Several months ago my family and I resolved that our vision is to create a society in New Zealand where everyone can feel safe and loved. As a result of this over the past several months I have been investigating what are the causes of violence and abuse as it is highly unlikely that you can feel safe and loved while you are under the threat of violence and abuse. This investigation has taken me down many paths and many views. The literature and opinions I have researched suggest there is no easy definitive answer to what causes violence. Many factors correlate but a causal link has proven elusive. For example see this article on "risk factors" for youth violence from the USA Centre for Disease Control (Note also the protective factors). In the end however most commentators seem to believe the core causes of violence are likely to be:
Bad role models. This starts in the home and in the family. If you grow up in an environment where violence and abuse is the norm then it is highly likely that as you grow up and get more physical power that you will act this way as this is what was modeled for you. While role modeling starts in the home, bad role models go beyond the home and can come from anywhere in society. In this context a role model is anyone or anything that has a significant impact on a person. It maybe a teacher, a sports star, a social worker, a coach, a TV show, a computer game, or any other person or thing who forges a connection either intentionally or not. Any positive role model can help to turn a life around. Yes they have to overcome the conditioning of the home but it is possible as pretty much everyone craves connection and love. The main hurdle is establishing trust as a basis for influence. This sounds simple but if your experience is violence and abuse then you will likely believe that no one can be trusted so building trust takes time and patience.
The problem is that for many people, young people in particular, the only role models they have outside of the home come from the media and games. While I am no psychologist it doesn't take a lot of imagination to consider that if you come from an abusive home and your main release is Grand Theft Auto that this only serves to reinforce violence, abuse and drugs as an acceptable, indeed normal lifestyle.
Feeling alone, as if no one cares. This may occur as a result of violence and abuse but this is certainly no prerequisite. The key issue here is not reality but what the person feels. If they feel abandoned, then they feel abandoned. If they are abandoned but don't feel it then they aren't. This can lead to violence as a person feels that there are no consequences for themselves or for other people. Although this can lead to violence it can also lead to depression and suicide. Violence being an external expression or flash point. Depression being a withdrawal. Indeed one can lead to another and a vicious cycle can be created (see silence/Violence ).
There is a growing concern that we are raising a generation of teens who feel abandoned. This trend is being driven by significant changes in the structure of the family and while it is not PC to say so the rise of two income families. Traditionally parental responsibilities within the family were split. One parent would primarily work outside the home and be responsible to provide for the economic needs of the family. The other parent would work primarily within the home and be the main care giver and nurturer. Increasingly either both parents are now active in the work force and the role of the primary care giver is "outsourced" to day care centers, nannies and schools ....etc... or there is a single parent. This circumstance can lead to little continuity of care or care where while all physical needs are well catered for emotional needs are neglected. Why is this an issue? Rather than recreate a discussion on which I am no expert, here are a couple of interesting Wikipedia articles on Psychosocial Development and Attachment Theory that point to the importance of children's connection to others, especially their parents while very young.
Inability to resolve highly charged emotions. The bottom line in a lot of the research is we simply do not know the root cause of violence. Yes people who are exposed to violence are more prone to violence however most are not violent. From my research to date the same is true for every possible "risk factor". Yes there are correlations between certain events and conditions but nothing that can be said to be causal. Why? I don't know but one possible answer is that it is not your circumstances that are important but how you interpret them or how you react to them. In particular a persons ability to be able to express and resolve potentially harmful emotions. This may explain why the vast majority of violence is perpetrated by men. Men are basically emotional incompetents whereas woman are much better at expressing and resolving conflict. This thinking is reflected in the silence/violence piece above and also in several other references I have come across.
Well, that's about it. Everything I have learnt, or not learnt about violence. This is very much an initial review as the literature and study on this topic is huge!! The key question however is so what? What do we need to do to make substantial progress towards eliminating violence in our society? This is the subject of another article so watch this space.