The Disease of Violence

Violence is everywhere – from isolated events to organized terrorism. The recent US presidential election is witness to how scared everyone is about violence. Violence makes people feel powerless and they respond with more violence, expounding the problem. I was part of a recent discussion about how to fight violence where the general consensus was punishment is the answer to violence. I refused. I am a (somewhat) trained psychologist; I have read hundreds of articles that show punishment does not solve anything. If punishment was the answer, why have prisons not stopped violence? But when you bring up scientific literature to an informal discussion, you are usually accused of being biased and the scientific article not representing the real world scenario. Also, I didn’t have an alternative solution other than the idealistic belief that we can fight violence peacefully.

As I started reading about violence, the memetic theory of social contagion caught my attention. Simply put, this theory views violence as a disease. Just like an cholera epidemic spreads from people to people by physical contact, the epidemic of violence spreads through psychological contact. So it was no surprise that Dr. Gary Slutkin, physician, epidemiologist and infectious disease control specialist has come up with a solution to violence. He is the founder of Cure Violence, an organization that treats the epidemic of violence. His solution is simple: Train violence interrupters who will go into the violent neighborhoods and talk to the people. Yes TALK. Just as washing hands gives protection against deadly health issues, so do sincere talks prevent violence. These interrupters are the social physicians who detect, interrupt and change the society. Before critiques dismiss this model as idealistic nonsense, I would urge them to take a look at the results. Just as a little snippet: In Baltimore, a region notorious for gang violence, Cure Violence has reduced killings by 56%. This is a brilliant example of science in real world. Not all of us can do it, but the least we can do is give peace a chance.

So why doesn’t punishment work? It is based on a sound logic. Crush the violent perpetrators so that they are afraid to do it again and it’s cheap to implement. The problem, however, is human nature. We get angry, we want to take revenge, we don’t want to be victimized and we just revel in others misfortune. So after a heavy fine or a night in prison, the perpetrator comes back less scared of the punishment and ready to take revenge on society. Ironically, diseases (especially psychological ones) were once upon a time tried to be treated with punishment. People with leprosy were abandoned (remember the unforgettable scene in the movie Ben Hur) and witches were burned. Now we know better.

It is my belief that sometime in the near future peace, not punishment, will be part of the solution. People like Gary Slutkin will lead that change and I will remain idealistically biased towards these people.

Watch Gary’s full TedTalk here.



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