Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Healing Society

It has often been said that the family is the most violent institution in society. That probably is not true -- the prison system probably wins that competition -- but there is no doubt that the most likely assailant of a woman or child is a family member. Statistics on this point are not very reliable -- family violence happens in private, usually in secret, and usually does not come to the attention of the authorities. Advocacy groups have been known to exaggerate, but This fact sheet seems to offer a level-headed overview.

One can frame this problem in terms of gender role norms. Women are certainly capable of assaulting their spouses and children, but men are more likely to do so. (I'm steering clear of quantification here because it's not reliable.) We now understand that the phenomenon commonly called battering is not really about anger; it's a pattern of coercive control. Batterers are extremely possessive, jealous, and need to monopolize power in their intimate relationships. It's no surprise that they typically victimize children in their households as well as their spouses or partners.

What I want to focus on here is the etiology of family violence. Children who witness domestic violence, or who experience it directly, may overcome the trauma and become successful, and peaceful, adults, but some do not. Those with less intellectual resources and self efficacy, and who attract less support and affection from outside the family, are more likely to suffer lasting consequences. Among these are a greater likelihood of growing up to be violent or victimized adults, repeating the pattern of their families of origin as they assume the role of parent and spouse; or becoming more broadly antisocial.

While family violence is no doubt the most powerful and pervasive source of psychological trauma, children who experience non-family violence, natural disasters, and of course war, may also suffer long-term consequences, particularly if the trauma is repeated or continual. Think of the children of Iraq right now. And of course, even as adults we are vulnerable to psychological sequelae of violent trauma. Most Iraq war veterans are fine, of course, but they are at risk for manifestations of psychological trauma and may suffer from alcoholism, difficulty maintaining close relationships, or even violent behavior, similar to the problems people traumatized as children may experience.

Violence, then, spreads through society, ricocheting from one person to another, down through time and out through space. This suggests to me that it is analogous to an infectious disease, and that it may be reducible, or nearly eradicable, using analogous strategies. It is possible, through counseling interventions, to heal traumatized people so they no longer carry the violence virus. Perhaps it is possible to do a better job of early detection and intervention before families become highly destructive. Maybe we can boost people's immunity by the right kind of education and the sorts of messages that they hear from politicians and community leaders. Of course, we can choose not to go to war. There is a synergy of peace, just as there is a synergy of violence. Maybe we can tip the balance.

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