Magazine Feature

If Anger Were The Problem

A domestic violence counselor reflects on recent assaults in our schools.

After the Littleton, Colo., tragedy last spring, the media focus, like a broken searchlight wobbling out of control, lingered briefly on the usual Big Questions: Who's to blame? Is it Hollywood? The gun lobby? Music? Video games? Why is it happening in these schools (as opposed to "those" schools)? Where were the parents, and how could they not have noticed how much trouble their kids were in? Why are some children so angry?

I've worked in both academia and the domestic violence field, and I've observed some intriguing parallels between the two settings when it comes to violence. In both cases the perpetrators are typically male, the targeted victims are often female (they were exclusively female at Jonesboro, Ark.), and anger is often blamed for what happens.

In domestic assault cases, the courts routinely send batterers to "anger management" counseling. It rarely works, of course. In the first place, chances are the wife-beater manages his anger just fine when he's sitting where the judge can see him. It isn't his anger that makes him beat her up.

It so happens that one of the Columbine killers had, in fact, gone through anger management counseling -- "which he enjoyed," according to press reports. We may find that shocking, but it's unfortunately typical. Violent people often "do well" in counseling situations -- until you look at what it means to "do well." Batterers commonly use the information they get to help them avoid future consequences and become better batterers.

What about anti-gay violence and racial violence? Was young Matthew Shepard crucified in Wyoming because the men who killed him hadn't learned how to manage their anger? Were the men who dragged James Byrd Jr. to pieces in Texas and those who set Billy Jack Gaither on fire after beating him to death in Alabama just angry and ill-equipped to manage their anger? Is there a connection between these hate crimes and what's happening in schools?

I think there is, and I don't believe we can blame the violence on anger. Anger is just an excuse.

If anger were the problem, women would be the most violent people in America. One of them gets assaulted every 9 seconds. You think they don't have reason to be angry? But not a single shot in any of these school shootings has been fired by a female. (If you say, "Well, girls don't do that," are you saying boys do?)

If anger were the problem, African Americans would typically have been the perpetrators rather than the victims of violence in their struggle for justice and equality. Instead, they turned overwhelmingly to civil disobedience and nonviolence and prayed for the people who denied them their basic human rights.

If anger were the problem, gay people would be rioting from Alabama to Oregon, instead of asking to be allowed to serve, and who would blame them?

The real problem is hatred, not anger. Women don't kill men very often, African Americans haven't sought mass vengeance against Whites, and gay people don't routinely murder heterosexuals -- because they don't hate them. They may be angry, but they haven't gone through the process of defining the Other as inferior and thus worthy of disrespect.

They haven't listened to a lifetime of sermons condemning heterosexuals, of racist and sexist jokes and put-downs aimed at White men, of "lips dripping with the words of nullification" toward anyone they happen to resent, as Martin Luther King so eloquently expressed it.

Hatred is usually accompanied by a sense of entitlement. (Studies of batterers show the overwhelming belief among abusive men that they are entitled to control, dominate and batter women.) When young males seek violent power and control over others, it may be that they feel entitled to privilege and dominance. Our children have seen a great many murders on television by the age of puberty. They have seen far more messages about how males are supposed to dominate and be aggressive and how females are supposed to "internalize" their anger.

The challenge is daunting, but sooner or later, after all the issues have been debated, the focus comes back to teachers. Others may abdicate responsibility, but educators cannot. It may seem that we are asking them to perform miracles, but, fortunately, teachers and counselors have both the ability and the opportunity to make a tremendous difference.

As previously reported in Teaching Tolerance and elsewhere, the 1997 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that having positive relationships with teachers is the most important educational factor in protecting teenagers from harmful behavior. A wise person once noted that "children may forget what you say, but they'll never forget how you make them feel."

Our children need love teachers, peace teachers, tolerance teachers. They need men and women who can teach them how to develop relationships based on mutual respect and equality rather than dominance and control.

Across America in recent years, teachers have given their lives trying to save children from violence. Not one of the stories I have read about these heroic individuals dwells on their credentials or their academic qualifications. What mattered, the reports tell us, was how they connected with students on a human level. Any teacher who can do that is already a hero.

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