Whither Violence?


Boxing Day PSA
A past campaign to reduce violence
The 12 percent reduction in victims of violence attending accident and emergency departments over the last year is part of a distinct downward trend that has been seen over the last decade and more. It seems to be particularly notable for the UK, but such figures are difficult to compare because of the differences in health services and reporting procedures. It is part of a general trend in the reduction in crime levels even though there are still around a third of a million victims of violence in the UK each year.

This apparently steady decrease in acts violent aggression challenges explanation. So, although we have to be careful in not over-interpreting a steady decrease that still leaves far too many acts of violence both between partners and strangers, the recent figures do throw light on the social context of physical aggression. They give the lie to the all too prevalent attempts to assign the causes of aggression to mankind’s primitive, even animal, past.

There have been no radical evolutionary changes in people over the last 20 years or so, consequently changes in behavior during that time have to be produced by social and cultural processes. We can therefore look at the reduction in victims of aggression as a finding in search of important social answers. Fundamental, these answers must be embedded in what are acceptable interactions between people.

It is tempting, as some commentators have suggested, to look for a biochemical cause in the reduction of alcohol consumption. This is couched in an economic interpretation that alcohol has become more expensive in recent years and disposable income less available to youths who are the largest number of perpetrators of violence. But whilst it is certainly the case that the disinhibiting effects of alcohol are associated with increased aggression in many societies, and for some individuals, there are people and cultures for whom alcohol is associated with lethargy and relaxation. In a sub-culture that accepts that it ‘is the drink talking,’ alcohol intake allows certain actions that are not necessarily acceptable under other circumstances.

The steady downward trend over a decade or more is also inconsistent with a simple economic explanation given the vicissitudes of the financial climate over that time. Something more fundamental appears to be happening that tells us about changes in society. The many other transformations in how we live have to be part of a larger picture that is also reflected in fewer victims of violence turning up at hospitals.

It is tempting, as some commentators have suggested, to look for a biochemical cause in the reduction of alcohol consumption. This is couched in an economic interpretation that alcohol has become more expensive in recent years and disposable income less available to youths who are the largest number of perpetrators of violence

The most obvious social change can be loosely assigned to the ‘internet,’ not only does this remove physical contact between people but it allows of verbal aggression that can be just as soul-destroying as any physical act. The amount of nastiness on the internet, threats of many sorts, including death threats, is astounding. That certainly does not show any sign of a reduction in socially mediated violence, but it may just be acting as a surrogate. It may not give rise to people ending up in accident and emergency departments, but it has certainly led to suicides.

Another change in much of UK society that often goes unremarked is the increasingly equal status given to women. If it is unacceptable to treat women as objects then it is to be expected that fighting over the possession of them will be less tolerated. Indeed the increasing gender mix in pubs and clubs that even a decade ago was still limited, could also be lessening the testosterone intensity of those places. This is certainly not the whole story. Women are more involved in violent crimes than they were in the 20th century and there are subcultures in the UK in which the inappropriately labelled ‘honor killings’ are derived from totally asymmetrical attitudes towards men in contrast to women.

The killing of young women because they break the social norms, whilst it is acceptable for some men within the same communities to take advantage of vulnerable girls highlights how much of violence is a product of what is socially acceptable, rather than any innate or atavistic influences. The horrors inflicted on innocent people in many countries in the name of various political or other fundamentalist ideologies serves to show how integrated violence is within cultural attitudes and expectations. The decline in violence in the UK is of course to be welcomed, not least because it show a maturing, civilized society in which physical aggression is less acceptable.


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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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