A passionate look at low self-esteem

Preventing Violence
October 5, 2001

Is violence the result of being stripped of pride? asks Stephen Tumim

Dr Johnson wrote in his dictionary that "shame" is the passion felt when reputation is supposed to be lost, the passion expressed sometimes by blushes, the cause or reason being disgrace.

James Gilligan in Preventing Violence does not essentially disagree but opines that shame is the prime cause of violent behaviour. After the recent Bradford riots, a leader article in The Times suggested that the unrest might have stemmed from a collective lack of civic pride. If this is the case, it is perhaps surprising that rioting does not occur more often as Bradford cannot be the only city with these problems. If violence is to be effectively discouraged, the violent must be freed from shame. The proper approach is not through punishment, through the courts and the prisons, but through principles more often applied through public health. Gilligan distinguishes between three levels of prevention: that applying to the population as a whole, to sub-groups in the population and to individuals who are already violent.

Gilligan is an American psychiatrist of extreme distinction. He has been engaged in the faculty of Harvard Medical School since 1965, and for years he directed psychiatric services at the Massachusetts prisons and prison mental hospital. He seems to have offered advice to most of the political leaders in America and England, although in prison matters, in America as in England, no one seems to have done enough about it. Like Dr Johnson, Gilligan writes simply and with learning, inspiring the general reader.

When he asked a prisoner why he was violent and had killed, the prisoner replied: "He disrespected me... if you ain't got pride you got nothing." Obviously, there are cases of violence that are not accounted for by the Gilligan hypothesis. An argument that has attracted attention and gained credibility is that there may be a biological basis for this behaviour. A study in a Finnish prison in 1989 concentrated on 36 inmates convicted of murder or attempted murder. All 36 men had lower than normal levels of serotonin and higher than normal levels of testosterone. A violent act may result from a simple loss of temper in the hot sun or from an inherited mood. Gilligan argues most forcibly that the United States, with the most stark contrasts in wealth, has the highest homicide rate. Unemployment in such a society creates shame. "It is difficult," Gilligan says, "not to feel inferior if one is poor and others are rich."

As well as comparing shame and violence between various societies, Gilligan is very firm on the distinctions between men and women. "Women," he says, "are shamed not for being too submissive, dependent, unaggressive and sexually inactive and impotent as men are, but rather for exactly the opposite traits: being too rebellious, independent, aggressive and sexually active." On male violence, Gilligan could be criticised for going a little too far: "George Bernard Shaw said that if a man steals £100 he is sent to jail, but if he steals a million pounds he is sent to parliament. I believe," he says, "the same principle applies to male violence. If a man kills one person he is sent to prison, if he kills ten, to a prison mental hospital; but if he is responsible for the death of thousands he is crowned emperor, made the Duke of Marlborough, or elected President of the United States."

Men commit 90 per cent of violent acts in our society. They are also three times more likely than women to turn that violence against themselves in the form of suicide.

Perhaps we need not be surprised that Gilligan's advice appears not always to have been a success with politicians. It is worth looking carefully at his approach to prisons. "Education," he argues, "is one of the most powerful tools for acquiring self-esteem, and since self-esteem is the most powerful psychological force that prevents violence, it is not surprising that the level of education is one of the strongest predictions as to whether or not a person will be violent." He gives examples including a programme of free higher education for the violent in prison. Not one prisoner who completed the course had been returned for a new crime.

He believes that prisons could start preventing, rather than stimulating violence, "if we took everyone out of them, demolishing the buildings and replaced them with a new and different kind of institution - namely a locked, secure, residential college, whose purpose and functions would be educational and therapeutic". This view is by no means a new one and has been put forward by various eminent people over the past 15 years or so. Politicians have failed to take up the challenge of making prisons a more constructive environment and this may be because the ideas would not find favour with the voting population.

In a country such as ours, where we have the means to establish a proper educational system in prison, Gilligan's view should be taken most seriously. A clear majority of prisoners cannot, when they arrive or when they leave, read and write and count adequately, thus debarring them from holding some 95 per cent of jobs in the community. A more progressive approach is urgently needed in our treatment of criminals. Reduction of violence by way of creating self-esteem, and lowering the level of shame, needs to be examined and instigated very widely in our education system. This wise essay should be read and discussed in the sixth forms of schools, at university, and among those with the political power to put his ideas into effect.

Sir Stephen Tumim was formerly chief inspector of prisons.

Preventing Violence

Author - James Gilligan
ISBN - 0500 288 1
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £6.95
Pages - 144

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