Gang attacks, home invasions, street brawls, battering of women and children. Murder, rape, and mayhem. We have been living with violence in our community for a long time. Every so often there’s a surge like the recent gang related offending.

Politicians, community leaders, and citizens voice their concerns and march on the streets. Calls are made for tougher Police action. Policy is introduced to outlaw gang membership. Programs to target and assist at risk youth are set up by caring agencies.

We must assume that all efforts to remedy violence in society are worthwhile, but things don’t seem to get any better.

Nearly 10 years have passed since James Whakaruru was murdered in Havelock North by his mother’s boyfriend.

James was five at the time. His death by battering dismayed the community. An enquiry found communication breakdown between the various medical and welfare services failed to share their identification of his obvious risk.

1999 was also the year Splash Planet security guard Hugh Mills was murdered by Dennis Sandilands.

Numerous attempts were made by Dennis’s family to find him help. He had a history of mental illness and violence, and was behaving in such a disturbing manner, they wrote to the Police warning of his danger to society. The Police did intervene but were powerless to apprehend Dennis until he offended.

I was working in the kitchen at Diva in Havelock North at the time. It was then owned by Kim Howard, and KB was the Head Chef.

Alan Duff was a regular. He drank Heineken from a chilled glass. His best selling book Once Were Warriors was a critically acclaimed expose on violence. Alan was known to be a violent man. He ‘sorted you out’ if you crossed him.

He sorted out Dennis Sandilands a few days before Hugh Mills was murdered. Dennis was loud and abusive. Alan manhandled him out the door and Dennis disappeared into the night.

A few weeks earlier the bar was overflowing with celebrating punters from the Kelt Capital Stakes.

Four men with long hair, dressed in Levi’s and black leather jackets, approached the bar. One of the racing blokes called them ‘bogans’ and a fight was on. Kim moved fast and screamed at them all to get outside. They did. KB and I put down our pots and pans and watched.

Prominent local businessmen and farmers were punching it out with the ‘bogans,’ and the host of the big horse race had removed his shoes, and was furiously kicking into the air. It didn’t last long. Word went around that the Police were on their way.

Apparently men have been sorting each other out with violence ever since humans settled territory and acquired possessions.

Archaeological excavations and evolutionary studies reveal human groups were peaceful and co-operative until we developed agriculture and domesticated animals about 10,000 years ago. With the advent of possessions, a predatory hierarchical structure emerged, and humans became aggressive territorial animals. Males, being bigger and stronger than females, assumed the major role in physical defense and attack.

That we have dragged our ‘barbaric’ past into the ‘civilised’ present is no surprise, because the root of man’s aggressiveness, the protection or acquisition of territory and property, remains unchanged.

The range of what is considered territory and property has expanded however, and today in Hawke’s Bay they obviously include the bars in which we drink, a gang’s market share in drug dealing, and women and children. These territories and possessions are aggressively controlled, and when pushed to the extremes, we see children murdered, pillars of the community fighting in the streets, and savage gang rivalry.

Aggression is a paramount feature in a world defined by national boundaries, market share, and resource allocation, all of which are acquired aggressively and defended, either by force of arms or the power of the marketplace. The invasion of Iraq is the outstanding current example of the level of brutality deemed acceptable to control resources. And cheap labour in developing countries is often brutally exploited in the ‘cost of production’ competition for market share.

Competition and aggression are imbedded in most cultures, so much so, violence is glamourised in sports and recreation.

In New Zealand our national sport is a violent game where ‘enemies’ are ‘slaughtered’ if they don’t have the ‘killer instinct,’ and we feel roused by the haka at the beginning of an All Black test, forgetting that the rolling of eyes and tongues represent what happens when the enemy head is boiled up in preparation for eating.

Our televisions and cinemas screen horrific images of assault, rape and murder, video games reward players on their ability to kill, and music lyrics glamorise the gangster lifestyle. This year’s Academy Award winning film was a shockingly violent movie where the ‘hero’ killed with impunity and got away with his crimes. And the latest Batman movie is so dark and sinister one wonders if the subject material contributed to Heath Ledger’s state of mind at the time of his death.

Violence in our society is out of control, but ironically control is what violence is all about. From the man who kicks his partner after smacking her to ground to the Nation that drops cluster bombs from 20,000 feet. They are both using their superior power to subjugate others, and it appears that the more powerful the perpetrator the greater chance they have of getting away with it.

When a wealthy man beats his wife and children in a million dollar home in Havelock North, he is unlikely to be prosecuted as readily as if he lived in a State house. And George Bush will never face a court for his war crimes, whereas Saddam was executed for his.

Double standards and hypocrisy abound in our attitudes towards violence. We educate our kids about bullying and aggression, but show them the opposite. Surely there can be no improvement in societal violence until we stop supporting aggression and violence in even its subtle forms.

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5 Comments

  1. Nice piece Mark – and noble aspirations. Though perhaps violence in "subtle forms" (contact sport, Sam Kelt's right hooks, action flicks etc) could, rather than act as catalyst for greater acts of harm, be a much-needed (albeit mindless) aperture.

    And besides, if Heineken soaked businessmen waltzing with bogans at Diva is aggression personified, then what's happening in other places in the world is surely an aboriginal calamity. Fancy a pint in Papua New Guinea anyone?

    Would like to hear your thoughts on this Mark. Maybe humanity would be better served by acknowledging its violent side – or be forever enslaved by it.

    Mark Story

  2. Mark,

    It all sounded logical and almost PC, apportion blame to the popular whipping boys, BUT, compare the following against your excuses :

    I am a British product, raised through the 1940’s (born ’37). We grew up only knowing war, on the radio, in the papers and on the cinema screens. People were being brutally killed in thousands per day, not the one a week currently here in NZ. We had Cowboys & Indians at the cinemas, which weren’t all ‘Peace, Love & Flower Power’. Many of us were robbed of our fathers for the duration, the more unfortunate, for ever.

    None of this was an excuse for us to behave with selfish greed and total disrespect. What is the difference ?

    We had a number of things that are now illegal, discouraged and ignored. We were subject to discipline; we were taught respect for ourselves and others. We had elders that we could look up to, who themselves had standards by which they lived. Who didn't want to be a Stanley Matthews, Len Hutton or even a Winston Churchill. We had a monarch as our Head of State, not by his choice, but, one who didn’t run when the going got tough, and publicly displayed respect for the common man and maintaining proven standards. We had the sanctity of marriage and we had a God, who defined the standards and rules.

    Look to where the real problem lies and make sure that later this year you reflect on the norms of Wartime England, recognise where they differ from what we currently experience, and decide who you believe will restore those old fashioned ideals.

    Sincerely,

    Philip M Ward

  3. Thanks Mark & Philip for extending the debate. I play the Devils Advocate a bit and could just as easily taken Freud's opinion that man is innately aggressive, proven by males being bigger than females, which in every other mammal follows polygamist mating behaviour where males fight for the right to mate. Imagine where that could lead.

    We’ve lived through a period of radical change in the power of the Church and its influence in child rearing. Good point Philip. I’m old enough to be in the last intake of an Anglican boarding school where we were beaten with a cane, and a slipper reinforced with a cricket bat. That’s how the difference between right and wrong was instilled. And the chaplain had a mighty swing.

    We were encouraged to believe in God. One that was all seeing all knowing, and redemptive. I think the fear was effective in moderating extreme behaviour. Since then, or was it after the ‘war to end all wars’, the flight from Christendom in the West has had a massive cultural impact, and I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s observation, that if ‘God is dead, then anything is permissible’. Certainly a set of values whether based on the Ten Commandments, The Eight Right Ways, or the philosophical approach of ensuring a clear conscience, can civilise our behaviour if practised in good faith. A lot of our politicians call themselves ‘agnostic’, some ‘atheist’ (be interesting to see the stats) Their God is rationalism.

    In our new secular State the moral authority of the church has been replaced by a Social Contract enshrined in Law. Everything is regulated into a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way of doing. The smacking debate makes my point. Sue Bradford’s bill was an interpretation of the United Nations Right of the Child charter. Opponents argued in terms of the right of parents to discipline their kids, not the right of a child to be protected from violence in any form. Which is the greater right is a matter of ethical philosophy. Where one draws the line is a matter of conscience. What I think opponents really object to is the State enforcing its set of values upon them. Sometimes social engineering can’t be disguised. If smacking kids becomes as unfashionable as smoking, then what will be next? I don't think it will be banning advertising for the biggest catalyst to violence – alcohol!

    Binge drinking and alcohol is the next topic in my BayDigest contribution. It’d be interesting to hear experiences from the 6 o’clock closing era (1967), or if anyone remembers the 1949 referendum which overwhelmingly voted not to extend the hours. Opinions on why binge drinking has become so entrenched in our culture would be great.

    I’m thinking of taking the angle that we are irrational about the personal, social & medical cost of alcohol abuse in New Zealand. Forget cigarettes, or ‘P’, marijuana or chocolate. Alcohol is way, way the biggest friend of violent behaviour, and disease of body and mind. But that’s all part of the Social Contract. We’ve chosen one supreme drug to glamourise and banned all competitors. Any contributions on alternative, safer, and non-violent ways of 'getting out of it' are welcomed (for research purposes only)

    Cheers

    Mark

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