A violent society in conflict with the culture of Human Rights

By Professor John Spence

My article in the last issue concentrated on the death penalty and largely addressed conventional issues. However a major concern of mine is my conviction that the strident calls for the death penalty to be carried out are an expression of violence in our society which can do us no good.

I listened recently to a “TED” talk on the internet which put forward evidence to demonstrate that human beings have become less violent over many centuries, (with reference to individual, mass or state violence). The presenter gave evidence to show that the number of deaths by war had dramatically declined, even though our knowledge of the last hundred years would seem to suggest otherwise. The way we react to news of torture (by state or individual) would suggest an abhorrence of violence which was not present a hundred (or even fifty) years ago.

The penalties for many crimes which now in most countries are fines or short terms of imprisonment would at one time have been long terms of imprisonment or even the penalty of death. Corporal punishment of the kind which was common during slavery is banned in most civilised countries as a legal penalty although in some former colonies (such as Trinidad and Tobago) it is still present in our laws. Why then do I suggest that we are a violent society? The high murder rate, the violence of one individual to another as reported daily in the news media, the reaction of individuals to minor disagreements all suggest a level of violence not present in this country fifty or a hundred years ago.  Whereas hitherto accidentally stepping on someone’s toe might elicit a verbal reaction, now it is more “macho” to retaliate by doing physical harm to the offender. It might be argued that the dissemination of news is so much more rapid now that there is a perception of greater violence rather than an actual increase. But it may be this very perception that may cause an increase.

How much are television movies to be blamed for our present level of violence? It is now almost impossible to find a movie on our local television with no violence by way of doing physical harm or shooting to kill. How can children nurtured by this daily violence not unconsciously accept that this is normal behaviour? While it is the case that in the past “Western” movies involved much killing there were many other non-violent movies available (even after the advent of television). Also the portrayals of violence were much less graphic and this was not absorbed as real life. The availability of guns must be a significant factor in the increase of killings by shooting.

The calls for the return of corporal punishment in schools, justified on the basis of creating disciplined persons is, in my view, an expression of the violent nature of our society. When I was at secondary school the fact of getting one’s name in the “black book” was the real punishment and the “blows” were of little consequence. The idea of learning by punishment as was once practised in our primary schools (the hit on the knuckles with the ruler) has long been abandoned by educationalists.

While I postulate that we are becoming a violent society the general reaction of horror and condemnation of recent reports of discipline by violent methods in our schools is a hopeful sign. But we must be ever on our guard. In my last article I suggested that research in the social sciences was lacking. I may not be correct in this view for much University research results may be present in the libraries but not disseminated to the general public.

Our efforts to address the problem of violence in society have to be on at least three fronts. Firstly, there is the obvious need to reduce the level of violent crime. For our efforts in this direction to have a significant effect there must be a high level of apprehension of perpetrators and no undue delay in the judicial process. Both of these need great improvement but progress seems to elude us. Secondly, there must be significant social interventions. The present efforts are insignificant in relation to what is required. It is necessary to attract young people to other pursuits which provide self-esteem and give significance to their lives.

During a presentation to the Commission of Enquiry into the events which took place in Trinidad in 1990, it was suggested that the organisation which attempted to overthrow the Government was able to attract many young people to what they saw as an ideal which would give meaning to their lives. Why is it that other religious organisations, non-Governmental organisations and Government social programmes are less successful? It is for our sociologists to research this issue and guide efforts in the future.

The third effort must be to correct the deficiencies in our educational system. The teenagers who are today gunning down their fellow teenagers were in primary school in the year 2002 when I first started writing about the problems in the education system (as many others have done before and since that time). But we have to do more than just correct the deficiencies. We need to have an education system that does not only produce world class academics (as ours does now) but one which produces persons of whom we can be proud as good citizens and not only for what they produce academically. The corrupt practices which are reported daily by our news media are performed by persons who are products of our school system (with the exception of a few foreigners). Regrettably many are also graduates of our regional University.  Further the mismanagement, wastages and missteps are also perpetrated by products of this system.

To conclude, without significant intervention the violence in our society will get worse and our progress towards a democratic and well ordered state will be further impeded.

John Spence is Professor Emeritus, UWI, St. Augustine Campus. He also served as an independent senator.

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