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Violence & community: shifting the context

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by Bertram A John 23.MAY.08

Each day, as we find our voices, each day, as we deepen our understanding of the significance of our story, and each day as we live the great values inherent in that story, we are lifting the human condition from its very base. The value of our story does not lie in the brutality to which generations have been subjected. In fact, its value increases as we move through the transformations from objectified victims in the human story, to integrated agents, playing our part in the forward movement of humanity.{{more}} As our consciousness shifts across this transformative process, certain truths emerge. These truths are the constants that do not change, despite conditions and influences that may fluctuate over time. Because of our history, these truths are often expressed in the structures that we have built to keep mind, body and spirit intact. Our values have always been posed to us in the form of choices, even at their starkest. Our ancestors, at the point of being torn away from their homes and families were faced with the choice of survival, life or death. Their choice, the affirmation of life in the midst of deep trauma, made a future possible. The commitment to family required a faith in that future, that life would improve for those who follow. Awareness of the fragility of the bonds of affection and trust in those bonds give family life its integrity. If the task of each generation is to be fulfilled, these values are essential. The task has always been to lay the groundwork for the next generation. What may vary is how well, and in what form, that foundation is prepared. We are always precisely where we position ourselves. We don’t get there by accident! Not ever! When we allow ourselves to look at our portrait of the world from the inside out, it becomes clear that we are a people at a significant point in the healing process. Our history is marked by a process of trauma, depersonalization, and reorganization. In development, reorganization is change. This process applies to all of us, wherever we conceive ourselves to be on that spectrum. This trauma that marks our story represents the greatest deformation in humanity. Its equilibration affects everyone.

When a child enters the picture, a complex context already exists. This context is at its most immediate in the family, but it also is reflected in the community and larger surroundings. In SVG where there is virtually no distinction between community and nation, there is likely to be strong community influence on the development of a child. This broader context is in many ways a representation of where we are in our story. We must accept the fact that violence and social distancing have become powerful mediators in society. These phenomena are duplicated in family life, and really go hand in hand. In family life, as in society, violence segregates us into polar opposites, like: perpetrator-victim, us-them, smart-stupid, and so on. This is necessary, because in order to sustain the behavior, we have to objectify the “other”. The problem with this construction is that it induces inherent helplessness. The “other” always holds the power. Where “I” am is always a result of what “you” did. When we segregate perspectives solutions are usually hard to come by, and so is growth.

There are interesting trends emerging from studies of family violence on the development and functioning of children- as early as the pre-school years. These findings replicate what we see in society at large- violence affects us systemically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially:

  • Children who witness domestic violence tend to have substantially poorer verbal abilities than non-witnesses.
  • A considerable literature links the exposure to violence to depression and anxiety.
  • The literature also indicates that exposure to violence is linked to social aggression and hostility.

A child is likely to interpret violence at home and in the community to mean that the world is unsafe and that he or she is unworthy of protection. This interpretation may engender helplessness and lead to negative self-perceptions. One problem with family and community violence is that the child is almost always left to interpret its meaning without the help of those most able to make a difference. In our very secretive society, one withdraws, further strengthening the distrust of others, and intensifying the sense of alienation. Family violence in all its forms erodes the network of values that maintain family and community life. Like other forms of betrayal of the child’s need for strong affective, cognitive and explorative social ties that family permits, violence puts the child at a competitive and developmental disadvantage. A form of violence that is often overlooked when considering domestic aggression is psychological abuse. This can take many forms, but it largely involves the systematic betrayal of expectations of others in the family context, and the destruction of mutuality in those shared values that enable the other to feel secure, valued and respected. When these bonds break down, the victim of such betrayal is faced with depression, loss of esteem, and patterns of failure to thrive that attends both adults and children. Complicating matters is the fact that both physical violence, and its psychological variant in the family tend to be repetitive and enduring. So what do the victims learn? The following show up repeatedly in the literature:

  • Violence is an appropriate way to resolve or mediate conflicts.
  • Violence is a normal part of family relationships.
  • Violence is a method for exerting control over other people.
  • Those who perpetrate violence in intimate relationships often go unpunished.
  • It is preferable to mask, or bury feelings than to show sensitivity. If you don’t feel, you can’t get hurt.

Family violence threatens to destroy the very foundations of our intergenerational legacy.

That legacy is what has carved out for us a sense of purpose. The key to healing lies in the re-empowerment of families. The connective tissue that holds families together has been severely damaged, in that fact is the evidence that the stressors on family life have outstripped the family’s ability to cope. A healthy, thriving child needs a healthy family. Similarly, a healthy, thriving family needs a healthy community. Bridges between the family and the community are essential to restoration so that a child living with domestic violence is identified early in the process, and interventions are made that help both the child and the family gain the space to mediate the crisis in safety. To get there, the sense of hopelessness that pushes people into their fortress enclaves has to be aired. After all, what is learned by those who retreat is exactly the same as what is learned by the victims of violence.

Bertram John can be contacted at [email protected]

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