Traveling to Nairobi recently, a fellow passenger challenged my colleagues and I to explain to Kenyans why they are so violent, and to suggest ways of reducing this violence. The ongoing political violence provide a sufficient backrop for this.
A lot of research has been conducted on individual and societal violence. We know, for instance, that men are more likely to be physically violent than women under similar circumstances. Many explanations have been given for this, including the hormonal environment and society’s conception of gender roles. We also know that the propensity for violence reduces with age, while poor social support significantly increases the risk of violence.
Finally, we have found a clear link between poverty and violence. People who feel little or no connection to the social and economic fabric of the nation would have no problem engaging in violence that puts lives and property at risk. In short, the violent Kenyan will most likely be young, male, poor and living away from his primary social supports.
While these factors are important, in Kenya, as in most of Africa, we must focus on a more insidious long-term problem. We are simply a violent society, and this disposition is transmitted, perhaps in a vertical manner genetically, but definitely horizontally through socialisation. Our language is violent, our problem-solving methods invariably involve violence, and our heroes are violent people.
Before attempting to deal with the problem of violence in our society, it is therefore important to get this bogeyman out of the way — do we really want to eliminate the scourge of violence from our society?
Whenever I consider this question I come away with mixed results. The conclusion I get is that we all want to eliminate violence perpetrated by others against our relatives or us. Unfortunately, when it comes to the violence we perpetrate against these others, we are more likely to equivocate and even justify it.
METHODS OF CORRECTION
My key contention is that unless we disavow the use of violence as our main method of solving disputes, we cannot eliminate it from our public spheres.
I will therefore answer my fellow traveller with my own question. How do we discipline our children when they do something we think is wrong? No matter what anyone says, our main method of disciplining our children is spanking.
Some parents have argued that spanking is different from physical abuse, but recent research has clearly shown that even ‘symbolic’ spanking increases the risk of negative social outcomes just like the presumably ‘more violent’ beatings and physical abuse.
Beating up a child as a form of correction communicates the message that whoever is stronger is right, and the child carries this message into their adult life. In fact, I would venture that the person who transcends this conditioning and uses alternative methods of correction despite having been spanked as a child is a rarity and should be the real subject of research.
If we agree that we want to end violence in this country, we must find a way of doing two important things.
Firstly, we need to outlaw all forms of public violence. We need to punish those that resort to violence and make it taboo to use violent means to achieve our goals. Secondly, we must change how we discipline our children. We must use alternative methods of teaching our children to do what we consider to be right without resorting to violence.
These steps will lead to a drastic reduction in violence in this country, and perhaps eliminate it completely in a couple of generations. However, they will only work if we are collectively committed to a non-violent life.
Atwoli is associate professor of psychiatry and dean, School of Medicine, Moi University; [email protected]