Violence As Communication

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 27th Mar)

To deal with violence effectively, we must understand the message that it’s communicating to us, because violence is a form of communication. This may at first seem impractical e.g. when somebody is throwing punches, does it really matter what the “message” is? It is worth noting however, that most physical assaults are preceded by some form of verbal exchange, and it is here, in this phase of the attack (the pre-conflict stage), that we can gain an understanding of what is actually being communicated to us; and when we understand this we can formulate an effective response and strategy for dealing with it.

When we spill a drink over somebody, cut somebody off in a line, etc., and as a consequence, they become aggressive towards us, what they are communicating to us, is something very different to the predatory individual who wants to sexually assault us – the initial physical attack may be the same in both instances, e.g. they go to grab us, push us, etc. but what they are “communicating” to us is very different. This is something that often gets lost in self-defense training i.e. we focus on training to deal with the grab or push, without defining the context of the situation, and teaching what the attacker is trying to communicate to us. The sexual assailant is attempting to express power and control, whilst the person who has had the drink spilt over them, is demonstrating frustration, social humiliation, and the need to right a wrong, etc. When we understand what aggression and violence is attempting to communicate to us, we have an opportunity to respond more effectively – whether that is with physical or non-physical solution.

It is easy to get caught up in the moment, and not question what is actually being communicated to you. If you are in the midst of a stalking campaign, that sees you constantly receiving text messages, phone calls, and emails from an ex-partner, you will a) be exhausted and overwhelmed, and b) have your focus directed towards the latest message or attempt at contact. You probably will not be questioning what the stalker and their campaign is trying to communicate to you. However, understanding this is key to effectively dealing with it. An ex-partner who continues to contact you, is telling you that you don’t have the power to end the relationship with them; that they can continue to have a relationship with you, whether you want that or not. This is what their campaign is trying to communicate to you. The campaign also has a secondary message, which is that you should be thinking about them all the time; by making sure that 80-90% of all of your electronic communication is from them, you come to believe that every time your phone rings, or you receive a text, etc., it is your stalker i.e. you are continually thinking about them. If we understand what a stalker is communicating to us, we can start to effectively deal with them. If they want to demonstrate that they can keep having a relationship with us(regardless of our choice in the matter), we need to make sure that we don’t respond to the things that they do – if we do communicate back, we are engaged in a relationship with them, and proving their point.

Aggression using social media needs to be looked at in the same way. What is it that the troll or bully, posting aggressive comments on a post, or making a post, is trying to communicate? Again, it’s easy to respond emotionally, and become angry, etc. if the comments/post get directed at us, but it’s worth taking that moment to look at what the individual is communicating by making their post. We tend to look at these actions and behaviors being the mark of somebody suffering from low self-esteem i.e. they are knocking somebody down to feel good about themselves, etc. However, a person who suffers from low self-esteem, would not want to have the spotlight turned on them, and yet a large part of the post is about saying, “look at me”. This is the behavior of someone who has a high level of self-esteem, not a low-level. However, posting and commenting in such an aggressive/negative way, is not the mark of a confident or secure person; such people are self-contained and don’t need to gather attention in this way. Once we understand that we are dealing with an insecure person with high self-esteem i.e. they question why others don’t recognize them in the same way that they view themselves, a lot of the initial power that such a post/comment may seem to have, is greatly diminished, and we can choose how best to deal with it.

When we understand that a sexual assailant is motivated by the need for power and control, and this is what their violence is trying to communicate, we need to demonstrate immediately that we are those individuals who possess our own power and control, and cannot be dominated in this fashion. Our own violent response needs to communicate back this message. In fact, much of what we do in a violent confrontation is communicating with our attacker – most fights end not because one party is physically incapacitated and unable to continue, but because they no longer have the desire to continue fighting. Part of our extreme aggression in the face of violence, is to communicate that this confrontation will not, and is not going to go favorably for them; when you throw multiple strikes, one after another at your attacker, you are not only delivering pain, you are also communicating to them, that you can overwhelm them, that you are not a victim, and whatever end goal they might have envisioned when they started/initiated their assault isn’t going to happen. A lot can be communicated in a punch.  

Understanding that violence is ultimately a form of communication, may at first seem philosophical, or merely a theoretical notion, however when we can understand the messages that different aggressors are trying to send us, we can formulate better and more effective solutions for dealing with them.

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Sadists And Psychopaths

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 20th Mar)

Whilst I was doing my Master’s degree in psychology, I was given the opportunity to interview/talk to several convicted sex-offenders, as part of a research project that one of my lecturers was engaged in. Most of them were serving long sentences, with little chance of parole, and I wasn’t privy to any rewards/benefits that they might have received for taking part in the interviews, so I was surprised that any wanted to take part, but a good number did. At the time, the prison was a “Category A” Prison – meaning that it held convicts whose escape would be highly dangerous to the public. Further, within the UK prison system, those offenders in “Category A” Prisons, are divided into three groups: Standard, High, and Exceptional Risk, based on their likelihood of escaping. Most of the interviewees, were classed as High and Exceptional Risk. This was the first time – and one of the few – where I was to meet such individuals face-to-face. At the time, I seriously wondered whether I’d have been better off pursuing a different academic route, rather than trying to understand the causes and motivations of violence, amongst a population where treatment programs at the time were close to non-existent, and had yielded little quantifiable proof of being successful in preventing the risk of recidivism.

The fear of fear is always worse than fear itself, and although none of these offenders posed a direct risk/threat to me, when you think about talking to people who have committed the unspeakable, such as sexual violence against a two-year old, the unpredictability of such an individual’s ability for violence starts to get questioned e.g. if they are able to, and prepared to commit such violent acts against a child, what other violent acts are they capable of?

Any research involving sex-offenders is beset by issues, especially when their victims and those they target are children – these people know how the public perceives them, and how society judges them, so to get them to speak openly about their crimes is difficult. Most that I interviewed downplayed their role, blaming stress and alcohol, for causing them to make poor decisions; that it was a “dark time” in their life, etc. They would claim to now realize/understand their wrongdoings. Despite these general tendencies, I spoke to one man who was very open about his crimes, and even went into great detail about them. After the interviews, I asked my lecturer about this, and was told by him, without any irony or humor, that I’d just been that predator’s latest victim.

There are moments in life when you realize that you’ve been played, that you’ve been shown to be naïve, foolish, etc. The person I’d interviewed was a sadist, somebody whose pleasure and sexual gratification is based on the pain and suffering they cause to others; in a prison setting, with the opportunities to cause physical pain restricted, a sadistic offender will settle for emotional pain and distress, instead. It is not uncommon – so I was told – for sadists to agree to be interviewed about their crimes so as to feed off the discomfort of the interviewer, as they describe in great detail, and with specifics, the things they made their victims endure.

Sadists will often try to make out that they are unable to read human emotions and responses, that they are oblivious to their victim’s pain and suffering, etc. The truth is that they are acutely aware of the things that their victims fear the most, probing and testing them, to find out exactly what it is that they fear the most, and which causes them the greatest pain. These are individuals who understand psychological and emotional responses to their actions and behaviors all too well – enough that they can feed off a 22-year old graduate in an interview room. I like to think I gave them nothing, but I know that this wasn’t the case; somebody who has lived their life 24x7 feeding off the discomfort of others will recognize a pause, a hesitation, or a look - however brief - for what it is. Fortunately, sadists are a rare form of predator, however they tend to be those that commit the most heinous and horrific crimes, extending the agony of their victims for the longest times, before growing bored of their suffering or deciding to end it; not because of any merciful considerations, but to experience death as the greatest form of pain – few are satisfied with this ultimate high, and go on to commit other killings in order to experience the emotions they fantasize about.

Psychopaths are different to Sadists, in that they don’t experience empathy for their victims; they are unable to “feel” or “associate” with what their victims went through. This was something that many of the rapists, who sexually assaulted adult victims, exhibited. A good percentage of those interviewed in the study I was involved with didn’t see that what they’d done as wrong, or if they did agree that it was “wrong”, they’d judge that the punishment that they’d received was unfair and disproportionate to the crime they’d committed. Many believed that their victims were simply over-reacting to what had happened to them. Psychopaths do, and can, experience excitement, but it is the excitement of engaging in something that is antisocial, rather than something that is drawn from the victim i.e. the individuals they target are merely pawns in a larger game, and have no significance as individuals. Unlike the sadist, the psychopath isn’t attuned to the suffering of their victims – they simply don’t care, and/or pick up on it. The driving force of psychopathy is entitlement; they can act how they want, without consideration for the effects their actions and behaviors have on others.

Not all psychopaths engage in criminal activities – you may in fact work for/with one. If they genuinely don’t care about anyone’s feelings, take big risks, and don’t care for the status quo, etc., they may pass the Psychopathy Test with flying colors (Yes there is a test, a simple google search will bring you to it). I have found there is a lot of confusion between Psychopaths and Sadists (this article is in response to a conversation I overheard yesterday), and I hope after reading, people understand the distinction between these two personality disorders.

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Timeline of Violence

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 13th Mar)

Time exists to stop everything from happening at once – if it didn’t exist, it would all be over in a single moment. The first time I experienced violence, at the hands of a non-family member, was when I was 6 years old; a gang of much older kids whipped the back of my legs with electrical cords and ropes, as myself and a friend walked (and then ran) back home from soccer practice; it sucks growing up Jewish in a city divided on sectarian lines (Glasgow) – you end up getting assaulted by both the Catholic and Protestant populations. When it first happened to me, everything was a complete shock; the assailants seemed to come from nowhere - I was completely surprised and had no idea how to respond: everything seemed to just happen at once. As I grew older, and witnessed, as well as experienced, more violence I began to realize that violent acts don’t just happen, they play out along a timeline. I’m by no means the first person to recognize and understand this, or come up with the idea that there are distinct stages to violent assaults, however in this article I want to share, my understanding (based on my experiences, as well as informal and formal research into violence) of the Timeline of Violence, and how this can help us effectively respond to violence, when we are targeted.     

As most people read this they should be in a Non-Conflict phase/stage – if you’re not, you should put down the phone or device that you are reading this on, and start to make a dynamic risk assessment of your situation. Unfortunately, this non-conflict phase is one that many people want to quickly return to, even when a threat/danger is present that stimulates an adrenal response e.g. I have heard many people say, that when they are out and they feel scared, they use their mobile phone to call a friend and as soon as they hear the calm voice at the end of the line, they feel much safer. The problem is, they’re no longer in a Non-Conflict stage, they have just entered the Conflict-Aware phase of the Timeline, however they don’t want to admit or recognize this (this is a normal human response to danger: denial). As soon as you become adrenalized, you move along the Timeline, from being in the Non-Conflict phase, to the Conflict-Aware phase. Rather than denying that you are in a potentially dangerous situation, you need to determine whether the danger/threat in the environment is real, and whether it is targeting you.

After I was assaulted by the group of teenagers, I never viewed the presence of groups of teenage boys the same; these were people who were capable of causing harm and serious injury to me, and had no qualms about doing so. Initially, I became hyper-vigilant. Any time individuals in this particular age-group were present, my over-focus on such assailants left me blind to others, who were my same age (and equally merciless). This is something that we need to understand about the way our fear system works; it can become hyper-sensitive to certain threats and dangers that really don’t contain harmful intent towards us – the teenagers eating fish and chips together and talking amongst themselves weren’t a danger to me, it was the ones who were kicking an old can around and looking for something to do, etc. There is a danger in not recognizing the differences between the two groups, and moving into the Pre-Conflict phase of violence, unnecessarily. It is not good for our bodies to become adrenalized when it is not necessary; the cocktail of hormones, which make up adrenaline, take a heavy toll on the body. If it isn’t necessary to enter the Conflict-Aware phase/stage of violence, we should avoid doing so.

When we become adrenalized and move from the Non-Conflict phase/state to the Conflict-Aware one, our primary task should be to ascertain whether the danger we have perceived is real. If you are walking home late at night, and your fear system alerts you to the fact that there is somebody walking behind you, possibly in step with, or gaining on you, you need to determine if the person’s movement is attached to yours, or if it is independent. In this moment, you are making a Dynamic Risk Assessment to determine whether you may remain in the Conflict-Aware phase, or have in fact moved into the Pre-Conflict phase. When you make such an assessment, there can be two possible outcomes: your situation either is a high-risk one, or one that contains unknown risks. The fact that you entered the Conflict-Aware state/phase means that there is the possibility of danger, so you are unable to determine that your situation is a low-risk one; it is one that contains unknown risks that you need to investigate.

Once you determine that the threat is real and directed towards you (for example, you believed you were being followed and when you crossed the road the person followed), you have entered the Pre-Conflict Phase of Violence. There are certain tactics you could employ here: you could attempt to disengage, you could try to de-escalate, and/or you could try and verbally or physically confront them, etc. When aggression and violence is directed at you, you need to respond, rather than continuing to deny and ignore it. When I saw the group of teenagers take an interest in me and I felt uneasy, I should have recognized that I’d effectively moved into the Conflict-Aware stage, and when I saw them move towards me (Synchronizing their movement with mine) I should have picked up that I was now in the Pre-Conflict phase. This is where you need to make an effective decision, to try an avert moving into the Conflict Phase. I should have recognized – at the time I fatalistically knew, but did so anyway – that running wasn’t an option; they were bigger, faster and looking for sport. This is why understanding the motivations behind violence is so important. There are some situations you can de-escalate, some that you can disengage from, and some that require a physical response. This is something that you need to determine in the Pre-Conflict phase.

Sometimes an assault can’t be deflected, disengaged, or de-escalated and you enter the Conflict Phase; the fight itself – as an adult it is often easier to avoid this than when you are a child or teen. However, there will be those who won’t want to be diverted from violence and/or find a non-physical solution to a disagreement or a situation. In such situations, you should be fighting for survival rather than ego. If you’ve been able to recognize the movement along the Timeline, you should also be better prepared to deal with this, and in most instances be able to attack pre-emptively, etc. After the Conflict Phase, you move into the Post-Conflict phase. In some instances, you may escape with little consequence e.g. it took 7-10 days for the cuts on my legs to heal, and my life was never at risk, etc. However, in others, you may exit an incident requiring both medical and legal assistance – do you have an attorney you can call, or know where the nearest hospital in the environment is, etc? Planning can go a long way in helping you determine how to act and behave in this phase of the Timeline.

Most violence against an individual doesn’t just happen, and when we look back on an assault that we may have experienced, we can often look back and understand the different phases that we went through. If we can understand these as we experience them – rather than afterwards – we can determine courses of action that will allow us to either avoid them, or better prepare ourselves for the fight itself.

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Existential Honor

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 6th Mar)

Many moons ago, I took part in a city council’s initiative to educate teenagers about the dangers of the “Knife Culture” that is so prevalent in the UK. Part of it involved teaching self-defense, and talking about the dangers of knives and weapons to kids at various youth centers around the city, with the hope that they’d start to realize how deadly and dangerous such weapons are – the program wasn’t perfect by any means and had the obvious danger of further glamorizing knives, and reinforcing the idea that these were weapons had the potential to kill, etc., however it was hoped/believed that when the true horrors and consequences of knife attacks were explained, that the majority of youths who carried, might consider not doing so. When I would talk to a group, I’d normally start by asking how many of them carried a weapon. There are a number of issues with self-reported surveys, as some people will want to give of a certain impression of themselves that isn’t true, whilst others will not want to draw attention to themselves, etc., however all other things being equal (ceteris-paribus), the average was about 7 to 8 out of 10 teenagers admitting that they carried a knife. The number one reason, when asked, was that they did so for self-defense; almost everybody I talked to argued that they wouldn’t use their knife offensively, only defensively i.e. they wouldn’t pull their knife unless they were threatened. What seemed to be happening was that there was a localized “arms race” i.e. you only carried a knife, because everyone else in your neighborhood did, also.

If this was truly the case, nobody would ever pull a knife, because there was a risk that the other person would too. The problem was that knife attacks were extremely prevalent, and usually involved an armed assailant against an unarmed one – or somebody who didn’t pull their knife, either because they hadn’t the time, or weren’t motivated to do so, etc. When I would start to talk to these kids about “when” they would pull their weapon, and discuss scenarios and situations with them, they would become less definite and oftentimes frustrated – they had difficulty verbalizing what would cause them to draw their weapon. This is true of many adults who carry – if you talk to many individuals who carry a firearm for self-defense, they can quote you the laws surrounding when they are justified to pull and use their weapon, but often have difficulty applying these laws to actual scenarios i.e. you present them with a situation which isn’t cut and dry and they become less certain about their rights – this is one reason I’m such an advocate of scenario-based training, as this gives people the opportunity to understand and work through their decision-making process. When I would push these teenagers to explain what would cause them to pull their knife, I would commonly be told that it was due to an issue of respect e.g. somebody looked at them in a funny/disrespectful way, and if they didn’t stick up for themselves then they’d be marked as a coward/target and would be abused in some way in the future. Hence, they’d pull their knife and attack the individual(s) who disrespected them.

When asked as to what constituted “disrespect”, the list was random, and truly at the discretion of the individual – one teenager told me how he’d stabbed a middle-aged man who’d held a door open for him, whilst giving him a “funny” look. I asked him what he meant by “funny”, and he responded by telling me that it was “just funny” – just about everybody in the group nodded, knowing exactly what he meant, without being told anything that was exact. This particular individual wasn’t excusing what he had done, he was genuinely justifying it; in his eyes, he’d been disrespected. This wasn’t a rational response, it was an emotional one. If you are angry, you will interpret everybody else’s behaviors and actions, as being angry also – we see the world as we are experiencing it, not as it is. If you show a photograph of a smiling face to an angry person, they will tell you that the person is smirking, and laughing at them – those around them are there to justify and reinforce their anger – or is in fact angry themselves, with the smile being seen as a grimace. Mix this inability to interpret looks and behaviors correctly, into a culture where there is the idea of “honor” and “respect”, and you have a dangerous cocktail that is brewing. I’m sometimes asked why somebody would just attack another stranger, without any obvious motive - this is one of the possible reasons.

It may seem strange to us that these individuals can’t walk away, i.e. they seem to have a choice, in that they must notice a glance or a look, then choose to interpret this as a slight, and then act upon it – it is a process that they must go through. However, the guilt and shame of not acting would, as the psychiatrist James Gilligan put it be, “Psychic Annihilation” for them; that is, they can’t live with the fact that they were disrespected, as they see it. This pressure to act is magnified when a group is involved, as the individual will fear losing the respect of the group (which may mean that the group will turn on them, or disown them, if they are perceived to be weak) if they ignore something that could be interpreted as a slight. This causes a level of hyper-vigilance in groups, and causes individuals to respond more aggressively and violently towards those who disrespect them.

This notion of existential honor, was something that I was palpably aware of when working the door in certain clubs. It was not uncommon if somebody caught you looking at them for too long (as they judged it), for you to be called out, if it was deemed that you were disrespecting them; you’d be met with the aggressive question, “are you looking at me?” At first there appear to only be two possible answers: yes, or no. The danger with answering yes, is that your response would be taken as a challenge, escalating the situation, and if you answered “no”, you’d be called a liar, and judged as somebody who could be intimidated. Either answer will justify to the individual that they have been disrespected, and cause them to act, in order for them to avoid Psychic Annihilation. The question is structured in such a way, as to justify the use of violence. I would usually choose a middle route, and tell them that I wasn’t wearing my contact lenses, and not to worry, leaving them a face-saving back door that they could exit through. I’d then be keeping a much closer but more surreptitious eye on them for the rest of the evening, as I now had a better measure of their character – If I’d not been in a position of responsibility, I would have left that environment, as I don’t want to share it with a volatile individual who is only going to drink more.

If you haven’t grown up in, or experienced a culture, where the concept of honor trumps all other reasoning, it is hard to understand why simple actions, behaviors and comments, can cause people to become aggressive – to the point where they would pull a weapon and potentially kill somebody. We should be aware that such individuals exist, and that there may be times when we interact with them. If they won’t accept a face-saving way out, and we don’t have a disengagement option, acting pre-emptively is most likely to be our best survival option.

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