Dr. Helen

What Outlets do Young Men Have for Aggression These Days?

Reader David sent me a long question and his analysis of what he thinks about the problem of violence in our society, especially given the recent Colorado killings. I am posting his whole letter because I found it of interest and thought readers would also. Here it is:

Dr. Helen:

I’ve long had a thought (not factually based or formed enough to call it a “theory”) that to a certain extent some of the seemingly senseless violence we see in modern society is, in fact, a result of the general peacefulness in that society.

Throughout history and the world, a young man’s experience (and even many not-so-young men) has more often than not been tied to violence. Going to war, even as recently as the early 20th century, was routinely seen as a normal rite of passage. For most of recorded history, old men would gather the young men, bring them together and let them kill each other. Even in non-lethal circumstances, an argument between two men often ended with fisticuffs, the victor raised and the vanquished leaving beaten, but accepting of the outcome. Life, even when long, was still a brutish experience for a man.

Following the horrors of WWII, and accelerated in the ’60s, American society became increasingly a “no-violence zone.” Children are severely punished for a harmless schoolyard fight. Medals are no longer given to those who kill the most enemies, but are reserved almost solely for those who die saving others’ lives. In the midst of this, though, there is still the natural drive of male aggression. This is, I believe, expressed today in the ascendance of dangerous extreme sports and in more and more extreme violence in TV, movies, and video games. These act as surrogate for the violent expression of aggression that, before, was reserved for the battlefield. Without the experience in low-level violence once provided by scuffles and fist fights, today’s youth turn, instead, to the only sort of violence they know, the lethal ultra-violence seen and experienced in TV, movies, and video games.

While I am certainly not pro-war, I believe that the more frequent lethal conflicts experienced in past history provided a social mechanism for young men inclined to violence to sate this in a venue that was socially acceptable, and, in many cases, to even be recognized and rewarded for their effectiveness. Without that “release valve” it is only to be expected that some will still turn to violence, seeking any thin justification or provocation.

I’m certainly not advocating restarting the 100-year war as a solution, but given your work in youth violence I was curious as to your feelings on this line of thought.

My reply to him was short:

I think your analysis makes complete sense. One of the problems with our society, rather than “too much violence” is too little in some areas (like not being allowed to fight at school) and too much in others that are fantasy. Now they are talking about banning football, what will that do to further the lack of outlets for aggression in young men? It’s an interesting question.

I am interested in if readers think aggressive outlets are necessary for young men and if so, what do you propose?