What Can We, As Outdoorsmen and Women, Do About Domestic Violence: Part 1

Mar 15, 2018

Editor’s Note: Today, part one of a two part report from James A. Swan, PhD looking at the question we’re all asking: “What Can We, As Outdoorsmen and Women, Do About Domestic Violence?”


The recent mass shootings in Florida and Las Vegas have drawn the entire nation into looking at violence and what can be done about it. Both of these incidents have involved firearms, so that has again raised the question about gun control, which hits at the heart of hunting and sport shooting, as well as self-defense. 

Some people are calling for banning all guns. Realistically, even if we seriously could control firearms in America like what is done in Japan where very few firearms are allowed, would this eliminate the potential for violence? Not necesarily. A gun is a weapon, which is an extension of human expression. There are lots of weapons. If someone wants to commit an act of mass violence there are other options, especially in these times when electronic devices, disease agents and chemicals are so readily available. Remember the Unabomber who lived in the woods and sent out packages that exploded to people via US mail. And, recently, people in many parts of the world have been using cars to hit people as a terrorist weapon.

I am reluctant to go into more details about this, as there are already many websites that do, but I will say that I first became aware of the potentials for committing violence as a consultant to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on potential domestic terrorism acts on the nation’s water supplies. Other members of the team included the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, as well as public health experts.  My role was to assess potential sources of threats. Our work was to look at what  data we could assemble on possibilities and then come up with some potential scenarios and how to cope with them. What we all found was that after six months or so of doing that kind of research you had to take a break because you would start to see potentials for violence and disaster everywhere. 

My Ph.D. is in environmental psychology, a field that studies how the environment and people interact. While I wanted to study effective environmental education, I got involved with the Army Corps research because it involved water resources. In those days, there was no environmental psychology program. I had to make one up and find classes in psychology that had anything to do with the environment and social change. Community mental health, I found, had some relationship to environmental health, and so as a grad student I worked on research for the Kerner Commission about the causes of the Detroit Riots. That work was a beginning for me in learning how to assess people, which is both a science and an art, as well as a key to dealing with peace and violence in our communities. 

Later, as a professor of ecology and psychology at four major universities, I conducted surveys of people about how they became conservationists, and taught classes about how to conduct such surveys. From this work I realized that you can’t always get the data you want from conducting experiments and surveys, so I also began to study effective interviewing. That ultimately led me to co-teaching classes on interviewing and assessment with the chairman of the Clinical Psychology Program at the University of Oregon, Dr. Norman Sundberg. Norm and I were training human service professionals, both students and those already working in the field, including psychologists, social workers and law enforcement officers. An additional result of this work was that I became an adjunct to the Counseling Center, specializing in working with athletes, as I was the only one in the psychology faculty who had play college sports. Working with members of the Olympic Team, I learned a great deal about managing powerful emotions. These days I produce TV programs about game wardens and wildlands crime, which sort of combine things

Teaching at universities in the Pacific Northwest, I got interested in how other cultures relate to the environment, and that led to work with Indians, Inuit and Asians. I quickly found that surveys, experiments, and interviews often do not probe very deeply into human consciousness, and people in other cultures have ways to assess people other than written tests or structured questions because their paradigm of normality was different. Traditional Chinese doctors, for example, assess the health of their patients by reading pulses of life force energy that modern western science denies exists. Whether you buy this is not, there are considerable research studies showing that acupuncture and herbs heal. And, traditional Chinese feng shui geomancers, (which are a type of traditional environmental psychologist) assert there are 100 senses by which one can perceive the world around them. And, there are many examples, of the success of their methods of design, which is used in the United Nations Building, the Library of Congress, and many successful businesses.  Feng shui can also be used to help stop crime, but that’s another story.

This led to the realization that the best way to really learn is to observe, and experience. (Which incidentally, is what one of my first psychology teachers told me in college.) So, as I worked with people in traditional cultural settings over a period of about 20 years, I experienced some very different ways of perceiving, which to me were at least or more effective than any modern scientific methods of assessment. I found this to be especially true when I consulted with law enforcement agencies, including interviewing prisoners in jail who could not be assessed with surveys or conventional interviews.

I am telling you about this process of my learning, as we are now searching for ways to curb violence not just in schools, but in our culture in general and I think we need to step back and assess what we know and do not know.  I believe that while we can work on helping people with mental illness and improving law enforcement response to perceived threats, the search for solutions must look broadly for methods of prevention, as the old saying goes, “An Ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” 

To start with, it’s important to recognize that there are two kinds of violence – outer direction as in physical action toward the world – and inner-directed, which results in illness.  Both can be killers. Now speaking as someone who used to teach holistic health and run a holistic health center, about 80% of all illness has an emotional component, and yet we do precious little to use that knowledge to heal. That we downplay mental health and only seem to care about it when it comes to people in real crisis, to me is a mistake.

This becomes especially relevant when people talk about gun control and say look at Japan, they have almost no guns and have very low homicide rates. That’s true, however, as David Kopel points out in his analysis of gun control in his award-winning book, The Samurai, The Mountie and the Cowboy https://www.amazon.com/Samurai-Mountie-Cowboy-David-Kopel/dp/0879757566 if you look at suicide rates, Japan has the second highest rate of suicide in the world, more than twice the rate of the US. (Korea is the highest.)  70-100 people die from suicide in every day in Japan. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/09/04/national/japans-suicide-rate-exceeds-world-average-who-report/  In Japan suicide was the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 29 in 2012. The highest rate of suicide is among people over 70. 

Most mass shooters ultimately commit suicide, and so one can say that mass shooting is often a form of suicide. Police understand this only too well when they encounter people who do things to try to get shot.  In Japan and Korea, people internalize their emotions, while in the US people avoid their emotions by immersing themselves into electronic information devices.

The background for what is going on in the US today is that we have a serious problem associated with anxiety, depression and violent acts. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America,   anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.

What’s causing this problem? There is no one single thing, but many related things associated with how we as a culture think and feel. Clearly, we live in “The Age of Anxiety,” fueled by a Culture of Fear as sociologist Barry Glassner’s book by the same title describes.  Modern media, which is 10-7 times more negative than objective, dwells on sensationalism and violence, replacing reporting of facts with opinions and efforts to get your attention by declaring horrific crises. (The environmental movement does not help with the tone of news. The whole environmental movement has developed a "crisis conscience" (which the news media is obsessed with) where people are bombarded with predictions of crises -- extinction of animals, climate change, etc. -- and organizations use this mentality to milk donations out of people so they can sue the government, (which they get paid for by the govt. if they win thanks to the Equal Access to Justice Act). And, these lawsuits impede governmental programs by draining away time an money, which makes the agencies easier targets for more lawsuits as environmental groups continuously pour out warnings of crises, which may not stand up to critical review, but they are effective for fund-raising so the groups can continue trying to frighten people rather than teach them with positive experiences.)

Many reality TV shows award people for being outrageous, as much or more than role models. Heroic role models now are based on how much media attention you can get rather than what you do. TV and films continually flood our lives with stories and people in violent combat. Most people now spend eight hours a day or more watching electric screens, which have replaced sense organs. Where are mass media, and TV shows and feature films that show people who do not need to commit mass violence to express themselves and know how to manage their emotions? We need more heroes like that.

Whether you believe mass shooters suffer from mental illness or is a matter of judgement. Psychologists and psychiatrists differ about what is mental illness. Some say that the Florida school shooter was not mentally ill, even though there was a long history of signs of violence. Others describe him as a disturbed, isolated young man, forced to move out of his lifelong home, spurned by a girlfriend, bounced from school to school, mocked by fellow students, bullied, diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, whose father was dead and who suddenly lost his mother, to a fatal illness. And they report years of people being aware of his anger and problems. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article201911289.html 

Tomorrow: Where do we go from here?