Article: Young people made violent by adults
When policy makers look for solutions to 'serious youth violence', they pathologise young people as the problem. Yet gendered, racialised, classed and age-based violence has long been institutionalised and perpetuated by the state.
On the 26th February 2018 there was a Parliamentary Commission on Youth Violence (see John, 2017). The Commission’s brief was to look into the root causes of serious youth violence. The starting point seems to pathologise young people as the problem.
I would argue that violence is not only inevitable but it is ultimately desired by those in power regardless of how they may publicly abhor it. Evans & Wilson (2016) have selected various writers who have discussed the issue of violence by the state.
Violence is a tool that has been used by those seeking power from the earliest times and ultimately to maintain that power. It only becomes problematic when the powerful are not in control of the violence being inflicted, at which time it is pathologised.
States and nations, throughout time, have responded to any infringement of their territory, or to when they wished to acquire the territory of others, by declaring war. Alexander the Great built a vast empire stretching into India but there is little mention of the multitude of people that were murdered to make him great.
Ben Kane (2011), an ancient historian, wrote extensively of the Roman empire being built on the premise of war, and the seizure of land, people and resources. Any citizen had ultimate power over the life and death of the slaves they initially captured or later bred. Children were used as thugs and criminality was encouraged by those in power to overthrow the republic and turn it into an empire. Such violence was acceptable and indeed encouraged, as it was done by powerful men such as Milo and Clodius. Meanwhile, the likes of Caesar and Pompey waited so that they could appear as saviours and have ultimate power for themselves.
Young people have been used in warfare as soldiers throughout history and this continues to this day with the use of ‘child soldiers’ in conflict areas in Africa and the Middle East, as well as in the armed forces of the West where young people are encouraged to sign up even before they are allowed to vote.
Imperialist nations have all done the same, seizing land that was occupied by indigenous people. Millions of people were murdered by the British Raj and the other European states, during the period of colonisation. The continents of America and Australia were forcibly taken from indigenous people by Europeans seeking their own freedom and wealth by committing genocide on a mass scale supported by their institutions.
Monarchs became royalty by murdering their rivals, and religious institutions not only supported the monarchs but committed their own heinous acts against native peoples of the world, such as in America, Africa and Australia. Dworkin (1982, p16) estimates that 9 million women were murdered during the witch hunts in an act that she describes as gynocide. Rosalind Miles described it as “…the first sustained use of terror as a political weapon…” (1988, p107). It is no coincidence that the saying, at first they had the bible and we had the land, now we have the bible and they have the land, came to be used.
As states and institutions became firmly entrenched, other institutions such as businesses became integrally involved in supporting violence. The slave trade across the Atlantic could not have taken place without businesses providing ships and capital. Hitler would never have risen to power if powerful businesses had not supported his hatred and provided him with resources. All modern states are built on the exploitation of the weak through acts of terrorism and oppression.
In our so-called civilised world, where we condemn the atrocities committed by ‘others’ every night, there are countless adverts extolling the virtues of joining the armed forces, where violence is the basis of your employment and where you are paid to kill. The media and the populace at large refer to them as heroes unless you fight for ‘our enemies’ or kill whilst out of uniform, at which point you become a murderer.
The State encourages violence against young people through its other institutions such as schools. Gus John (2017), in his article in this journal, has argued how the school has become implicit in the pathologisation of young people as a problem and has become embedded with the police force. Giroux (2009), in ‘Expendable Futures’, suggests that a war is being waged on young people by the state.
The finance sector has inflicted so much violence by being greedy to the point of almost collapsing the state. This, in turn, has inflicted its own form of violence on the working class by stripping health, employment, education and welfare institutions of their function of protecting the vulnerable.
Now we have a despotic, dangerous and powerful man in the USA with an enormous ego and the most sophisticated weapons of war ever seen on the planet ready to fight anyone friend or foe. The UK government, expressing its continuous support for the USA, clearly hasn’t learned the lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya and still supports him without any objections.
Abigail Tracy quotes former President George W. Bush in Vanity Fair (19-10-2017): “Bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed”. There has to be some form of weird irony when Bush doesn’t seem to know how the native indigenous people of America were murdered and are the continued victims of state violence, and how his ancestors committed genocide. Does he not know of the many innocent black men shot dead by American police officers and never found guilty?
Writers and Activists such as Malcolm X (1992), Franz Fanon in the chapter “Concerning Violence” (1985) and Steve Biko in the chapter “Fear an Important Detriment” (1988) have defended the violence exhibited by Black, working class, the colonised and the oppressed. Their analysis argues that the responsibility rests on the shoulders of the powerful and the state and asserting that people learn that violence is the only method because that is the only strategy the state has ever taught – as argued by Freire (1972, p22) when referring to the sub-oppressors.
Chomsky (2008) has for decades been highlighting the murder of millions by the states of Israel and America. Sardar and Davies (2002, p.92) highlight that America has been at war for 93% of its existence and has overthrown well over 50 independent countries but nothing is ever done; instead the violence inflicted by states gets worse. For native indigenous people, America has been committing acts of terror since 1492.
The war is not only on youth but on the working class. After the riots of 2011, following yet another murder of a black young man, Cameron was busy setting up courts that ran through the night sending young people to prison for stealing as little as a bag of rice, whilst Peers and MPs were stealing thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money which was almost wholly totally overlooked during the ‘expenses scandal’.
It seems fine when politicians and the media peddle views that create violence against immigrants or those on welfare. It seems acceptable when police officers kill ordinary Black and working class people. Not to mention the rendering of many innocent people to places where they can be tortured, legally assisted by those that say that violence is unacceptable (Khan, 2013). The Orwellian language of doublespeak springs to mind. The hypocrisy that exists when discussing violence is immeasurable.
Women’s organisations have for decades highlighted a disturbing statistic that two women are killed by their ex/partners and three women kill themselves each week due to the actions of their ex/partners, but instead of recognising this as misogyny and mass genocide the government continue to close life-saving shelters. Worse is the silence as there is no discussion let alone controversy, revulsion or a crackdown on sexism. Andrea Dworkin (1974; 1976; 1984; 1988) has argued passionately, especially in Woman Hating (1974) and Pornography (1984), about the violence inflicted upon women for decades but people still act surprised and shocked when new allegations emerge. The terminology ‘domestic violence’, downgraded from murder, grievous body harm or aggravated assault is in itself a statement of how violence against women is not seen as serious.
When stories of sexual abuse emerge, such as Saville, Weinstein or in Westminster, people seem genuinely shocked with cries of ‘never again’, but it keeps happening. Whilst the odd individual may be hung out to dry, the culture of sexism and how it is supported by institutions is never questioned. Too often men who make the laws abuse and the powerful are rarely held to account; if they are it is usually after they have died. The sex allegations in Westminster have virtually been forgotten by the media.
We are surrounded by the sexualisation and objectification of women continuously in ‘newspapers’, magazines, advertisements, television, films, songs, the merchandising of clothes, shoes, cars and scores of other objects. It’s not working class people who own these industries, they are owned by rich middle class people and institutions.
The levels of sexism faced by Hillary Clinton and the women who complained about Trump didn’t stop him becoming the most powerful man in the world.
The vote for Brexit was based mainly on the issue of hatred of immigrants. Issues of finance and self-control were mentioned but it was essentially the targeting of immigrants as the problem that tipped the vote, particularly as economists and politicians from the upper echelons of society argued and lied about finances. The majority working class population has always been controlled by those who see themselves as the elite.
There has been a huge increase in violence against ‘immigrants’ ever since the ‘war on terror’ and after Brexit there have been more overt acts of intimidation and violence. The state have taken very little if any action against the perpetrators and have allowed a plethora of militant and dangerous fascist organisations, which are proliferating at an alarming rate to continue to march through the streets of Britain.
Violence only seems to be a problem when young people are in gangs and seen to be out of control. Why should we expect more from young people than we do from politicians, media moguls and the apparatus of the state? Young people join gangs for many reasons, including a feeling of family, security and belonging. There are teachers who bully; the school system is based on fear as A.S. Neill (1972) so eloquently argued in his book Summerhill.
In October 2017 a young 12 year old, Aishah Carter Kinnon, was bullied at school and decided to have turquoise highlights in her hair to boost her self-confidence. She was rewarded for her courage by being placed in the isolation unit. The report in the Mirror by Andrew Bardsley (17-10-2017) of an East Manchester Academy stated that Aishah “…has massively improved her confidence. She has been walking through school with her head held high…She never gets in to trouble, she is never late, it’s not fair. There are other children who have coloured hair who don’t get in trouble.”
There are many such stories of young people being excluded or placed in isolation for not having the “right” shoes or length of skirt, young women wearing trousers, young men wearing skirts etc. The list of minor irregularities is endless as being an individual is punished severely.
What seemed to be more interesting about this particular story as it was reported was that it appeared as though the school had failed in its dereliction of duty to keep young people safe by not tackling bullying then they bullied, intimidated and punished the young woman who had empowered herself. Audrey Lorde (2007) talked about the use of anger and Aishah did what schools should have done i.e. gained self-confidence and challenged the bullies.
Schools were set up to indoctrinate and control young people and maintain power and control above all other aspects. For schools education is merely a by-product and secondary to the hidden curriculum. The bullying nature of schools and the powerful impact of the hidden curriculum as argued by deschoolers such as Ivan Illich (1978) is demonstrated by the story above.
Surely schools should have become a place of love as expounded by bell hooks (2003) but they remain firm and resolute and, as Gus John (2017) argued, have become more and more authoritarian and draconian in their beliefs and practice.
LGBTQI young people face violence and bullying on a huge scale, starting with their families and schools. Sexism and racism are endemic in society and condoned if not encouraged by those in power. Walter Lippmann’s term the “bewildered herd” (as recounted in Chomsky, 2002) echoes the manner in which bullying, be it from Trump or Alan Sugar, has been normalised and consent manufactured to the point where seeing people humiliated and being told “You’re fired” has become entertainment.
The logical summary has to be that violence is completely acceptable if conducted by the various institutions of the state and only appears to be a problem if people take control of it themselves. In the end it is the issue of who has power and control. Those who wield power will never let it go out of their control and other forms of state violence such as the attacks on the vulnerable through public sector cuts are not even acknowledged as violence. It is time we remembered Freire’s words when he suggested that ‘naming the world’ (1978, p.107) has to be done first.
Let’s name it and be clear that we should level the responsibility of violence on the state and the powerful men who want to have control and power over everyone and everything including what is termed as violence.
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Last Updated: 14 August 2018
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Bal has a long history in youth and community work as a volunteer, part-time worker, full-time worker, qualities officer and trustee in a variety of settings. He is now the programme coordinator of the Youth and Community Work programme at Ruskin College in Oxford. He has written a number of articles, booklets and chapters within the youth work field and in anti-oppressive practice.