Youth Violence

Jul 99

Recently we have seen the tragedy of teens killing teens in high schools first in the United States and then here in Canada. These shocking events have necessarily led us to ask how and why such terrible things can happen. Commentators have generally emphasized either violence in the media or availability of guns, depending whether they are speaking from a conservative or liberal viewpoint. Neither of these can be dismissed as a contributory factor, but I think we need to look at a couple of other ways our broader culture contributes to youth violence.

First, we have to acknowledge the level of real, as opposed to imaginary, violence that exists in our society. Domestic violence is still very prevalent, and directly effects many of our children. But there is at least now a societal recognition that this is wrong and criminal. The same cannot be said for state sanctioned violence. The spectacle of the US president preaching to the youth of his nation in the wake of the Columbine shooting that "violence never solves anything" was surreal to say the least. At the very same moment, his air force was busy pulverizing the infrastructure of another nation that had refused his ultimatum.

Secondly, there is a pressing need to teach our young people tolerance, and to teach by example. There is a striking level of divisiveness in contemporary youth culture, with high schools divided into rival tribes of goths, preppies, jocks, punks and whatever else is the flavour of the week. Usually this is expressed in nothing more harmful than a mutual snobbery, but it seems that both of the recent high-school shootings were motivated by rivalries of this sort.

We adults need to ask if we are teaching our youth mutual respect and acceptance of differences. How skilled are we at accepting those of different habit, belief, custom, nationality or race? Conversely, how often do we fall into the nasty habit of dividing the world into "us" and "them?"

Buddhism teaches that we ought to practise universal friendliness and compassion, and it is not the only religion that teaches this. We first need to accept the other, the strange one, as intrinsically like ourselves. All beings are conscious and all know suffering. This simple reality is more fundamental than any possible differences. Violence always arises first in the mind and it is striking how often mass violence is preceded by a dehumanization of the target group. One needs only to look at the propaganda of warring states, past and present to see countless examples of this. The first act of violence is always the radical dichotomy we experience in our own hearts when we judge another to be unlike ourselves, and unworthy of our compassion.

Tribalism and territorialism are no doubt ancient human instincts, as they are expressed not alone among our primate cousins but among many of the higher mammals. But that should be no excuse. In Buddhist terms, we would call them deep defilements. It is long past time for humanity, as a species, to evolve past this adolescent level. We need to learn to embrace the whole of mankind, indeed the whole biosphere, as our tribe. If we fail in this we will only see more, and more terrible, wars and more small scale tragedies in our streets and schools.

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