Seasonal Reflection: Civility Moderates Violence

Stephen Lynch, OFM Features

As people across the nation discuss the need for nonviolence, Stephen Lynch, OFM, reflects on last week’s shooting in Arizona, reminding us that living a life in Christ begins with love for others.

Jesus uses many metaphors and parables that stress cultivation to produce proper growth. Trees, fields and gardens need care, as do human beings, especially during their formative years, if they are to grow into healthy, responsible citizens. The explosion of violence by angry and possibly mentally ill children and adults during the last few years has caused alarm throughout the nation. Without civility, violence rears its ugly head.

Our country is reeling from the diabolical Jan. 8 shooting of 19 people in Arizona, which resulted in the death of six, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge. Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the intended assassination target, continues to fight for her life after taking a bullet to the head.

When tragic events like these happen, people naturally ask what is wrong with our society. This is not the first time this has happened. In seven months in 1997, there were four multiple shootings. On Dec. 1, 1997, three students were killed and five others wounded in a hallway at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky. The 14-year-old student, who is serving life in prison, said he didn’t know why he did it. In April 1998, a 14-year-old boy killed a teacher, wounded two students, and another teacher. A month before that, in Jonesboro, Ark., an 11-year old boy and his 13-year-old cousin were charged with killing four students and a teacher and wounding 10 others. In May 1998, a 15-year-old teenager in Springfield, Ore., opened fire in the cafeteria with a semi-automatic rifle, killing two people and leaving seven others critically wounded. He also killed both his parents.

Movie-Style Mass Mayhem
The list of shootings goes on and on. Some experts say that the recent shootings show that violence is escalating beyond one-on-one disputes into movie-style scenes of mass mayhem. Ronald Stephens of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., said: “We’ve transitioned from single-victim shootings to multiple shootings, indiscriminate shootings of large numbers of people who had little or nothing to do with the events that led to the problem.”

Some of the real-life scenes of killers with semi-automatic weapons blasting into a crowd strongly resemble movie and video game violence. Many experts are convinced that movie and video game violence create the illusion that zapping the enemy is bloodless, painless and leaves no dead bodies. The truth is that violence opens the floodgates of pain and hurt, which can wash ashore in the most unpredictable places.

To manage their fears, children who live with violence may repress feelings, which can interfere with their ability to relate to others in meaningful ways. Individuals who cannot empathize with others are less likely to curb their own aggression, and more likely to become insensitive to brutality in general. Defending themselves against outside dangers, or warding off their own fears, drains children’s energies and often creates difficulty learning in school. Children who have been victimized may have trouble relating in a normal way with other children. Deep-seated anger in children is likely to be incorporated into their personality structures, increasing their risk for resorting to violent action. Children cannot learn non-aggressive ways of interacting with others when their models so often use physical force to solve problems.

Taking Care of No. 1
Common courtesy is definitely on the decline in America. Sad to say, civility, manners, and politeness are threatening to become simply nostalgic memories. In some ways, people seem more mean-spirited than ever. At concerts, in the air, on the highways, in supermarkets, in business dealings, at sporting events — more and more people are selfish, inconsiderate, arrogant, impolite and crude. Workplace incivility is rampant — petty, mean, bullying, back stabbing, and disrespectful co-workers and bosses are responsible for job stress, low morale, and more. There is an obsession with taking care of good old number one, at the expense of running roughshod over others. Civility goes beyond manners and behavior. It is the sum of all the sacrifices that we make for the sake of living together.

Civility is based on the Golden Rule that we should treat others as we wish to be treated. In government, it should guide how the public’s business is conducted with respect for other elected officials, staff, and citizens. In civil discourse, opponents should make their arguments on the merits of the case, rather than engaging in ad hominem attacks. Integrity demands we participate in a respectful and civil way, not ignoring the positions and conclusions of others. Civility means claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.

What seems evident is the fact that, far from being the product of a particular cultural moment, violence is a manifestation of something inherent in human nature — of that instinct for primordial cruelty that William Golding portrays in Lord of the Flies. “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” The history of crime makes it frighteningly clear that the “wanton boys,” who begin by torturing insects, sometimes progress to higher life forms.

Bullying, malicious teasing or vicious meanness can turn a child’s fear into anger and vengeance. Genuine love of neighbor remains the only real cure for violence. If children are to grow into loving, law-abiding human beings, they need to be instructed in the art of loving from the moment that they enter this world.

Loving means being other-people-centered, rather than being self-centered.

— Fr. Stephen, of St. Anthony Friary in Butler, N.J., writes frequently for secular and religious publications.