Clare Condon SGS. Sanctioned Violence: What does it do to our society and relationships?

Sep 1, 2014

Some violent acts, depending on where and how they were perpetrated, are regarded as criminal. Others, however, are sanctioned by society, even applauded and cheered. Some are blatant; others are covert and subtle. Some are justified by cultural norms, by the blind eye or the deaf ear; they happen behind closed doors. Others are justified by official permission and approval, or even by public opinion.

I wish to highlight four areas of sanctioned violence which I believe impact adversely on society and relationships. 

Australia’s response to asylum seekers and refugees

Currently in the Australian community, the government is justifying the use of violence to stop the smuggling of asylum seekers. This inhumane approach has bipartisan political support; it is driven by public opinion and generated by the politics of the fear of the stranger. The government’s actions are hidden from the public’s eye through secrecy and by holding people in detention in remote areas of Australia, or offshore in developing countries, such as Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

The government’s often-used mantra “Stop the boats” demonises desperate people fleeing violence and persecution. By using emotive language, this policy is justified in a subtle but no less sanctioned form of violence towards humans. In letters from the government justifying this behaviour, people seeking refugee protection have been called “illegal maritime arrivals”. Their identity as humans has been expunged.

Such demonisation sanitizes the reality for the Australian public. As a consequence, our societal and racial relationships are diminished and subtly eroded. We can begin to believe that some humans are more worthy than others, and that such actions are justified and normal, when in fact the government of the nation is engaged in sanctioned violence.

Children are being held in detention centres. ..These children are exposed to brutal, negative and neglectful modelling. The consequences of such detention are likely to breed a dissociative reality for these children, leading to a spiral of hatred and evil within their own life experiences.

As citizens we must ask: what behaviour do we propose for the future human development and relationships for these innocent children? Is society encouraged to be vindictive, self-serving, aggressive in all its relationships with anyone who is identified as a stranger, rather than a society which is welcoming, other-centred, and compassionate, respecting the dignity of the other in those relationships? One response from the government stated it would not be involved in “misguided compassion”. True compassion is a strong virtue. It is the antithesis of violence. There is nothing weak and soft about a well-guided compassionate response. 

Sanctioned violence in sport

Sport is a feature of a nation’s life and culture, especially in Australia. It has an essential role to play in a healthy society. Violence on the playing field and amongst spectators not only sets a bad example to impressionable young people, it is destructive of basic civil relationships. It can instil fear and anxiety, especially in children. . There are significant vested interests to subvert any attempt to study the area in a serious manner.

It seems that violence in contact sports has increased. I suspect that the introduction of high monetary stakes, as well as sports betting, has influenced this increase. Do the normal expectations of civil behaviour cease once players step onto the field? Does the constant replay of violence and thuggery seek to justify this behaviour?

One is not a ‘real man’ unless he is like these highly paid, macho stars. Is it not time for some extensive research on the facts and some community discussion on the type of role modelling that sport ought to be portraying to young people, and what kind of relationships society might expect to support and sustain in an advanced civil democratic society? 

Domestic violence – the hidden nightmare for many women and children

You might think it odd that I have placed violence in sport before one of the most hidden and often sanctioned – violence of the household or domestic violence – which impacts mostly on women and children. It is often hidden, excused and justified from a male perspective. The macho image often promoted by sport can become the macho image for some men in their daily behaviour. Are they connected?

Australian research[1] indicates that: 17% of women aged 18 and over have experienced sexual assault since the age of 15; 87% have a relationship with the perpetrator; only 1 in 7 who experienced violence from an intimate partner had reported the most recent incident to police; women with an intellectual disability are 90% more likely to be subjected to a sexual assault than women in the general population.[2] Between 2010-11 and 2012-13, there was a 29% increase in the number of children who were subjects of substantiations of sexual abuse, thereby reversing previous downward trends.[3] Most of these are from the lowest socio-economic areas.

These statistics are chilling. Domestic violence often leads to homelessness, further abuse of children, significant health issues for the woman and her children, ongoing economic hardship, unemployment, and social, psychological and family isolation. Thus, the capacity for building strong, healthy and mutual relationships in the future is undermined and damaged severely.

Does media violence have an impact on human behaviour?

There would be some who would say the jury is still out. Conflict is what makes a good story! Violence has always been part of the movie world, but now violence in movies, TV shows and electronic games has become the norm. They are louder, bloodier and more vicious. Some US research suggests that by the time a child is 18, he or she has watched some 200,000[4] acts of violence.

There have been hundreds of reports with diverse views on the impact of media violence, particularly on children. However, there is reasonable consensus that long exposure of children to violence portrayed in the mass media leads to long-term aggressive behaviour.[5]

My concern is the impact sanctioned violence has on society and our relationships. Some of the consequences can be corrosive and long-term. Where violence is sanctioned and regarded as acceptable and routine, then societal norms are being established for the future. Such acts become embedded in the cultural fabric of society.

If it is acceptable for a government to treat strangers in a cruel and demeaning manner, then it becomes acceptable for the citizen to treat the stranger in a similar manner. If it is acceptable to use excessive violence on a sports field, then why not off the field in school yards? If it is acceptable to exercise violence in the private space of home, then why not on the streets? If it is acceptable to spend hours watching real or virtual violence on a screen, why not activate the same violence in ordinary relationships?

My congregation of religious women follows the fifth-century rule of St Benedict, a way of life which helped to civilise Europe after generations of wars. Benedict’s dictum for his followers was that all should be structured so “that the strong have something to strive for and that the weak have nothing to run from”.[6]

In those areas of our society where violence is sanctioned, we citizens need to actively participate in social engagement and collective action. We need to say no more, we can do much better. “Compassion is the very final possibility for saving the human person in his or her naked existence in the face of the direct negation of this existence”.[7]

This is an edited version of an address delivered by Sister Clare Condon SGS at the Australian Human Right Commission on August 13, 2014.

Sister Clare Condon is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict, Australia’s first ‘home-grown’ congregation of Catholic Religious women

[1] Cindy Tarczon and Antonia Quadara, The Nature and Extent of Sexual Assault and Abuse in Australia, December 2012, The Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault

[2] CASA Forum 2014 Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault

[3] The Child Protection Australia Report 2012-13 of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

[4] American Academy of Paediatrics, Media Violence, 19 October 2009

[5] The Australian Psychological Society in 2013 updated its report: Media Representations and Responsibilities: Psychological Perspectives

[6] Rule of Benedict, Chapter 64:19

[7] Walter Kasper, Mercy, Paulist Press, New Jersey, 2013, p.29



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