We hear the word epidemic used all the time to describe the spread of violence, despite the fact the term is usually reserved for referring to infectious or contagious diseases. How does the concept of treating violence as an illness change the way we address this growing problem?
Experts in medicine, and developmental and social sciences, are starting to take this perspective seriously and are showing high success rates in treating this destructive behavior. If the news has been getting you down lately, the emerging body of research about violent behavior will give you hope as well as deepen your compassion for humanity’s dark side.
Violence – like cholera, leprosy, plague, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases – has killed millions of people and caused untold suffering. Before modern medicine, when we didn’t understand what caused these diseases or how they were spread, we assumed that those who had them were “bad”. Usually some sort of moral stigma, curse, or religious sin was assigned to them and they were shunned, locked away, or even killed. Today, violent offenders are treated in a similar way by society.
Breakthrough: Seeing Violence as a Public Health Issue
Epidemiologist, Gary Slutkin, who spent a decade fighting AIDS, tuberculosis, and cholera, in Asia and Africa invites us to see violence as a public health issue. He is the founder of an organization called Cure Violence, which has had great success in predicting where violent outbreaks will occur, and preventing them with a 40-70% reduction in violence. A film called The Interrupters was recently made, documenting this groundbreaking work that addresses violence in a Chicago neighborhood (you can watch the full PBS Documentary here).
This approach to addressing violence takes moral judgements out of the equation and applies science instead. Violence is believed to be primarily a learned behavior that is precipitated by grief. Although there is an emotional impetus and/or justification for violent acts, which needs to be accounted for, there is a basic scientific approach to reversing epidemics. These three steps as described by Slutkin are:
- Interrupt Transmission: When addressing T.B., AIDS, or SARS, this means finding the person who is spreading the disease within the community and sending specially trained health-workers to interrupt further spread. This is where the term “Interrupters” comes from. When applied to violence, this means addressing an individual who is very angry and potentially plotting to act out. The “Interrupters” in these situations are rehabilitated gang members that have been trained in conflict mediation and are sent to diffuse volatile situations before they erupt into violence.
- Prevent Future Spread: This is accomplished by treating others who are exposed but to a lesser degree.
- Change Group Norms: This may include community activities, addressing economic or social disparity, remodeling, and public education. This tactic leads to group immunity. This is how the AIDS epidemic was reversed in Uganda, and it has also been successful when applied to violence.
How to Grow Immunity to Violent Responses
Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, and a toxic environment, can lower a persons immune system and set the stage for illness. In the same way, there are many environmental factors that are precursors to violence. Psychologist, Robin Grille, has done extensive research linking child-rearing practices with brain development. Science shows that children who grow up in unsafe, abusive, and stressful situations, do not develop the parts of the brain associated with impulse control and emotional regulation. The research is stunning and you can learn more about it by seeing Robin’s TED Talk, The Peace Code, or reading the short article Violence a Preventable Brain Disorder.
Environment is Everything
The field is the sole governing agency of the particle -Albert Einstein
Einstein’s observation also applies to individuals (particles) in our larger community (the field) as we are all influenced by our peers. Socio-economic conditions also play a huge role in contributing to violence. The child who is being raised by a single mother who is struggling to work three jobs to pay the bills, may seek approval and support in a gang. Poor economic conditions can cause a child to grow up in an environment of constant distress.
…solid, empirical scholarship has time and again demonstrated that incarceration does not reduce crime, make communities safer, rehabilitate, or deliver social justice. The prison is a corrosive institution that disrupts lives and damages communities. -Brett Collins, the Guardian
In America, the criminal justice system and legislation is heavily influenced by private prison lobbyists. Low-income and minority groups are disproportionately targeted. Prisons are full of non-violent and first-time offenders. This leaves many children without a parent or strong family support. These conditions set the stage for desperation and violence. Time and time again, punitive control has been shown to be ineffective in solving problems or rehabilitating poor behavior, yet billions are still spent on prisons.
We see the same profile repeatedly, of highly marginalized, socially disconnected and depressed people. In people who are really marginalized, who have been really socially disconnected, the brain lights up in an area that is associated with pain. They have real pain. Some people are living with that chronically, and these people need to be helped. Our society has developed too many people who are like this, and we need to turn a corner by understanding what’s going on here. And that’s what health is about. – Gary Slutkin
It’s Time for a New Approach
There are many important, and powerful, ways to reduce violence. The beautiful thing about addressing violence as a contagious or infectious disease, while applying science, is that compassion replaces judgment and punishment. We are less likely to alienate someone who is ill, and more likely to treat them with the love and kindness that they deserve. Violence is often born of a grievance, meanwhile knowing that judgment, alienation, punishment, shame, and imprisonment, only exacerbates these precursors to violence, we must explore new approaches to fix the problem. The time has come for a scientifically-backed approach that calls on a deeper sense of compassion to address the illness of violence that creates so much death and suffering for all of humanity.