American Youth Internalize Legitimized Violence
by David Ragland
On December 12, 2012, I visited a good friend and colleague at Leadership and Public Service High School in downtown, Manhattan. You can see the construction of the freedom towers at ground zero from the school’s windows. My colleague is the dean of youth programs coordinating a restorative justice program at the school. Restorative justice is a community approach to solving conflict nonviolently through dialogue, engagement and authentic participation of stakeholders of the conflict and the community. Through restorative justice circles, the school is engaged in community-wide behavioral transformation. Every day, students are confronted with competing ethics coming from their communities and a broader society that considers violence a valid approach to problem solving. Our government sanctions violence as a legitimate way to solve conflict , and this legitimization is in many ways internalized by students as acceptable means of resolving differences. School shootings, mass killings and other forms of societal violence are reflections of this internalization.
After wrapping our Friday restorative justice circle, a student received a text message about the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. As events unfolded and information streamed out, and the day progressed, I became even more horrified by the details of this tragic event. Looking out the window onto the freedom tower construction site, I remembered 9/11 and how as a peace education graduate student I spent most of late 2001 writing curriculum for an afterschool program in the aftermath of the tragedy. We helped students to memorialize the tragedy through the production of small personal monuments that held individual significance to the students, placing them in public spaces and interacting with the community by asking for feedback. Then we compared 9/11 to other tragedies in history, and ended the semester with students engaging in activities with Arab-American youth in Brooklyn. We wanted our students to humanize those who were being painted as the enemy.
The response to the horrendous tragedy of Newtown is different and yet similar to those of 9/11 in that violence or tools of violence are again being considered, such as the National Rifle Association’s proposal to provide armed guards in schools and to arm teachers with assault weapons. We should be reminded that violence begets violence. For the first time in public-media discourse, I have heard the term “culture of violence” being used. The idea of a culture of violence, as many peace educators and like-minded folks have been trying to get across for some time, is that violence is deeply embedded in our culture. However, it is not our nature. The Seville Statement on Violence, a culmination of scientific and scholarly research on human nature and violence, suggests that we are not naturally violent, although conflict is natural. Yet, violence is so deeply grounded in our culture that the use of it has been rationalized and even considered ethical in some cases.
In her 1996 Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice article, “Women or Weapons?”, Betty Reardon, famed peace scholar, suggests that society has become “addicted to weapons” on every level of society, from international to local, whereby amassing weapons constitutes gaining power. This addiction to weapons and violence pervades human culture in games, language, music, national celebrations and every other aspect of society. Weapons have contributed to a culture of violence that provides a false sense of security. This false sense of security is the basis of national security and militarism; we are more secure believing our weapons make us so; we are less secure, quite often, in reality.
The “security” of weapons and violence is a hollow attempt to preserve one’s power and ultimately one’s sense of self. So, rather than a Second Amendment historically situated in the ability to revolt against tyrannical governments, many choose to coalesce around a thin interpretation of a right to bear arms that is not appropriate in our contemporary world. Use of weapons in our society is for the protection of resources that many, the most insecure among us, do not possess. To put it bluntly, violence (which can take many forms) and weapons are used by individuals, institutions and governments to maintain power. Even as President Obama cries at the podium over loss of young lives, drones target sleeping children in Pakistan.
The use of violence by our government while simultaneously condemning social violence is what I call “cognitive blindness,” on which I wrote an editorial for In Factis Pax in 2007. Presidential administrations have directed the U.S. military to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantanamo Bay is still open, people have been tortured at US hands, there are drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan killing innocent lives, and police stop and frisk men of color in N.Y.C. We must consider the possibility that the shooters from Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Arizona, Kandahar, and Newton have witnessed and at some level internalized these many examples of legitimized violence as excuses or even subconscious rationalizations for their acts. Have they learned that violence is an accepted way of handling conflict? Violence at many levels is legitimized by government and then accepted and compartmentalized by society. We put bullying in one box and drone strikes in another.
We must see how the social acceptance of government-sanctioned violence, as well as the availability of guns, is part of the calculus of understanding school violence. American youth internalize the use of violence as legitimate in solving conflict, and this is a blind spot we must address if we are to prevent further violence. Addressing these root causes are moral and ethical imperatives as part of local, national, international school and community discussions toward a universal and global commitment to peace, human life and its inherent, self-adjudicating dignity.
David J. Ragland, Ph.D. is a Visiting Lecturer at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville in the Learning, Culture and Society Program, philosophy of peace education and justice scholar, teacher of Philosophy of Education and Education for Peace and Justice courses, and writes for PeaceVoice.