Alcohol and men’s violence

an interview with Alan Jenkins

 

First published in New perspectives on ‘addiction’, special issue of Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 1997, nos 2 & 3, pp. 43-47.

I think that there is a great deal of mythology about the relationship between alcohol and violence in our culture. Alcohol is frequently seen by the community, and in professional and scientific literature, as a causal factor in producing violence. These attributions have been made as a result of the association of ‘alcohol abuse’ with other forms of abuse, including violence and sexual assault. Research literature indicates that up to 70% of incidents of violence are associated with use of alcohol. There is often a leap from the acknowledgment of this association to attributions of causality. The people involved are believed to be violent because of their alcohol use. There is no doubt that alcohol leads to sloppy behaviour and sloppy thinking. However, it requires an extraordinary leap in credibility to suggest that alcohol use somehow causes violence. In my work with men who enact violence and abusive behaviour, I find it extremely unhelpful to attribute a causal link between alcohol use and violence.

Men who enact violence tend to engage with a range of ideas, preoccupations and thinking practices that are self-righteous, blaming, vengeful and contemptuous about other individuals or subcultures. Some invest in sexually exploitative preoccupations which are increasingly self-centred and insensitive to the actual feelings and experience of others. It is these thinking patterns that create a context for violence and abuse. In my work with men who enact violence or abuse I have found that they tend to ‘work themselves up’ with these self-righteous, blaming and vengeful preoccupations. They ‘intoxicate themselves’ with a range of ideas, a range of attributions of blame, and give themselves a range of permissions to hurt other people.

Violence and abusive behaviour are the result of active choices which are informed by sequences of self-centred preoccupation, rationalisation and justification. These ideas and preoccupations are in turn informed by dominant cultural ideologies which relate to beliefs about entitlement, privilege and power and expectations of deference and submission from those regarded as inferior or of lesser status.

Within this context, I have tried to understand the association between violence and alcohol use. Many individuals who have been drinking heavily give themselves, and are given by others, a special kind of permission to act in irresponsible ways. A range of minimisations, justifications and excuses for irresponsible behaviour become available.

The constructions of responsibility, when alcohol or drugs are involved, are quite different than in other circumstances. This is illustrated by expressions like: ‘He’s an angry drunk’, ‘When I’m drunk I lose it’, ‘I was drunk, I didn’t know what I was doing’. We construct specific meanings and attributions of responsibility in the context of alcohol use. Men who drink and abuse engage in a kind of tautological thinking whereby they often give themselves permission to engage in violence when they drink. Later their behaviour may be excused and tolerated by others because they were drunk.

Constructions of responsibility

Constructions of responsibility inform and often determine expressions of behaviour. If individuals believe, ‘When I’m drunk I lose it’, or ‘I would never do that if I was sober’, then that is exactly how they behave. The thinking is tautological and the idea becomes the reality.

Many men are quite clear about their responsibilities regarding violence and respectful behaviour in relationships. They may drink alcohol and make respectful and responsible decisions about how, when, and where they drink and how they behave in those circumstances. Even within the lives of men who enact violence and alcohol abuse, there are generally many examples of times when they have been drinking and have engaged in responsible and respectful behaviour. They may be described as being violent only when they are drunk. However, when their day-to-day experiences are explored, it is generally evident that they engage in patterns of vengeful and self-righteous thinking, and enact behaviours influenced by these ways of thinking, at times when they have not been drinking.

Instead of explaining the association between alcohol use and violence in terms of a causal link, I am much more interested in exploring attributions of responsibility in the circumstances of violence and in the circumstances of alcohol abuse.

Inviting responsibility

When working with men who engage in violence and alcohol or substance abuse, I try to separate the two issues and invite a focus on individual responsibility. This does not require confrontation by directly challenging causal attributions. Whether or not he believes his violence is due to his alcohol use, I am interested in the influence that violence and alcohol abuse may each be having on his relationships and his own self-respect. The influence of both can be helpfully and independently explored in the light of the man’s preferences and desires. I am particularly interested in discovering and clarifying the kind of relationships that he is wanting, and highlighting the influence of violence and alcohol abuse upon qualities such as respect, trust, safely, desire, integrity, etc. I tend to decline invitations to challenge causal connections between violence and alcohol but invite exploration of their influences upon the man’s goals and relationship preferences.

Many men express preferences and desires for respectful relationships which are based on mutuality rather than fear or duty and qualities which include safety, trust and non-violence. Violence and alcohol abuse can both be seen to involve behaviours which are distancing the man from his own stated preferences.

I invite him to undertake a journey to face his violence; to examine and detail his violence. I invite him to discover the patterns of thinking that he reproduces at different stages of the times of his violence; how he ‘works himself up’ with patterns of self-righteous thinking and attribution of blame towards his partner and her behaviour. When starting to explore these patterns of thinking and behaviour, it becomes increasingly clear that these are not patterns of experience that are unique to times when he is drinking. In fact some men acknowledge ways in which drinking can become a specific way of avoiding responsibility. Some men drink following feelings of self-disgust after having engaged in violence or abusive behaviour.

By starting to invite the man to study his own patterns of thinking and behaviour, an opportunity is created for him to begin to realise that self-righteous, blaming and controlling ideas and preoccupations can influence patterns of both violence and substance use and that they have a life and expression beyond the times when he is drinking. Both violence and alcohol use become parallel issues rather than being seen as causally related. Men who cling to causal attributions can be invited to consider and clarify their responsibilities with respect to both. If an association is postulated, what responsibility is the man taking to ensure that he is never affected by alcohol in the presence of his family?

Men who engage in either domestic abuse or ‘alcohol abuse’ have generally been quite reliant on other people in their lives to monitor their behaviour for them; it may be a partner, a mother or another family member. These family members can generally articulate very clearly how the man ‘works himself up’. They know when to ‘walk on eggshells’ around him, they study his behaviour and know when it is and is not safe to speak out. They have learned to study his behaviour for their own safety and survival. The man has tended to rely on their efforts and has generally paid little attention to the processes of ‘self-intoxication’ in which he engages. Consequently he is extremely ignorant about his own experience and the ways in which he ‘works himself up’. He feels that he suddenly ‘loses it’ or ‘snaps’. However, as he begins to study this process himself, rather than leave it to others, he enables himself to begin to take responsibility for his own actions.

Violence as addiction

A number of popular models to address violence and abusive behaviour rely on a model of explanation that uses the metaphor of ‘addiction’. Various forms of violence are described in language of ‘compulsivity’ and addiction. These explanations do not serve only to describe an individual’s experience of having a problem with violence over which he feels he has no control. By constructing the problem in these terms, such explanations also serve to create the experience of ‘addiction’. There are many ways of understanding violence in our culture that promote this experience of ‘lack of control’. Many men who enact violence believe that they have a quality such as ‘aggression’, ‘an overactive sex drive’ or a ‘short fuse’ in their character or personality. This quality is seen to ‘take them over’ or ‘let them down’. Such men experience themselves as being overwhelmed by a force outside of their control. Psychologists describe personality disorders which are based on notions of character excesses or deficits such as ‘impulsiveness’ or ‘compulsiveness’. The identities of these men are confused with their actions; they are labelled as ‘perpetrators’, perhaps with ‘limited impulse control’.

What happens to responsibility in this context? These constructions lead people to attribute responsibility for violence and abusive behaviour to factors outside of their control. It is hardly surprising that individuals come to see themselves as helpless in the face of strong urges and overwhelmed by their own experience. It is only a short step to adopting the metaphor of ‘addiction’. The concept of addiction can be a comforting one because it excuses the man of responsibility for his actions and avoids the necessity for self-examination and facing the inevitable feelings of shame which accompany the acceptance of culpability and choice.

These constructions constrain any discovery and acknowledgment of the practices of ‘self-intoxication’ and the preoccupations and investments into particular ways of thinking. They also obscure the ideologies or cultural restraints which inform practices of ‘self-intoxication’ and violence. For example, cultural notions about male sexuality which include notions of sexual inevitability, performance and conquest promote the idea that men are slaves to their own arousal and not responsible for its consequences. These ideas inform practices of sexual violence. Metaphors of addiction not only obscure notions of individual responsibility and individual choice but can also blind us to broader cultural responsibilities and priorities. There are any number of twelve-step programs for ‘sex and love addicts’, and so on, which can serve to reinforce these ideas.

Concepts of addiction can be quite dangerous when applied to issues of men’s violence and abusive behaviour. They fail to promote a sense of agency for the man to set limits and take responsibility for his own behaviour. They don’t encourage him to examine his own thinking and behaviour and to notice and attend to patterns of thinking and ways in which he ‘works himself up’ to justify the use of violence and abusive behaviour. They don’t encourage him to examine anything about the cultural context in which he lives and the ways in which he constructs experience.

Control: Losing it or enacting it?

The notion of ‘losing control’ or ‘losing it’ is extremely prevalent. Many men who engage in violence or abusive behaviour understand their experience in terms of having ‘lost control’. They experience something ‘coming over them’, ‘sweeping over them’, ‘taking them over’, or something ‘coming up inside of them’ and ‘overwhelming them’. They adopt an extremely passive stance. Many models of individual psychology collude with these sorts of ideas. They describe people as being like containers or pressure systems in which forces build up inside of them. There is an inherent passivity in these metaphors. They prescribe solutions which require men to ‘let it out’ or ‘let off steam’ by going for a run or punching a punching bag, etc. They obscure the active process whereby the man makes choices and gradually ‘intoxicates himself’ with his own self-righteous thinking.

The process of ‘working oneself up’ is an active process in which individuals invest. I am interested in inviting men to gradually examine their own participation in developing patterns of self-righteousness or sexually exploitative thinking. Examination of these processes in turn highlights cultural ideas that inform the thinking. These ideas can then be located in a context of ideology about power and privilege in the broader culture. Certain people feel entitled to become self-righteous and enrage themselves about others who are accorded less status as a result of factors including age, gender, social class, race, etc. Some men take permission to arouse themselves at the expense of individuals who are sexually objectified and systematically taken advantage of. An awareness of processes which enable the translation of unjust cultural ideology into self-righteous and exploitative preoccupations enables the deconstruction of practices of violence and abuse and the discovery of concepts of choice, responsibility and personal agency.

The man can examine his thinking and behaviour in ways that he has never done before but in reference to his own goals and preferences. He can begin to develop an understanding of an active process on his part, his own contribution, his own participation in both the problem and the solution. He can choose to experiment with ways of varying and changing that participation by challenging habits and processes of ‘self-intoxication’. If he has relied on other people to do that thinking for him in the past, he can start to do it for himself. He can examine and evaluate the cultural ideas that have informed his actions. A sense of agency is promoted by these activities. He will also begin to notice times when he has made respectful choices, when he has resisted self- righteous thinking and acted respectfully, sometimes in challenging circumstances. He will begin to discover his capacity for respectful choices and behaviour.

Ironically, instead of feeling that he ‘loses control’, he may begin to realise that he has in fact been enacting forms of controlling behaviour towards others. His abusive actions might be re-interpreted as desperate efforts to establish or maintain control of others. Men who examine patterns of sexually abusive preoccupation and behaviour in detail soon come to ‘see it like it really is’ rather than regarding themselves as victims of circumstances beyond their control. Sexually abusive behaviour is frequently constituted by a series of tactical decisions and choices which are designed to set up, trick and entrap the ‘participation’ of the person who is victimised. Men who abuse can be invited to deconstruct their behaviour and examine their thinking and actions in terms of strategies and active choices. These constructions, which can enable a sense of responsibility, are frequently obscured in models of addiction.

I find it helpful to invite men who have abused to discover and examine their own influence in their lives rather than see themselves as under the influence of a condition, disorder or substance over which they have no control. This enables the construction of responsibility in a manner which is accessible and achievable. The metaphor of addiction requires the man to  acknowledge that he is powerless in the face of his problem and can thereby place responsibility outside of his control.

Choice, responsibility, and hope

Notions of addiction invite constructions of deviance which relate to individual pathology, limited choice and external attributions of responsibility. We need metaphors and models for explanation and intervention which enable choice and personal responsibility and which invite examination of the cultural ideologies which inform practices of violence and abusive behaviour. We are all influenced by dominant ideologies of individualism, competition, blame and avoidance of responsibility for our own actions. We need explanatory models which expose these notions and the thinking practices associated with them, not mystify them or disguise them as individual pathology. We don’t need any more ways to categorise people into hierarchies of competence and ability and then deny them the opportunities to develop their own preferred ways of relating. Effective intervention needs to take violence out of a context of pathology and into a broader context that examines the ways in which ideology informs behaviour, and invites personal choice and personal responsibility.

The metaphor of addiction promotes a sense of helplessness and reliance upon others to take responsibility. If I adopted this construction, I would also be colluding with a range of cultural ideas which suggest that men who abuse can’t help themselves. This would engender a sense of helplessness and justification for practices of violence. The only solution appears to be to submit to a superior force and seek external direction. This dilemma is not new to many of the men with whom I work who are struggling in their relationships with external ‘authorities’. They don’t need to submit to being taken over by another external influence but instead need to discover their own influence in their lives. When men who consult with me believe that ‘they lose it’, they don’t see any direction that they can take other than encouraging other people to change around them. I often feel invited to perceive the world in the same way and to join in that sense of hopelessness. It feels like an impossible situation with no direction. However, to work together to construct a context for responsibility enables a sense of agency where the man can make choices, where he can examine the tactical nature of violence and abusive behaviour, where he faces the shame that accompanies empathy with the experience of those he has hurt; these directions all seem to offer the possibility to discover more respectful ways of living. They offer the possibility to make restitution to others and to himself. They offer hope of realising the man’s own preferences and goals.

Copyright © Dulwich Centre Publications 1997

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