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Societal attitudes and personal beliefs support violence, says psychologist

With the bullying and subsequent fatal stabbing of a T.A. Thompson ninth-grader, Perry Rolle Jr., continuing to shape the national conversation about violence, Dr. Valerie Knowles, a 20-year practitioner of child and adolescent psychology, said one must first understand anger in order to identify solutions.

“Anger behaves like a virus. It is contagious. If left untreated it erupts into rage, contaminating all exposed persons,” she said.

This ripple effect, similar to an accelerant – like oil on fire – means one act of anger could give birth to 20 more angry people.

“Throw anger on culturally dysfunctional definitions of masculinity, male feelings of alienation, inadequacy, worthlessness, and disrespect and somebody gets hurt,” said Dr. Knowles, who is licensed with the Health Professions Council of The Bahamas.

Given that anger behaves like a disease, social immunization is crucial.

In divided communities where the smallest slights could generate violent eruptions, some youths are being raised to be violent, whether intentional or not.

“The reality today is many families need help with socially immunizing against violence. They need help with their anti-violence messaging and teaching because few in the family really believe in positive conflict resolution, especially for males,” said Dr. Knowles, the 2018 recipient of the Tim McCartney Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to psychology in The Bahamas.

Heartless teenagers do not evolve overnight, noted the former section head of a Psychological Services Unit of the Ministry of Education.

“Negligent and emotionally abusive adults contribute to the heartlessness that we see in some youths today. When under pressure and you squeeze me, pain will come out if enough pain has gone in. These seemingly heartless teenagers were probably infected by anger from a very early age. What they have experienced and the normal thought patterns they have affirmed for themselves have weakened their anger-immune system making them rage and violence prone,” she noted.

Having counselled juveniles in conflict with the law and worked with troubled adults, the psychologist knows all too well that only a strong anger-immune system can shut down interpersonal violence and halt the spread of further virulent attacks.

Anger immunity is the individual’s protective network. Critical thinking skills strengthen the anger-immune system muzzling the inclination to respond with anger when verbally provoked.

For today’s young men, bolstering anger immunity means drumming home as a society, the idea that real men can talk it out.

“He must be taught how to use non-violent responses and still feel and be viewed as a ‘real’ man. His impulse control skills must work together with his belief system to prevent him melting down into fits of uncontrollable violence when he feels his manhood is being threatened or disrespected,” the psychologist explained.

Still, that’s not the only factor at play which can cause a simple spat to escalate. Anger never acts alone. Ignorance is its constant companion.

“The angrier he becomes, the lower his intelligence quotient. So, if his common-sense reasoning factor is below average before he becomes infected with anger, upon infection with anger, he slips automatically into the danger zone. Functioning in the intellectually challenged range, he is guaranteed to make bad decisions and stupid mistakes,” Dr. Knowles theorized.

Just as a person with a weak immune system picks up germs easily, a man with a weak anger-immune system will respond with rage at the smallest provocation. Personal and societal attitudes and beliefs that support violence have played a hand in weakening his anger-immune system.

“There are certain elements within our society that expect and reward violent, dysfunctional problem-solving behavior as healthy male behaviors for real men, this weakens the anger immune system” said Dr. Knowles. “To them murder is just collateral damage to being a real man.”

She added: “Women are perceived as the talkers. So, if a male becomes offended, or victimized and he chooses to talk things out, to avoid being seen as behaving like a woman, he’d better use violence-soaked vocabulary, with some creative obscenities to toughen up the dialogue and disguise the ‘femininity’ of the problem-solving tactic.”

There are some persons who will insult a young man who chooses not to respond to insults or perceived wrongs, social weakening of the immune system.

Dr. Knowles believes professional and concerted community help is vital to teach persons how to educate themselves and their children about alternatives to violence. Young men must be taught why and how violence simultaneously destroys the victim and the perpetrator.

“We have to shout louder than the violent movies, games and lyrics of songs that glorify violence. We have to be more consistent in our fight than those who promote violence among men as a cultural sign of manhood. All hands need to be on deck in this relentless war. We must find ways to meet challenged youth where they are at and engage them. There are no shortcuts,” she said.

Young people, particularly men, must be repeatedly shown the power they possess to change the world around them.

“Explain to them often, that despite what persons say, violence is what weak people do. The person who can push you to react with violence has control over you whether you can beat them or not. Even if you beat them you have lost. Many young men fight when they believe they have been disrespected. Show and tell that no one can disrespect them without their permission. Your self-respect is locked away inside of you. It is not out there for others to touch, unless you put it out there,” said Dr Knowles, the coordinator of Offender Rehabilitation and Reintegration of the Citizen Security and Justice Program which functions under the auspices of the Ministry of National Security.

“The new realization must be that no one makes you do anything. You ultimately choose your responses. Persons can only manipulate your thinking and feelings – if you allow them.”

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