Understanding And Preventing Violence: The Psychology Of Human Destructiveness (Book Review)

Author:  Whitaker, Leighton C. 
Publisher: CRC Press, 2002
Reviewed By: Bertram P. Karon, Spring 2003, p. 55

This is a brief, very readable, and intellectually sophisticated review of what we know about violence, what seems to increase it, and what we can do to reduce it. If is never oversimplified, nor does Whitaker ever suggest one simple solution for a complex problem. It is typical of the breadth of his approach that he even deals with the Malthusian argument that violence is a natural way of dealing with the problem of overpopulation (for the potential food supply). He demonstrates that it actually makes the problem worse.

The problem of violence is increasing. The danger of violent death is greater now than in the 18th or 19th centuries, with all their violence. The United States is the most dangerous of all the developed countries, in terms of the odds of violent death.

The book considers individual violence by individuals against individuals, violence of countries against each other, violence of countries against their own citizens, and the nature of pseudo-patriotic violent groups and of anti-government of anti-cultural violent groups, including violent religious sects. The one omission is the 9/11 bombings since the book was written before that attack, but it does include the earlier World Trade Center bombing, and the Oklahoma City bombing, and deadly religious cults, and the factors that are described would generalize to other specific situations.

Included are critiques of the way we practice law, the use of media violence, the way we practice journalism, the way we treat the poor, deceptive and destructive advertising, and other aspects of our society that engender violence. Included is a description of how Phillip Bernays, using psychoanalytic advice from Brill, carried out a completely deceptive campaign to help get women to smoke, using women who thought they were demonstrating for women’s rights and had no idea they were advertising cigarettes and smoking.

There is a well-documented chapter (using trustworthy sources in the public domain) on the CIA, which is hard to read, not because the writing is not clear, but because the reader does not want to believe that our own government would do such things. My reaction was similar to that of a therapist suffering what is usually referred to as “secondary trauma,” the reaction of a therapist whose patient recounts horrors that the therapist would rather believe could not possibly be true. Unfortunately, the chapter is accurate. (I asked Dr. Whitaker about that chapter, and he told me his feelings about writing it were even more uncomfortable than mine on reading it, but that he felt it was important to complete that chapter, no matter how disturbing it was to work on.).

But this is not a pessimistic book. It suggests things that can be done, that work, as well as things that are done, that do not work, or that make the problems worse. For example, it is an empirical fact that democratic governments are far less likely to wage war than undemocratic ones. The difference in the murder rates between England and Canada and that in the United States is very close to the difference in the rate of gun ownership. Whitaker suggests techniques of dealing with members of dissident potentially violent groups. He, of course, talks of child rearing, good and bad, and about authoritarian and violence prone individuals, and the constructive mentality and what seems to produce each of these, and information that would help if widely known. He describes unusually constructive individuals and what seems to produce them. He also talks about aspects of our society, mass media, the practice of law, even the way we approach sports that lead to an increase in violence. He points out that no one factor alone is responsible, but the interaction of several factors usually leads to violence. Single factors by themselves do not usually lead to violence, but they change the probabilities. Similarly, changing a single factor will not cure violence, but it will change the probabilities. Among his causes are the gun industry, protest masculinity (“Real men dominate”), violence entertainment, drug pushers, bigots, and bullies. Their advocates defend each of these as not the cause. Whitaker agrees: Each of them is not the cause; each of them is a contributing cause. Consequently, a decrease in any of them will decrease the probabilities of bad things happening.

This book is reminiscent of Gordon Allport’s classic The Nature of Prejudice in its breadth of coverage of factors, readableness, accuracy, and the insistence that just as there are vicious circles, there are also benign circles – a decrease in one hurtful factor makes it easier to improve others. It is a book well worth reading and thinking about.

Reviewer Note

Bert Karon teaches at Michigan State University and is a former president of the division. In April 2003, he received the Distinguished Scientific Award from Division 39.

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