friends in a face-to-face process, an offense is defined as the harm that is done to a person or the community, the focus is on solving problems and how to repair the harm. The victim's rights and needs are fully recognized, the offender is encouraged to take responsibility and the stigma of crime is removable through appropriate actions by the offender.
Unless we are willing to change our culture, our children will continue to be raised in an atmosphere that promotes adversarial relationships and violent solutions to problems.
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