Saturday, December 15, 2012

Gender and Violence

I love my feminist husband. He and I have some amazing conversations, and over the years we have truly challenged one another toward becoming better individuals by simply talking, debating, agreeing, and arguing topics out. One topic that has been on our 'discussion table' time and again is the problem of violence. What doesn't seem to be discussed frequently in society is, truly, whose problem violence really is. Well, looking at statistics, the answer is that violence is a man's problem. Women have their own generalized issues, and yes, there are exceptions to the rule when women become violent and go on a killing spree. Overall though, anyone with a brain at all must concede the fact that, by and large, violent crimes are the doing of men.

This is not our debate topic. We obviously both agree on this. (If you care to keep reading about this soapbox, check out the part at the end of this post regarding Carol Gilligan and the TAT.) Our discussions have more centered on why this might be the case. Why is it that men are more physically violent than women? Why are males nearly ten times more likely than females to commit murder? Why does it seem that every stinking act of mass violence that we see on the news is perpetrated by one or more men? So many factors can really come into play, including the ways that boys versus girls are raised, societal norms that condone violence and objectification of women, exposure to violent media, etc. Another factor that comes into play that BJ and I don't feel gets the attention it deserves, however, is evolutionary tendencies themselves. Looking at evolution itself helps to provide an understanding of all kinds of human behaviors and phenomena, from nurturing to sex to violence. Not so long ago (in the grand scheme of time), it was imperative that men be physically aggressive in order for their families and offspring to survive; the men who were the most physically aggressive were the ones who won meat, fought off enemies who sought to kill, and established themselves as leaders within their clans, thereby ensuring the safety of themselves and the survival of their children (and thus the species itself). Only the fittest survived. Women, on the other hand, were expected to care for children and take care of duties to keep the home running smoothly, including preparing meals, gathering water, etc.

So here we are, post-Industrial revolution, and what do we have? Well, we still have these biological tendencies within us to be physically aggressive if we are male, and nurturing and domestic if we are female. Our human race has survived until now precisely because of these instincts that we have adopted. Obviously, these stereotypes do not generalize to each and every individual--I'm no idiot. But evolution has also proved that there are exceptions to every rule, some of which succeed and some of which do not. Unless men are in third-world countries these days, there is really no use at all for the physical-aggression tendencies, and thus they are primarily latent. Businessmen and plumbers aren't facing lions and warring villages these days. However, the biological need to be aggressive seems to rear its ugly head at times, and not for the purposes for which it was intended. Instead of fighting off enemies, violence is turned toward intimate partners (it probably was way back in the day too, but now it is considered unacceptable---at least it should be), colleagues, fellow men who are not actual physical threats. It has become a dysfunctional part of this society; as BJ would say, it has become a "vestigial organ" that we can't seem to get rid of entirely because biology won't let us, and now we're stuck with crazy guys who can't get that impulse under control and they go around shooting kids with semi-automatic weapons. Evolution, it seems has turned in on itself. Or at least that's what we think.

If you're interested in the topic of gender and violence, read on!
One of my favorite authors is a feminist psychologist by the name of Carol Gilligan. Dr. Gilligan spent the bulk of her career studying gender differences on moral issues, and she wrote a book called "In a Different Voice" that simply rocked my world.

Check this out:

Dr. G writes about a study that she and Susan Pollak conducted in 1982 using college students and the Thematic Apperception Test. In this test, pictures of various scenarios are shown to subjects and they are encouraged to tell a story that incorporates the scene that they are shown. Gilligan and Pollak were both intrigued by responses to a card that showed a "tranquil scene" of a couple sitting on a bench together overlooking a river. She notes on page 40, "In response to this picture, more than 21 percent of the eighty-eight men in the class had written stories containing incidents of violence--homicide, suicide, stabbing, kidnapping, or rape. In contrast, none of the fifty women in the class had projected violence into this scene." The following quote is a specific example from a man in the class who viewed the card:
Nick saw his life pass before his eyes. He could feel the cold penetrating ever deeper into his body.  How long had it been since he had fallen through the ice-- thirty seconds, a minute? it wouldn't take long for him to succumb to the chilling grip of the mid-February Charles River. What a fool he had been to accept the challenge of his roommate Sam to cross the frozen river. He knew all along that Sam hated him. Hated him for being rich and especially hated him for being engaged to Mary, Sam's childhood sweetheart. But Nick never realized until now that Mary also hated him and really loved Sam. Yet there they were, the two of them, calmly sitting on a bench in the riverbend, watching Nick drown. They'd probably soon would be married, and they'd probably finance it with the life insurance policy for which Mary was the beneficiary.
  It seems crazy to me that some people can actually draw this nature of thought from something that seems so innocent, and yet it seems to not be so uncommon. There is a huge leap, though, from entertaining violent fantasies to actually acting on them, which is what makes today's tragedy in Connecticut seem all the more incomprehensible.

1 comment:

  1. I thought this was very interesting. Sean and I had a similar conversation after the Newtown tragedy, as well. It actually went in much the similar way, "what is it that makes men prone to violence when there is NO threat?" (thinking of shooting innocent children, going into a mall for holiday shoppers, another school, or the most recent crazy guy who killed the New Jersey firefighters and had previously been in jail for beating his 92 year old grandmother to death). I agree with the perspective that it may have been useful thousands and thousands of years ago but it seemed to be threat related--what is it now?

    Also, I actually do see certain scenarios when the "vestigal organ" might still be used in certain business situations where you have several men competing for a promotion/bonus, etc. It is not so much physical violence but cunning, threat, action, reaction--still a fight action.

    The study by Dr. Gillian is SO intriguing! I have never heard of it but I can tell you I will be reading more about it. So...shocking really. I can't imagine that situation being painted violent in any way and yet the descriptive story, just utterly jaw dropping.