New research published in Nature Communications has found that exposure to violence reduces men’s trust in good people.
So, what do they mean by exposure to violence? The examples raised in the opening paragraph are seeing someone getting chased or hurt, hearing gun shots, or being the person the person getting chased, hurt or shot at.
So we’re not talking violence on TV here, we’re talking fairly direct personal experience.
According to the researchers we already know that exposure to violence leads to academic underachievement, health problems both physical and mental, interpersonal problems like lower levels of empathy, antisocial behaviour, chronic aggressive behaviour and a tendency to romanticise violence.
The new research adds to that laundry list. In order to reach their findings the researchers studied 119 prisoners in Connecticut, a lot of whom had been exposed to violence.
They then set up a moral scenario – Person A administers painful shocks to people for money. Person B refuses the cash because he’s not a psycho.
What the researchers found was that while the people who had been exposed to violence did recognise that person B was a better person than Person A, they still didn’t trust B as much as those who hadn’t been exposed to violence.
Not only that, but this was actually reflected in how these guys who had experienced violence ended up getting into more trouble in prison.
South Africa is an incredibly violent society. Business Insider at the end of 2018 on the World Economic Forum’s list of its safest societies, looking at the most violent 20.
South Africa was ninth on that list. To put this into context – Mali has an ISIS and Al Qaeda problem. At one point a group affiliated with Al Qaeda managed to take over Timbuktu. The French military had to be called in to drive them out, and Mali is a former French colony so you can guess how good that felt.
Mali was ranked 16th.
So research into violence has fairly direct implications for us as a country. In order to sort our nation out we need to be able to give each other the leeway to get the work done, and that means we’ve got to be able to identify good people and trust them.
And because of our massive exposure to violence, trust is in short supply, and we lash out. We romanticise violence.
Take the end of Apartheid. What brought about the end of that regime was really world sanctions and the fact that the Nationalist government was running out of money. It was mostly a diplomatic victory that lead into a peaceful transition.
Nowadays we have twits on Twitter talking about how Apartheid was never ended by peaceful protests, and we wonder why so many current protests involve stoning cars, burning tyres and destroying property.
Rather than transmitting the victory of the diplomats, we transmit the romance of the violent struggle – and so we get violence.
All too often we have this idea that violent protest is the only effective protest and so violent protests are encouraged.
And it also hits our interpersonal relationships. Why is there so much violence against women in South Africa? Well, if you think violence is a good way to get people to behave the way you want them to, and you want your wife or your child to behave in a certain and they just won’t – what are you going to do?
We have very poor conflict resolution skills as a country and a big chunk of that is that we are poisoned by violence as something that we should admire.
I don’t have a good solution to this, but one of the things I think South Africa lacks is a strong science fiction and fantasy scene. When you look at Dr Who – as messy as that series has always been it has emphasised the use of non-violence as a means of solving problems.
Star Trek at its best was about finding diplomatic solutions to problems, the Foundation Trilogy outright stated that violence was the last resort of the incompetent.
Exploring solutions outside of violence has a value to it, and we don’t do that enough, and the consequences can be seen in how insane we’re becoming.
Perhaps one of the things we need to do to get there is to encourage books set in worlds that aren’t our own, that free us from the constraints of what we think is possible in our real lives so that we can use these made-up worlds to expand our imaginations.
If we can take that expanded view and then reapply to the real world maybe we can start to kick this violence habit of ours. Maybe.