I am always fascinated at how cultural change occurs, sometimes more slowly than we hope (civil rights), and sometimes more quickly than we expect (recent advances in the acceptance of same sex marriage).
There are also usually key defining moments in the media that capture the struggle of many in the story of one. Such is the case recently around the willingness to take intra-familial violence from being a private issue for the family to being a topic of open public debate and, in many corners, outrage.
In our age of instant social media, two of the National Football League’s premier stars were revealed using violence, one knocking out his fiancé on video, and the other with a photo showing the effects of whipping his 4-year-old with a switch to supposedly discipline his child out of love like his parents had done to him. These two public images released a tide of debate about what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of physical violence within the family and concepts of manhood in this day and age.
On the domestic violence front, calls to the U.S. National Domestic Violence Prevention Hotline soared 84 percent the week that the Ray Rice video was released. National and international media debated why men (and occasionally women) batter, why the partner stays and what can be done to help.
Major league sports franchises and federations started discussing what length of suspension should be mandated if a player is found to have beaten his wife or child. The fact that an industry would impose its own sanctions, on top of a legal system that often fails victims of intra-familial family violence, is indeed a game-changer that could set precedents nationally and internationally.
On the child abuse front, commentators and child care specialists highlighted the fact that acceptance of corporal punishment (hitting a child with an object or hand) is still practiced by 75 percent of Americans generally, and 89 percent of African Americans. It is hardly the exception but rather a norm that has been passed down through generations, despite significant research that show its long-term, negative psychological effects on the child and its propensity to actually increase children and youth’s violent behavior.
The rates of corporal punishment in the U.S. exceed that in many other countries. One reason given by some analysts is the fact that every country other than the U.S. and Somalia signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 which, among other things, protects children against violence including corporal punishment, and 38 countries have laws prohibiting such punishment.
All this violence has a cumulative impact on young people. While working on gang and youth violence issues in Panama and Central America, I always felt we had to “look upstream” for where these problems of violence were really coming from. The kids would often tell of the beatings that they or their mother endured by the “man of the house” or of abuse by their mother. Likewise, while visiting a project in a school in the Caribbean, the principal told how he and other teachers maintained discipline with a two-inch wide belt.
The research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) shows that four or more of these experiences, such as viewing or being the victim of intra-familial violence or being sexually abused, result in a multitude of health and social problems in the short- and long-term. Additionally, in the U.S., 80 percent of incarcerated prisoners report having grown up in violent households.
In Panama, Creative’s youth at-risk project decided to go “upstream”, and we trained youth to talk to other youth about intra-familial and dating violence to try to break the cycle. The youth and the adult allies were thirsting for techniques to improve communication, foster healthy relationships and learn nonviolent alternatives to how “they had learned discipline from their parents”. Many young men also struggled with concepts of what it was to be a man in terms of using force to establish respect.
If we want to truly make a dent on issues of violence in society in general, we need to be willing to go publically “upstream” to examine, challenge and ultimately replace old concepts of manhood and discipline based on histories of violence with new proven effective ways of communication, healthy relationships and positive discipline.
The eyes of many are on this important topic for the moment. It is up to us all to make a public statement rejecting violence in or outside the household, and to share training in new tools for communication, parenting and healthier concepts of masculinity.
Michael McCabe is an expert in training and capacity development at Creative Associates International.