What makes us act, or not act, in a violent way?

In the first half of this month I had an experience that showed me first hand what lies behind so many acts of violence, malice, destruction and aggression. What drives a person to put a seductively dark thought into action? And what stops them from actually doing so?

I felt badly wronged by someone close to me; disrespected and unfairly treated. The innate need to right the wrong sent my mind into overdrive plotting delicious forms of revenge with the creativity (or should I say destructivity?) and imagination that goes into producing an artwork. By indulging my dark fantasies I could re-write the narrative allowing my character to emerge in tact instead of in tatters.

008 prison

Through the countless conversations I have had with convicted criminals I became aware that it is precisely this sense of having been disrespected – “dissed” – that leads to so many brutal crimes. In his insightful article Pride, Guilt and Shame based on his work with violent prisoners in Broadmoor, (http://internationalpsychoanalysis.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/shamegilligan.pdf) James Gilligan, the psychologist, identifies that it is the desire to restore “pride, dignity and self-esteem” that lies behind the often fatal outbursts. Among gangs, respect is key and disrespect can be fatal. The human need to re-establish respect comes often at any cost, no matter how inhuman the means. In 1920’s / 30’s Germany, after the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the ground became fertile for a strong desire to restore face and respect with consequences more devastating than ever before.

In today’s digital world it would only have required one little tap of a finger for me to deliver a blow. I am lucky though. My upbringing and education equipped me with a moral compass, emotional literacy, self-discipline and a mind that can ‘understand’ or as they say in German, “verstehen”, a word which implies standing in the other person’s shoes. I am fortunate that I have access to infinite good examples of how to deal with (self-) destructive thoughts rather than exercise revenge.

So many people aren’t that fortunate. Their upbringing, religious convictions, lack of guidance or simply their experience of the world don’t equip them with what it takes to hold those thoughts in check. I believe that far behind the heinous acts that fill our newspapers actually lies a deeply hidden need to be understood, respected and seen; loved even. It’s so hard to do, but I know I want to try.

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