Deconstructing Our Culture of Violence

Jacques Verduin in session with prisoners

Guiding Rage into Power Program, San Quentin, PBS

Jacques Verduin is a subject matter expert on mindfulness, restorative justice, emotional intelligence, and transforming violence. A father, community organizer, and teacher, he directs "Insight-Out" which helps prisoners and challenged youth create the personal and systemic change to transform violence and suffering into opportunities for learning and healing. In this first of two posts, Jacques shares insights about the roots of violence in our culture. In part two, "The Wisdom of Cherishing Sentient Beings Everywhere," he suggests ways we can begin to address the causes of violence.

There is a profound alienation happening in the country that reminds me of a Navaho saying that describes a criminal as “a person who acts as if they have no relatives.” The degree of alienation that exists in our culture is such that certain people lash out as a way to express the isolation they’re feeling. When we examine mass shooters, for example, we find they have a lot in common. Reading the descriptions of their lives, we begin to see how they’re not connected to others in ways that create meaning in their lives; they’re overwhelmingly white and young loners (between 11- and 16-years-old); they look for extreme ideologies to express their frustration and their anger about feeling like misfits; and they use violence as a way to express their pain. In this vacuum, mass shootings have become a phenomenon that feeds on its own history. Many of the shooters consider their predecessors as heroes and icons, as malcontents with a deep aversion they wish to emulate. So let’s ask, are we initiating these kids—our kids—into adulthood in a meaningful way?

“We fear violence less than our own feelings," Jim Morrison said. "Personal, private, solitary pain is more terrifying than what anyone else can inflict.” 

Profound alienation: the numbers
•    As of December 3, 2015, there had been 355 incidents of mass shootings (4+ victims, including shooter) in the past 336 days (ShootingTracker.com). As of October 2015, there have been 142 school shootings—and counting—since Sandy Hook on December 14, 2012, something that should be just unfathomable, but is instead alarmingly true.
•    22 vets die by suicide every day in America; in total, significantly more than have died in battle in the Gulf Wars. 
•    Families are spending increasingly less time together—about half an hour a day, and a lot of that is in front of TV or game consoles. 
•    Since the 1920's, the number of people living alone has increased from roughly 5% to 27% in 2013. Those numbers tell a story of a country whose narrative on community is shifting rapidly into very different story then ever before. 
•    20% of youth aged 13–18 experience a severe mental disorder in a given year; that’s one in five of our children. 
•    Suicide in general is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. It’s more common than homicide and the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24- year-olds.

These very worrisome and revealing statistics are reported as individual pathologies, but they expose the dysfunctional ways we live as a society…and it’s time to question that. 

There are other markers like these and they all indicate the question to ask, as presumptuous as it may seem, is “How then shall we live?”

If there’s this much mental illness and this amount of alienation, crime, suicide, and loneliness, then shouldn’t we live differently?

Is the question really “Should we have less or more guns?” Or is it something else? Maybe the reason we’re not going there is because asking such a radical question might upset what our lifestyle has become and provoke the powers 
that be. 

In my work in the prisons you can’t help but ask that bigger question. “Nobody was born armed and dangerous,” says Jessie Jackson. So what happened? If we just lock up these mass shooters and treat them as crazy individuals, we don’t have to question the larger social breakdowns that give way to these events. If we just say: “crazy is as crazy does; there’s another one,” we don’t have to bother asking why violence is happening in our midst with this type of frequency and intensity.  

Learning how to dedicate our pain
In the GRIP curriculum we speak of anger as a secondary emotion. We learn that the more primary feelings under it are fear, grief, or shame, or some combination of all three. Many of these mass shooters feel a deep sense of humiliation. When these feelings are not named and processed, the grief and the separation is internalized as personal shame, feeling inadequate and unworthy, and not belonging to anything. Violence then functions as a way to break out of that cycle.

Seeing so many refugees enter Europe right now, it strikes me that many of us actually feel like we are refugees in our own society. Increasingly more people feel shunned or not part of a community. The characteristic of that condition is not only the emotional pain of not belonging but also the unbearable experience of isolation that is distinctive of deep suffering.

People do desperate things when they feel unbearable feelings and need to communicate their isolation.

Their violence is often a twisted, last ditch attempt to reach others and to make them feel their pain.

In our culture we do not have ways, particularly as men, to express our grief. When we begin the emotional intelligence component of our curriculum in the prison, we start with grief. Sometimes we make a memorial wall out of the classroom white board, like the Vietnam Wall, with all the names of people who have died while these men have been in prison; they didn’t get to process their farewells and go to the funeral. And sometimes, if a loved one died and it feels unfinished, we pull the circle closer and do an open chair exercise, where goodbyes are said right there and then. We also write letters of unfinished business that are read to the “tribe.” 

There’s so much grief that hasn’t been heard and hasn’t been processed and there’s a numbing vacuum that opens up when a culture doesn’t know how to grieve.

It then also doesn’t know how to praise, right? We don’t have too many forms of honoring grief in the greater culture—we flip burgers on Memorial Day; that’s what we do. One element of the GRIP Program is to dedicate all that pain, so it’s returned to life and can become generative once more. The men learn to dedicate their lives to both the violence they have suffered and the violence they have perpetrated, by living their lives skillfully and by being of service from then on. 
    
The trance of violence
Dealing with and being exposed to a lot of violence in my work, I’ve learned that it’s actually an attempt—a very inarticulate attempt—to connect, but it’s an effort and it’s possible to look at it as a strong signal that calls us to wake up to something. It conceals a deep need that wants to be known urgently. When that doesn’t happen, the final message is something like, “I’m in so much pain; I am so disconnected and lost right now that I want you to feel it too and so I will hurt you.” Again, that’s very basic and raw, but it happens more frequently than you’d think. 

Then there’s another type of violence, like the gang and drug violence that is incomprehensible to us because it’s so devoid of empathy, like what’s going on in Mexico, for example, the huge scale of murder there around drug trafficking, where violence has become a code of behavior that’s no longer questioned. It’s just a way of doing business. There’s a belief system that basically says, “If I don’t enforce my drug debts or I don’t protect my territory from competition, then that’s going to be interpreted as I’m weak and, therefore vulnerable, so I have to preempt that perception and strike first.” With gang confrontations, it’s often the same way. 

When we start the GRIP program in prison, I often ask, “How many of you think you’re here because of what you did?” and almost everybody raises their hands. And then I say “No, that’s not actually true. You’re not here because of what you did. More precisely, you’re here because you believed the thoughts that justified what you did.” This gets us prepared to question our belief systems. 

For example, the gang belief system is very connected to projecting an identity that is based on a certain self-image. There’s the tats, the colors, the way you wear your clothes, your turf—all of that. You now belong to something; your life has meaning and you get to enjoy what they call “street love.” It’s basically your attachment to external approval because you have never been loved in such a way that you learned to validate yourself from the inside out. Your gang identity is part of an image you project, and with that comes a ranking, a status in the gang hierarchy that you try to maintain your status in no matter what. (That sounds not unlike corporate careerism actually, doesn’t it?) When we start to undo these belief systems, there’s often a lot of relief amongst the guys because they actually didn’t know that there’s another way to be who you are. And it’s not just gang members and prisoners.

The belief system of what it means to be a man in America today is steeped in violence. In GRIP, we deconstruct that male conditioning together,

and we begin to see the more invisible ways that as men we’re conditioned to not feel and are taught to instill fear instead of earn respect and express our appreciation. That deconstruction is one of the more revealing things we do together. It’s about undoing our hyper-masculine cultural conditioning, the myth of male superiority and how it misunderstands what authentic power is, meaning power within instead of power over. There is often great relief when we see what it costs us men to be tough, superior, and emotionally illiterate. It’s also very moving to witness men help each other wake up from that place and begin to share their vulnerability. In fact, that part of the curriculum really ought to be taught in early high school.   

So, are we bold enough to disrupt our comfort zones and ask the challenging question, How then shall we live?

As founder and director of “Insight-Out,“ organizer of initiatives for prisoners and challenged youth that seek to transform violence and suffering into opportunities for learning and healing, Jacques Verduin and his work have been a great inspiration to us. He has written several articles for our blog, and introduced us to Fateen Jackson, a trainee-facilitator of the Guiding Rage into Power (GRIP) program in San Quentin and spoken word artist featured on our blog. Read more articles by Jacques on our blog, including Guiding Rage into Power: On Leaving Prison Before You Get Out, Violence: A Tragic Expression of an Unmet Need, Forgiveness Gets a Serious Dose of Reality in Amman.  

© Jacques Verduin. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of the author.