Thinking About Violence in Our Schools

The violence in the schools, like conflict and violence everywhere, follows a model. The model presented here was developed by Stanford University Professor Rene Girard. It applies in general to conflicts at any level of intensity. It has 5 stages.

1. Mimetic Desire
One party identifies an object of desire and other parties imitate that desire. Examples of things children and adults desire: respect, attention, money, happiness, power, land, jobs, knowledge. Whatever the culture tells us is desirable, that's what people adopt as worth having.

2. Mimetic Rivalry
Now the parties begin competing for the object of desire. Whatever good competitive strategies emerge, others copy them. Since it's a rivalry, it's played as a win/lose game. To win, you only need to get more of the desirable object than the rival. If the object of desire is respect, you hit the rival with tokens of disrespect. This is done first with verbal violence, put downs, taunts, and escalates to rejection, alienation and shunning.

3. Skandalon
Skandalon is a Greek word that means "trap". It's the root of "slander" and "scandal." In the rivalry for respect, if one side is "dissed" they are caught in the temptation of Skandalon and feel compelled to retaliate. Thus begins a "dissing" war, fought on the battlefield of the psyche. Skandalon is what makes it so hard not to take the bait, so hard just to walk away. It's so easy to retaliate. The give and take escalates into mutual and mimetic enthrallment.

4. Alienation and Scapegoating
Eventually one side crosses some arbitrary threshold of concern where the supervising authorities feel compelled to intervene. It's essentially random which side crosses first, but often it's the weaker faction, which uses more venomous attacks to maintain parity. Whichever side goes over the arbitrary line becomes blameworthy, and the others who kept their violence below threshold are the victims. They gang up on and alienate the scapegoat, calling for the authorities to intervene and punish the blameworthy party.

5. Authorized, Sanctioned and Sacred Violence
To appease the mob/majority, the authorities determine guilt and visit sanctions and punishment on the scapegoat. This escalates the violence to the next higher level of authority in our culture.

The 5-stage pattern repeats at all levels of power and for all rivalries and competitions. The most virulent conflicts are over respect, attention, money, power, sex, land, or ideology. Ethnic conflicts and school "tribes" follow this model.

In the Balkans, centuries of low-grade ethnic conflicts bubble along until one side gets enough power to visit depredations on another. Thus we see genocide and ethnic cleansing. At every point in a conflict, the dynamic is somewhere in the 5-stage model, which repeats endlessly.

The only way to stop the violence is to adopt the conscious goal of de-escalation and run the model backward. Giving up objects of rivalrous desire, avoiding the temptation of skandalon, avoiding alienation and scapegoating, avoiding authorized and sanctioned violence.

Two years ago NATO visited authorized and sanctioned violence upon the Serbs. Thus NATO ran the global violence model forward toward more future violence. In Kosovo, the mimetic object of rivalrous desire was the right to use state-sanctioned violence to maintain the social order desired by those in power. In Kosovo, the Albanians were the outcasts being shunned by the Serbs. In Littleton, the outcasts were the smart "nerdy" students, shunned by the "jocks" and "debs".

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon demonstrate that not just military forces are capable of massive strikes. Now the country proposes to visit retribution on whomever can be identifed as blameworthy, thus renewing the cycle for the next round, which could take as long as 20 years to cycle through.

A common type of scapegoat is a person who bears witness and speaks the truth to power. Powerful figures in human history were martyred for bearing witness to brutality and oppression.

In Littleton, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold bore witness to the pervasive and horrific culture of violence that children wage with cruel verbal abuse, shunning, and other powerful tokens of disrespect.

Treating those boys as if they were "scum of the earth" was a regrettable act of verbal violence, and -- alienated and trapped in Skandalon -- they felt compelled to retaliate, with tragic results. Conflict left to itself tends to escalate over time.

Now we will isolate, marginalize, alienate, and scapegoat a new blameworthy enemy, and their progeny will reciprocate in due time, with even more ingenious uses of our own technology turned back on us, as weapons against us.

We need to think our way out of violence by mindfully running the model backward, de-escalating violence and moving toward peace.

At every stage of the model, we need to be mindful of the dynamic we are caught up in, and consciously elect to run the model in reverse. Until now, the great theologians and peacemakers presented this as tenets of important religions or as tenets of ethics or morality.

With Girard's Systems Theoretic Model of the dynamic structure of conflict and violence, we can discover the optimal strategy to drive the system in reverse toward non-violence and peace. Science and reason arrive at the same optimal solution as that proposed historicly by Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, King, Thich Nhat Hanh, John Dear, and thousands of other rational thinkers who thought deeply about the problems of violence, oppression, and injustice.

It's pure science, pure reason, and pure theology. These methods of thought all reach the same insightful solution.

It's time we learned it so that we can discontinue the mindless practice of killing ourselves off. It's time we learned, reviewed, reflected, and meditated on this model. You can do that in the context of your faith, or in the context of a quiet meditation on a scientific model. It's the same calming mindfulness.

Reference: Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads
Chain of Credit
Further Reflections

See also:
Children Killing Children by Bill Marshall
Violence and the Sacred by Gil Bailie
Roots of Violence by Dave Weissbard
World Health Organization Proclaims Violence a Major Public-Health Problem

--Barry Kort, Ph.D.
--Nancy Williams, M.S.

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Bill Mason's wicked parody of this essay, "Thinking About Stupidity in Our Scholars," is now archived via the Wayback Machine at:

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Copyright Barry Kort,
Copyright Nancy Williams,

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