Violence as a Public Health Issue

“Violence prevention is being limited more by a lack of will than by lack of know-how.”

James Gilligan


This website is grounded in the conception of violence as a public health concern. Such a perspective challenges the common notion that violence is normal and inevitable, arguing instead that it is preventable, but requires a joint effort from governments, educators, health care workers, social workers, and other societal groups.  Indeed, the World Health Agency’s 2002 World Report on Violence and Health made a strong call for the integration of violence prevention into educational policies. While this call has been heard by many educators of young children, high schools, colleges and universities have made far fewer initiatives, and, at the post-secondary level, the emphasis has been put on creating certain programs, such as peace and conflict studies, gender or queer studies, or international development programs, that ultimately influence only a minority of students. Our goal is to examine how a concern with violence in all of its forms can be integrated into an institutional-wide, cross disciplinary approach at all levels of education.

This perspective of violence as a public health issue draws attention to the complex and multiple social factors that contribute to violence, emphasizing that violence is largely a learned behavior. While certain individuals may have inherited a higher propensity for aggression, environmental factors, including exposure to earlier violence, such as child abuse or bullying, play a powerful role. Perpetrators of extreme violence, either as individuals or collectives, come to see violence as a legitimate option over time and and move along, what Ervin Staub has coined, a “continuum of destruction”.  He argues that further learning takes place as individuals or groups escalate their violence once they begin, as they become increasingly densensitized to the suffering of others and more convinced that the victims deserve their treatment (1989,1999).  At various points along their path, alternate choices were possible and positive interventions could have made a difference. The young man, who entered our college on September 13, 2006, intent on taking his own life along with innocent others, had been bullied at high school, confronted failure as he dropped out of college and lost jobs, became increasing isolated from other people, and finally immersed himself in the desensitizing and empowering environment of violent video games.

This view also highlights the links between different forms of violence — from the structural violence of poverty and marginalization to direct violence, from the often hidden abuse within families or bullying in schools to the outbreak of mass atrocities. An interesting perspective on this was taken by Barbara Coloroso in her 2007 work, Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide. When she addressed Rwandans about the various participants involved in school yard bullying — the bullies and bullied, along with the henchmen, active and passive supporters, disengaged onlookers, potential witnesses and defenders, they were immediately struck by how well her model (see it by clicking here)  fit the social relationships that made the genocide in their country possible. She adds that heated discussions then ensued among Rwandans, who debated where they should situate the various individuals, countries, institutions — domestic and foreign, that played a role in the genocide that led to the death of some 800,000 people over a span of 3 months .

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