Violence Starts With Words

August 1st, 2013

“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”  Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s always been my feeling that we don’t come out of the womb with hateful thoughts.  As Rogers and Hammerstein said in South Pacific, “You have to be carefully taught”. Having worked in violence prevention for many years, I found something my colleague Dr. Alan Heisterkamp uses frequently in training young people.  It’s called “the pyramid of violence”.  It’s a brilliant tool, and it’s more than academic theory.  There are too many real life examples of this pyramid.

I use this pyramid above when I talk about bullying.  In the documentary “Bully”, Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen highlight 5 cases that all started out with level one bullying and moved up the pyramid to, in two cases, lead to the victim’s suicide.  David Long, father of Tyler Long,  tells the story of kids at school taunting Tyler and telling him to “go hang himself”.   Tyler hanged himself in his Georgia home at the age of 17.  In some extreme cases, the victim may act with violence not only against self, but others.

The pyramid of domestic and sexual violence

This pyramid above is used to demonstrate the escalation of violence in domestic violence cases.  One is highlighted in  HBO documentary, ‘Private Violence”.   Domestic violence usually starts with words and escalates from there.  In at least 3 cases a day in America, the violence escalates to murder.  Janet, whose family was interviewed for the film, knew that her husband was capable of killing her.  In her case, she was killed at the age of 42 in December of 2009 in her North Carolina home.  When we repeat “rape jokes”, call women “sluts” a la Limbaugh, we are putting down half the planet.   Degrading women makes it easier to see them as less and  As Gloria Steinem says, “if you say that half of the human race is less than the other half, which is a lie, the only way to enforce that lie is violence”.

It can get worse.  No one could have imagined that a modern developed Western European nation could have perpetrated mass killings in the mid 20th century.  It was led by a mad man named Adolp Hitler, but many in that nation followed, and followed blindly.    The pyramid below demonstrates how the process evolved.  Adolph Hitler didn’t just get elected one day and suddenly announce a master plan to exterminate the Jews.  That process took years and started with words until it reached what Hitler called “The Final Solution”.

None of this is new.  From the “witch” burnings in Medieval Europe (most of the victims being women), to the Spanish Inquisition, to 1990’s Rwanda, and even in our country, with the systematic removal of Native Americans from their lands, humans have found ways to believe that hating others for their race, their religion, their gender and their sexual orientation is justified and therefore, acceptable.

Psychotherapist Howard Halpern, in a brilliant New York Times piece in 1995, gave a spot on summation of gradual escalation of hate and violence.  He said, “ Social psychologists and demagogues have long known that if ordinary citizens are to be provoked to violent actions against individuals or groups of fellow citizens, it is necessary to sever the empathic bond with those to be attacked by painting them as different and despicable.   We are unlikely to harm a friendly neighbor because she has strong views about equal rights for women, but if we call her a “femi-Nazi,” she becomes “the other” — evil, dangerous, hated.  We are unlikely to harm the couple down the block who are active on behalf of protecting endangered species, but if we call them “environmental whackos,” they become “the other” — weirdos who must be vilified and suppressed as enemies to “normal” Americans. When our shared humanity with those with whom we disagree is stripped away, it becomes acceptable to blow them up. The answer is certainly not to censor such speech, but those who recognize this danger must challenge it wherever it exists, even in those with whom we politically agree.” 

As Halpern said, we must recognize this danger and challenge it wherever it exists.  It exists close to home for me,  whether it be Iowa Congressman Steve King asserting that immigrants are drug mules or anti gay activist, Iowan  Bob Vanderplaats who called homosexuality a “public health” risk, to the collection of Republican state senators in my state who opposed an anti bullying conference for students by what they called ” groups who pervert the Bible, teach our youth to engage in dangerous behavior”.

Sticks and stones do break our bones, and it starts with words that hurt.



2 Comments on “Violence Starts With Words”

  1. Anne Caroline said at 12:28 am on August 2nd, 2013:

    Powerful, insightful post, Cindy. I’m going to share this because there is some very, very ugly “other” bullying going on within the protective mother movement. Timely. Thank you.

  2. cindy said at 1:43 am on August 5th, 2013:

    Thanks, Caroline! xo

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