Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Turning a Culture of Violence into a Culture of Compassion

We could transform our culture of violence into one of compassion if we tried.

Much has been said in recent weeks following the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School about our “culture of violence.” People wonder if violent video games, violent movies, and such aggressive political and cable news discourse creates a culture of violence that encourages aggressive, violent, and deadly outbursts by these generally young and disenfranchised men who have loaded themselves up with amazing firepower. Quality research has failed to reliably demonstrate that exposure to violent movies, video games, and the like cause viewers to engage in violent behavior but it may be associated with violent behavior among those who are at risk. However, just because there is not a clear cause and effect relationship between exposure to violent media and mass murder doesn’t mean that living within a culture of violence doesn’t take its toil on our community.

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For example, well established and quality social psychology research examining social comparison theory, social modeling and observational learning among other well established and empirically supported theories well illustrate that we tend to gravitate towards the behavior that we see around us. Think about how we decide what to say, what to do, what to wear, and so forth. We scan our environment looking for cues to figure out how to be in the world. It is also how we learn language too. This is why we want our children to engage in pro social and wholesome activities (e.g., scouts, sports, Church, community service) and not hang out with criminals, trouble makers, and other negative influences.

Certainly we could make more efforts to transform our culture of violence into a culture of compassion. Think about it. Media is full of violence displayed in movies, games, political discourse, cable news, talk radio, sports and so forth. Many of our most popular sports, such as football, are rather violent. Additionally, look at the frequent violent and aggressive comments noted at the end of so many news articles on the web! Even my (and other) blog posts are too often commented on with a great deal of aggression. This is a common topic among those of us who write for public consumption. So, what’s up with that?  What is all the rage about?

Couldn’t we work harder to create a community where violence (physical, psychological, and so forth) is just not socially acceptable? We’ve done this type of thing before and made good progress with other problem behaviors such as smoking in public buildings, not wearing seatbelts, drinking and driving, child pornography, racist and sexist behavior, and so forth. Additionally, we have witnessed major cultural shifts that occur very quickly when desired. Think of how quickly Facebook, Google, smartphones, iPods, and iPads took off.  My college students tell me that even 2nd graders have smartphones now!

Let's suppose that we lived in a culture where we very rarely saw violence in movies and television? Suppose we lived in a community where politicians and talk show hosts were civil, cordial, and polite yet still discussed their views in a thoughtful and honest way? Suppose video games focused on cooperation rather than violence (e.g., rather than killing people and blowing things up perhaps games could overcome obstacles to feed the hungry or save those in natural disasters)? Suppose we focused on sports that were less violent and more cooperative or turned violent sports like football into something less violent (e.g., flag football rather than tackle)? Sure it is a tall order but we have been successful in changing our culture before. It can be done. Certainly this doesn’t address who has or doesn't have access to firearms but we could work very hard to transform our culture of violence into a culture of compassion if we really wanted to do so. Easier said than done for sure but still doable in my view. 

So, what do you think?

Oh, and by the way, if you want to leave a comment be sure that it isn’t an aggressive one!  ;) 

 

 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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