The faulty logic of violence

October 29th, 2015

I was not spanked as a child. Though spanking has declined a bit since then, at the time this made our family odd in the eyes of my peers. My father was a counselor, and my parents believed in time-out and behavior modification, not corporal punishment (spanking). So I tend to believe that it is possible to raise children without hitting them. Full disclosure: I have spanked my own child. I have also regretted doing so.

This experience has shaped my view of violence. I believe every human being has a right to defend themselves against what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “arbitrary killing.” In that sense, I am not a pacifist. Bullies exist, and sometimes we have to use force to stop bullies from doing harm.

But there is a sinful self-justifying logic that creeps into our use of violence. Almost anyone who chooses to use violence finds a way to justify it. Studies have shown that carrying a firearm tends to make people act more aggressively and perceive the world as more violent. The mere act of wearing a weapon makes us less likely to de-escalate conflict, and to perceive ambiguous behaviors as threatening.

Our fight or flight response is governed by the amygdala, the reptilian part of our brain that helps us respond to threat by raising our blood pressure and heart rate. Our brain’s ability to inhibit that response is much slower. When our heart rates go up, we are less able to regulate our emotional response. When we act on fear or anger, our brains shift from inhibiting our violent behavior to justifying it: we were in danger. The other person was asking for it.

The logic of violence is also natural ally of racism and white supremacy. It has entered every facet of our lives and affects everyone in our country, regardless of race or socio-economic status. It has also entered our schools.

We can see the logic of coercive force played out in the recent video of a school officer wrestling an African-American young woman to the ground in a classroom. Asked to turn over her phone, she refuses. The teacher calls another administrator, who calls the sheriff’s deputy. The deputy treats the young woman like a criminal, flipping her to the floor and then handcuffing her while other students record the incident on their phones.

This event illustrates the logic of violence, which is applied disproportionately to black people in our country. The logic of violence has three principles:

  1. Compliance is mandatory. 
  2. If someone will not comply, you must escalate the use of force to gain compliance. 
  3. The threat of force will result in greater compliance.

All three of these principles are wrong.

1) First, compliance is not mandatory. Most of us, during the day, do not comply completely with authority. We speed on the highway, we ride bikes on the sidewalk, we roll through stop signs, we trespass to take a shortcut. If police enforced every infraction with indiscriminate force, most of the population would be in prison.

As a parent, what I want from discipline is a high rate of compliance from my child. I want respect. Sometimes, if my child does not comply with my request, I will escalate by imposing consequences for bad behavior or noncompliance. But escalation is not always the best choice. Sometimes ignoring the behavior or talking through a conflict is the best option.

In the Arbinger Institute’s book The Anatomy Of Peace, the authors describe an intervention into the families of troubled kids. When one young woman runs away barefoot, two other counselors allow her to run away, but follow her — after taking off their own shoes. Their goal is to demonstrate to her that they will respond to her out of love and solidarity, to literally go through what she was going through — in order to restore her to her family and community. The philosophy in the book has been used in countless churches and businesses to talk about conflict resolution and respecting the personhood of others.

When I see the video of the young woman assaulted by the deputy, I can’t help but imagine other more creative responses to noncompliance that would respect her personhood. The class could have adjourned and moved outside. The teacher could have chosen to ignore her. The administrator could have taken her out for ice cream.

Most people who object to alternative strategies of engaging the young woman talk about the “rights” of the students to their education, or wasting the teacher’s time, or the unfairness of spending time on one troubled teen at the expense of the class. All of these ignore the real damage done to the class by this incident through the escalation of force.

When someone I love is sullen or disrespectful to me, I do not punch them or flip them over. Ideally, I first respond with compassion. I sit down and have a meal and a conversation with them. In other words, I treat them like a human being worthy of my respect. People who object to “rewarding” noncompliance miss the point. Certainly, if an adult demonstrates a pattern of rude or aggressive behavior, I will cut off a relationship. But the first step to gaining respect is showing respect.

But this is the logic of violence: If one person is allowed to disobey, more will disobey. Therefore coercive force must be used to ensure compliance.

This is a lie. Behavior modification techniques have often been used in classrooms that do not require the use of coercive force. The idea that more people will disobey if one disobeys, or that it is somehow “unfair” to the students who don’t comply, assumes that children are like rats in a box pushing levers to get rewards — or like prisoners who must be controlled.

2) The second principle of the language of violence is that escalation will result in compliance. This is a lie that no one believes, though it is practically gospel in the self-justification of violence. The officer in the video expects the result he gets. He asks a nearby student to move. He knows where this is headed. This is the same logic we have seen in countless police violence videos where the result is known before escalation begins.

Nearly all defenses of police violence place faith in this concept of escalation of force: “If you do not comply, you will be taken to the ground.” Since compliance is not expected, violence is a foregone conclusion.

This idea ignores the escalating physiological event that happens when human beings have a conflict. Two human beings having an argument can get their heart rates up to 120 beats per minute. At that point, neither is making rational decisions. Coercive force becomes inevitable. If firearms are present, they will be used as either threat or killing tool.

Escalation does not lead to compliance. It leads to more escalation. It is like a feedback loop, the fear of one person fueling the anger of the other.

If compliance is really the goal, then de-escalation often has more potential to work. The human brain needs time and space to inhibit a fight-or-flight response. A teenager who will not relinquish a phone has already escalated and is not acting rationally. They have chosen sullen aggression. The application of force is not going to make them become rational or teach them anything positive.

I know that there are police officers who have the hearts of social workers, who take the time to patiently de-escalate a situation, to use their words. These people do not often get recorded and praised on social media. And certainly, there are times when clear danger requires an escalation of force. But what we see happen in a classroom, or in the recent video of another policeman assaulting a young woman at a public pool, is an example of a failure of emotional regulation. These men let their amygdalas run away with them. They escalated instead of de-escalating.

Statistics show that black people are subjected to this escalation of force at a disproportionate rate. Apologists for violence often claim that there is no racial component to this escalation, that it is simply the natural outcome of a natural and logical process. The data do not bear out this claim.

3) This brings us to the third principle of the logic of violence, which is that the threat of violence will result in greater compliance in the future. Pulling out a belt and threatening to whip a child for sassing back is not going to lead to more respectful language in the future. Flipping a child over in her desk is not going to lead her to respect her teacher more, nor will it teach the other students respect for authority. Cracking down on minor lawbreaking (broken windows policing) is not going to increase our security as a society.

The threat of violence instead leads to passive-aggressive behavior, a thousand little irritations of boundary-pushing resistance. It leads to cynicism about authority, and rejection of the values that authority claims to wield.

Soon after the student murders at Columbine, the Louisiana legislature proposed a bill in 1999 that would require kids to address teachers as “ma’am” and “sir.” One legislator proposed an amendment that would also require teachers to address their students as ma’am and sir. This amendment was struck down, because what the legislators were after was not building a community of respect, but reinforcing hierarchies of distinction between who has power and who does not. Students subject to violent coercion understand that respect means something different to those with power than it does to those without.

As Christians, we desperately need to recognize and call out the faulty and sinful logic of violence. We worship a Lord who said, “take up your cross,” not “take up your sword.” God gains our obedience and our trust not through coercive force, but by solidarity with us in our suffering.

The authoritarian violence present in schools, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the systemic racism of police violence in our country are all tied together. The logic of violence is part and parcel of the racial history of our country. If we are to be the church and resist evil, oppression and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves, we have an obligation to name and criticize the logic of violence. We also have an obligation to replace it with different values that will affect how we do parenting, teaching and law enforcement.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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