By the age of 10, I was already well adjusted to the threat of violence. In some ways, violence itself was preferable to the threat of violence. When you are being hit or chased a part of you switches off. You become physically numb while the violent act is carried out. Angry people tire easy, so the key to enduring a violent episode at the hands of someone you can’t evade or fight back, is simply to submit and hope that you don’t sustain a serious injury.
The idealists may say otherwise, but high minded theories about dealing with violence are impractical when you are actually faced with it. The rational mind goes offline as your primal survival instincts upload, leaving your options severely limited.
Pacifism will always be trumped in the face of force, because morals are about the luxury of aspiration; violence is about the reality of power and fear.
Acts of violence are terrifying, but the threat of violence is far worse. If the violence occurs in the home then it’s something you feel in the air. A sense of dread accumulates over time until the aggressor snaps and loses their temper. When they do it’s almost a relief because life usually returns to something resembling normal following the violent event. You are, in many ways, glad to get it over with.
Afterward, there is always the faintest hope that the violent person’s genuine remorse, will be enough to change them for the better. Even if it isn’t – which is almost always the case – there remains a strange tenderness around those moments, when the person who behaved violently, expresses their regret. This rare tenderness could be interpreted as love.
Outside the home, violence is more like a public event. People stave off the threat of violence towards themselves by stoking it in someone else’s direction; whipping the playground into a frenzy until the first blow is struck. In both cases however, whether at home or in the street, when faced with the definite and unavoidable threat of violence, you will experience the worst possible type of fear. This fear is your real adversary.
I knew violence could not be avoided, so I learned to choose my fights wisely. There is no point in fighting someone at the location they stipulate beforehand. They usually choose that location because it gives them a tactical advantage. My biggest worry, when faced with an unavoidable conflict, would be that I may gain an early advantage that would throw the aggressor into a prideful, violent temper. This could raise the stakes and potentially lead to an extreme act of violence, like biting or head kicking, which I always wanted to avoid. But this was only the case because I always went into a fight with something to lose. Many other young people do not share that view. For this reason, I would always try to catch the aggressor off guard, in full view of the gallery and in close proximity to responsible adults who would break up the fight before it went too far. I could fight, but it was more instinctive than methodical, as is the case with most people. I certainly never took any pleasure from it.
Looking back now, I can see how calculated I was in my approach. To my adversary, the fight was a major event in the academic calender where they could demonstrate their physical prowess (value) to the rest of the community. For me, it was just another obstacle to overcome before going home, where the real problems were waiting.
Please don’t misconstrue the tone here as the telling of a hard luck tale. The real significance, if any, in my story is not that it is special, but that it’s so common. I possess gifts that allow me to express ideas and for years I’ve obsessively honed them while toiling over how my experiences could serve a greater purpose than my own meandering catharsis. I happen to believe I have been very fortunate in life and this gratitude has helped me overcome genuine adversity.
No matter how hard life gets, there is always something to be sublimely grateful for. For me it’s the blessing of a truly wonderful, loving and eccentric family.
We were always encouraged to express ourselves and showing emotion was not something to be treated like an ailment, as is the case in other families. I had lots of aunties, uncles and cousins who enjoyed playing around and as a large family, with grandparents as glue, we were very close and never apart for very long.
When you’re a kid the hot summers seem to last for an eternity. We were always out in the garden playing football or making capes out of bath towels and pretending we were superheroes. We scaled the surrounding hills like mountaineering explorers on an epic quest for treasure and when back at base-camp, we’d document our tales in drawings and poetry. Other children would come round to play with us and my Granny had an open door policy because she knew, for some of the neighbouring kids, it was probably best they get out the house for a while.
Those kids didn’t play like we did. They seemed more self conscious and even a little serious. They usually came round to ask for a piece and jam or to make enquiries about the availability of empty ginger bottles (money). I thought nothing of it at the time. If they came to the door I just let them in, but now I realise those kids were already learning how to fend for themselves. Clearly, their home life was pretty precarious. What struck me was how long they could be away from home without anyone coming to see if they were safe.
As the years went on and the summers grew shorter, they became the local hoodlums, or neds. In a housing scheme, everyone’s movement is subtly dictated by this young, but extremely powerful group. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. You don’t do very much without factoring in this rogue element, who are defined by their disdain for almost all forms of authority bar the one they impose on themselves. No velvet glove, just a cast iron fist.
The only way to deal with them is to show no fear, but this is a high risk strategy and often results in needless injury or death. People such as this value pride above all other things and backing down is a shameful act within their peer group, punishable by violence. Simply going to the shop for bread becomes a high stakes mind game where making a stand against the threat usually isn’t worth the risk, unless you find yourself in mortal danger.
For this reason, their unpleasant behaviour and lurking presence goes largely unchallenged until someone is brave enough to involve the police. But the police only have dominion when they are physically present and even law abiding folk are weary of cops.
Cops are the fortunate hoodlums, who exercise a moral form of force, but at the core it’s still just the threat of violence. Despite their legal legitimacy, they symbolise the same thing as the neds. They just enforce it with a more efficient kind of consistency. They are the real gang and rule the roost when they’re present, but as soon as they leave, the streets are turned back over to the real authority in the community: the feckless children.
Eventually my grandparents, who lived there for 40 years, had to move out. The children they once welcomed in off the street for respite from their families, were now terrorising them in their own home. The campaign of harassment culminated in a fire, which was evidently the last straw. They were one of the last senior couples to leave and they did so stubbornly. They struggled to rationalise the sense of injustice that they should be the ones driven out, when they had been such a cornerstone of the community since it was created in the 1950s to deal with the social blow back of the industrial-age. But Pollok was now a different kind of animal and not much could be done to remedy the situation but concede to the growing threat of violence.
It was another victory for structural poverty.
Poverty is a form of violence.
Image by Daniel Birch
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