Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Ten Years Ago This Week: Punishment No Cure For Violence Bred In The Home

As the sapling is bent, so groweth the tree: It is in our homes that violence is bred, and that is where it must be cured.

I HAVE NEVER MET Norm Withers, the man behind the Citizens Initiated Referendum on violent crime, but if his interviews on radio and television are any guide, he is a very open and honest person. I can scarcely imagine the horror he felt when confronted with the bloody wreck of his elderly mother’s face – nor his rage at the senseless brutality of the thief who very nearly beat her to death for a handful of dollars – but I can, and do, admire the way he has transmuted his experience into practical civic action. By gathering the 200,000-plus signatures required to set the referendum process in motion, Mr Withers has provided New Zealanders with a means of registering their concern at violent crime. But is Mr Withers’ solution – longer sentences with hard labour – the most helpful response to the problem of violent offending?

Now before anyone trots out that facile quip about a liberal being a conservative who hasn’t been mugged, let me state for the record that I know what it is to be beaten up on the street, and to lose irreplaceable possessions to burglars. The feelings of vulnerability and violation took many months to subside, and there were times when I was seized with a murderous rage. "Just five minutes alone with those bastards," I would tell my friends, "five minutes with a baseball bat!" But then my rage would subside and reason would take over. "Violence breeds violence", I would tell myself, "how can the infliction of even more pain and suffering be the answer to the pain and suffering already experienced by the victim of a crime?

Let’s examine that phrase "violence breeds violence" a little more closely, for it is in the intimate setting of the family that violence is learned – and taught. This is dangerous ground: - the family remains the fundamental building block of our society and we hold it up as a bulwark against what songwriter, Leonard Cohen, calls "the blizzard of the world". It is our first, our final, refuge; but it is also the source of terrible social pathologies – behavioural and ethical diseases that are passed down through the generations like an obscene family heirloom.

Family violence can take many forms: from the casual beating of terrified children, to the brooding menace of incestuous desire, to the refined torments of relentless emotional abuse; the family environment can be a waking nightmare not only for children, but also for adults – as any Women’s Refuge will attest.

But we do not like to think of these abuses – let alone act on them. The Family Court shrouds the deeds of dysfunctional families in secrecy, not only to protect the children, but also to shield the public from the awful facts that emerge when activities formerly hidden behind locked doors and drawn curtains are hauled kicking and spitting into the light of day.

The very fact that we live in society – that we are social animals – requires us to accept the products of these appalling childhood experiences as a fact of our daily lives. The bullying superior at work, the vindictive public official, that idiot in front of you on the motorway this morning; we accept their behaviour – up to a certain point – simply because we have to. And that requirement, that need to accept the unacceptable, breeds within us its own special rage – a rage that finds an outlet in political crusades like Mr Withers’.

The awful deeds of violent offenders are the intolerable proof of a pestilence we would rather punish than cure. But how can we lock away what we cannot even acknowledge?

This essay was originally published in The Dominion of Friday, 15 October 1999.


Olwyn said...

"An individual who feels neglected, despised, abused by the community will be alienated, and will be much less inclined to comply conscientiously with society's demands. In the end I am not prepared to say that the alienated person should be totally exempt from blame for immoral or antisocial behaviour, but on a social theory of the nature of obligation such behaviour must sometimes be seen, not mainly as a falling away from impersonal standards of right action, but as part of a conflict with society in which society was the first offender." - Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods.

Anonymous said...

Can you please fade the background a bit? Blue on brown is really hard to read.

Chris Trotter said...

I'm not sure what's happening out there. This is one of Blogger's standard layouts, it's supposed to have a pale yellow background and ordinary black text. If you are receiving it as blue text on a brown background, then we have a problem I don't know how to fix.

Olwyn said...

For me it turns to the right colour if you press the comments link.