Reporter, psychiatrist debate youth violence

by Kristina C. Mendicino | 5/16/02 5:00am

Youth behavior patterns, such as youth violence, are analogous to "canaries in a mineshaft" signifying cultural instability, according to James Gilligan, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist.

He and freelance reporter Eric Francis spoke last night at the Ethics Institute dinner, which followed an afternoon discussion panel on youth violence.

Ethics Institute leader Ronald Green mediated the afternoon discussion panel, which also included a judge, Edward Kelly. The panel posed questions treated later during the dinner discussion.

The topic of youth violence, which Gilligan's comparison suggests is symptomatic of newly-rising cultural challenges, led to the discussion's focus upon the Zantop murderers, James Parker and Robert Tulloch.

In an interview preceding the Institute dinner, Francis, who wrote "The Dartmouth Murders," a book about the Zantop tragedy, asserts that Tulloch and Parker were "the exceptions to the rule" of youth violence patterns, which he said are crimes usually committed out of desperation.

His words during the dinner, however, linked the crime to more general contemporary trends of youth violence.

"These kids were mediocre script-writers," Francis said. "They reflect the present inundation that we experience, not of violence, but of television and film scripts that lead them to seek excitement that can only occur in the media."

Their motive, "because they were bored" and wanted to be "bad-asses," Francis said, is evidence of a tendency for youth violence to mimic scripted "excitement."

Gilligan, the second speaker, examined motives underlying violence from his perspective in working with violent criminals.

His conclusion, based upon interviews with violent criminals, was that a fundamental feeling of "slightedness" -- being ignored and disrespected by peers -- motivates their subsequent decisions to commit crimes.

Gilligan said that the feelings of "slightedness" especially arise in societies such as the United States -- where incidents of youth violence occur three to four times as frequently as in other developed countries -- that emphasize competitiveness and manifest greater gaps between the rich and the poor.

Present circumstances in which modern science has undermined the credibility of traditional moral, political and legal values, however, is also a cause for the dramatic increase in youth violence that has increased six-fold, since the second half of the twentieth century, Gilligan said.

What society need to do now, he said, is "to go beyond what we have traditionally called morality" -- which he defined in terms of shame and guilt motives for restraint -- "and reach another level that is the capacity to love."

The lack of nurturing that would condition a breakdown in morality, he continued, underlies the decisions of youths like Tulloch and Parker, who he said felt compelled to create a script that filled the meaning that was otherwise missing from their sense of self.

"The self is a vulnerable psychological construct" which is as damaged in the absence of a nurturing and supportive environment as the body is damaged in the absence of oxygen, he asserted.

N.H. Attorney General Philip McLaughlin, who was also present at the dinner discussion, corroborated Gilligan's assertion of the critical role nurturing plays in preventing youth violence.

Addressing the same issues Francis had raised, McLaughlin attributed many of the problems of youth violence to the media, which he said can cause the compulsion to "script" crimes.

"Nurturing is in competition with the media's cultural influence," he said.