Editorial: This culture of violence

Many will be surprised to learn that this country ranks after South Africa as the most violent in the developed world, according to figures compiled by the British Home Office. Violence is a rare experience in the lives of most New Zealanders. Today we publish a poll which asked a cross-section of the population whether they have been assaulted by a stranger in the past five years. Nine out of 10 said no. But for some sections of our society violence is endemic and for everybody the threat of violence is never far away. It is as close as a cross word with the wrong person, a misunderstanding in the traffic.

And for too many women (mainly) it is a constant risk from those closest to them. Domestic violence is not in a category of its own: it springs from the same personal deficiencies that can bring a violent response to any verbal challenge, real or imagined. Our examination of the problem today and over the next week hopes to do more than confront the fact of violence in our society; the series will seek the causes and investigate some solutions.

No problem can be solved until it is faced. New Zealand will breed violence for as long as physical aggression is tolerated in family discipline, argument and popular entertainment. That does not mean children must never be smacked, or the banning of sports involving bodily contact. But it probably means children should not be smacked in anger, and gratuitous thuggery on film or the sports field should be treated with the contempt it deserves.

It certainly means bullying and brawls should be banished from school playgrounds, just as corporal punishment has been removed from the teachers' powers.

The cane and the strap fell out of widespread use long before they were outlawed. For the past 20 years or more schools have strenuously promoted civilised techniques for resolving conflicts in the classrooms and the playground. Yet our polls today show that three-quarters of the population believe New Zealand is more violent now than 10 years ago. If their impression is correct, it says little for the ability of education to change attitudes and behaviour.

Violence is a problem of youth; nearly a quarter of those in the 18 to 34 age bracket had been assaulted within the past five years, compared with 7 per cent of the 35 to 54-year-olds and less than 3 per cent of those 55 and over. Fear of random violence may be greatest among the elderly but figures such as these suggest they have less to worry about.

Violence is an urban problem: many more Aucklanders (13.7 per cent) had been assaulted in the past five years than the rest. Violence is an alcohol problem: the association is evident every day in the criminal courts. And, there's no avoiding it, violence is an ethnic problem. Maori and other Polynesian communities record a higher incidence of violence than the population at large.

Violence is every New Zealander's problem. If some are more exposed to it than others, nobody is living in isolation. Unless the country as a whole takes responsibility for diminishing the level of violence wherever it presents a problem, nobody is secure. Violence is despicable not only for the bodily harm that may be done. It is a form of oppression. It terrifies, silences and degrades its victims, suppressing their rights to reason and disagree.

It has no purpose among intelligent people and no place in a civilised community.

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