“It didn’t matter if it was coming from the left or the right, you should condemn violence 100 percent of the time.” I sat upright when former Deputy Press Secretary Sara Matthews said this during the July 21 January 6th Committee hearing investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the United States Capitol building.
This is an important statement in any society, but especially for our democracy.
Unfortunately, far too few of our leaders – or even our neighbors – are making statements like this. As a result, we’re normalizing the use of violence more and more.
We’ve all seen the videos of punches thrown on airplanes over masking and school board meetings requiring police presence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given what we’re going through, this increase in aggression is understandable. As humans, we’re hardwired to crave certainty, autonomy and validation. When we don’t get those things, we feel threatened – and we act out like we feel threatened.
That’s what a lot of the conditions today are doing. So much is uncertain about our world and seems to remove our ability to control our lives: fires and floods, rising prices and mass shootings in places we used to feel safe. Our toxic polarization means we are constantly putting down the “other side” in ways that activate the threat responses of those we demean. All of this triggers our threat responses and can lead to aggression and violence.
But allowing our threat responses to remain on high only makes things worse. We get into rages quickly, which adds to others’ uncertainty. We unfriend people, which limits our contact with other human beings, often including family. We immediately take umbrage at others’ remarks instead of probing – did this person truly mean to hurt me, or did I misread them?
In other words, we start to normalize aggressive, threatening behavior that once was definitely not normal. This creates a vicious cycle, increasing our fear and distrust of others, which limits our ability to work together as communities and as a democracy.
So what can we do? Yes, there are overarching policy changes we can be making. We can control the amount of violence in video games and on television. We can reorient our judicial system away from its current adversarial winner-and-loser approach to court cases, making more frequent use of mediation where parties honestly discuss the situation and arrive at mutually agreeable solutions.
We can also do things in our own daily lives. We can recreate “old” norms of democratic behavior. At a minimum, we can call out violence in our society and require our leaders to do the same. I took heart in March 2022, when a gate attendant at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport stood up on a bench between an aggressive passenger and a gate attendant, successfully ending a fight by yelling “No!” She called out the violence as unacceptable. She upheld normal, nonviolent behavior.
We don’t all have to put ourselves in between fighters like that gate attendant. But we all can condemn violence 100% of the time and, in doing so, build a healthier society and a stronger democracy.
Melinda Burrell, PhD, @MelindaCBurrell, syndicated by PeaceVoice, was a humanitarian aid worker and now trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources on cross-divide engagement.