Book Review: Violence

My copy of the book.

Violence is tragedy, not a morality play, not good vs. bad; and it’s not even psychiatry but rather psychoanalytical (so, not “bad” vs. “mad”), and because it is tragedy, and because it isn’t inherent badness or brain deformities necessarily, then that makes violence, a pervasive problem and which is the critical flaw of civilization — civilization both made all of what we’ve become as a species possible, but it’s also amplified both our destructiveness via wars and genocides, as well as the potential for our very destruction as a species via nuclear weapons and nuclear war — not just something we can decrease, but prevent from happening. I think that is a fair, if long-winded, way of distilling the primary thesis of James Gilligan’s 1997 book, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. To perhaps put an even finer point on Gilligan’s thesis since everyone knows males (and particularly, young males) have not only the highest propensity for violence, but are also the most likely to be victims of said violence: dismantling the patriarchy dismantles that which gives rise to violence, mainly, traditional gender roles that make men feel shame for not being “manly” enough (and of course, “masculinity as homophobia” — a fear of being seen as “gay,” which I wrote about nearly 10 years ago reflecting on Michael S. Kimmel’s article). In other words, Gilligan is approaching violence as if it was a disease: violence is a public health crisis necessitating a public health response to both understand and “cure.”

Gilligan was the director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School, and he also worked in the Massachusetts prison system as the director of mental health. Obviously, that work informed much of his perspective on violence and how to best respond to it. He also provides anecdotal cases from his work that illustrate his thesis of how shame is the engine of violence. In American society in particular, this book itself would seem an affront to justice and holding “criminals” “accountable.” Because Gilligan is trying to understand why someone would commit violence and why our society writ large is so violent, but that is just as easily framed as “coddling” the “criminals,” or worse still, attempting to justify and/or apologize for their violent actions. We are such a punitive society that our politicians on both sides of the aisle repeatedly, for decades, rose to power on campaigns of being “tough on crime.” That sloganeering still works. If even one anecdotal case occurs under a criminal justice reform-minded politician (including prosecutors), then the blame goes to having not been tough enough, and the cycle repeats. As Gilligan smartly and powerfully points out, though, punishment is a mirror of the criminality in which it is responding to: being brutal, violent, and often performatively engaging in an “eye-for-an-eye” with criminals, who in turn, were brutal, violent and engaging in “eye-for-an-eye,” and it should be noted, with the same motivating factors: to restore honor and to negate shame. Of course, we justify our forms of punishment, and particularly, our odious penitentiary system, including the cruel and unusual punishment of solitary confinement, enabling rampant male-to-male rape (so much so, our culture for decades was awash with prison rape jokes), and up to the worst punishment possible, capital punishment, under a legal apparatus, with the guise of being morally right in the morality play we’ve devised. Again, if the morality play is “good guys” (us) and “bad guys” (them), we can justify doing anything to ostracize, shame, punish, and dehumanize “them.” Both are underscored by the “same causes, same symbolic logic, and same irrationality and insanity,” Gilligan states. Instead of deterring crime, this punishment that mirrors criminality is a vicious, perpetuating cycle.

Again, Gilligan puts a finer point than my attempt at paraphrasing can: … the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo and prevent injustice, is the one and only cause of universal violence. Or to try another way, there is reason Netflix’s documentary was entitled, Making a Murderer. If you wanted to quite literally create murderers out of nonviolent offenders (or in the case of the docu-series’ central figure, Steven Avery, an innocent man), you couldn’t find a better cauldron for it than our criminal justice system.

And Gilligan understands that you can’t talk about the problem of violence, especially in American society, given our rates tend to be higher than comparable industrialized, developed nations, without talking about the systemic factors giving rise to that violence, mainly historical injustices and racism, our patriarchal system, and poverty. While I largely disagree with Gilligan when it comes to the latter — in short, I think capitalism has done more to bring people out of poverty than any system in the world, and concerns about wealth inequality are overstated (not that poverty isn’t an issue, of course, but that our policy prescriptions would be different), whereas Gilligan seems to support a robust welfare state (governments taking care of their people so they don’t feel shame, and therefore, aren’t susceptible to committing violence, so it is argued) and thereby addressing wealth inequality (envy of the rich is another form of shame) — I fully agree with him that we cannot understand violence in America, or rather, we can’t extricate violence in America from systemic racism and how those systems are the engine of violence to this day. Again, talking about systemic issues isn’t to absolve individual actors of their crimes, but it does help to explain it, which is what someone interested in psychoanalysis and preventing violence ought to be doing.

Another important factor Gilligan brings up is the “war on drugs,” which is really a war on the poor and largely minority communities in America; as Gilligan states, the real cause of violence is not drugs, but the war on drugs. We know alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century set off alarming rates of violence, and yet, we continue with our war on drugs for the last 50-some years and counting. There has been some pushback, mainly in legalizing marijuana and some light police reforms, but we largely have continued the war on drugs unabated from how it started in the 1970s. I don’t think ending the war on drugs would be a panacea for solving our violence problem (my fellow libertarians overstate that thesis as much as Gilligan overstates the problem of wealth inequality), but I do think it would go a long way to eliminating a great deal of violence — in both directions — from our society.

What has always perplexed people about crime is that it comes in response to what seems so downright trivial and senseless, perhaps most pronounced in gang violence in our cities. But Gilligan makes the salient point that it is precisely because of its triviality that evidences the shame around it; that is, the more trivial the cause of the shame (I’m being dissed, that person thinks I’m a “pussy,” etc., typically all coming back to defending your position and status as a man), the more intense the feeling of shame because they know their reaction is an insecure and outsized one to something trivial! To think of it another way, Gilligan rightly states that we think of narcissists as having an abundance of confidence and thinking too highly of themselves when it is precisely the opposite; they are defending and overcompensating for their insecurity, often leading to violence, rather than maintaining a sense of genuine confidence.

Gilligan’s poignant analysis is about how much magical thinking there is around shame, whether it is those who are meting out punishment, or those committing violence, where all parties involved are wishing to conceal their shame from the “eyes” of the world (this is why, Gilligan states, punishment and violence — again, mirrors of each other — often revolve around gouging out the eyes). Consider when a criminal is found not guilty of a crime or is found not guilty by reason of insanity and prosecutors, police, and the public pronounce how the criminal has gotten one over on us, aka made us to feel like fools, that is, made us to feel shame for being fools. And as should be obvious from what I’ve already said, the person engaging in violence is often trying to quite literally kill the person possessing the eyes in which to judge them for their perceived unmanliness. Again, there is a certain symbolic logic to it all.

To bring it back to the patriarchy, a patriarchal society, Gilligan says, rewards men who are violent and inhibits females from being violent, which is goes a long way to explaining why men constitute the vast majority of perpetrators of violence (and its victims). Gilligan says our culture places men and women on this binary where men are “violence objects” and women are “sex objects.”

I do wonder what Gilligan would say about the dramatic drop in violence across the board in American society around the time he wrote this book, in fact, and contrary to the predictions of many criminologists, psychologists, politicians, and so forth. I also wonder what he would say about the theories around why the violence dropped (American society stopped using lead in things no longer causing lead poisoning, or Roe v. Wade, i.e., would-be young males were instead aborted). When I was thinking about Gilligan’s thesis for how to decrease and prevent violence (dismantling the patriarchy, and not confining men to these “manliness” stereotypes) juxtaposed to the precipitous decline in American violence, maybe that is partly why, after all? That is, after three decades of the feminist movement truly getting the ball rolling, the 1990s marked the start (but certainly not the end) of the dismantling of the patriarchy and revaluating of traditional gender roles and a healthier masculinity.

But what also muddles the conversation about the crime decline in the 1990s — aside from the fact that we still don’t quite know why it happened — is that it wasn’t confined to America, which is clearly the focal point of Gilligan’s claim for a “national epidemic,” because similar drops happened across comparable developed nations, and at a macro scale, there’s also less people dying from war and genocide, too.

Those twin elephants (violence dropped, and violence dropped beyond America’s borders) in the room aside, and my earlier disagreement with Gilligan noted, I thought his book and his thesis around the power of shame as the real culprit for violence was astute and compelling. I think a society guided by trying to understand why violence is happening in order to prevent it instead of being reactionary and punitive, would be a much better, more nonviolent society.

One thought

  1. School shootings are an especially troubling form of violence. This is a poem I dedicated to the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre…

    For a Sandy Hook Child, with Butterflies
    by Michael R. Burch

    Where does the butterfly go …
    when lightning rails …
    when thunder howls …
    when hailstones scream …
    when winter scowls …
    when nights compound dark frosts with snow …
    where does the butterfly go?

    Where does the rose hide its bloom
    when night descends oblique and chill,
    beyond the capacity of moonlight to fill?
    When the only relief’s a banked fire’s glow,
    where does the butterfly go?

    And where shall the spirit flee
    when life is harsh, too harsh to face,
    and hope is lost without a trace?
    Oh, when the light of life runs low,
    where does the butterfly go?


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