“We try to figure out some other cause than just plain evil. In our society, we don’t believe in human depravity; we like to think people are good.” -Dr. Carl Ellis Jr. (RAAN Pass the Mic, June 18, 2015)
Choices. Earlier this week, several hours before the shooting occurred at Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina and more hours before people began to “diagnose” the terrorist who committed the acts with various mental illnesses, I was taking part in a training at my job for the Batterers Intervention Programs that I work with across the state. During one of my presentations, I discussed the theories of violence, as they relate to domestic and sexual abuse, and was relieved that just about all of the facilitators from the programs I work with could easily see the flaws in those theories. Preaching to the choir.
As news spread of what had happened in South Carolina, however, I soon realized that I am sometimes surrounded by too many people who think like me and, likewise, understand the concepts of violence, power and control. Not all people, especially if they are not involved with social justice work, will see the holes in some of these theories, or some of their own beliefs, as they relate to violence and power & control.
Individual Pathology: The idea that violence occurs because people are mentally ill.
Cycle of Violence: The idea that, due to fate, children who grew up in violence (or hateful) homes will be violence themselves and are doomed for destruction.
Loss of Control: The idea that people simply cannot control themselves, most times because of drugs and/or alcohol.
The problem with these theories is that they lack the ability to hold people who commit crimes against persons accountable, and furthermore, put the blame on the victims of these crimes.
The problem with individual or psychopathology is kind of like a Law & Order episode when someone pleads “Not guilty by reason of insanity”. Then the defense lawyer goes into an explanation of why their client needs psychiatric treatment instead of spending time behind bars. In other words, “white” is the new “orange”. This theory suggests that people do not commit crimes against other people because of choices they’ve made, but because they’re mental illness made them do it. There is no accountability for one’s actions. This theory also puts a stigma onto the vast majority of people who do have mental illness and do not commit crimes against other people.
The cycle of violence theory gives the notion that people are a product of their environment at home. For example, in domestic violence this is the idea that boys who witness abuse in the home grow up to become abusers, and girls who witness abuse in the home grow up to become victims. Again, on an episode of Law & Order, this is the part where the defense attorney goes into the sad sob story of how “little Johnny grew up without loving parents and was bounced around from home to home, forced to fend for himself…that’s why he murdered 124 people…my client is troubled due to a lack of love”. While I agree that how one is raised, at home and in broader society, can have an impact on how one functions in society, it does not mean one is doomed and destined for failure. Children are resilient and all learned behavior can be unlearned. Studies show that roughly 30% of boys who grow up in homes filled with violence will use violence in their homes as adults. Why? Because we still have choices. FACT – Assault is illegal. FACT – As adults, we know assault is illegal. Your environment makes you commit a crime against other people….?
FALSE, indeed! We all have choices, and, whether good or bad, must be held accountable for those choices. An old, corny saying goes: “You can’t change the cards you are dealt, but you can change how you play them”. Additionally, I believe, especially in light of people who may experience forms of oppression, that how we play those cards should not be done in solidarity, but in community. While there may be a cycle of violence, they are not excuses. It’s a call for us to re-evaluate how we raise children – how to we teach our boys what manhood is? Our girls what womanhood is? How do we teach each to equally value and respect each other?
The problem with the “loss of control” theory, which is closely tied to learned behavior, is that it leads to many people getting labeled as having “anger issues” instead of wacked out belief systems of entitlement. The majority of people who commit crimes against other persons are not mowing down everyone in their path like Godzilla. No, it’s intentional. Their targets are specific – someone they view as insignificant, less than human, a disposable object. People who assert power, control, manipulation or a sense of entitlement over others are not “losing control” around their bosses, police officers, people of influence. Their anger, hate and violence is targeted towards specific people(s). (I’m not sure if I can make ‘peoples’ a word, but roll with it anyway).
This is why I made the statement I did on Facebook: Violence, hate, racism, sexism, etc. are not about mental illnesses. People learn behaviors; cultivate views, beliefs, opinions based on a number of things – family, society, culture, etc. Likewise, people can unlearn some of those behaviors. People have choices.
I was raised to hate everything about the university of kansas (lowercase used on purpose), but, through my choices, I do not assert control, violence or the like over (misguided) people who have a love for the school. It is my choice to put aside differences and engage in community, even corporate worship at my church back in Kansas City that was split between Mizzou Tiger fans and those who rooted for the jayhawks (also lowercase on purpose). Despite my being snarky and ignoring proper capitalization of certain pronouns, I still respect KU fans, and view them equally, equitably and as human beings. My ideas and beliefs of what it means to be a KU fan have changed, but that does not mean that I still don’t take pride in what it means to be a Mizzou Tiger (M-I-Z!!!!!). I can live in my space, in my identity as a Tiger, without asserting power & control, and thus, violence over Jayhawks – despite how I’m wired; despite how I’ve been raised; despite the urge to want to ‘lose control’ if I even see blue & red together. That is my choice.
I hope I didn’t lose you in all the collegiate rivalry talk, but the message is still the same. Our behaviors are not provoked, ingrained, or reflexive so much that we lose our ability to choose what is right. Additionally, in light of this, our society need not be under this false belief that people are inherently good and do not need accountability when they act otherwise. This kind of thinking, though seen with a bit of grace, lacks justice, lacks responsibility and lacks encouraging our society to respond to injustices in a manner that will protect the weak, poor and oppressed.
Until next time….