Though in many ways distinct from a disease like cholera or the flu or COVID-19, some researchers have speculated that treating violence like a disease might lead to better outcomes, and may help us better understand the mechanisms through which the seeds of violence are spread and perpetuated.
At its most fundamental, violence is the application of physical force to harm someone or something, sometimes with the intention to threaten or psychologically damage the victim, and sometimes with the intention to physically hurt or kill them.
Sometimes violence is applied with intent and forethought, sometimes it seems to bubble up out of nowhere; and these are generally considered to be different things in the eyes of the law, and in their neurological origins.
Because of an array of genetic and environmental predispositions, some people have more trouble reining in their violent impulses than others.
The theory that violence is like a contagion is predicated on years of research which suggests the inability to control one's violent impulses and the likelihood someone will consider violence to be an acceptable and useful means of achieving what they want to achieve can both be transmitted from person to person.
Some of the data supporting this assertion is derived from crime numbers collected in cities around the world, ranging from Chicago in the US to Kibuya in Rwanda.
Other data have been gathered from individuals and families and gangs.
In the former case, waves of violence can be sparked by just a few violent acts, and those waves can trigger more waves, rippling outward from a central source.
Sometimes these waves seem to be the consequence of tit-for-tat violent acts, sometimes they're explained as a general vibe in the air: if you're perhaps open to using violence, and there are a lot of muggings and robberies happening in your neck of the woods, maybe you start to think the same strategy of accumulating wealth and/or prestige could work for you.
People are starving, people are struggling, people are beginning to perceive cracks in social norms, and thus those norms (and the laws which enforce them) no longer hold back those who might take advantage of others.
On the individual and small group level, it's been shown that people who have been victims of violence are more likely, themselves, to victimize others in the future.
It's also been shown that when local (or familial, or relationship-centered) norms suggest that violence is normal and expected, those operating within such contexts may begin to perceive violence in this way, too, even if they didn't before being exposed to those norms.
Someone who finds themselves in an abusive relationship, then, or someone whose parent is in an abusive relationship, or themselves being abused by their parents, may be more likely to perceive violent acts as normal and even desirable, and may themselves be more likely to commit violent acts in the future.
Similarly, someone who joins a gang or who's part of a social group where violence is applied for gain or celebrated as something to which everyone should aspire (as is the case in organized crime, but also within some facets of security and military forces, and even certain sports or other interest groups) may also begin to perceive violence as normal, correct, and as just one more tool in their belt to be leveraged when they want something, or to be acted upon when they feel compelled by their emotions to do so.
Within these contexts, a person’s peers reinforce the goodness and desirability of violence with social or economic rewards, which in turn can adjust a community member’s behaviors toward achieving more such accolades and/or wealth.
The spread of violence, then, isn't at all similar to diseases in terms of the actual mechanism of spread. But the data does look similar to data collected during pandemics, and during the spread of endemic diseases like the common cold, through communities.
Which means in addition to potentially pointing at how we might alleviate or limit violence-related social and interpersonal issues, we may also be able to glean insights from this parallel to help us either deal with our own existing issues with violence, or avoid being nudged toward normalizing violence in our lives or communities in the first place.
Brain Lenses is an Understandary project.
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