Makenzie O'Connor


Old Ramblings About Collective Responsibility and Violence

Life seems to be filled with patterns, and these patterns tend to be cyclic. I am unsure if there is one large cycle of life or if there are countless smaller and inexorably intertwined cycles; but nevertheless, one of the most troubling of these cycles is that of violence – of hatred. Because we can put an end to a cycle of violence and because humans are not inherently “evil,” it is my assumption that there must be a point at which the cycle starts, like patient zero, and this is the point which interests me the most. Perhaps it is the prevention driven global health student in me, but I am intrigued, frustrated, and challenged by the question of where and why violence originated. Throughout my wondering, I have managed to come up with a theory that satisfies my curiosity for the meantime; though it doesn’t lend itself to specific and concrete solutions to mitigating structures of violence, I do believe that it is a mindset that might enable us to think more collectively.

Though conflict resolution and other forms of stopping and reconciling violence are important, it seems most logical to me that we would work to come up with solutions to prevent violence altogether. This might be an idealistic approach, but this was the frame from which I addressed the question and from which I tend to address most challenges. From this point of view, I started to narrow down different factors which might initially facilitate violence, and I came up with three that stood out the most: misperception, rash decision making, and environmental influences. I soon realized that this model sounded a lot like reciprocal determinism.

Reciprocal determinism suggests that our experiences are a result of three interacting factors – cognition, behavior, and environment – and I can see how violence might be explained through all three of these factors. Just as young children sometimes misperceive the emotions of others as aggressive and then act back with aggression, therefore creating an increase in aggression, I think that violence might come about in a very similar way. It might be the result of a misperception of an individual or group’s actions (cognition) within a violence promoting atmosphere (environment) that ultimately leads to impulsive hate driven actions (behavior). The first step in this cycle seems to be misperception, and so I narrowed into the idea of misperception with the chance that overcoming it might lead me closer to understanding how to change the structures of violence.

My perspective is that we are all misunderstood. Misunderstood by others as well as ourselves. When we assume that anyone has a clear and steadfast idea of what they are doing, we assume incorrectly. Though intention plays a large role into how others might perceive our behaviors, we find ourselves changing and adapting our intentions and beliefs throughout our lifespan. We are not stagnant creatures, but rather we are continually growing and developing. This plays into violence in that when we assume that the intentions of others are harmful we are most likely misperceiving them, and even if they happen to be violent in that very moment, it is likely that their intentions will change. Perhaps something in the environment was triggering or a series of unfortunate events had occurred to lead an individual or group to have violent intentions; but just like in a “moment of rage” we might say something hurtful to a friend or take the last dinner roll, in a very real way, a moment of desperation might lead someone to take violent action. Our ever-changing environments are ever influencing our intentions and furthermore our behaviors – a contrast in environment creases a rift in personality and self. The ability to accept change in others as well as ourselves is a good step toward mitigating the structures of violence, but this is yet an incomplete explanation.

The intersection of our perceptions and the environment led me in an even more interesting direction. Violence seems to be a byproduct of something in the environment and we each as individuals help to make up this surrounding environment. We are as much a part of it as we are a part of ourselves. I found that this is as far as I have been able to fully understand and articulate the depths of my thoughts, and it has led me to the idea of collective responsibility. Because we are each a part of the environment that shapes us so much, we are all collectively responsible for everything. This idea extends past violence but is particularly enlightening when coming up with ways to prevent violence altogether.

If we think of ourselves as collectively responsible, we are not able to blame others or put the full responsibility of an act of violence on one individual or group. We instead might start by reflecting upon our own role in the situation, either active or passive, and then start to address the intricate connections between all parties involved, directly or indirectly. We are interconnected. The interconnected nature of this world can be both beautiful and devastating. Humans have such beautiful potentials, and yet such devastating realities at times, but we are all a part of the human community.

I suppose my suggestion lies within introspection and compassion. To change the structures of violence we much change our mindset; instead of continuing to act harmfully in order to satisfy the discomfort of our cognitive dissonance, let us instead accept the uneasiness and reflect upon what really led us to act in such a way. Though the idea of collective responsibility puts more of a smaller kind of weight on individuals, it also relieves one large weight – the weight of being alone and fully responsible for your actions. The US culture puts such great emphasis on individuality that we have lost touch with the interconnectedness we share with each other.

We are all human on a fundamental level, and we should return to this fact whenever we feel alone, whenever we feel subject to violence, or whenever we feel like resorting to violence. The best thing that I think any of us can do is continue to explore the self, for the more you learn about the self, the more we might come to understand our ever-changing intentions and behaviors. The more we learn about ourselves, the more that we might learn about the environment that we live in and help to make up. The more we learn about ourselves, the better we might understand how we influence others or how our actions might affect those around us. By learning more about ourselves, we will learn how to prevent ourselves from acting violently, and if we can keep one human from violence, we might also be able to keep two, three, four and even more.

Through my reflections, I have struggled to come up with definitive answers to changing the structures of violence, but life is not definitive and so neither will our thoughts about it be. We have complex and abstract solutions to complex and abstract challenges. The context surrounding each individual act of violence is so important in coming up with solutions, that without context, the best that we can do is create an overarching framework from which to create specific solutions when context is available. This is what I hope to have accomplished. I hope to have shaped a framework or mindset from which we can more compassionately view the world and the human community living in it. Most simply, my hope is to remind everyone that we are all human.



Makenzie O'Connor