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Emotions and Violence


The school shooting in Michigan on February 9 continues an epidemic of killing. One cause of this kind of violence is not widely known, though many, many studies indicate that a killer felt rejected. During his long experience as a prison psychiatrist, James Gilligan interviewed prisoners who had killed. He asked them why they did it, and their answers were often very similar: “He dissed (disrespected) me. What did you expect me to do?” On the basis of these responses, Gilligan proposed that not only murder but all violence was caused by feelings of rejection or disrespect, which hid what he called “secret shame.”

Theories of the causes of violence have proposed that in modern societies, shame is not dealt with directly because it is felt to be shameful. The ideas of respect, honor, and revenge, if repeated thoughtlessly and endlessly, seems to be one of many ways of hiding shame behind anger and violence rather than dealing with it directly.

What would be a good response to disrespect and other forms of shaming? Talking first, rather than violence first, would be good to try. An answer like this might work: “Before we get real mad, let’s try talking about it.” Talk might be the road to getting an apology for an insult, which could be the road for reducing shame, or at least ceasing to hide it completely.

It is clear that before most wars, even vast ones, there was little or no negotiation. How much was there with Iraq before the U. S. invaded it? It seems that if we are going to reduce the amount of violence and war, we will have to teach ourselves, our children, and our governments to talk first, fight last, and, even more difficult, deal with shame rather than hide it.



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