To some extent we are all violent. We are able to pass by homeless people untouched, we are able to read shocking news about the death of hundreds of people without feeling a tinge, we are able to deprive minorities of their rights, and so on.
Should these realities simply be accepted as our coping mechanisms in a world full of suffering? Can something be done to reduce our tolerance to violence?
To start with, I think we all have to admit that we are violent, or at least that we are all capable of violence. Are we less violent than the Nazis who carried out unspeakable atrocities to millions of prisoners? Are we less violent than the infamous Japanese troops (during the Nanking Massacre) who used to compete on who would kill a hundred people first?
Many have heard of Stanley Milgram’s experiments where with little encouragement ordinary people were made to give electric shocks to test subjects if they failed to learn something by heart. The findings suggest that most of us only require the right environment to unleash their violence (65% of participants delivered the final massive 450 volts shock).
What is less known, however, are the variants of Milgram’s experiment – Milgram tried the experiment under different configurations: some of the test subjects were placed in a separate room from the person being electrocuted where they could only hear the screams of pain. In other experiments the test subjects were placed in the same room as the person receiving the shocks, while in other experiments the test subjects had to hold the hands of their victims. Interestingly, perhaps unsurprisingly, the level of compliance (in delivering the shocks) was discovered to be inversely proportional to the proximity of tests subjects to their victims.
These findings have great implications for our society. It means that increasing the interaction between different social groups, should help in reducing violence. It might also prove to be a good reformation approach for racists and homophobes to spend time with people they hate.
Unfortunately even in a small island such as ours the lack of social interaction across different social classes is palpable. As children, we can easily grow up in a particular family and social circle, attend a particular school, etc, and never really realise what a different reality exists in the next neighbourhood. Local media doesn’t always help either: “Taxpayers will be forking out €9 million a year for supplementary allowances for 22,000 children living in poverty…” (taken from a recent online article by a major media house).
Voluntary work experiences – both local and abroad – which seem to be increasing, might be a good start. However, there is the risk of setting off on the wrong foot because such encounters are inherently imbalanced.
Rather than voluntary experiences, we need to find ways of being with the “others”, of listening to their stories, of unlearning our stereotypes, and hopefully becoming less tolerant to violence.