Violence as a Global Public Health Problem

Violence is not the default condition of being human. However, many cynics might want to claim otherwise. As social individuals, we are not given to violence as a rule.

Published: 06th August 2022 12:06 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th August 2022 12:06 AM   |  A+A-

Finally, we seem to be coming out of the Covid pandemic. But this is also the moment to remember that the world has been in the midst of a more sustained and silent pandemic for the last few decades—the growing pandemic of violence. It is a pandemic in the sense that it spreads, infects and destroys people and societies.

Over 25 years ago, as early as 1996, the Forty-Ninth World Health Assembly declared violence as a major global public health problem. While billions have been spent to tackle Covid, this pandemic of violence has been allowed to fester and grow. The Health Assembly’s declaration must remind us that violence is not an isolated issue but one that impacts the physical and mental health of the population of the world.

Violence has become so common and pervasive that it has become normalised. People get bored without violence. Cartoons are violent, and the biggest English pulp bestsellers are almost all about violent deaths. Movies are in a race to present more and more stylised images of violence. I was shocked to see the kind of senseless killing in a recent Tamil film, Vikram, which was a major hit. I was horrified to see people clapping in scenes when somebody is being brutally killed. News is full of images of wars and conflicts, pictures of destroyed buildings, machines of war and broken people, but the pictures don’t do anything to our moral conscience. To continue to think that the immersion in all this violence has no consequence is to be delusional.
The pervasive violence that we practice is not just towards other living creatures. Our modern societies are also deeply violent towards the environment for everything that we do in terms of our excessive consumption of food, water, air, entertainment, and gadgets is to intentionally cause harm to nature.

It is important to recognise violence as the new pandemic since violence is going to have an increasing impact on our lives. Violence against nature has reduced the quality of air and water to dangerous levels in our cities. More and more children suffer from physical illnesses related to the degradation of the environment as well from psychological illnesses related to various forms of violence. Millions of women and men have died violent deaths.

Yet, how is it that such a ‘disease’ of violence gets continuously ignored?

Violence is often ignored because it is often misread as a psychological aberration. Thus, one tends to view violence as something to do with an individual’s bad behaviour. But to understand violence in this manner is a grievous mistake. This, along with other mistakes about the nature of violence, allows the pandemic of violence to grow silently.

I will consider two such common mistakes regarding violence. One is the belief that the person who is violent has no control over his or her actions. In almost all cases, this belief is untrue. A man may be violent towards his wife but will be controlled in his reactions to his boss or in the office. Even in public riots, mob violence is very controlled, and what seems to be ‘spontaneous’ is often triggered in very specific ways.

In general, being violent is a volitional act. It is a deliberate decision and choice. The essential aspect of violence is its intentionality. One is violent in order to deliberately hurt—physically, mentally, sexually. Whatever the provocation and the underlying cause, the moment of violence is most often just an expression of deciding to lose control.

It is important to recognise that violence is not the default condition of being human. However, many cynics might want to claim otherwise. As social individuals, we are not given to violence as a rule. Animals are not violent in the way humans are. Animals attack each other and maybe even eat the other, but the act is not intentional, not in the hope of purposefully wanting to hurt another creature. There is more empathy than violence within each one of us. But then, how do we explain this excess of violence all around us?

The answer is that violence is always socially produced. Dominant social groups produce violence towards communities such as the Dalits, women and minorities historically. It is a dangerous mistake to reduce this socially produced violence to something that is psychological. Or reduce it to a cause which justifies the violence. This so-called cause often becomes the justification for violence.

There is a major implication of the claim that violence is socially produced. First and foremost, is that we are granted social permission to be violent towards certain people and things. We allow ourselves the liberty to be violent towards others. The social sanction allows us to be violent towards those who are lower in the social hierarchy. So we see people abusing and being violent toward domestic help and the poor on the streets without a second thought. Within homes and increasingly in the public space, violence towards women gets socially sanctioned.

Thus, the move to recognise violence as a public health problem was an important one and has to be re-strengthened now. As a public health problem, we can realise that violence towards others will affect all of us. After all, during Covid, most people were careful to protect themselves and others from being infected. How do we do this about the spreading virus of hate and violence?

Sundar Sarukkai
Bengaluru-based author of Philosophy for Children: Thinking, Reading, Writing


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