‘which one of youse want to fight?’ – Youth and violent ways of being
Mia told me about her first time in juvenile detention and defending her friend…
“…all of the girls picking on her. Every single girl picking on her because, I don’t know, she just kept to herself… And so, they just started telling stories. And as soon as I got in there, and I went to her they just started telling stories about me. So, I didn’t like that, so I went up to them all, all twelve of them, went up to them and was just ‘which one of youse want to fight?’ You know? And out of all of them not one of them stepped up. So ever since then the girls would never run me down in there but.”
Mia’s story sounds like what we might expect juvenile detention is like. Mia has many personal “risk factors”, but Mia’s story isn’t what it seems. Close listening to her story reveals a young person who has much to teach us about preventing violence.
The point of my book “Youth & Violent Performativities” is to challenge the subtle and often unconscious idea often seen in currents affairs programs or splashed about on social media that there is something about being young or something inside young people that makes them violent. You know, the tired trope of “youths” at the skate park or shopping centre breaking things and getting in fights.
The idea sometimes presented by politicians and media commentators goes that young people have to learn not to be violent so that they can get along with others in the adult world. Often the best way to do, they say, this is through harsh punitive policies like curfews, locking them up for minor offenses or putting young people through boot camps. The assumption is that society generally speaking is pretty peaceful, and the adults who inhabit it are not violent, or at least they are less violent than young people.
Such assumptions are clearly false when you look at the evidence. Let me give you a quick example:
“The majority of homicide offenders were aged between 35 and 49 years, regardless of gender. In 2013-14, 32 percent of male homicide offenders and 35 percent of female homicide offenders were aged between 35 and 49 years.” – http://crimestats.aic.gov.au/NHMP/2_victims-offenders/
Despite the stats showing that the most violent criminal acts are done by an older age group, young people are routinely shown in media as being involved in looting and rioting, as members of youth gangs, or involved in schoolyard bullying. So the idea that they are violent is subtly reinforced.
I make the argument that instead of starting with the young person and asking “what is it about them” or “what ‘risk factors’ do they have that make them violent”, we can start by looking at where violence is part of our society and ask how young people act out or try to avoid violent ways of being.
Violence is acceptable in many parts of our society. We often just don’t call it violence. Physical brutality in sport is celebrated. Bullying in parliament is acceptable. Business decisions that leave people jobless and homeless are normal. And, as is being revealed through the Black Lives Matter movement, violating racial and gender inequality is imbued in our social structures. Each of these show in some way that it is ok to harm others for our own gain. These are strong messages about what it means to be an adult and how to relate to other people.
Instead of asking the question: Why are young people violent?
I ask: How do young people become violent?
The young people in this book come from a seemingly strange collection of places. They were in the child protection system, juvenile justice system or involved in nonviolent activism. Another way of describing them might be as victims, perpetrators and resisters to violence. But the thing is, it is not simply that those (for example) in child protection are the victims of violence and not perpetrators or resisters. Rather these young people’s experiences with violence are mixed and messy were lines like victim and perpetrator, or violent and not violent are not so clear.
Violence is a messy and slippery idea. To try and start by looking for violence (rather than the young person) required gathering a variety of young people’s perspective and rethinking the assumptions we make about who fits into what category.
Here are a couple more stories from the book:
The first is a story told by Tristan. He describes witnessing his cousin become a victim of domestic violence. Tristan and his family rushed to protect her, wielding weapons and threatening violence against the boyfriend. As the boyfriend ran away Tristan turns his attention to preventing his uncle from pursuing the boyfriend further. Tristan hugs his uncle and tells him not to get himself in trouble. Revenge would likely come at the cost of prison time for his uncle.
Is there something about Tristan that is violent? He threatened violence, but then also prevented it. Listening to Tristan’s story and experiences in the child protection system it became clear that violence a consistent theme in his life. It was more than a way to solve problems or isolated to extreme moments. Violence was something that shaped his life, identity and way of being in the world.
The second story is told by Hailey. She has been involved in non-violent and anti-war activism for several years. She reflects on her experiences and where she thinks the line between violent and peaceful activism lies. For her, breaking and damaging property isn’t necessarily violent, especially if it is the property of a corporation who profits from selling weapons of war. At this same time, she thinks about how, in her experience, it is really normal for male voices to dominate politics or even group decision making. This, she thinks, can be violence. She says that it is acceptable because it “is how we have kind of grown up in our society.” Hailey story suggested that individual violent actions are somehow connected to broader systems of profit and politics. To understand her activism, we need to understand the connection to these social systems.
This book listens closely and carefully to young people’s stories about violence. I try to resist the temptation to focus on the flashy and dramatic individual acts of violence the make great news headlines. Instead, I try to hear the bigger connecting narrative that lies underneath and in between the individual acts that connect up and gives shape to something larger, revealing the patterns of violence that we usually overlook or learn to ignore.
This book challenges the idea that young people are inherently violent by seeing the violence that shapes their lives and that teaches them how to be and what to become. But also this book uncovers the messy and imperfect attempts to resist and avoid violence. The hopeful message is that not only are young people not inherently violent, they are also actively searching for ways to create a world without violence.
Some more thoughts (I’ll be doing posts on these soon):
- Implications for working with young people
- How youth is an excuse to be violent (to young people)
- Some stories of creative resistance to violence