Pedro comes home from school to find his father alone, drinking. Pedro has seen this before and tries to quietly sneak out the door, but his father catches him. He wants to know why the house is so dirty and where his mother is. Before Pedro can answer, his father hits him hard across the face. Pedro knows better than to cry. Instead he tries to be as still as possible in the hope that his father will stop.
This scene happens in every country around the world. As sad as people may feel when reading about this type of incident or seeing and experiencing it directly, most people feel that violence is an unfortunate reality in our lives over which we often have little control. In fact, it is true that no community escapes some level of violence. But is it a sad reality over which we have no control?
Violence is a part of all societies. When conflicts, tensions, pressures, and traumas are not controlled, they often result in violent outbursts. As random as such outbursts might seem, the actuality is that they are usually not random at all. Violence is a part of society in that there are no societies without some level of violence. However, violence is also a part of society in that society, in large part, defines what violence will look like. Within different cultures, the types of violent acts tend to be similar as people express themselves according to unwritten social norms.
All societies have norms that determine how the community will function. It is through the norms, that the acceptability and type of violence are determined. This may seem strange since most people would say that violence is wrong. However, within the definition of wrong, there are levels of acceptability. Certain acts considered wrong become justifiable when situations change. These justifications create levels of acceptability - places where it is all right to use violence. It is within these justifications, levels of acceptability, that violence is allowed to live.
Several years ago in the United States, there was a case where a young Japanese student went to a friend's house. What he did not realize was that he was at the wrong house. As he approached the door, the owner of the house shot and killed the student. The majority of people in the United States and Japan were shocked and horrified as most people considered it a senseless act of violence. However, the man who committed the act had a different attitude. He thought that the young student was a thief and was coming to the house to rob him. The man thought he was acting in self-defense. The local community also thought the man was acting in self-defense and ruled so when the case went to court.
Here is a case where a man committed a very violent act that resulted in the death of an innocent young student. Whereas many cultural norms of the United States and Japan state that this was an unacceptable act of murder, the cultural norms of the man and the local community stated that he was acting appropriately to a perceived threat. The violence that took place, took place in what some thought was acceptable behaviour. In those eyes, it may have been wrong, but the community said that it was acceptable.
Where cultural norms strongly say that this type of behaviour is wrong, this type of action is less likely to happen. For communities outraged by what happened, the norms say that this type of behaviour is unacceptable. As a result, for the majority, actions and thoughts are guided and formed differently; their behaviour, therefore, is different. This does not mean that there will not be violence, but often it means lower rates of violence or that it will take on different forms.
The concept of social norms in defining violence is particularly interesting when looking at societies that have been under stress for prolonged periods of time. In countries that have experienced wars, humanitarian crises, and other traumas, societies are forced to change in order to cope with the situation. In these circumstances, the norms that define social behaviour usually also begin to change. Cultures of war, victimization, apathy, and disempowerment arise as communities re-establish social norms based on their new realities.
The process of re-establishing social norms is a quiet one as usually there are no group meetings or announcements. What normally happens is that, over time, communities start to act differently; what was not acceptable a few years ago becomes acceptable or vice versa. This is often based on the repeated cultural messages people receive - messages of violence, disempowerment, and despair.
New messages change norms and norms change in reaction to stress and trauma. Because of pressure, outlets to express anger and frustration are needed to relieve the tension. This results in cultural norms changing in order to accommodate these outlets. The end result is that, in prolonged tense environments, two things happen: the breakdown of norms as repeated messages of violence and disempowerment overwhelm communities and a creation of new norms as communities look for ways to deal with the stress of the situation.
In Luanda, Angola, the capital city of a country that has been in and out of war for over 30 years, a good example of this dynamic is car accidents. When an accident happens, there is the physical car wreck, but often there are also fights between people witnessing the accident, neighbours, or people just passing by. For people not actually involved in the incident, the emotion of seeing the accident can be enough to bring up their own traumas and stresses. As a result, they use the accident as an opportunity to let out the anger that they cannot express in other situations. A cultural rule is formed: accidents become acceptable places to vent anger - even if the anger is unrelated to the accident. They also become an acceptable place for violence as anger takes on a physical form. It is not the accident that causes the violence but the perception that this is an acceptable outlet that allows violence, the physical manifestation of anger, to occur.
People create norms not only for their societies but also for their communities. Behaviours in communities vary even though there may be one common culture. Subcultures can be created as people define what is acceptable, thus creating their own norms. In the majority of cases, people will conform, to some extent, to what they perceive as acceptable standards of behaviour - what is the norm of the community. For example, a youth is being violent and unruly on the street. If he is taken to a church, an area where the rules for behaviour are different, most likely there will be an immediate change in his behaviour. This will not be a permanent change, but it can illustrate how most people react to cultural norms and modify their behaviour accordingly.
Looking at cultural norms is very important when talking about violence because it gives insight into how communities can deal with violence. It becomes evident that violence is not necessarily random and beyond the control of the average person. As people define societies and societies define violence, it is the population that actually determines how violence is defined and accepted. As a result, the normalization of violence that takes place within societies that have experienced prolonged traumas does not have to be permanent. Just as societies and communities create space for violent behaviour, they can also create new norms that say violence is unacceptable. In simple terms, it is taking the perception of how to act in the church and transferring it to the society.
Changing cultural norms is not an easy task, especially when dealing with intense psychological traumas. However, it is not impossible. Most communities undergo some natural changes once the stresses are removed. For example, countries that have experienced prolonged wars, after a period of peace and stability, will start to see changes in communities. This was evident in Angola when comparing periods of relative peace with the recent return to war. During peaceful times, many of the causes of stress subsided reducing the need for more violent outlets. As a result, communities settled into a more peaceful form of existence and, in the process, changed the definition of acceptable behaviour - the social norms changed. However, time is not the only factor is redefining social norms. Direct intervention can also cause society to redefine its norms.
Domestic violence campaigns offer a useful example of how social norms are actively changed. A large part of reducing domestic violence is educating the public to speak out against it. Many people may think that domestic violence is wrong but may not feel that they can or should speak out. By not working against the problem, the community is, in fact, accepting the action. Domestic violence becomes wrong but acceptable.
For example, a spouse is beaten in the home. The family and neighbours know about it, but no one does anything. This is one level of acceptability. The spouse is beaten in public and again, no one does anything. This is another level of acceptability. Or perhaps, someone does speak out when the spouse is beaten in public. This is yet another level where the message is that domestic violence is not acceptable in public but is acceptable in private.
How pervasive domestic violence is is dependent on how acceptable it is. If it is widely acceptable, if a spouse can be beaten in public, the likelihood that the victim will leave the situation is low. There is also a very low likelihood that the abusive spouse will stop or that anyone will intervene in the situation. This experience creates huge cycles of violence that can continue within the family and lead to the normalization of violence. This is not just for domestic violence but many other types, as this becomes part of the cultural norms of the children and adults involved.
As the level of acceptability of domestic violence decreases, there is an increase in the possibility that the victim will leave the abusive situation or that there will be some sort of intervention that stops the abusive spouse. (For example: the authorities in the community - police, village elder, or church - intervene and state that the abusive action has to stop). In these cases, there is a break in the cycle of violence and people can start to work on unravelling the culture of violence (normalization of violence) that has occurred.
Campaigns or other forms of direct intervention against domestic violence are only one example of how communities try to gain control over violent actions: how communities try to change the social norms. Dialogue, a process of open and productive exchanges of ideas where people are heard and beliefs often challenged, also plays an important part in this process. It is often through dialogue, both formal and informal, that the norms are changed. The process of using dialogue allows people to speak out against violent acts and challenge the belief systems that holds violence in place. In essence, it can be a process in which the community moves domestic violence from wrong but acceptable to wrong and unacceptable.
Dialogue can be carried out in formally and informally. In a more formal setting, groups of different community members are brought together to discuss certain topics. The idea is that, through actively exchanging ideas in a forum where judgements are suspended, the group can bring attention to certain issues and discuss how they should be handled. It is essentially a consensus-building process where community representatives try to reach some common ground on issues they are facing.
Good examples of this are several cases in Angola where dialogue sessions were used to help communities deal with frustration over food distribution. Food is an important and sensitive resource. As different communities were targeted, perceptions of imbalances between communities were created that, in some cases, led to increased hostilities. Community dialogue sessions presented an opportunity for community members to vent their frustrations and work through the problem. The problem was not completely resolved in that the need is greater than the supply, but it did remove the hostility around the problem and often allowed the communities to work together as opposed to against each other.
There are also informal dialogue approaches where groups are not brought together but topics are raised in the media or some sort of public forum. The media serves as a sounding board for issues and sparks dialogue within the communities. An example of this in Angola is the increased media coverage, particularly newspapers and radio stations, of prostitution and sexual abuse. Whereas, Angolans know that this exists, stories on the subject have increased the amount of discussion and awareness. The media has become an incentive to talk about these problems.
The other way dialogue can be useful is psychologically. Talking, expressing, and emoting are keys to good mental health. Everyone has a different capacity point - a point where they can absorb no more without some sort of release. If steps are not taken to deal with the stress and traumas, if a person continues only to absorb more, eventually this point will be reached and something will break. This is usually where the seeds of violence live.
With the breaking point comes the normalization of violence within the person. The constant absorption of trauma and stress becomes the way of life. A good example of this is children who grow up in violent communities and households. If the primary message a child receives is that trauma, stress, and frustration are dealt with through violence, this becomes a learned behaviour. It also becomes an acceptable or normal behaviour. Along the same lines, if a child grows up seeing people behave primarily as aggressors or victims, this becomes the model for behaviour. As a result, when the child grows up and is confronted with violence, they may either respond with violence or as a victim because this is the learned response - normal behaviour. This gets back to the cycle of violence mentioned above. The child sees violence and victims, thinks that it is normal, then uses violence or being a victim as actions and responses in the future. As they grow up and have children, unless the cycle is broken, patterns are often repeated. Their children will most likely continue the same behaviour because, for them, this is normal. Hence, a cycle of violence passes from generation to generation.
To break these cycles, one must get into the psychology that created the normalization in the beginning. This is often done through looking at how people react to their capacity point - to how they deal with their stresses, traumas, and frustration. Talking about these issues allows a physical and psychological release that is essential for good mental health. Good mental health means that people's capacity point changes - they move away from the breaking point and can better deal with stress and traumas in constructive ways. As individuals move away from the breaking point, the community also moves away. As a result, some of the outlets needed to express anger and frustration disappear or lessen. This is in turn results in a decreased community need for violence. In the end, the norms begin to change. As the needs of the individuals are met, the needs of the community are also addressed. In these instances, dialogue can be an important factor in alleviating the stress and trauma at the root of the problem.
If asked, most people would say that violence is beyond their control. Individually, this may be true, but as a community, this is not the case. Communities can change what messages they send regarding acceptable behaviour. They can also change the need for certain behaviour by addressing the psychological issues behind the needs. The norms that say it is acceptable to attack someone during an accident can change to a message that this type of expression is no longer needed or socially acceptable. This does not mean that there will be no more violence, but it usually does mean that violence begins to lessen and what was normal becomes unacceptable. It can mean the end to the normalization of violence.
Julie Nenon has over thirteen years experience in the field of development both international and domestic. Her areas of expertise are conflict resolution, program management, and community development. She has spent the past three years working as the country director for Search for Common Ground's Angola program.
Ms. Nenon is currently working as a consultant. She has traveled and worked throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe. She has a MA in International Development from American University's School for International Service.
OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute, www.trinstitute.org.