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 Violence, Pornography & Childhood


Wounded Childhoods form Bullies with Bullets


Alastair McIntosh


Scotland on Sunday essay - first published Sunday 27-10-96, p. 20: If we are serious about rooting out violence in society we will have to delve deeper than gun culture - we will have to look at the way we bring up children and tackle our own “shadow” sides, says Alastair McIntosh. 


[This essay is reprinted in my book, Healing Nationhood.]



With or without electoral interests in his sights, Michael Forsyth’s call to address the underlying culture of violence has to be warmly welcomed. But is this simply a matter of censoring video nasties? Or has Dunblane [i.e. the massacre of Dunblane schoolchildren by Thomas Hamilton] opened the door for a much deeper re-appraisal of the roots of violence?


I would suggest this is so, and that the real issue underlying violence rests in the origins of appetite for pornography. I use the word “pornography” here in a wide sense as that which treats another as a mere object for exploitative gratification. This must be distinguished from the erotic.


Pornography is that which does violence to the truly erotic. The erotic is about extension of feeling from the heart into the world. As Audre Lorde writes in Sister Outsider, “When I speak of the erotic ... I speak of it as an assertion of the life-force ... of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives ... the personification of love in all its aspects.”


It is this understanding that Jesus honours in Luke 7. Here he defends his acceptance of the harlot’s sensual attentions because they were grounded in “her great love.” In contrast, the pornographic emphasises sensation without feeling. Having no heart it dishonours the heart. It reduces the “thou” of another to “it.”


This shows in video nasties. And abusive sex. It pervades our media in advertising where sexuality is displaced into such consumer objects as cars and where images of violation like knife slashes or mantraps hook into deep-seated morbidity to sell Britain’s most popular cigarettes. Indeed, the pornography of using others is intrinsic to advanced capitalist forms of production with its language of factory “operatives” and “human resource management.” It is at the heart of a culture were money rather than respect for soul mediates many social relationships.


If the Scottish Secretary is right and sincere in suggesting that Dunblane changes the way we think about things, we must tackle not just symptoms like gun culture, but also the unacceptable “shadow” side in each of us. That means addressing our implication in tolerating a Scotland where the greatest violence is a million people living in poverty. A Britain which commands 20% of the world arms trade. A country where the anatomy of violence includes not just psychopaths like Thomas Hamilton having a finger on the pistol trigger, but politicians dangling a finger for us all above the nuclear button.


A peaceful society cannot be based on the containment of violence or “short sharp shock” fighting of fire with hotter fire. It must address the deeper causes of  what cauterises the ability to feel, of what alienates erotic sensibility, and so makes a social norm of dehumanisation.


Social norms are important frameworks because psychological research suggests that our values are fickle and more susceptible to social conditioning than we like to think. Stanley Milgram’s work on this demonstrating that 65% of his American college subjects could be persuaded to administer potentially fatal electric shocks is well known. Less so is P. G. Zimbardo’s “Stanford prison experiment.”


Zimbardo simulated a “prison” and selected twenty-one psychologically stable subjects to occupy it. Nine were assigned to be “prisoners” and dressed in prison uniform. The remainder were “guards” dressed in khaki uniforms, with batons and mirror sun-glasses.


The researchers were shocked at how quickly things got out of hand. The prisoners rapidly became disturbed to the extent that five had to be “released” because of depression, crying and acute anxiety. The guards became increasingly aggressive and sadistic, enjoying the exercise of power by, for example, making going to the toilet a privilege rather than a right.


Zimbardo concluded: “In less than a week middle class, Caucasian, of above average intelligence and emotionally stable Americans became pathological and anti-social.”


But we need to go further than simply recognising that nice people can do terrible things when conformity with group behaviour so disposes. We need to understand why such capacity for darkness also lurks within. To psychologist Alice Miller, the main origin of violence lies in child-rearing practice.


Miller has analysed the childhoods of many of the world’s mass killers and political tyrants. In For Your Own Good: The Origins of Violence in Child Rearing, she maintains that every senior member of the Third Reich about whom detailed family history is known underwent childhood “soul murder.” This results when the basic need to be loved unconditionally for oneself is not met. Instead, authentic self-expression is crushed; the “primal integrity” of the child’s self is twisted. Love is made dependent on outward performance criteria, be they in potty training, education for regimentation or regimentation in war, the corporate battlefield, politics or perhaps clubs like Thomas Hamilton ran.


Getting on in the world to try and “be someone then substitutes for trusting to the natural process of becoming ripe in oneself. And the most blatant way of authenticating an inauthentic sense of self is to exercise power over others. The ability to abuse others, to bully with or without bullets, proves power and gives some transient necrophilic sense of being real.


At heart this is an erotic dysfunction. It is about inability to be true to one’s feelings; inability even to have feelings ... stiff upper lip and all that.  It is why power, death and pornographic sex are closely linked.


Robert Burns understood these processes not least when he wrote, “How cruel are the parents, who riches only prize.” And John Lennon popularised them in his song, Working Class Hero. 


Lennon understood the effect of love denied at a tender age: “As soon as you’re born they make you feel small; by giving you no time instead of it all; ‘till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all.”


The double-binds of “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” that destroy self-confidence: “They’ve hurt you at home and they hit you at school; they hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool; ‘till you’re so fuckin’ crazy you can’t follow their rules.”


The “bread and circus” social narcotics: “Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV; and you think you’re so clever and classless and free; but you’re still fuckin’ peasants as far as I can see.”


And the smugness of those whose violence is hidden into the structure of their privileged place in society: “There’s room at the top they are telling you still; but first you must learn how to smile as you kill; if you want to be like the folks on the hill; a working class hero is something to be.”


Lennon’s assassin, Mark Chapman, wrote of himself that, “It was a child that killed John Lennon. It wasn’t a man.... It was a child that had been so hurt and rejected into adulthood that he had to cover up all his feelings.... I was just a hulk of hurt and rejection, a confused, unfeeling defence mechanism.... My child was always conflicting with my fake adult.... All that rage came spilling out and I killed the hero of my childhood” (SoS Spectrum, 10-1-93).


The work of criminal psychologists like Bob Johnson or the Barlinnie Special Unit shows that healing is possible. Alice Miller believes we have a culture underpinned by violence because most of us suffered a “poisonous pedagogy” intrinsic particularly to many British and Germanic childcare norms. Recovery of right relationship with the wounded child within is not impossible. It requires therapeutic processes of love and trust to enable grieving for what can never be replaced, and the use of creativity to facilitate growth of a greater self that transcends previous limitations.


Such work is both psychological and spiritual. It calls for the creation of a society in which veils of shame and secrecy are removed so that proper care can be offered to troubled people. A society in which the imperative for each person to grow in presence of soul from childhood through to old age is recognised and resourced as the utmost priority. Could it be that a Conservative Secretary of State has opened this agenda to us? If so he deserves something that may be grudging, but would entail respect.




Alastair McIntosh is a Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology, an independent academic network that has developed out of Edinburgh University.





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