The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Violence in Society

Reprinted from Thinking Congregations with permission of John Bell, M.Div.

Following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed seventeen people and wounded seventeen more, I found myself in a conversation (really a debate) with a gun rights advocate.  I’m grateful for the conversation because it helped clarify my thinking about gun violence and violence in general.

In response to the Las Vegas shooting on October 1, 2017, when 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers killing 58 people and wounding 851, I started to write a blog post to clarify my thinking about gun violence.  I ended up deleting it.  At the time, I was struggling to articulate my understanding of how humans become violent.

I’ve written other blogs about violence in society: Understanding ViolenceReacting to a Racist Family MemberCan Understanding the Family and Chronic Anxiety Make for Better Policing?and Fear and the Criminal Justice System.  With this post, I’m a little clearer in my thinking, but I’ll let you be the judge of it (you can comment below).

Guns have become a polarizing issue in the United States.  The debate teeters between the rights of individuals and the rights of society.  To what extent can a community negate individual rights?  Or do individual rights superseded (can’t use the word trump anymore) the rights of a population?  Whose rights create better outcomes for society?  One says, “The government does not have the right to take away my guns!  Individual rights protect a democracy.”  Another says,  “Guns are dangerous to society!  Individuals do not have the right to possess them.  Guns are not good for society.”

An interesting development in the debate is the shift to mental health.  Gun rights advocates make the point, “Clearly, anyone who would kill a group of kids is not ‘normal.’”  Whatever normal means.  This focus on pathology and an effort to identify individuals who are potentially dangerous is an effort to sway societal rights advocate away from a focus on guns towards mental illness.  The shift in focus to pathology has gained minimal traction and for a good reason.  The focus on pathology in the mental health field is not working.  People know it, although perhaps not at a conscious level yet.  Bowen Family Systems Theory provides a different way to think about the problem.  It begins with a focus on relationship systems and emotional process.

People are becoming increasingly isolated.  Neighbors no longer know their neighbors.  Families no longer work together to solve neighborhood problems.  As a child, I remember an episode where an older teenage boy in our neighborhood intentionally damaged personal property. The families involved got together to address and correct the behavior.  Today, neighborhood problems are passed on to police, the courts, schools, community organizations, health departments, municipalities, and the press.   When neighbors are less isolated and work together, they rely less on institutions for help.  They can solve their problems.

Instead of resourcing families and neighborhoods, institutions have perpetuated problems.  The closer an institution gets to a problem, the more they encounter the intense anxiety in the family.  As institutions absorb the anxiety, it spreads throughout the organization and is handed back to families and neighborhoods at an equal or higher level of reactivity.  For example, police departments, experiencing pressure from community leaders to do better, blame other community stakeholders for not doing their part in solving community problems.  Schools, dealing with an increase in problematic behavior, push back and blame families who are not being held accountable for the behavior of their children.  Families who take a helpless position will demand that their school do better in addressing the problematic behavior.  Back and forth goes the reactivity like a hot potato.  Each is blaming the other for not doing more to address the problem.

When people blame others and are reactive, it indicates a high level of distancing and cutoff.  As anxiety goes up and tension increases in the relationship system, if an effort to change the other does not work (which it rarely does) people will do the opposite which is to distance and cutoff.  This movement exasperates the original problem as leaders are no longer in good emotional contact to problem solve, adapt and work on being flexible.  Isolation is a problem because it reduces access to resources and good thinkers in a community.

Not much is known about the family of Nikolas Cruz.  We do know that both of his adoptive parents died.  His father died when he was little, and his mother died three months before the shooting (the blog photo is of mother and Nikolas).  Reports indicate that the mother struggled for years to address Mr. Cruz’s behavior.  We do know that after the adoptive mother’s death, Mr. Cruz had difficulty deciding on where to live, bouncing between family and friends.  Bowen Theory indicates that behavioral problems, like the ones displayed by Mr. Cruz, would be related to the level of cutoff and isolation in the family (particularly for Mr. Cruz), the level of chronic anxiety in the family and the current challenges being presented to the family (like the death of a family member).  But whether any of this applies to Mr. Cruz specifically is purely speculation at this point.

Researchers like Steve Cole, John Capitanio, John Cacioppo and Stephen Suomi have studied the effects of isolation on humans.  Their research has pioneered a new way of thinking about behavior.  Under chronic levels of stress, the bodies inflammatory response system remains elevated.  Researchers have shown a connection between a heightened level of stress, increased levels of inflammation and physical and psychological challenges present in the human body.  Physical challenges, like colds, diseases, and cardiovascular problems, are connected to elevated levels of inflammation which is a result of experienced isolation.  Psychological challenges, like anxiety disorders, depression, aggressive actions, substance abuse and PTSD, are also related to chronic levels of inflammation and the experience of isolation.

What remains to be seen is how committing a violent act is connected to higher levels of inflammation.  If this is the case, then the perception (or reality) of being isolate would play a significant role in making one vulnerable to committing acts of violence.  Killing self or others is the ultimate form of isolation and cutoff.

This makes sense when one considers the fact that higher levels of tension in the family results in distancing and cutoff.  When chronic anxiety in the family remains elevated over time, the relationship between parent and child is difficult to manage as each tries to offload the anxiety to the other by blaming them for problems in the family.  When tension in the relationship system moves beyond the ability of the family to access available resources, someone will get hurt (violence), or someone may leave (cutoff) or both.  This family pattern of distancing and cutoff remains in place and is replicated in subsequent relationships.

There are factors that influence cutoff in the family that come from outside of the family.  Increases in population, a decrease in resources, worry about the planet, national and international tensions and other societal pressures raise the level of anxiety in the family, particularly those facing significant challenges.

How can institutions, like the church, take a more responsible position in resourcing individuals and families who are overwhelmed?  What opportunities are available to strengthen families and encourage them to take a more active leadership role in addressing family problems?  How might institutional leaders function differently to be more responsible for their part of the problem?  How might connecting families in neighborhoods help strengthen individual families and their efforts to do better?

​What questions or solutions come to your mind?

John Bell

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