Youth violence: symptom of a hysterical society?

Youth Violence: a symptom of a hysterical society? (In: Roots of Violence. Stockholm: Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2013, p. 121-131 – http://www.axsonjohnsonfoundation.org)

Violence as heated issue

Youth violence has become a prime concern of western societies. In Switzerland, Germany and Austria heated debates on the causes of youth violence are held, prevention programs are launched and campaigns organized. Like a mantra politicians, teachers and pundits proclaim, that youth violence is “definitely on the increase”, gets fiercer and more brutal. Repeatedly one can hear and read the argument, that the violent adolescents don’t respect any limits anymore. Where in the past brawls followed a code of conduct, violence is now raw and primitive. The phrase “Although his opponent lied helplessly on the ground he kept on kicking his face!” is voiced repeatedly in the media and professional circles.[1]

We react by issuing statements and proposing remedies. In some countries even a national alert is proclaimed and politicians demand curfews, the installation of surveillance cameras and the policing of schools. One needs to “draw the line” and be “Tough on youth crime.” School principals, politicians, members of the police force and social worker’s immediate reaction is to take a moral stance. Statements are issued, in which violence is condemned and penalized. ‘Zero tolerance’ is the philosophy and the panacea against violence in schools and youth violence in public area. The Swiss Federal Government has launched a national campaign against youth violence.[2] Schools are obliged to implement courses in violence prevention in order to tackle the problem at its roots. We have to do something against this menace, seem to be the core message.

“This school team is against violence!” reads a large poster above the entrance of school in Zürich-Oerlikon. The teachers decided to take a ‘decisive step’ against violence and subsequently installed a sign. Added to the poster one can detect a photograph of teachers and students: pleased faces and hands holding each other. Everyone is dressed in the same t-shirt with the unanimous message: “Räbwies[3] against violence!” An hour later the violence on the premises of the school is the topic of a teachers conference. Violence is definitely an issue everyone declares and the principal emphasises, that further steps have to be taken. One member of the staff wants to know though, which concrete severe incidence his colleagues were confronted with during the last three months. Were there any stabbings, serious brawls or vicious attacks? Silence. Finally a teacher relates an incidence, where she had caught two students red handed exchanging blows and female teacher ranted about a student, who called her ‘slut’.

Morally our stance against violence is clear: violence has to be abated; every incidence is one to many. The question remains though, are we really threatened by wave of violence? What is the actual profile of youth violence and with what big of a problem are we confronted with? If we reflect the issue of youth violence in depth, being enraged or taking a moral stance is not enough. The danger is, that because we condemn violence we distance ourselves from the phenomenon and fail to see the psychological backgrounds and implications. The problem is that we become morally loaded and loose our aloofness. We might have difficulty in understanding the deeper cultural and psychological significance violence. In order to alleviate the problem of youth violence we are obliged to understand the problem, without resorting to moral categories and exclamations. In order to get a sound answer we have to study the offenders and their incidences. Who are these violent adolescents and what makes them so aggressive?

“Police Prevents Amok Attack by Disgruntled Student!“ read the headlines of a daily free newspaper in Switzerland. According to a short article an observant female student warned her teacher, that a classmate planned a vicious attack on the school. Due to the decisive intervention of a police squad a major catastrophe was averted! The teacher and the police were praised for their brave action. Four weeks later the potential attacker sits in my office: A fourteen year old, shy boy. “I was at first worried they would arrest my teacher!” he tells me. The two policemen had entered the classroom and approached his teacher, who was sitting behind his desk. They murmured something and then began looking in his direction. To his great surprise the two well-armed policemen now walk towards his desk. Standing in front of him they firmly ordered him to get up and follow them peacefully. They boy was irritated. What was going on? In the hallway he was handcuffed, lead out of the school and into a police car, watched by numerous other students and teachers. At the police station a thorough interrogation followed: how far had he proceeded with his plans? Who else was involved? Where are the explosives? They boy was confused and unable to give clear answers. “Obviously is he not cooperating with us!” was the conclusion of the interrogation officer. They decided to keep him at the police station. Due to his incomprehensible answers and unwillingness to cooperate he was transferred to a psychiatric clinic. A day later he was finally released. “Further steps would be taken!” was the final comment by the authorities.  

What had happened? The boy had been angry, because the principle transferred him to another class. He was causing too much disturbance, interrupted his teacher constantly and was generally cheeky. After having been placed in another class the school forbid him to contact his former schoolmates. The boy was annoyed and disregarded that directive. Clandestinely talking to a former friend of his and he uttered: “Winnenden[4] will be repeated here in this school!” A female colleague of him overheard that remark and promptly reported it to her teacher, who then alerted the police.

Youth violence has many faces. It is our duty to react and take every sign seriously. But how can it be, that an off remark of a student causes such a reaction?

Self-perception: all our actions are morally justified

When adolescents are violent, threaten their colleagues or fantasize shootings, we search for causes. Are violent or potentially violent young men morally confused, caught up in their own history or pathological cases? In psychiatry we might diagnose an external behaviour disorder and identify symptoms like aggressiveness, drug abuse, alcoholism (DSM IV). This symptomatology serves us a base for explanations. We might identify a broken home, an absent father, domestic violence, traumas or depressions. Basically we link current behaviour to past events or situations. Such nosology provides us with an explanation, which enables us to propose remedies.[5] When we put a violence into a historical perspective we might even be convinced that we elucidated the causes of the incidence. By creating a story we can also distance ourselves from an irritant. The psychological impact on us is reduced when a sound explanation is at hand. The latest attempt to explain violence is neuroscience. Violent behaviour is understood as the result of deficits in the brain structure or processes.[6] The frontal lap is not fully developed the limbic system is malfunctioning.[7] The line of argumentation remains the same: Violence is seen as an abnormality, which was caused by something outside our realm and time. It is seen as a moral deficiency as well a psychopathology.

There is a flaw in this approach. From cultural, historical, but also psychological point of view violence is not just an aberrant behaviour. Violence is an existential dimension of life; humans are violent beings and fascinated by violent acts and peoples.[8] Nations emerged out of wars, brawls, fights, insults and bullying are sad reality in every society.[9] Although we all wish for peace, violence seems unavoidable. Our past is cluttered with dead bodies and the media is full of reports on crimes. Despite our proclamations, swears, good intentions and contracts violence among humans will continue.[10] More wars will be fought, foes will be shoot, wives beaten and ethnic groups will clash. By moralizing violence or considering it a psychopathology we cannot get rid of the menace violence. On the contrary: when we don’t see violence in the eye there is the danger, that brutality of us humans will take us by surprise. We forget, that violence is part of our mentalese, dreams, fantasies and remains an option, even if we are sane and decent. In order to understand the deeper significance of violence we have to investigate the cultural connotations and functions, as well as the symbolic meaning of violence in our psyche.

“If someone says ‘your mother’ to me, then I hit him hard!” the young man explains to me. He adds, that does not want the reputation of his family to be tarnished. Respect and family honour means everything to him! He tries to persuade me, that the beating up of an opponent was not intentional, but an act of pure self-defence. He emphasizes that he abhors violence and believes in non-violent conflict resolutions. His deep wish is, that conflicts and misunderstandings could be solved peacefully. According to his perception the problem was the other guy. He maliciously violated a civil code. The young man is convinced that his action was legitimized.

In this example we detect a mechanism, which we all share. When we are confronted with a personal behaviour, which is considered immoral and vile, our brain invents excuses. When the society we live in renounces violence, we detach ourselves from our own aggressiveness. We forbid our-self to be violent or aggressive. Because are actual behaviour contradicts this ideal, we have to protect our-self from having to accept our vileness. We want to see our-self as sensible, considerate and rational beings. As we don’t want to be expelled and suffer emotional stress, we construct a legitimization. Our own violence is attributed to exceptional circumstances, seen as self-defence or an act of survival. By creating a story we place violence outside our personal realm. We can keep our integrity and are not responsible for the violence or aggression we were involved in. We attribute our wrong-doings to others, the scene or systems. We manipulate the setting or quote an authority, which condones our act. Consciously and according to our personal perception violence is still no option. We would never overtly admit using violence to reach a goal. Only small children say: “If you don’t give me your toy I will hit you hard.” Adults behave more civilized. They assimilated the civic codes of their surrounding. This is especially the case in societies, which are blessed with peace. Violence is abhorred. One despises warriors, weaponry and believes that the problem of aggression can be solved by negotiations, mediation and non-violent communication. Peacefulness and pacifism becomes a general paradigm, to think otherwise considered despicable. Of course this is psychologically naïve. By banning aggression as an option it does not disappear, it lurks in the unconsciousness and psychologically might even become more attractive.[11]

This is a reason most young violent men don’t suffer from moral indignation. They believe in their explanations: the circumstances; the other guy, an insult or injustice forced them to use violence. They are convinced of their personal innocence. In face-to-face talks they often make the impression to be perfectly sane and prudent. They might be impertinent, but in most cases they seem normal. Often they even quote noble causes, when they take about the incidences. They see themselves as defenders of justice, fighting for respect or against racisms. And of course they are non-violent beings.  

Self-image as delusion

Psychologically our difficulty to accept our violent tendencies is a result our self-image.[12] Our self-image serves as the base for decisions and plans. Its task is to keep us at peace with ourselves. It has to make life worthwhile and keep us ‘up and going’. Contrary to our subjective impression our self-image is not a mirror of our personality. Abysmal motives have to be clouded. We are presented with an abridged, agreeable version of our personality, because otherwise we could become indecisive and morally confused. Our-self image contains personal qualities, which we can bear. Features, which are too shocking and violate the values of the society we live in, have to be tabooed. If we would accept our hideous sides we might become depressed or stressed. We might even stop functioning normally. When we are well and doing fine we therefore automatically and instinctively supress nasty sides. As we want to be active, successful members of society, we create a propaganda version of our personality and resist in-depth psychologizing. This is the reason we describe our job-carriers as a continuous success story and attribute failures to our contenders. Contents of the shadow can only be admitted in small portions and well cleansed. We might confess, that we lake tolerance, be impatient or stubborn, but we could never admit that we act deceitful or are an imposter. Inacceptable drives and wishes have to remain in the dark.

The challenges of adolescence

Because of our self-delusionary tendencies, it is difficult to discuss our personal involvement with violence. The topic violence is loaded and our self-image has to remain impeccable. Both adults and young people are prone to this mechanism. During that period of life young people are confronted with specific psychological and societal tasks. As toddlers they had to concentrate on learning to speak, control their movements and acquire social competences. Later, during school years they had to learn to read and write and to socialize. During these two stages adaption was paramount, parents and teachers were accepted leaders and perhaps even shinning examples. Adolescence changes the scene. The young girls and boys no longer focus on the grown ups, they wish to discover themselves. Adaption and learning from the adults is no more a top priority. [13] Both physically as well as mentally they have changed. Their cognition is well developed, their sexuality blooming and they can identify with the life style of the grown ups. Most young people wish to earn money, entertain themselves, gain power and maybe have some impact in this world. They long to develop a distinct identity, be someone.[14] These aspirations contrast with their actual life-situation and status: driving is prohibited, buying drinks restricted and risky behaviour condemned. Instead of being able to experience life at its fullest, discover the seductions and sins of this world, the majority of young people continue to life in a nice putted world. They feel like they are put on hold. They live in their parent’s house and are rarely given responsibilities. The message is: you need to prepare, make yourself worthy, obtain competences, become more intelligent, get diplomas and prove, that you are able to respect the codes and rules of society.

Even when they rationally understand the message and accept their position, they are left with a psychological problem. They have a strong urge to get in contact with the world out there, experience themselves, meet other people and find out what life is about, but in reality they are still dependent on the grown up. The majority live at home, visit schools or undergo a vocational training. They need to comply with the pre-set rules of the grown ups. But as their real life situation contrasts with their psychological needs they are left with a dilemma. They wish to compensate their underdog position and lack of power and search for arenas, where they can be somebody. One possibility is to develop or join a distinct youth culture. Among themselves they can then rehearse attain the feeling of strength and independence. They can separate themselves from the grown ups and experience autonomy. Music, clothing and distinct leisure activities become means to demonstrate self-determination and create a sense of being different.  

The assumed violence of adolescents must be understood in this psychological context. For many simulating autonomy by participating in the adolescent youth culture is not enough. The waiting period seems endless and the low hierarchical position unbearable. They want to shorten the waiting period, which is imposed on them. They not only want to be heard, but also respected and feared! One possibility to gain the attention of adults is by being an irritation. [15] Breaking taboos is a possibility. Disobedience, bullying, booze and violence become attractive, because it draws the attention of grown ups. Be breaking a taboo on is finally heard. Through outlandish behaviour or criminal acts one can also write personal history; a chance for personal profiling. When expelled from school or spending a night in police custody one reaches fame status. The waiting position, which society imposes, is shortened. By breaking a taboo one gains social recognition. Finally one is being seen and feared! As violence is officially condemned it becomes a fast track into adulthood. Because it is a hot issue, it’s a possibility to get into the limelight very immediately. A brawl, a threat or nasty word and the adults are alarmed. Violence offers itself as an arena, because society is focused on the issue. The result is, that the differentiation between serious incidences and exaggerated cases is blurred. Both parties want to exaggerate the incidences. Young people brag about supposedly hard core fights out of boredom, while the older generation wants to legitimize their positions. In the name of zero tolerance the smallest incidence turns into a hard case.

Youth violence has a further meaning. The transition from childhood into adulthood is a challenge and bumpy. In most culture rites regulate the transition from one life stage into the other. These initiation rites usually follow distinct patterns and are done with the participation of the older generation. The rites include the breaking of taboos and the overcoming of fear. [16] The novice has to undergo an ordeal, suffers and at the end gets promoted. In western societies traditional initiation rites are fading out.[17] They are few rituals, by which the older generation hands over power and raises the status of the initiate. This is where violence comes in. When a society is hysterical about youth violence, then misbehaviour becomes a possibility to initiate oneself into adulthood. Some young men see in aggression a possibility to gain power and get social recognition. Their violence is an attempt to liberate them-selves from pre-designed paths and a society, where according to their perception young people are being sneered upon and forced to abide adult rules. They group themselves into cliques, rehears brawls during sport or political events in order to challenge the positions of the older generation and construct an alternative identity. When the established generation gets angry and worried, they have reached the goal. Finally one is taken seriously and respected as opponent. No more they are considered beings, which are in development, but real humans! A component of initiation is to reach a new level of consciousness. As being violent implies breaking a taboo and daring to transgress normal boundaries, the act might even instigate insight. The forbidden carries the seed of deeper consciousness and offers the perspective of self-awareness. This might be another reason, why young men are often fascinated by violence. When they talk of the fights or engage in computer games, they often have stars in their eyes and become agitated. The make the impression they are touching the core of life. Violence seems like a luminous experience, which transport into another realm. The feelings of fear, confusion and anger awaken these young men and women. After having committed the criminal or near-criminal act, many young men start to do “heavy thinking” and are freer to mule about existential challenges. They re-enacted a primordial act in order to gain conscious. Because the lack of initiation rites and our tendency to administer and control youth they had to provoke their initiation themselves.

Back to the reactions and perceptions of the establishment. As described at the beginning of this essay the aggressiveness, the breaking of taboos and provocation of the younger generation is viewed with great suspicion. The media, pundits and professionals seem convinced, that violence is definitely in the increase and one has to react. Anti-bullying programs are implemented in schools, video cameras installed in trains and police patrol school-yards. As adults we brave our-self on being tough on crime. When we evaluate the actual incidences, we should become suspicious. Most of the cases of violence, which are reported by schools and police, lack severity. Of course there are the examples, where young men deliberately burn cars, rob a cashier or brutally attack a teacher. The majority of the reported incidences don’t belong to that league. When a boy makes a threatening remark to a teacher, two boys lock up a girl in the toilet or girl pushes a colleague through a glass door, do we really have to call the police? Is it really justified to send a boy to therapy, after he pointed his finger to a teacher and called her slut? Naturally we have to react. Parents, teacher and police have to draw the line make the young people aware, that certain behaviour is not tolerated. The question is: is the term violence and are our counter actions appropriate? In most cases the tagging is wrong. There is talk of violence, where we are confronted with an educational challenge and upbringing. Maybe adults should start looking at themselves.  They seem to suspect youth violence everywhere and vile the next generation. They are alarmed and troubled by behaviour, which has been standard among adolescent since thousand of years. They break taboos, are cheeky or want to provoke, because they are struggling to find a way into adulthood and initiate themselves into society. We are dealing with agitated, searching young men and women, which are trying to find their place in society. What is new is our stern reaction and talk of violence.

In order to understand the concerned reactions and the public outcries, we need to enlarge our frame of thoughts. Perhaps the frenzy about youth violence can only be understood, if we take into account the demographic structure of western society and dynamics of the public discourse. The discussions about youth violence are new form of collective hysteria, similar to the discussions about the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Satanic Ritual abuse or Recovered Memory.[18] The discussions fulfil a hidden need for fear. People need stories about violence in absence of adventures and challenges in their lives. The media disseminate information about an incidence somewhere in Europe or the United States, e.g. a student shooting two colleagues in a small town in Finland. The news item is immediately taken up, although it is a minor event and far more deaths are caused by domestic violence or clumsiness while taking a shower. Instead the incidence is declared as a major threat and serves as a template for similar events. The slightest indication, that something likewise might happen, legitimizes interventions and the launching of anti-bullying or violence prevention programs. Youth violence is of course a reality, but the topic seems to misused for political reasons.[19] Is has become an accepted narrative to place fears. The issue of youth violence is compounded by another motive. When the issue of youth violence is paramount it can be used as an argument to control young people. This is a typical phenomenon of over-aged societies. The older generation is reluctant to relinquish their power and positions, while the next generation strives for influence. While young people want to define their lives by themselves, introduce new forms of living, leisure activities and maybe even values, the adults are sceptical. They are worried and fear changes. The achievements and values they fought for are threatened. They might not understand, that ‘feminism’ has become a derogative term; that young people consider ego-shooters as relaxant or propose a mild form of corporal punishment in schools. The attitudes and perception of life are a function of the age group we belong to, some position are difficult to understand. Older people don’t have the same priorities like the adolescents. Young people seek risks, adventures, often irrespective of the possible consequences. During adolescence the feeling of eternity prevails, the frailty and shortness of life is not an issue. Older people are different: they worry about health, tend to resist changes and are concerned about security. Naturally the older generation is irritated by the attitudes and life style of young people. They fear negative developments and are worried about the degeneration of a culture. Just like with young people the self-image often hinders them to realize that maybe their views have become out-dated.

In order to be able to defend their positions and values, they older people need sound arguments. Education and the assertion, that the challenges of society become more and more complex serve as a subterfuge to keep the next generation obedient. Instead of roaming the streets, follow their own visions and handed over real power, a waiting period is imposed on them. As the older generation does not want to step back they argue, that the next generation is not ready, not learned enough or lack competence. Generally accepted values and sensible reasons are quoted to keep the next generation put. The self-image of the does not allow the admittance of the power issue. This problem accelerates in over-aged societies. Contrary to Asia or the Americas in European countries less than a fifth of the population is below 20. Such demographics create a psycho-social problem. Because the older generation dominates, their views and perceptions become standard and confrontations or clashes between the generations are less frequent. The ideas of the adolescents are less heard and hardly have a chance to become sophisticated. The result is that the ideas of younger people keep their rawness and initiation rites are gradually abolished. There are less official acts of power transference, like in monarchies during the middle ages, the armies or in developing countries. Societies get more organized, controlled and structured. Due to the dubious term of ‘life long learning’, young people remain on the biblical cord and under control. The old people define the rules and set the pace of life. Young people have to remain in a waiting period. The antagonistic, but also creative power-struggle between generations is void of an civilized arena. When young people break taboos and try to initiate themselves into society by misbehaving or just being a nuisance, the people in power often turn into reactionaries: The tag disobedience and oppositional behaviour as violence. This way they can fence off any demands and ignore new tendencies. The older generation can use the established order and power to prevent discussions and relinquish power. In Georgian times, when the empire expanded and Britain ruled the waves, some of captains on the boats of the Royal Navy were 15.[20] Today the older generation braves themselves as vanguards against an evil, because they projected increased onto the next generation. This scenario legitimizes programs and further control. Instead of engaging in discussions and getting entangled with the next generation, the old generation impede their power using the term youth violence and blowing up small incidences beyond proportion.

[1] Headlines of ‚Der Spiegel’ Nr. 18 / 2.5.2011 „Mordswut. Die unheimliche Eskalation der Jugendgewalt.“
[2] Bericht über Jugendgewalt des Eidgenössischen Departement des Innern EDI , 25.5.2009
[3] The name of the school
[4] On the morning of the 11th March in the year 2002 the 17-year old pupil Tim Kretschmer massacred fifteen people in the Albertville-School, before committing suicide, after being chased by the police.
[5] Scheithauer, Herbert (2003) Aggressives Verhalten von Jungen und Mädchen. Göttingen: Hogrefe
[6] Strauch, Barbara (2003) The Primal Teen New York: Random
[7] Markowitsch, Hans J & Siefer, Werner (2007) Tatort Gehirn. Auf der Suche nach dem Ursprung des Verbrechens. Frankfurt: Campus
[8] Hillman James (2004). A Terrible Love of War. New York: Penguin
[9] Le Blanc, Steven (2003) Constant Battles. The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage.  New York: St. Martins Press
[10] Sofsky, Wolfgang (2002) Zeiten des Schreckens. Amok, Terror, Krieg. Frankfurt: Fischer
[11] Guggenbühl, Allan (1997) The Incredible Fascination of Violence. New Orleans: Spring
[12] Livingstone Smith, David (2004). Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots af Deception and the Unconscious Mind. New York: St. Martin Press
[13] Savage, Jon. Teenage. (2007) The Prehistory of Youth Culture. London: Penguin
[14] Guggenbühl, Allan (2011) Pubertät echt ätzend. Freiburg: Herder
[15] Guggenbühl, Allan (2011). Was ist mit den Jungs los? Hintergründe und Auswege bei Jugendgewalt. Freiburg im Breisgau: Kreuz
[16] Klosinksi, Gunther (1991) Pubertätsriten. Bern: Huber
[17] Sennett, Richard (2012) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. New Haven: Yale Universtiy Press
[18] Showalter, Eliane (1997). Hystories. Hysterical Epidemic and Modern Media. New York: Columbia University Press
[19] Mucchielli, Laurent (2011). L’invention de la violence. Des peurs, des chiffres, des faits. Paris: Fayard
[20] Rodger. N.A.M. (1996) The Wooden World. An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. London: Norton

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