The Secret Source of American Violence

Although violence throughout the world has decreased over several centuries, in America it remains so prevalent that we may take it for granted and assume it is unavoidable. Mass shootings are far too frequent and garner a lot of publicity, however, they are less than 1% of homicides in America. Now we are learning how common sexual assault and sexual harassment are among female celebrities, politicians, political interns, and Olympic athletes. We already know about the historical prevalence among Catholic boys. We also need to remember that 90% of rapes of children less than 12 years old are by offenders the child knows.

What is the common denominator among perpetrators of this violence? It is not mental illness. While about half of all adult Americans will have a mental illness in their lifetimes, less than 5% of all US violence is committed by a person with mental illness. In fact, someone with mental illness is far more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator.

What almost all perpetrators have in common is being male and having a sense of entitlement. We seem to create males who think they have a right to whatever they want and to use coercion, power, force, and violence to solve any problem they face. And we now have a President who brags about his own use of power and authority for sexual aggression and whose response to even the slightest perceived affront is immediate vicious counterattacks. He encourages and provokes aggression among his devotees.

While we humans continue the struggle to evolve beyond violence and aggression, we have a long way to go. It is ingrained in our history, religions, and society. It will take much creativity and effort to change our violent culture. We can start by not idolizing violent male gods who require sacrificial killing to be “appeased”; by not supporting impulsive, belligerent, bombastic political leaders; and by not so easily justifying violence as the preferred response to any threat or challenge. We can replace revenge, retribution and punishment (including capital punishment) with rehabilitation and restorative justice. And, as Jackson Katz explained in his book The Macho Paradox, we can stop condoning violence and aggression by speaking up rather than remaining silent or passive when we encounter violent or abusive language or behavior.

Females are much more likely than males to be victims of abuse, intimidation and discrimination. We should not expect victims to be primarily responsible for opposing their victimization. Therefore, it is up to males to join females in opposing violence, intimidation, coercion, abuse, and discrimination whenever they witness them. All of us can speak up whenever we hear any “locker room talk” that is offensive or abusive, including putdowns and degrading remarks and jokes. All of us can object when others denigrate, harass or bully someone. We can all work to eliminate discrimination against females, LGBTQ individuals, racial or ethnic minorities, disabled individuals, or anyone who is subject to harassment or aggression for any reason.

We certainly need more stringent gun regulations, including universal background checks with a comprehensive database and elimination of civilian weapons and ammunition appropriate only for military and law enforcement use. However, those measures are not enough to protect us from our cultural infatuation with power, force and violence. That will require a more fundamental change in our values and beliefs. It is not the aberrant killer who is our greatest threat, it is the normalization of aggression that is the secret source of American violence.

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