The Challenge of Decoupling

Prepared for the February 18 – 19, 2016 seminar, Transforming Violent Masculinities, organized by the winners of the 2015-2016 WPF Student Seminar Competition. 

Scientific evidence from a range of disciplines confirms the close connections between early developmental processes and subsequent behavior. Thus, traumatic stress in early childhood can have enduring effects, that in extreme cases may be irreversible despite later remedial or attenuating behavior (Shonkoff et al). A well known example of this coupling between experience and conduct is the case of Romanian orphans, so severely neglected and deprived of sensory stimulation in very early childhood that later intense nurturing failed to reverse serious cognitive and affective deficits (Nelson). Profound neglect is one form of traumatic stressor; violence is another. Research on early childhood confirms the statistical correlation between early exposure to violence, and enduring, often life long, violent subsequent behavior. (Kagitcibasi) Children subjected at home to physical child abuse are more likely to be abusers than those not so exposed; the same is true of children exposed to familial sexual abuse, or of street children who endure police brutality or the violence of gang members from an early age (Rizzini).

It is not only exposure to direct violence that is coupled with subsequent abusive conduct. Being a witness to violence, or experiencing violence indirectly can also have profoundly negative effects on subsequent behavior. Children raised in households with endemic intimate partner violence are more likely to be violent themselves in their subsequent conduct than those raised in homes where no such abuse existed. So too are children who are witness to community or societal violence, including in situations of armed conflict or criminal violence (Weingarten).

Early childhood development (ECD) is not the only context in which the propensity to violence or non violence has been studied. A significant body of research documents the association between incomplete maturational processes in adolescence and impulsive, including violent, conduct. Male sexual hormones contribute to these behaviors. We know, for example, that adolescents (usually defined as the second decade of life) particularly male adolescents, have a greater propensity than younger or older people, to impulsive including violent behavior to gratify desires and needs. This is in part because, despite intellectual and sexual maturation, their cortical pathways are still developing, a process that lasts longer than once thought, well into early adulthood (19 to 22 years). Neuroscientific psychology explains how synaptic connections, through a process of mylenation, mediate the way neurons communicate between different parts of the brain to affect the choice of behavior in a given context. The more primitive, affective parts of the adult brain, including the amygdala, drive desire, emotion and impulsive conduct, whereas the more advanced, cognitive parts of the brain, in the frontal cortex, are responsible for evaluating risk, calibrating different possible outcomes and consequences of action, and tempering immediate gratification and impulsive behavior. Where the process of mylenation is incomplete, as in the adolescent brain, communication between the two regions of the brain tends to be less efficient or effective; cognition is less likely to trump or to temper emotion (Steinberg).

Of course these are tendencies, susceptible to a range of individual variation. There is no one to one correlation between male adolescence and impulsive or violent behavior. Multiple factors impinge on these tendencies, including the impact of learnt behaviors, of individual maturation rates, of social and environmental factors driving arousal and self control, of individual personality differences. This is true both in the early childhood and adolescent contexts. In both situations, decoupling is possible in some circumstances.

In the ECD context, extensive social programming and related scholarly work have demonstrated that the known probability of coupling between exposure to early stress or violence and subsequent conduct can sometimes be reduced. Children raised in troubled situations with violence or harsh socio-economic stressors (teenage single parents, conflict settings, extreme poverty) but with appropriately nurturing parental conduct tend to enjoy life long cognitive and affective advantages compared to peers raised in similar situations but without the benefits of such protective or positive parenting (ACEV). Palestinian children in Gaza brought up by parents who manage to escape depression or despair fare better psychologically and educationally than their counterparts in homes where parents are unable to parent effectively (El Sarraj). In other words there are circumstances in which it has proved possible to decouple known stressors or other harmful triggers from subsequent conduct.

Research also suggests factors relevant to the development of strategies that may have an impact on decoupling masculinity from violence in adolescence. One particularly interesting and relevant factor is peer pressure. Recent research establishes the important and distinctive impact that peer pressure has on adolescents – more, for example, than it has on younger children or on adults (Steinberg). We now know that adolescents are particularly susceptible to peer pressure in selecting or modifying their behavior, whereas similar pressures exerted on adults in controlled experimental situations have demonstrably less impact.

How might these simple principles and insights apply to the challenge of decoupling triggers of male violence from the behavior of boys as they transition into adulthood?   Both the ECD and the adolescent research have important implications for masculine violence. This violence is often enacted in situations where the early home or preceeding childhood experience has been violent (consider the case histories in the US Supreme Court adolescent death penalty or life imprisonment without parole cases and the extreme violence in the defendants’ home environments – Roper v Simmonds, Graham v Florida; the juvenile in the Delhi gang rape case of December 2012 had been living as a street child subjected to police violence in Delhi for at least 3 years prior to the crime). Male violence is also frequently associated with contexts where peer pressure is significant, including in situations of street violence, gang rape or armed conflict (consider the process of induction of child soldiers described by former Sierra Leone child soldier Ishmael Beah in his autobiography “A Long Way Gone”).

Conversely, situations of cultivated peer pressure that reward non violent, peaceful or peace enhancing conduct can make a decisive difference, despite incomplete physical maturation in the brain. A plethora of initiatives, many of them funded by philanthropic foundations as well as government programs, now rightly target this important variable, including Equal Community Foundation in Pune, India or Promundo in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to mention just two among many. There are programs that include encouragement and social rewards for the humane treatment of animals, for non homophobic school relationships, for racially inclusive social groups and respect for girls and women on the basis of equality and non discrimination in the family, the school and community. Peer led trends are most effective in this regard, so that social rewards and reinforcement from the adolescent peer group itself have multiplier impacts (Weissbord).

If we take these insights from behavioral neuropsychology, early childhood development studies and gender justice social programming, and apply them to some of the most egregious situations of adolescent male violence, some important lessons about the challenge of decoupling masculinity from violence emerge. We can briefly consider three contexts, which, though different, are connected on a continuum – from situations of peace through situations of conflict. Consider first the “peacetime” situation in contemporary (non Naxal, Naga or Kashmir) India. The infamous Delhi rape (and murder) of December 16, 2012 finally shed a global spotlight on the endemic gender based violence, stigma and discrimination in the homeland of Gandhian non violence, as extensive as in other societies. Indian feminists like Sharda Jain in Jaipur, Shantha Sinha in Andhra Pradesh and Flavia Agnes in Mumbai, among many others, have long drawn attention to the pervasive gendered injustice and violence that permeates Indian society. It spans the whole gamut of life. It starts before birth (recall Amartya Sen’s famous “discovery” of the 1 million missing girls); it continues through infancy (nutritional and health care discrimination) and on into childhood (unequal access to schooling, play, sports and personal freedom; discriminatory engagement in housework including child care). As the parent of teenage girl in Gujerat who we interviewed for a study on school access put it: “ Boys cannot work like girls, for example if our daughter is out of the village for some reason then we call our neighbour’s daughter for household work.” (Kelly and Bhabha, BJSE, 743)

Gender violence and discrimination are endemic in adolescence (withdrawal from public sphere, forced girl child marriage, exposure to sexual violence and harassment in the public and private sphere) and persist right through to adulthood (domestic violence, including dowry deaths and correlative lack of effective and accessible legal representation, social support, shelter or dignified integration).

Apart from manifest discrimination, other aspects of Indian social organization and mainstream culture contribute to gender inequality and violence. A substantial body of work highlights the absence of effective co-education within the school system (even mixed schools segregate children – by gender and often caste – within the classroom) (Muktangan), the lack of sex or adolescent education (and hence the continuing shame and secrecy around crucial adolescent issues such as masturbation, menstruation, sexuality, sexual desire) (NCERT) and the strict social censure applied to informal mixed gender relationships in adolescence (Kelly and Bhabha). The combination of pervasive boy preference and patriarchal priorities in Indian public culture as a whole, and prudish reticence over adolescent sexuality, contribute to a toxic gender climate (Agnes). This is the context that perpetuates tolerance of extreme sexual harassment in the public sphere, including in school, college and public transportation (UGC Report). Our research highlights the pervasive impact of gender based harassment on low caste girls, particularly as time spent traveling to and from school increased (Kelly, Bhabha, Krishna). In this context, decoupling masculinity from violence requires a root and branch investment throughout Indian society. This investment would entail reversing the current acquiescence so that rape and male gang violence become explicitly and repeatedly abhorred in the press and on TV, in Bollywood, in the Raja and Lokh Sabha, in the temple, mosque and gurdwara rather than secretly admired (or justified because “boys will be boys”). It would include seriously addressing boy birth preference, including understanding why this has not been stopped by the criminalization of sex selective abortion, important though that is. The agenda is, inevitably, ambitious and broad, ranging extensively across the Indian social, political and economic sphere, to mainstream gender justice. It entails a vigorous and generous investment in ensuring that daughters, girls and women, are equal players in education, work and elderly parent care, so that young women are not punished but celebrated for giving birth to girls. Concurrently, sexual harassment in school will only decline once boys and girls from a very early age are brought in close, non-predatory contact with each other, with zero tolerance of teasing, bullying or violence and endorsement of gender respectful male conduct that elicits praise not ridicule from the earliest pre school encounters onwards. Sexual violence in marriage, on the streets, in the work place and in educational settings will only decline with real access to gender equal social, legal protection and income generating opportunity, and a much more energetic public sphere engagement with the issue than has been the case so far. Investing in toilets and other aspects of water and sanitation is hardly an adequate gender justice program for contemporary India. Neither is simplying decrying the barbarity of individual rapist “goons” or baying for their punishment by use of the death penalty. A much more comprehensive, socially and fiscally costly and long term political process is necessary.

The second situation we can, more briefly, consider to explore what decoupling of adolescent masculinity and violence might entail, is that of endemic gang related violence, including sexual violence, in Central America, Honduras and El Salvador in particular. This is a context somewhere between “peace” and conflict, where humanitarian laws of war do not apply, where asylum from persecution is unavailable, where hot conflict as such is not acknowledged, but where risks to life and liberty, particularly for poor, urban male adolescents, are extreme (Fonseca). In these countries, with the horrific status as murder capitals of the world, young boys grow up exposed to daily and extreme violence as a survival strategy. Exit from violence is as perilous as engagement with it – as neutrality in the face of competing gang recruitment demonstrates and the often disastrous sequelae to distress migration confirm (WRC). Testimony from child migrant survivors of gang violence seeking asylum in the US confirm the picture of brutalized masculinity, established from a very early age as 4 year old children are forced to be look outs for drug war lords and 11 and 12 year old adolescents are forced to take part in violent shoot outs, drug smuggling and extortion (Terrio).

Unlike the Indian context, in this central American sphere, the decoupling of male adolescence from violence does not seem conceivable within a purely national frame. Instead a regional policy is essential, one that aggressively promotes access to economic opportunity, viable and just state services and independent judicial institutions. It is impossible to conceive of the decoupling of adolescent masculinity from violence, while US drug and migration policy remain intact (Aguayo). Other critical factors relevant to male violence include economic disempowerment resulting from unequal and exploitative trade agreements generated through NAFTA, and the US Department of Homeland Security’s use of Mexico as an abusive buffer zone preventing legitimate humanitarian flight by populations from countries to its south trapped in life threatening violence (HRW). Finally, and closely related, the rapid and progressive decline of central American governance into endemically corrupt and failed states, makes the prospects of regenerating law abiding and gender just societies any time soon, remote. To prevent the brutalization of significant portions of the domestic population including of male adolescents from a very early age, gender respectful social norms that proscribe macho sexual predation are essential, but they are unlikely to be sufficient. Decoupling violence for Central American male adolescence requires alternative, viable and accessible avenues for survival, real social and economic investment coupled with a vigorous and non-corrupt justice system that render violence counterproductive or futile – a far cry from the present reality (Casas-Zamora).

Finally, one can briefly consider what the decoupling of male adolescence from violence would consist of in acknowledged conflict settings, such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Eritrea today. A combination of robust strategies would include the root and branch interventions starting within the family, school and community already discussed in the Indian context, together with the reinterpretation of Islamic religious doctrine to encompass gender equal norms promoted by Muslim feminist and gender justice civil society actors already engaged in the region (Abu-Lughod, El Kefi). These strategies would address some of the challenge of mitigating the gender violence of the refugee camps and migration routes but also the adoption of increasingly patriarchal norms in the face of national implosion and long term insecurity.     But, as discussed in the Central American context, no substantial progress is likely without international, transnational and global economic, political and trade policies that strengthen opposition to dictatorship and violence, and that promote social justice, including gender justice. Increasing Islamophobia in Europe and North America will strengthen the conservative appeal of groups like ISIS and their promotion of a retrograde Islam that traps girls and women in a medieval Caliphate opposed to racist Christian hegemonic forces, even if the immediate tragedy of civil war in Syria abates.

To conclude, decoupling is neither a simple not a linear process. Just as multiple factors, spanning the entire ecology of human existence from individual biology through family, community, society, state and global institutions, impinge on the coupling of our construction of self and gendered identity with some degree of propensity towards violence, so a similarly extensive canvas of factors are relevant to the hard and urgent task of decoupling masculinity from violence.

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