Saturday, February 9, 2008

Ambivalence towards violence keeps it thriving

Photo by Pro-Zak (Flickr)

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 5th February 2008:

The state pathologist, Professor Marie Cassidy, referred on a recent TV programme to a chilling aspect of violence today.

This is the tendency, when a group of young people attack a victim, to intensify the attack after the victim is on the ground, stunned and unable to protect himself in any way.

It is when the victim is in that defenceless condition that the attack really starts. By the time it is over he can count himself fortunate if he gets back to normal functioning.

I say ‘he’ because the victims are almost always male, as are the perpetrators. Indeed, we now live in a society in which parents worry far more about the safety of teenage boys than of teenage girls when they go out at the night.

Back in what I call the John Wayne days, there were certain taboos. You didn’t shoot a man in the back. You didn’t kick a man on the ground. Silly stuff? Maybe. But it beats getting some young fellow down on the ground, rendering him unconscious and then kicking him into rehab.

Of course, terrible things happened in those days, the abuse of children in institutions and in their own homes being a prime example. But the practice of going out on a weekend night to hunt down some poor sod who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and to kill or disable him did not exist then.

The taste for violence is not confined to those who carry out these vicious attacks on the street.

Some years ago, I escaped into a cinema out of a wet afternoon in Paris to watch the then newly-released movie Casino. The violence in the movie really shocked me – but when the lights came on again I was intrigued to see that the afternoon audience of respectable pensioners appeared quite unmoved by the whole thing.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. “It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war,” wrote George Orwell in his 1946 essay, Decline of the English Murder. “The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World…..what is it that you want to read about? Naturally, about a murder.”

There it is, then. A vicarious enjoyment of violence has become so commonplace we barely notice it. We hardly even register how extreme it has become – the violence on The Sopranos is just an example.

When it comes to real life, the terrible behaviour we see on our streets owes much to the influence of groups. When you are in a group you are capable of doing things which you would never do if you were on your own.

Research suggests that murders which follow disagreements and an exchange of insults are often carried out in the presence of an audience made up of friends and acquaintances of the killer. The need to play up to an audience can make murderers of us all.

But we are caught in a double bind about violence. On the one hand none of us wants our son and daughter to be the target of a vicious attack; and most of us would not want our son or daughter to be the perpetrator of such an attack.

On the other hand, society wants its members to be capable of and willing to go to war where necessary. Even in this neutral country of ours many of us demand that countries such as the US, Britain or multinational entities such as the UN or the EU should intervene in Darfur or other places where terrible events are happening. We know that such intervention may involve the use of violence – but we are all for it.

So we are ambivalent about violence – we want it and we don’t want it.

And that’s a major part of the reason why we may never come to grips with the violence that kills and maims our sons on the streets today.

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