Seeds of violence in shame and humiliation

31 March 2014 | Story by Newsroom
Understanding violence: Prof James Gilligan from New York University addresses the UCT community on the root causes of violence.
Understanding violence: Prof James Gilligan from New York University addresses the UCT community on the root causes of violence.

"If you want to stimulate violence, the single most effective way to do it is to shame somebody."

Professor James Gilligan, a guest speaker at a public lecture hosted by UCT's Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI), recently told the story of a highly problematic prisoner that was referred to him after repeated run-ins with prisons officials. The more prison officials punished the inmate, the more violent he became, and the more violent he became, the more he was punished.

When Gilligan, a professor in psychiatry and law at New York University who has worked as a consultant on violence prevention for Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, the World Health Organisation, and the World Economic Forum, asked this man what he wanted '“ and wanted so badly that he would give up everything in order to get it '“ he, who was usually more articulate with his fists than his mouth '“ answered, "Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem."

The prisoner described to Gilligan how he felt the officers were repeatedly trying to rob him of his dignity by disrespecting him. He added that he only had his pride and that he was not going to let them take that away from him.

The statement and story capture a theory long-held by Gilligan and supported by some of the modern behavioural sciences: that violence is inflicted to protect the pride of a person (or a nation).

Gilligan's lecture '“ What have we learned about violence, and how can that knowledge help us prevent it '“ looked primarily at the causes of violence.

He suggests that, similar to medical conditions, violence has no single cause. "Any human behaviour is a product of the interaction of biological, psychological and social forces." The biological aspects include a genetic predisposition to violence or levels of testosterone. The psychological factors suggested by Gilligan revolve around shame, pride and guilt, while the social contributors include unemployment, inequality and depression.

Gilligan theorises that the reason why men seem to be more disposed to violence than women is because society rewards men for violent behaviour. Referencing Virginia Woolf's work of non-fiction on war, society and the role of women, Three Guineas, Gilligan said, "Men felt especially insulted when accused of cowardice, while women felt shamed when accused of sexual promiscuity." He further observed that, "men [feel they] can restore their pride, at least on a temporary basis, by being violent," while women had no such '˜socially approved' outlet.

Gilligan reasons that while women can be as violent as men, there are more social inhibitors to violent behaviour by women and therefor they do not, in most cases, reach their full violent potential.

Story by Abigail Calata. Image by Raymond Botha.

Interested in what places of learning can do to break cycles of shame and outbursts? Listen to Gilligan talking about how education can shape the causation and prevention of violence.

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