Make It Stop: Contrary to popular belief the most common response to the experience of violence is not retaliation, but shock, fear and appeasement. That's how violence works - both at the individual and the societal level. A nation, too, can be taught to cower in terror.
VIOLENCE WORKS. No matter what form it takes: physical, psychological, institutional; violence almost always gets its way. That’s because violence, and the pain it inflicts, almost always takes its victims by surprise and overwhelms their capacity to process and make sense of what is happening to them.
The overpowering personal priority, when subjected to violence, is simply to make it stop. We flee from violence, or, when that is impossible, we cower before it – doing everything we can to appease the person or institution responsible.
Even when the violence is not directed at us, but at others, our first reaction is to freeze; to back away; to make ourselves invisible to the perpetrator.
Now, many of you will object that alongside the “flight” instinct stands the “fight” instinct. If someone hits us, then we will hit back.
This may be true of those situations in which aggression is clearly signalled in advance: “What are you looking at?”
Such challenges enable us to assess the level of threat and to prepare ourselves both mentally and physically to meet it.
But violence is almost never unleashed in this manner. The seasoned street-fighter knows that victory belongs to the person who gets his (or her) retaliation in first. And it takes a highly skilled and experienced fighter to recover from and respond to an unannounced and unprovoked attack. The ability to meet violence with violence is not instinctive – it is learned.
The perpetrators of violence are well aware of these reactions and responses. Almost invariably, the physical or mental trauma they inflict throws their victims into shock – transforming them into docile, obedient automatons. Which is precisely the effect they intend.
The long-term effects of violence are even more useful to those who use it to exert power and control over others. People become extremely fearful – not only of the person or institution directly responsible – but of the whole world. Their trust in the essential rationality of human interactions is shattered. Very often they withdraw from society altogether. A terrible fatalism takes possession of them and not only the ability, but even the desire, to act independently is lost.
There was a man I knew many years ago in Dunedin. He was a wonderfully humane person, artistically gifted, outgoing and witty. A citizen held in high esteem. He was savagely beaten one night by a group of youths. His injuries were severe, but not immediately life-threatening. Nevertheless, they destroyed him. Terrified and disoriented, he barricaded himself against the perpetrators and never again ventured beyond his front door. His trust in the sanity and order of the world was shattered beyond hope of repair. He died soon after.
Why am I telling you all this? Simply, because New Zealand society is coming more and more to resemble the victim of a violent attack.
Like the Dunedin man I’ve just described, New Zealand used to be a wonderfully humane society. Around the world her progressive social reforms were held in high esteem and cited as proof that New Zealand was (to quote Richards Topical Encyclopaedia) “the Best-Governed Nation in the World”.
A Government So Sound And Humane: How the rest of the world viewed New Zealand in the late 1940s.
But in 1951 that country was brutally assaulted by its government. Twenty thousand of its most independent citizens were subjected to months of sustained institutional violence. Their compatriots froze in horror. For the next three decades fear and appeasement of the government was ingrained in a whole generation of New Zealanders.
And when their children reached adulthood the state attacked again. Between 1981 and 1991 a series of savage blows against the progressive legacy of the 1930s and 40s sent New Zealanders reeling. Parties and politicians they had trusted and supported their whole lives suddenly turned on them. Stripped of their jobs; robbed of their security; a significant fraction of the nation went into political shock.
Like their parents before them, a new generation of traumatised New Zealanders were encouraged to regard the state as something to be feared and distrusted. Like so many battered wives, they learned to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. They learned the importance of reading the moods of their violent masters; of anticipating their violent rages; of keeping clear of their fists.
And when others were attacked: beneficiaries, trade unionists, teachers? Well, they were just glad it was someone else on the receiving end.
That’s how violence works.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 November 2012.