Violence, Pornography & Childhood
Wounded Childhoods form Bullies with Bullets
Scotland on Sunday essay - first published Sunday 27-10-96, p. 20: If we are serious about rooting out violence in society we will have to delve deeper than gun culture - we will have to look at the way we bring up children and tackle our own “shadow” sides, says Alastair McIntosh.
essay is reprinted in my book, Healing Nationhood.]
or without electoral interests in his sights, Michael Forsyth’s call to
address the underlying culture of violence has to be warmly welcomed. But is
this simply a matter of censoring video nasties? Or has Dunblane [i.e. the
massacre of Dunblane schoolchildren by Thomas Hamilton] opened the door for a
much deeper re-appraisal of the roots of violence?
would suggest this is so, and that the real issue underlying violence rests in
the origins of appetite for pornography. I use the word “pornography” here
in a wide sense as that which treats another as a mere object for exploitative
gratification. This must be distinguished from the erotic.
is that which does violence to the truly erotic. The erotic is about extension
of feeling from the heart into the world. As Audre Lorde writes in Sister
Outsider, “When I speak of the erotic ... I speak of it as an assertion of
the life-force ... of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of
which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our
loving, our work, our lives ... the personification of love in all its
is this understanding that Jesus honours in Luke 7. Here he defends his
acceptance of the harlot’s sensual attentions because they were grounded in
“her great love.” In contrast, the pornographic emphasises sensation without
feeling. Having no heart it dishonours the heart. It reduces the “thou” of
another to “it.”
shows in video nasties. And abusive sex. It pervades our media in advertising
where sexuality is displaced into such consumer objects as cars and where images
of violation like knife slashes or mantraps hook into deep-seated morbidity to
sell Britain’s most popular cigarettes. Indeed, the pornography of using
others is intrinsic to advanced capitalist forms of production with its language
of factory “operatives” and “human resource management.” It is at the
heart of a culture were money rather than respect for soul mediates many social
the Scottish Secretary is right and sincere in suggesting that Dunblane changes
the way we think about things, we must tackle not just symptoms like gun
culture, but also the unacceptable “shadow” side in each of us. That means
addressing our implication in tolerating a Scotland where the greatest violence
is a million people living in poverty. A Britain which commands 20% of the world
arms trade. A country where the anatomy of violence includes not just
psychopaths like Thomas Hamilton having a finger on the pistol trigger, but
politicians dangling a finger for us all above the nuclear button.
peaceful society cannot be based on the containment of violence or “short
sharp shock” fighting of fire with hotter fire. It must address the deeper
causes of what cauterises the
ability to feel, of what alienates erotic sensibility, and so makes a social
norm of dehumanisation.
norms are important frameworks because psychological research suggests that our
values are fickle and more susceptible to social conditioning than we like to
think. Stanley Milgram’s work on this demonstrating that 65% of his American
college subjects could be persuaded to administer potentially fatal electric
shocks is well known. Less so is P. G. Zimbardo’s “Stanford prison
simulated a “prison” and selected twenty-one psychologically stable subjects
to occupy it. Nine were assigned to be “prisoners” and dressed in prison
uniform. The remainder were “guards” dressed in khaki uniforms, with batons
and mirror sun-glasses.
researchers were shocked at how quickly things got out of hand. The prisoners
rapidly became disturbed to the extent that five had to be “released”
because of depression, crying and acute anxiety. The guards became increasingly
aggressive and sadistic, enjoying the exercise of power by, for example, making
going to the toilet a privilege rather than a right.
concluded: “In less than a week middle class, Caucasian, of above average
intelligence and emotionally stable Americans became pathological and
we need to go further than simply recognising that nice people can do terrible
things when conformity with group behaviour so disposes. We need to understand
why such capacity for darkness also lurks within. To psychologist Alice Miller,
the main origin of violence lies in child-rearing practice.
has analysed the childhoods of many of the world’s mass killers and political
tyrants. In For Your Own Good: The Origins of Violence in Child Rearing, she
maintains that every senior member of the Third Reich about whom detailed family
history is known underwent childhood “soul murder.” This results when the
basic need to be loved unconditionally for oneself is not met. Instead,
authentic self-expression is crushed; the “primal integrity” of the
child’s self is twisted. Love is made dependent on outward performance
criteria, be they in potty training, education for regimentation or
regimentation in war, the corporate battlefield, politics or perhaps clubs like
Thomas Hamilton ran.
on in the world to try and “be someone then substitutes for trusting to the
natural process of becoming ripe in oneself. And the most blatant way of
authenticating an inauthentic sense of self is to exercise power over others.
The ability to abuse others, to bully with or without bullets, proves power and
gives some transient necrophilic sense of being real.
heart this is an erotic dysfunction. It is about inability to be true to one’s
feelings; inability even to have feelings ... stiff upper lip and all that. It is why power, death and pornographic sex are closely
Burns understood these processes not least when he wrote, “How cruel are the
parents, who riches only prize.” And John Lennon popularised them in his song,
Working Class Hero.
understood the effect of love denied at a tender age: “As soon as you’re
born they make you feel small; by giving you no time instead of it all; ‘till
the pain is so big you feel nothing at all.”
double-binds of “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” that destroy
self-confidence: “They’ve hurt you at home and they hit you at school; they
hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool; ‘till you’re so
fuckin’ crazy you can’t follow their rules.”
“bread and circus” social narcotics: “Keep you doped with religion and sex
and TV; and you think you’re so clever and classless and free; but you’re
still fuckin’ peasants as far as I can see.”
the smugness of those whose violence is hidden into the structure of their
privileged place in society: “There’s room at the top they are telling you
still; but first you must learn how to smile as you kill; if you want to be like
the folks on the hill; a working class hero is something to be.”
assassin, Mark Chapman, wrote of himself that, “It was a child that killed
John Lennon. It wasn’t a man.... It was a child that had been so hurt and
rejected into adulthood that he had to cover up all his feelings.... I was just
a hulk of hurt and rejection, a confused, unfeeling defence mechanism.... My
child was always conflicting with my fake adult.... All that rage came spilling
out and I killed the hero of my childhood” (SoS Spectrum, 10-1-93).
work of criminal psychologists like Bob Johnson or the Barlinnie Special Unit
shows that healing is possible. Alice Miller believes we have a culture
underpinned by violence because most of us suffered a “poisonous pedagogy”
intrinsic particularly to many British and Germanic childcare norms. Recovery of
right relationship with the wounded child within is not impossible. It requires
therapeutic processes of love and trust to enable grieving for what can never be
replaced, and the use of creativity to facilitate growth of a greater
self that transcends previous limitations.
work is both psychological and spiritual. It calls for the creation of a society
in which veils of shame and secrecy are removed so that proper care can be
offered to troubled people. A society in which the imperative for each person to
grow in presence of soul from childhood through to old age is recognised and
resourced as the utmost priority. Could it be that a Conservative Secretary of
State has opened this agenda to us? If so he deserves something that may be
grudging, but would entail respect.
McIntosh is a Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology, an independent academic
network that has developed out of Edinburgh University.
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