The Righteousness about Violence
I was reading an interview with Cady Noland in the Journal of Contemporary Art the other day, and she said something that coincided with some thoughts I've been thinking about the role of violence in our society, especially in light of all the Animal Planet programming Bambino watches and I tend to get sucked into from time to time. Cady noted:
Violence used to be part of life in America and had a positive reputation. Apparently, at least according to Lewis Coser who was writing about the transition of sociology in relation to violence, at a certain point violence used to describe sociology in a very positive way. There was a kind of righteousness about violence — the break with England, fighting for our rights, the Boston Tea Party. Now, in our culture as it is, there is one official social norm — and acts of violence, expressions of dissatisfaction are framed in an atomized view as being "abnormal."I'd been thinking about this long before we saw the violent responses to the passing of the Health Insurance Reform law, long before Sarah Palin started firing up the crowds with her Annie Oakley routine, and even long before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to tell the truth. I've been somewhat obsessed with the role of violence in social order since my phase of reading and re-reading (and re-reading) most of Tennessee Williams' plays (I've read "Streetcar" like an insane 19 times). But it didn't begin to gel into a theory (which I'll get to in a moment) until I read, a few years ago, about the so-called "Boys' Crisis" in America. (You didn't hear about this? There were entire international conferences on the "problem.")
The "crisis" was best summarized this way: "Besides lagging behind girls in academic performance, boys struggle more than girls do with a variety of mental-health issues, according to a report [pdf file] in the December issue of the journal Gender Issues." The abstract from that report read:
The existence of a “boy crisis” in the United States is a topic of public policy debate. This study examines the state of American boyhood, using not only the commonly reviewed indicators of school achievement but also mental health, premature death, injury, delinquency, and arrests. Boys are in trouble in many areas: low rates of literacy, low grades and engagement in school, high dropout from school, and dramatically higher rates of placement in special education, suicide, premature death, injuries, and arrests. Girls, however, suffer from other problems, especially depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, and eating disorders, and are less likely to achieve at the very highest levels in mathematics and science. This study argues that both boys and girls suffer from characteristic problems, but the issues affecting boys are serious and neglected.Others, however, concluded that the "crisis" was a myth, and that the performance disparity between boys and girls was based on socio-economics, not gender:
Now, in our house, Bambino watches an inordinate amount of Animal Planet (when he's not watching back-to-back episodes of "Lost" on Netflix). I mention this because it's apparent when you watch how animals interact, that the male of any species relies heavily on violence or the threat of violence to get his way. Whether in dealing with a rival seeking to edge in on one's harem or a competitor for the scant food available, the male of most species addresses such transgressions with a clear indication that he will go postal on your *ss if you don't back off. If the threat doesn't send the punk skedaddling, then an actual confrontation (teeth a-gnashing, claws a-slashing, horns a-ramming, etc. etc.) settles the matter.
The boy crisis we're hearing about is largely a manufactured one, the product of both a backlash against the women's movement and the media's penchant for continuously churning out news about the latest dire threat to the nation. The subject got a big boost last year when first lady Laura Bush announced that she was going to turn her attention to the problems of boys.
But those problems are hardly so widespread. The alarming statistics on which the notion of a crisis is based are rarely broken out by race or class. When they are, the whole picture changes. It becomes clear that if there is a crisis, it's among inner-city and rural boys. White suburban boys aren't significantly touched by it. On average, they are not dropping out of school, avoiding college or lacking in verbal skills. Although we have been hearing that boys are virtually disappearing from college classrooms, the truth is that among whites, the gender composition of colleges is pretty balanced: 51 percent female and 49 percent male, according to the National Education Association. In Ivy League colleges, men still outnumber women.
One group of studies found that although poor and working-class boys lag behind girls in reading when they get to middle school, boys in the wealthiest schools do not fall behind, either in middle school or in high school. University of Michigan education professor Valerie Lee reports that gender differences in academic performance are "small to moderate."
In my mind, that notion has combined with how the storyline in just about any Tennesse Williams' play suggests that when push comes to shove the male of the human species will also attempt to affect change in his world via violence. When reason or civil negotiations break down, a man can always hurl something across a room to try to regain the upper hand. In William's world, women have more subtle powers, and while men have access to those too, they rely on violence as their ultimate trump card.
As Cady Noland noted, however, we humans (at least in America) have collectively come to view violence as "abnormal."
OK, so I don't really mean that. What I really mean is that mostly women view violence as "abnormal" and mostly men agree with the women or stay silent on the topic in polite company. Very few of my male friends, gay or straight, volunteer that they find boxing or football or rugby or action movies or whatever too "violent." Only my women friends ever say that. My male friends may not seek out violence in their daily lives, but they seem to understand its appeal.
So putting together the findings about the true disparity being related to socio-economic conditions with the belief that violence is nature's way of letting males assert their power when all else fails, this has led me to begin to wonder whether the "crisis" some perceive isn't about personal achievement as much as it about personal power. Boys are frustrated (and that reveals itself in their school work and other social interactions) because they're told to resist their nature. It's like the son in "The Incredibles" who was told not to use his superhuman speed by his parents...he was utterly frustrated, and it led to him acting out.
On the other hand, in a world where violence is frowned upon for males, if you come from a well-to-do family, you'll have personal resources other than violence to help you get ahead in life, so you do. If you're poor or marginalized by society (meaning that connections or money can't buy you better results), your ultimate power as a male is violence, but you're not allowed to access that. The system is rigged. You have this ability, but they say you can't use it.
Of course there are males with no violent urges and females who can hold their own among the most brutish of males...as in all things with humans, there's a sliding scale...but I do wonder how to reconcile the "righteousness about violence" we used to share as Americans and as mammals with the forced anti-violent creatures we seem to be collectively now. And I should be careful to note that I'm not suggesting the Tea Party idiots hurling bricks through windows or Christian militia plotting terrorist actions have any sort of "violence virtue" on their side. I would rather they spend half an hour trying to really understand the Health Insurance Reform legislation with an open mind (and a realistic assessment of their own income and how it will really impact them personally). I suspect most of them would calm down quite a bit as a result.
But I can't help but wonder whether we have gone too far in suppressing our nature. What correcting that might mean isn't clear to me (it's irresponsible to call for more violence, I know). Then again, none of the beasts on Animal Planet seek out violence for its own sake. They simply resort to it when pushed to.
Labels: open thread