Roots of Violence: What Does Kill People?

tolerating violenceAlmost immediately after the Newtown school shooting, before anyone had a chance to grieve the losses, the finger-pointing began. Finger-pointing is not simply one of America’s favorite pastimes, it’s also a prerequisite to our favorite team sport: politics. After all, you’re not going to paint your body in the team colors until there’s a game scheduled; and the game can’t go on without an arena, an opponent and a game plan. In this case, the arena was school violence, and the opponent was obviously going to be the Liberals (if you were a Conservatives fan) or the Conservatives (if you were a Liberals fan). The finger-pointing is necessary to define the game plan and put the ball into play.

A slew of options was entered into the play book: the teams would be able to comfortably dig their cleats into the ground over any given line of scrimmage. They could fight over gun control,  mental health programs, or media violence, for instance. The fans, well-versed in their team’s best strategies, were already calling the plays—even before the start of the game—you could hear them in the stands:

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people!”
“There’s no evidence that violent video games cause violence!”
“The Constitution protects my right to bear arms!”
“The Constitution protects the media’s right to free speech!”
“The shooter was mentally ill, he should have been put away!”
“I’d like to see them try to take away my guns!”
“I’d like to see them try to take away my video games!”
“I’d like to see them try to excuse him on the basis of mental illness!”

If you were an out-of-town visitor and didn’t happen to have a team to root for, you might find yourself in the position of being able to take a mental step back (a tactic that research has shown to be an effective tool for decision-making). You might marvel at the fierce team loyalty that kept one side of the stadium almost completely red and the other side blue. You might wonder where you should sit; and whether you might end up with beer down your back if you did.

Because you wouldn’t be busy shouting the team cheers, you might even have time to reflect that there was a little bit of truth, a little bit of misconception and even a little bit of paranoia in each of the calls being yelled from the stands. You might think to yourself that there’s a whole lot of room between reasonable regulation for guns and taking them all away.  A whole lot of room between acknowledging that some video games go much too far, and advocating media censorship. You might even find room between advocating for mental health intervention and assuming that mentally ill means “excused” or conversely, that mentally ill means “violent.” Black-and-white is easy for the human brain; considering an array of factors together—not so easy. We want to be told there is one simple cause so we only need to consider one simple solution. We are so uncomfortable  when things become complex!

It’s interesting that researchers actually know more about the roots of violence than you would suspect from watching media pundits arguing about it. Clearly, they don’t know everything. But they have learned that one of the most important influences on violence in a society is the extent to which people in that society view violence as normal, or acceptable. Children’s first clues to this are picked up at home, of course. They learn from the behavior of their parents and from the attitudes that come across in what parents say and how they say it. But even if parents do their best, children still pick up on the prevailing attitudes in their neighborhood, in their schools, and in the media.

Can a society’s tolerance of over-the-top violent video games demonstrate acceptance of violence? Can a society’s glorification of deadly weapons demonstrate acceptance of violence? Can a society’s “kill or be killed” attitude demonstrate acceptance of violence? Can a society’s choice of heroes demonstrate an acceptance of violence? What else can we think of that might give our children and teens the idea that violence really isn’t so bad: that in fact . . . it can be great fun and highly respectable?

Cindy Miller-Perrin, a family violence expert at Pepperdine University, once commented to me in an interview that if we want to solve that form of violence, an important thing needs to happen on the cultural level: “We need to work on being less accepting of the different forms of violence,” she emphasized, “even what we would call ‘normal’ violence within the media and within the family.”

Steven Pinker makes an interesting point that resonates with this idea. Although we often see upticks in violence statistics over the short term, Pinker argues that over the long haul we have actually succeeded in shedding some forms of violence. “What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, or burning cats and disemboweling criminals as forms of popular entertainment?” he asks in his abstract for The Better Angels of Our Nature. He credits “the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism,” and why not? These are influences that have a powerful effect on what we view as culturally acceptable.

There are others, of course. And while Pinker may be right when he suggests violence has declined overall in recent centuries, few of us (if anyone) would say we’re completely satisfied with society’s progress. Unfortunately, it seems highly unlikely we will make any more unless we are willing to take that step back from the fray and become the out-of-towner in the stadium for a moment. Otherwise, there will be no conversations; only yelling and flag-waving, because in the stadium, no one has any intention of giving the other side an inch. It’s all just a take-sides game. And what that means is that even if your team wins tonight, they’ll end up playing the same game all over again next week, next month, next year.

  1. Jim Ramsay said:

    I never thought I’d see the day when progressives controlled the narrative. Even in a self-professed balanced blog on the “Roots of Violence” the author is clearly and unabashedly of the progressive viewpoint. It’s obvious when the only voices expressed in the stands are objections to attempts to limit freedoms. And if you were listening to the other side instead of “shouting the team cheers, you might even have time to reflect that there was a little bit of truth, a little bit of misconception and even a little bit of paranoia in each of the calls being yelled from the stands.”
    What about the excesses of the your side, Ms. Mom Psych? What about the constant drum beat of portraying the right as a caricature of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals? Where were the appeals to elected officials to consider banning certain weapons and why weren’t references made to Hollywood PSAs populated with cultural media stars tearfully appealing to their fans to stop the madness by engaging in a plan? Was this a subtle slip of the mind or a calculated attempt to demonize the ‘extremism’ of gun rights advocates?
    It is painfully clear why when she quotes from The Better Angels of Our Nature where she credits’ “the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism,” and why not? These are influences that have a powerful effect on what we view as culturally acceptable.’ Wow! In just a few short paragraphs the primary solution dodged any reference to appealing to God or His law, to controlling our natures, to building up our families and training our children, to looking out for our brother. Instead, science was invoked and ‘government, literacy, trade and cosmopolitanism’ were elevated to primacy as the arbiters of our nature.


    • Gina said:

      Thanks for your comment Mr. Ramsay. I’m glad to see some discussion on this. Of course, my whole point is that I don’t have a side–which is why I portrayed both sides in the same way: as supporters of their respective camps. When I wrote this, I knew that each side would see me as a supporter of the other side, but I can live with that. 🙂 I picked on progressives too when I suggested that the media could censor themselves in terms of violence. [Progressives don’t like Freedom of Speech challenged any more than Conservatives like the Right to Bear Arms challenged.] I’m interested in what the research says, not what either side says. You wanted me to address what God thinks, so I will ask: do you view God as a Republican? A Democrat? Tory? Labour? Or would God stand back from the fray and pronounce both sides wrong? I will ask, because I don’t assume I know where you stand, although you do seem to assume you know where I stand.

      Would it help for me to say that you’re quite wrong about where my thoughts are? I did very clearly state that my aim is to step back and look at both sides. In a discussion like this it can be very helpful to call on sources that your audience will respect if you hope to convince them to consider your point–and you will see me using sources occasionally from both sides of the aisle. I don’t see my job as being one of pushing politics–rather I see my job as one of erasing the arbitrary lines of politics that sidetrack people from using what we know to help others.

      In the interest of helping to erase those lines, I should point out that my views expressed above were actually shared by Ronald Reagan. I know many of my readers like to double-check through Snopes, so I’ll just include the direct link:


      • Jim Ramsay said:

        Until recently I have stayed out of the fray. Sometimes I question whether any of these discussions bear any fruit other than greater polarization. Politically, I am neither Republican nor Democrat; I am disturbed by some of the hypocrisy and lack of self-analysis on the part of the Republicans but I am deeply disturbed by most of the positions of the left which seems to have succeeded in dragging everybody closer to the extreme left while keeping conservatives on the defensive with non-stop ‘straw man’ accusations.

        You say that you don’t have a side, but your words say otherwise. That is why I pointed out the two glaring examples of that. Use your recommended tactic of stepping back and look again at the declarations coming from the stands that you used as examples of a side formulating and stating their positions. Of the 8 total statements, all were from the same side: pro-1st & 2nd Amendments.

        Look again at the quote you used from Mr. Pinker. Wouldn’t you agree that his statement reflects a Progressive political ideology considering that he puts government first in line as a solution to this particular problem? That is obviously contrary to the role that many conservatives feel government should play. In addition, your reference to cosmopolitanism given its concept of a global community with a shared morality is a dead give-away to one of the Progressive’s goals of a ‘one world government’.

        I have no argument with the research you cited that basically validates what many have known for centuries from Christian teachings on the nature of man. I did not say that God takes sides in any of this. I simply suggested that we seem to be leaving him and millennia of teachings about such topics out of the discussion.

        I do not own a gun, therefore I really have no dog in that hunt. But I do see the left making hay out of muck. All kinds of statistics have been drudged up to bolster both side’s positions, but there really is only one pertinent set of data that has any relevance in that debate. The following FBI website link, lists weapons used in murders in the U.S. from 2007 to 2011. According to their data, which most would assume is not partisan, more people are murdered each year with knives, blunt objects and even fists than rifles. So a non-partisan person would ask, why is there a focus on ‘assault-style’ rifles? The first logical response is that most people faced with an horrific assault on the helpless feel they must do something to prevent it from happening again. The left’s solution, as it has been in the past, was to ban ‘assault-style’ weapons.

        History tells us why; governments that want control beyond their constitutional mandate insist on disarming any potential threat to such desires. You may not have any such concerns but there are plenty of us who do because we’ve seen it in the past. If you really want to depend on research to quell the shouting then perhaps you might make more headway by researching relevant history.


  2. Gina said:

    Frankly, I will take good concepts from whoever puts them forward. I did not say Mr. Pinker was entirely right. But that he had some good points to make. In the same way, I think you have some good points to make but I can’t fully agree with the insistence that we must see everything in political terms. My focus is on assault-style rifles because that’s what people are currently arguing about and it gives me a starting place for my real discussion and my main point. Let me restate it here:

    The takeaway point of my post is that recent psychological research (and this is a psych blog, not a history blog) tells us that a society’s perceived tolerance of violence is one of the main predictors of violence. Societies that, whether subtly or openly, accept violence as “normal” have higher levels. How many ways can we think of that we, as a society, give off subtle cues that violence is acceptable? I’m sure you can think of more than I mentioned. But the ones I mention are in the news right now, so I am using them as a jumping off place. 🙂


  3. Jim Ramsay said:

    Gina, I think one of the reasons my response to your post veered away from your intended point were some of the solutions offered by Mr. Pinker. On your specific topic, I agree to a point. However, many of us, if not most have watched violent movies or played a violent video game, but feel in no way a desire to be violent. I think most of us can distinguish between make-believe violence and the real thing. If I could point to any one thing that I think would push someone to commit a violent act more than any thing else, it would be when such a person feels that they have been pushed into some type of corner and they see no way out.

    Regarding the way our conversation started out, I have been disturbed by a growing lack of civility over the past several years. One of the topics you might discuss in the future in your blog is the role that social media may be playing in the current polarization in politics and other hot topics. For example, I am constantly bombarded on FB with messages, news releases, political statements/blogs/opinions. Most are adamant in their worldview and comments often veer into sniping and vile characterizations. It’s made me wonder if the anonymity, the inability to read subtle physical cues, the lack of context (which you bravely attempted to reinstate throughout our discussion) and the pack/cult mentality that people exhibit when they find others who think like them, are all contributing factors to this problem. Anyway, good luck on you blog. I hope you took my aggression as an indication of passion and not condemnation.


  4. Gina said:

    I may do a post on violence in media actually. There is quite a lot of research on this, and like all topics, there isn’t a simple answer. Of course violence in the media doesn’t affect all the same way, but we know a lot about why, and the “why” suggests we need to be more careful about this issue. Again. Violence in the media is yet another indication our society tolerates violence. The point is not whether you can tie each individual factor to violence by itself. The point is how many things in society send the message that we tolerate violence. Unfortunately it takes between 20 and 40 years for research to filter down to practice and that’s why I’ve started this blog and the Web site that’s attached to this blog: to try to shortcut those decades of “trickle-down” time.


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