Thursday, 19 September 2013

Address the social factors behind violence

Chandre Gould & Anthony Collins, Business Day, 19 September 2013
THERE are two important factors that appear to be linked to increases in violent crime: increases in relative poverty and high unemployment. While a small proportion of very wealthy South Africans are getting even richer, the cost of living has outstripped increases in social grants, pensions and salaries in most sectors. Based on these factors alone, we can expect violent crime to remain high for the foreseeable future.
It may be tempting to think that there is a simple relationship between crime, unemployment and inequality, but that is not the case. As a series of articles in The Economist recently showed, increases in income disparity in developed countries have been accompanied by decreases in violent crime. The problem for South Africa lies in the toxic mix of factors that aggravate the effect of inequality and unemployment. These include an aspirational and consumerist culture, gender inequality and violence at all levels of society.
In our society, those who engage in public displays of material wealth are regarded as role models and heroes. Success and material wealth are regarded as synonymous. Yet social mobility is constrained by the contraction of the economy and the mismatch between the skills being taught at schools and higher education institutions, and the needs of the job market. What this means for many young people is that achieving social status by accumulating wealth is difficult, which is bad for their self-esteem.
Poor self-esteem is amplified by deeply entrenched ideas that men and women should have different roles and social statuses. "Real" men are expected to be material providers; to be strong, successful, brave and to "protect" women. This affects the way our society raises children. As it becomes harder for more young men to meet the requirements of being a "real" man by having a job and achieving upward economic mobility, they tend to fall back on the other main way of expressing and establishing their masculinity — by using physical strength and aggression to gain respect and assert authority. Thus the risk increases that they will turn to violence.
Not being able to find a job, provide for yourself or your family, or secure the associated social status in the face of the increasing conspicuous wealth of others creates a sense of personal failure that undermines self-esteem and dignity. If there is no way to regain that sense of self-worth through means other than violence or aggression, the consequences are obvious. Loss of dignity and a sense of worthlessness become triggers for violence.
While not all economically margin-alised men will resort to violence, and relatively few do, we increase the chance of violent responses to adversity by maintaining social beliefs that men should be strong, aggressive and dominating.
The absence of caring and nurturing role models for men increases their risks of resorting to criminal violence. This also applies to men in better economic positions who, while facing less extreme economic stresses, are still caught in a never-ending struggle to establish their masculinity and status as providers in a competitive consumer culture.
Over the past year, we have interviewed men serving long prison sentences for serious violent crimes, including robbery, rape, murder and hijacking. As children, most of them had already witnessed and experienced much more violence than they ended up committing themselves. They were the victims of violent fathers, mothers and teachers.
One of the reasons for this is the harmful belief that, as children, they could be disciplined and taught to respect adults only though physical beatings. But these beatings taught them that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems. At the same time, these beatings left them feeling worthless, unloved, shamed and disrespected, making it more difficult to achieve a positive sense of self later.
This is not to excuse the terrible crimes they committed, but it does tell us that if we hope to reduce violence in our society, we cannot rely on the criminal justice system alone. We have to address the social factors that increase the likelihood of violence.
Changing the views and beliefs that entrench violence would require us to challenge harmful traditions, cultural practices and ways of assessing success. Unless and until we do, we can expect to face high levels of violence and crime.