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Getting to the bottom of the problem

The Angry Society (Part 3)
Published: 
Monday, November 20, 2017

More than once, in an attempt to get to the bottom of criminal behaviour in T&T, a 2012 UNDP Report on Citizen Security cites US criminologist, Dr Robert Agnew’s “General Strain Theory” which attempts to trace the connection between negative emotions, including anger, violence and adverse personal and societal circumstance.

For instance, the Report suggests that “visible disparities in income and standard of living can create frustration and anger for those who are deprived in society.”

This appears to be where Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) behavioural scientist, Dr Cheryl Jones, is coming from when asked, for this series, what she thinks underlies growing visible signs of anger and rage in T&T.

Dr Jones believes rage and anger can be linked to “changing societal norms and values and persons not being able to benefits within the context of set societal norms and values.”

Among such values, she says, are societies attaching greater value to “material things” as opposed to less tangible assets.

“In order acquire these things they resort to different approaches,” Dr Jones says, “and some of these approaches are against the norm.

“When people are not allowed to obtain the dream of incomes and other tangibles, this can result in anger,” she says.

Criminologist Renee Cummings however believes anger can be a healthy emotion. “It is violence that is unhealthy,” she says.

“The free floating anger, people who are angry and don’t know why and the intergenerational anger, usually in families where there is unresolved hurt (or) trauma, are conditions which need interventions because they could turn into violence,” Cummings argues.

This view concurs with Agnew’s theory which asserts that personal and social “strains” can manifest themselves in antisocial behaviours if they are seen as either unjust or insurmountable in magnitude.

He also points to the feeling that the sources of strain are either associated with low social control or provide pressures of incentives to engage in “criminal coping.”

Dr Jones argues that “there are so many different factors that go into how someone makes a decision” and that “mental health work in all communities” can assist in getting to the bottom of the negative behaviours being witnessed.

Cummings says what is needed is a more clinical approach to the issues.

“While Trinidad and Tobago has become a very violent society and violence has become the default mode of communication for a small group that’s causing big trouble, for the society at large, I don’t think we are an angry society, because, at given time, no more than 10 per cent of the population is engaged in violent behaviour.”

She attributes “early exposure to violence” as “one of the greatest predictors that someone will engage in violence as an adult.

“Too many children...are being raised in socially toxic families and experiencing early, frequent and intense exposure to violence; just examine the high rates of child abuse and child sexual abuse.

“That toxicity has made family life and personal relationships extremely bitter as evident in the high rates of interpersonal violence and domestic violence which lead to domestic homicide and contribute to the high homicide rate,” Cummings says.

Dr Jones shares such a view and also points to increasing exposure by young people to violent content on television, social media and in video games.

These, she says, “engraves” the acceptability of violence among young people.

Like Dr Jones, Cummings supports “an epidemiological approach to deconstructing violence.”

“What is required,” says Cummings, “is a trauma-informed justice system.”

“Whether or not a person becomes motivated to commit violent acts results from interactions over the life course between biological, sociocultural, and developmental factors as well as social learning,” she says.

“We need to engage a more scientific understanding of aggression and violence and design evidence-based policies to reduce violence beginning at the level of prenatal development to early interventions for persons who use violence.”

Numerous studies have placed young people at particular risk and chairman of the Children’s Authority, Hanif Benjamin sees “changing styles of parenting and the fight for a parental voice as the other (technological) voices have become, in some cases louder.”

Crime and violence, Agnew’s General Strain Theory argues, become likely outcomes of all of this when individuals have a low tolerance for strain, when they have poor coping skills and resources, and have access to few conventional social supports.

The UNDP’s five year old report, prior studies and successive research papers have since have described the ticking time-bomb.