May 31, 2014 I Tom Head

Is Violence Contagious?

Disease is a very old metaphor for violence. In Book IV of The Republic, Plato/Socrates writes that injustice and justice are "like disease and health, being in the soul what disease and health are in the body." And we've talked for years about the "spread" of violence and the "epidemic" of school shootings as if violence were something you could catch.

Gary Slutkin, a brilliantly accomplished globetrotting epidemiologist and the founding director of the organization Cure Violence (formerly CeaseFire), thinks that this is more than a metaphor. The violence interrupters he's recruited and funded—who operate based on a public health/disease prevention model—have dramatically reduced crime in their respective communities. And he believes, not without reason, that this says something about the nature of violence: that we need to treat it scientifically as a public health problem.

The idea of members of a community stepping up and interrupting violence isn't really a new one; people have been doing that for as long as violence has existed. What Slutkin has done is give more of these people the money and institutional support to focus on that work, and provide a convincing theoretical framework with which he can convince more funders to invest in it. It's a wonderful strategy, and it has done a great deal of tangible good.

But I can also see some ways that this approach to violence can be abused by policymakers. Slutkin hints at one of them in the video, when he describes the holistic model of violence prevention as an unrealistic "Everything" approach and notes the fact that violence and poverty do not always directly correlate. There is some truth to this argument in that we can't really wait until societal problems are solved to address violence, but that doesn't mean that addressing them won't prevent violence. A good point of comparison is the bubonic plague; we now know that it was airborne and addressing the problem holistically would not have prevented its spread, but we also know that holistic problems immunocompromised the affected urban populations to the point where a virus that any healthy person could fight off today wiped out more than half the population of Europe. Even if we fully invest in the idea that violence works like a contagious virus, people tend to be more vulnerable to contagious viruses when quality-of-life issues go unaddressed. To the degree that we can address issues like economic equality, social mobility, access to education, and so on, we may be able to mitigate the effects of violence even where we can't stop its spread.

I think there is also room to doubt the degree to which the success of violence interrupters proves Slutkin's overall theory. It's entirely plausible that this kind of focused, well-managed community outreach would have worked regardless of the theoretical framework it reflected. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest, for example, that Nation of Islam missionaries successfully reduced violence in many U.S. neighborhoods, particularly throughout the 1970s and 1980s; if this could be proven, would that also prove the theoretical framework of the Nation of Islam? More likely it would be interpreted by most as a testament to the power that local organizers can have when they're given the tools and the institutional support to interrupt violence, regardless of the overarching theoretical framework.

But it's very easy to sit here and unpack Slutkin's approach from a theoretical point of view. What can't be disputed are the results. In his work as a global epidemiologist, Slutkin had already saved more lives in the developing world than the vast majority of us ever will; now he's developing a strategy to save lives in industrialized nations as well, and it's a strategy that undeniably works. Whether violence operates like a contagious disease or not, treating it as if it did clearly reduces its spread; we don't need to understand its etiology in order to administer the cure.

Tom Head

Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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