What We Teach about When We Teach about Violence
Susan Cunningham
Associate Director, Center for Interdisciplinary and Special Studies;
Lecturer in Sociology, Holy Cross College
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The Place of Moral Issues in Violence Studies | What place do morality and moralizing have in violence studies? First, it is important to clarify that morality and moralizing are different concepts. Morality refers to the code of conduct of a society and moralizing refers to self-righteous expressions of those standards. Sociological analysis emphasizes that the social construction of reality extends to morality. Recall Reiman's argument that American society has successfully sustained non-structurally oriented, status-quo thinking about violent behavior by condemning individual intent more than resultant damage. In other words, morality can become an ideological tool to reinforce current definitions. Gilligan supports this position:

Moral approaches to violence do not help us to understand the causes and prevention of violence; and what is worse, some of the moral assumptions about violence actually inhibit us in our attempts to learn about its causes and prevention. The most popular moral ways of thinking about violence lead to the mistaken conclusion that to understand violent behavior is to excuse it. It is easier and less threatening to condemn violence (morally and legally) so that we can punish it, rather than seeking its causes and working to prevent it (1996: 24).

Moral arguments make it easy to punish violent offenders, and therfore they are understandably attractive. However, they also block the analysis necessary to develop effective prevention. More, they can be a form of claims-making, in which advocates argue for the correctness of positions not on the basis of fact but on the basis of moral evaluation. Because this impedes prevention, Gilligan advocates a non-moralistic approach that "neither supports nor opposes the 'forgiveness' of violent behavior—since one has not condemned in the first place" (1996: 93).

Consistent with the social construction of morality, a task confronting violence studies curricula is the formulation of an improved moral stance toward violence in society. According to Gilligan, American violence is the result of our collective "moral choice" to maintain those social policies that in turn maintain our uniquely high level of violence; and I call that choice a moral choice because it is very explicitly rationalized, justified, and legitimized on moral grounds, in moral terms (1996:23).

In sum, the challenge to those undertaking violence studies in the undergraduate curriculum, and to researchers and policy-makers alike, is twofold. First, it is incumbent upon anyone advocating against violence to broaden definitions to include Turpin and Kurtz's "web" idea. Regardless of specific levels, structural dimensions must be recognized and addressed. Second, despite cultural tendencies to the contrary, it is important to recognize the impoverished state of cultural morality toward violence and the dysfunctional consequences of moralizing about violence. Only careful causal analysis can provide sound prevention policies and, ultimately, sounder moral principles. Only then will the media reports on high-school violence and church shootings disappear.

 

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