Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Existential Youth Violence

I was listening to a podcast about youth violence at parties. One of the guests, a researcher at Griffith University, said that as a survey response to the question "Is violence an acceptable method of solving problems?" the respondents overwhelmingly say that it is not. However, research showed that when the context changes through the addition of alcohol and unfamiliar social situations (e.g., a party with gatecrashers, a party including people who don't normally socialise, etc.) then violence is more likely to erupt.

There appear to be two factors at work here. One of them is chemical and the other is social. The chemical one is easy: the presence of alcohol as contributing to violence. It is no secret that alcohol lowers inhibitions and self-control. A sober feeling of sexual attraction can become a drunken feeling of sexual arousal. A sober feeling of embarassament from a tease can become a drunken feeling of anger. The potential list of examples is as endless as the range of human emotion. I don't think that the solution is prohibition or abstinence. Admittedly, this reduction in self-control is probably part of the reason that in Australia there is an age limit for the consumption of alcohol. There is an assumption that people develop greater emotional maturity (including self-control) with aging. I think it is fair to say that this is not a universal law. There are some very mature teenagers and some very emotionally stunted adults. If anything, this is a call for moderation and some kind of sober presence. People need a designated driver, not just to get them home, but to act as an inhibitor for losing control. Alcohol, when consumed in moderation, has been counted as a blessing and a joy for centuries. When consumed in excess, it is an evil that causes more social harm than heroin or methamphetamines.

The second factor is social, or existential. That is to say, the behaviour of the individual changes as the social and environmental context changes. Wittgenstein would suggest that this is because the language game has changed, and therefore the rules by which the participants play has changed. Context (the language game) dictates how the participants play. Alternatively, this can be viewed as a matter of how people behave in the moment, in the instant of the action. In that moment, the violent act has created a violent person. The perception of that person as held by onlookers is immediately changed. We see this in statements like, "I never knew he was a violent person" or the even more delusional statement from the perpetrator, "I'm not a violent person. I don't know why I did that."

It is an existential truth that the act defines the being, that existence precedes essence. Perhaps Forrest Gump said it well, "Stupid is as stupid does." Violent is as violent does.

And yet, once the person is removed from the context (the presence of antagonistic strangers, the excessive consumption of alcohol, etc.), they cease to be a violent being. The violence is a product of that person in that context. Strategies to stop this kind of violence must take that into consideration. Any less and the solution will be false.
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