Wellness Wednesday: Escalation, Not Violence, Is the Culprit

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When Will Smith strode with purpose and entitlement towards the stage at the Academy Awards and then hauled off and smacked Chris Rock, the shock wave traversed the world. The violent act was unexpected, unacceptable, and almost universally decried. Apologetically, even Smith took his actions to task, saying that “violence in all forms is poisonous and destructive”, and there was no place for it.

Apologies?

I respect Smith’s humble (and necessary) apology. I must push back because he isn’t quite correct.

While I acknowledge that violence tends towards destruction and should almost always be a last resort, the fact is that there are times when it is necessary. For example, if I am being set upon by a group of ne’er-do-wells, who are actively trying to deprive me of my life and worldly goods, I hope that when help arrives, it doesn’t come spouting poetry and dispensing daffodils. I would, at that moment, welcome some well-aimed violence on my behalf! Even God (if one reads the Bible seriously) reluctantly takes up violence as a tool of last resort, doing so to end further destruction and thereby allow for healing and recovery. (see Revelations 11:18)

The poetic words of Ecclesiastes ring true; “for everything, there is a season…” even a time for violence (3:8).

The real issue here is not simply the violence perpetrated; it is the matter of escalation. No one would have said a word if Will Smith had struck someone attacking his wife; it would have been appropriate for him to hit the person. The problem, in this case, was that his action seemed like an inappropriate escalation of the perceived offense! Chris Rock merely said something that might have been perceived as offensive; for Will Smith to throw hands due to that verbal slight comes across as an invalid escalation of the situation.

Let’s Be Fair

There is a human orientation towards fairness and equity; we are prone to accept fair and appropriate responses from people who have suffered an injury. We have laws that allow for people to hit back – or even shoot back – as an appropriate response to unwarranted actions directed towards them. But we are almost always disinclined to validate people who escalate conflict and violence.

Yet, we somehow seem to be given to unhealthy escalations of violence and conflict these days. It has almost become standard procedure – and not just on the part of the so-called uncultivated classes. It was a prime directive of our 45th President, who once told a crowd in 2011, “if they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.” (National Achievers Congress, Sydney, Australia). This mindset is counterintuitive to peace and sanity, leading to a ramping up of ever heightening retaliations that lead to endless conflict and perhaps mutually assured destruction. Yet this type of thinking and acting is woven through the policies of the fabric of our times.

Why?

Well, some mental health professionals say that it is centered on the basic human need for control and the fear of losing that control. When aggressions become a part of one’s living context, force is often exerted to regain the control threatened by those aggressions. But here’s the kicker; when aggression becomes currency in a relationship, “the feeling of being in control is never stable”, and this results in a need to assert greater force, over and over. Ergo, escalation. (see Michael Samsel, “Abuse and Relationships.org”)

Therefore, it might be better if we stopped focusing on the violent act and started spending more time teaching people how to de-escalate conflicts. This is tricky – because people who perceive themselves to be on the wrong end of losing control aren’t always of a mind to listen to reason. I sense that you have to catch people BEFORE the conflict begins, and the fear of losing control is triggered.

The ancients knew this and tried to institutionalize it into law – although we totally miss the point when looking at the lessons they left for us. For example, in the Bible, we find the directive “you shall give life for life, an eye for (an) eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:23,24); and this law may very well have been copied from the Code of Hammurabi – who lived some 300 years before Moses. Either way, we call this the Lex Talionis – the Law of Retribution. We’ve come to view it as an instruction for meting out justice and a directive for applying punishment: someone who does something bad ought to have the same thing done to them!

But the fact is that this law was given to circumscribe vengeance. It was an attempt to limit escalation! In the ancient world, many considered vengeance to be not only an entitlement but a duty! The Bible was trying to teach us that we should limit our retribution – that we should not do more to another than they had done to us!

If you lost an eye, you could only exact the loss of an eye in return—no burning down the homestead, no pillaging the village, just an eye. Later on, an even wiser teacher told us to forego vengeance altogether and try starting over by “turning the other cheek”.

De-escalation Principle

How much better would we be if we could take these lessons of de-escalation and apply them in our homes, with our partners and children? If, instead of allowing ourselves to escalate our conflicts because of a fear-based need for control, we looked for ways to de-escalate situations, or at the very least tried to measure our responses so as not to exceed the damages done to us?

Suppose Will Smith simply stood up and yelled, “Hey Chris, you’re stupid, and your mama dresses you funny!” We may have laughed or winced, but we sure wouldn’t be here talking about what one guy did to another on a stage in California.

We can learn to do this; we can learn NOT to escalate our conflicts. This is a skill that we can teach to our children. We can insert this into our curriculums, and de-escalation and peace-building can spread just as readily as violence already has.

Maybe then we will learn that even though there is “a time to kill…”, better still, there is “a time to heal”. (Ecclesiastes 3:3)

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