In all ways that we measure these things, physical violence has reduced in Western countries in the last 70 years, particularly mainland Western Europe. What about psychological violence though?
Psychological violence, ie the inflicting of mental pain, takes many forms. It includes the marketing campaigns that depict a shiny car as a necessity for ‘being free’. It includes the wife who cannot hide her disappointment at her husband for having a middle-of-the-road job. It includes the smile of the rich man in his fancy car as he looks wearily at the people coming out of the bus. It includes the neighbour who looks disapprovingly at the smudge on the coat of a child. It includes the mother who tells you to fear all strangers. It includes the friend who tells you he is gay and that you have to be ok with that even though you are not. It includes the priest who tells you that you are sinful by nature. It includes the con-man who tells you that you are fantastic as long as you buy the right shoes. It includes the Prime Minister who tells you all you needed to ‘succeed’ was a ladder because surely you then both wanted to climb it and could climb it. It includes the boss who devised new rules that makes the things you laugh at a sacking offence. It includes the client who shouts at something you have no control over. It includes the website that has an agreement of 300 pages full of tricks which you must agree to before seeing something. It includes the husband who cannot hide his disappointment at his wife’s expanding derriere. It includes the dispossessed who demand that others change their stories of their history.
Psychological violence hence includes all the actions and communications by others that make us feel diminished and reduce our access to goods, friends, gods, and human relations in general.
In this broad sense, psychological violence is a normal part of everyday life, just as in an earlier age physical violence was a normal part of everyday life. Then, physical violence was acceptable as a means of expanding our territory and ego, whereas now psychological violence is acceptable as a means of expanding our territory and ego.
You might say that my notion of psychological violence is too broad and that it contains ‘normal’ interaction between people who are ‘simply’ showing likes and dislikes, or things that are inevitable consequences of our own actions. My reaction to that is that it is not of interest here to moralise about the reasons for the violence, but rather to note its existence and that in all the examples mentioned, the mental pain involved is real.
Has it increased? Direct data on this question is lacking: official measures of recognised forms of psychological abuse (bullying, stalking, racism, sexism) are patchy and capture but tiny aspects of the huge realm of psychological violence that goes on every day.
It is also not clear that psychological violence is a bad thing, just as it is not truly clear that physical violence is always bad. Our wish for control and a better life is constrained by others who wish the same and push back, one way or another.
Consider first the best case, using speculation and exaggeration, that I can make in favour of the hypothesis that psychological violence has increased, and then the best case I can make that it has decreased.
Why has psychological violence increased?
Physical violence leaves bruises and corpses, but can also be a quick way to settle an argument as to who is entitled to what. The winner walks away with the land, the girl, the business and the esteem. The loser skulks off somewhere else or makes sure (s)he keeps his/her head down where (s)he is.
So when physical violence became less and less accepted, arguments over the finite amount of jobs, resources, and attractive partners had to be settled by psychological violence. Shaming, lying, bullying, ganging-up, belittling, accusing, humiliating, and ridiculing became the normal way of settling disputes. These ways take longer and are more damaging to the mental health of individuals, but they are less easy to verify and they keep property intact, so they have flourished.
How do we know these forms of violence have increased? Because anxiety levels have increased since the second world war in the Western world. Obesity, arising from flights into ‘comfort food’, has also grown all over the Western world, even amongst children. Anxiety and obesity are then visible outgrowths of the psychological violence that individuals in our culture now endure on a daily basis.
Our kids, more than ever before, thus grow up with impossible expectations: they must win at sports, become president, fly to the moon, be rich and beautiful, and of course abide by a zillion social codes. A tiny slither succeeds, 99.99% fails and feels condemned to the labels ‘failure, mediocre, loser, slacker’.
Workers, non-workers, and adults generally now face more pressured to ‘succeed’ than before. A man who does not succeed in work is now almost by definition not trying hard if you believe the posters that say ‘you can do anything you work hard enough for’. A woman who does not manage a thriving family plus her own business is either ‘not escaping the clutches of the patriarchy’ or else ‘failing as a woman’.
And both children and adults are not merely told to achieve the impossible, they are shown pictures of the impossible constantly. Billboards inflict expectational violence on us constantly by showing us the beautiful and successful people we should aspire to be, but whom we neither will be nor have any meaningful relation with. The media shows us the super-winners in our societies who have it all – wealth, looks, family, fame, and even happiness.
We are bombarded with images of what we are told we should want and should be, but have no real hope to achieve. So we lie to ourselves that we will soon be successful, and meanwhile, we resent. We take it out on others. And within the small confines of our actual world, in the home and at work, we are violent to others. We tell them to achieve the impossible too. We inflict procedures on them. We cannot hide our disappointment about ourselves that is mirrored in the disappointment with those around us.
So we are complicit. Without our help, heroes would be unknowns. Millionaires would have nothing. The beautiful would be normal. It is our fantasies and compliance that lift them up, make a small handful of us join, and keeps most of the rest of us down. The psychological violence we receive is merely the mirror of the violence we dole out every day, stuck in our impossible fantasies.
And where has the increased psychological violence ultimately come from? It has come from increased inequality in wealth and power, together with increased individualism and rapid technological change that makes us aware of what we do not have. This has engendered feelings of helplessness, ignorance, victimhood, and angst at who we are, at how we can maintain or capture a valued place amongst others, and how we relate to other generations who are raised with different technologies. Our place in life feels more contested and under threat than ever before, so we have more violence inflicted on us and we dole it out more, either in defence of our place or in an attempt to thrive at the expense of someone else.
Why has psychological violence decreased?
Physical violence has decreased spectacularly in the last few hundred years as more and more of us have been crammed together on the same amount of land. We first had to learn how to stop killing each other and keeping our hands off private parts.
Compared to centuries gone by, many of us have managed to kick the habit of hitting those who annoy us, and grabbing what we want. We now work for it, cajole, cheat, lie, negotiate, and coordinate to get what we want. That is progress.
Once non-violence became normal some 60 years ago, we then set out to ingrain the habit of peacefulness into our inner worlds: we have had to learn not to be too upset when we didn’t get what we wanted, and to preferably stop wanting things so desperately in the first place.
Complex cooperative behaviour and inner peace are now part of the mix of being a successful human. Eastern meditation techniques, developed in societies that for ages needed to pacify large groups of people, have now become commonplace in the West. The ideas that we should stop wanting and that we should let go of the wish to dominate others are growing in the West. Mindfulness, calmness, an orientation on inner mastery and outer harmony have stopped being weird concepts and are now advocated in boardrooms, parliaments, and schools.
Of course many of us never managed to suppress our animal tendencies. Those that didn’t manage to suppress the violent side find ourselves increasingly isolated, dead, or in prison. Compared to Europe, the Americans have some catching up to do on this front, but there has been progress.
Where is the evidence that our inner lives have become more tranquil and that our treatment of others has improved?
The evidence is extensive and in multiple dimensions: happiness levels in Europe have improved the last 20 years (particularly in Italy, the UK and France according to the Eurobarometer), which is a good measure of well-feeling and thus of how someone is experiencing their lives. Substance abuse (alcohol, drugs) has also gone down, a sign that there is less frustration and mental anger to suppress and deal with. At the same time, volunteering is very high, solidarity as measured by the size of the welfare state is unprecedented, and the tolerance for any open form of bullying, shaming, and belittling has reduced. Psychological violence is now legislated against and recognised, with violence against the well-feeling of minorities, sexual orientation, and religious sentiments outlawed. Legal protection against visible psychological violence at work is now in place.
There are also signs that our language and imagery has become less violent and less offensive: the use of profanities in teenage movies has declined over time, whilst respectful language use has gone up with more careful depictions of people with mental and physical limitation. Things like dwarf throwing has been outlawed, Gay parades are plentiful and popular, and the Paralympics have reduced the sense of exclusion of various groups in mainstream sports. So the ability to express identities rather than hide them has increased.
For what it’s worth, measures of sexism at work have gone down spectacularly in the US in recent decades, underscoring our increased civility.
It is thus a gentle age in which we live, with not merely high levels of wealth and physical safety, but increasingly a more respectful and humane interaction with all those around us. Where that gentleness ultimately comes from is less clear, but one possibility is that the internet and social media revolution has made it possible for us to be constantly psychologically close to our loved ones, and that the service-oriented nature of work has made us more attune to human emotions and conflict-resolution than our previous work (agriculture and industry).
Both stories told above seems plausible to me. I can even believe a middle version wherein the level of violence we humans engage in and suffer is pretty much constant, where ambition fills up any slack in the pressures that separate our desires from those of others.
Has psychological violence gone up or down? I….just….do….not….know.