Friday, July 20, 2007

Preventing Youth Violence
Thoughts on Boys and Elephants

At Down With Tyranny kininny discusses an op-ed piece by Bob Herbert on Senator Barack Obama's recent speech in Chicago concerning violence among and against school children -- 32 children have been murdered in Chicago in the last school year. After discussing various means that the government can use to address this, Obama is quoted,
"There is only so much government can do." There is also a need, he said, "for a change in attitude."

The senator talked about the young men and boys who have gone down "the wrong path." And he said one of the main reasons they are wreaking havoc and shooting one another is that they had not received enough attention while growing up from responsible adults.
I attended a training in the development of the adolescent brain recently. And the trainer discussed just this issue.

When young men grow up with strong men in their community and family, they have a confidence that the community is a relatively safe place. No matter the poverty or crime level or danger, these young men know that there are older men who will defend the community. It is not up to the young men to lead in this defense, although they are willing to join in. This is illustrated beautifully in the TV show "Everybody Hates Chris." Chris's father is one of only three fathers living with their children in the neighborhood, but the presence of these three men, as well as the shop owners and other responsible men serves to keep the violence at bay, although there is certainly enough crime.

When there are no protective older men around, the young men know that it is up to them to be the defenders, and they do not have the maturity or experience to handle it correctly. This premature responsibility that has no decent role models to fall back on results in extreme violence. The young men become hypervigilant and defensive. They tend to see threats where none exist, to over react to the beginnings of a threat that more experienced men would be able to negotiate, to take as their pattern the idea that the best defense is a very violent offense.

The adolescent brain matures from back to front, with the sensory and then the action centers becoming proficient early in adolescence, and the pre-frontal cortex, center of mature judgment, not attaining full development until the early to mid-twenties. The tendency is to concentrate on the part which has most recently matured and which can now be used efficiently and effectively. Which explains why most teens are more interested in computer games and skate boards than in politics. It also explains why young men without the influence of older men around tend to become aggressive.*

This is why some armies recruit young child soldiers -- they will be very violent. This is why neighborhoods without fathers become gang battle grounds. This is why 32 children have been murdered in Chicago in the last school year.

* It was when the presenter reached this point that I leaped pulled myself out of my seat, waved my hand in the air with that "Oh, Teacher, call on me!! Call on me!!! I know! I know!" fervor and when called on, cried out in a joyous voice, "That explains the elephants!" A few years before, Richard told me about this, where a group of adolescent male elephants were introduced to the Pilaneserg reserve in South Africa, where they became an unexpectedly aggressive menace. They began by killing a tourist and then a tour guide. Then they turned to rhinos, killing over 40 in under two years. First adult female elephants were released in the park, with no results in the behavior of the young males. So then adult males were introduced. As soon as each of the adult males had encountered each of the adolescents, the aggressive behavior stopped.
"A possible scenario," says elephant behaviourist Robert Slotow, "is that it's the older males disciplining the younger ones."
But that had never felt like a satisfactory explanation to me. Why, I wondered, would adult male elephants care what happened to the rhinos? It's not like they had a treaty.

How much more satisfying to look at it from the violent boys model. The original attacks had happened because first people and then rhinos had approached the young males too closely. The attacks on people stopped, because we communicate with each other and the word went out that these elephants were dangerous to approach. However, rhinos don't communicate at a distance, and so they continued to cross the hypervigilant boundaries that set off the adolescents. Since elephants live in herds of females and young males, introducing adult females would not affect the aggression -- neither would expect that the females would protect males old enough to be living outside the herd. When the males were introduced, the young males were surely aware of them and uncertain of their safety from them. Once each adolescent had met all of the adult males, they knew that they were in no danger from them, and also that these elephants knew what to do about rhinos. They knew they were no longer the defenders.


AlwaysQuestion said...

Interesting, and it makes perfect sense.

School violence blogger said...

what a great post!

J at said...

When I make connections like these, I wonder if they're as you say, fantasies of logic, or if they're the actual truth.

Back in college, I was suffering from pain on the side of my face, on my cheekbone. Couldn't figure out what it was, driving me nuts. Then we were in anthro class, and the teacher was talking about ape jaws and human jaws, and I had that 'aha' moment...I was grinding my teeth! That time, my fantasy of logic turned out to be true. But sometimes...not so much.

Kay Dennison said...

Makes sense to me. Thanks!!!!!

Anvilcloud said...

Very interesting. Sounds plausible.

gawilli said...

This makes sense. You are such a good communicator.

I agree with Obama, but what how do you address this? How do you convince people to own this?

R said...

It took me forever to remember where I had read further discussion of this topic. I saw an interesting interview about how insights into elephant behavior shadowed that of orphaned human children in nearby African villages. (Great minds think alike! The researcher was female, but I can't remember her name for the life of me, or the PBS show.)

I finally found an article online that referenced the hypothesis, at least. Basically, elephants can suffer from PTSD, and they may be starting to "get revenge" for abuses suffered from humans. (Or at least protect their own babies by killing humans, since their own mothers, and aunts and sisters were culled in front of them as calves.)

Whoo, where the heck I lost that link has been bothering me for weeks. (www.elephants. com and search for PTSD if the long link doesn't work.)

The rhino killings involved involved inappropriate sexual advances, as well. Just like messed up young human males.