Towards a Broader Conception of Violence

As a history teacher, I spend a lot of time discussing and thinking about violence—wars, conflict, and the like. Students, especially my sophomore boys, are enthralled by talk of war, artillery, bombs and destruction. Even the most disruptive kids tuned in when we covered the World Wars. Some would argue that this is a reflection of our culture’s embrace of violence, especially as its connected to masculinity, but I’m aligned with Thomas Hobbes: humans are prone to violence, and some level of bloodthirstiness is a natural, if undesirable tendency.

In my day job at an urban high school, I’m often forced out of my theoretical bubble by actual violence. Students fighting in the halls or cafeteria is relatively rare at my school (knocking on wood), because we have teachers and staff who care enough to step in if they/we see conflicts escalating. Of course, there are some conflicts we cant resolve and others we don’t recognize in time, so fights do happen. Regardless, conflicts occur frequently

My school lies in a violent neighborhood, and at times, that violence interferes with our students’ education. For some students, neighborhood violence has already scarred them, leaving many teens in the inner city traumatized. What happens to these young people, many of whom are also the victims of structural violence at the hands of a state and society that sees them as less than in so many ways? Just last week, a black fourteen year-old boy was choked, tackled and pinned to the ground for staring threateningly at Miami-Dade police, all while holding a puppy. It would be funny if it weren’t the latest example of absurd abuse of young black men at the hands of our police state. Most of my students are young men of color, and more than ever, I appreciate the violence carried out on them as a result of their identity.

Violence works in cycles, and this helps to explain why young black men tend to be . A local nonprofit that I’ve been very impressed by describes gun violence as “a disease which has infected our society and is continuing to spread.” The Centers for Disease Control has also written about the public health approach to violence. In a community ravaged by violence–Crown Heights, Brooklyn–the entire community has to wake up and pay attention. Not only that, we need to be actively searching for any action that might reduce the scourge of violence that seems to have infected this neighborhood.

Just this weekend, another young black man was shot and killed, this time on the block between my school and my team’s practice field. My honest belief is that the violence we see is almost always traceable to an earlier violent incident. Sometimes the cause is immediate–retaliation, revenge, etc–but other times, we have to search for a cause. Violence can seem inexplicable, but not with the broader understanding advocated by the World Health Organization, among others. The scars of violence are long-lasting, and they persist. As Dr. King told us, violence begets violence and hate begets hate.

The original violence, at least for many of my students, was abandonment or abuse by one or both parents. A lot has been written about the “breakdown of the American family,” some more histrionic than is warranted, but there is truth to the idea that growing up without a father is traumatic. It’s an absence that cant really be solved for, and it absolutely has a ripple effect. Young people who grow up with a single mother are more likely to commit crimes, drop out of school, and suffer from poverty (The Consequences of Fatherlessness)

I feel called to work with my students because I know what this feels like–fatherlessness, if not criminality and dropping out. I remember how important it was (and still is) for me to have responsible, caring male figures in my life, especially teachers and coaches. Violence comes from the absence of compassionate role models and mentors. Education is…finding and filling these gaps.

Understanding where violence comes from and addressing it there