There are very few human relationships in which there is no violence. Even if they do not control their children with physical force, parents almost always use symbolic violence to discipline them. They tell them to shut up, to obey what they say or else. They exercise control by using presents and gifts and even by the indirect violence of excessive love or guilt inducement. There are threats and encouragements; force is below the surface all the time. It is part of the inequality built into parent-child relations and it can easily move from what is considered justified control to ‘abuse’, that is the over-use or inappropriate use of power. It is a delicate balance.
In many societies the relations between parents and children are so unequal that the use of both symbolic and physical violence is often not considered ‘abuse’. In traditional Roman or Chinese society, the power of the father was such that he could kill his children if they were disobedient, or torture his wife if she was insubordinate. In some societies a brother may be duty bound to kill his sister if she threatens the family honour by having an affair. The levels of what we consider to be abuse are often very high indeed. In some places violence is almost an obligatory form of male behaviour, showing that you are a ‘true man’.
Yet it would be wrong to think that there has been a steady movement from the early stages of society where violence in the family was common to modern societies where it is frowned on. A number of hunting gathering societies have almost no inter-personal violence, while levels in many places in the so-called ‘civilized’ world are extremely high. In the three years I spent in a Nepalese village, I have seen physical violence in only one family over a short period of time. Otherwise I have not seen a single person hit a child, or a wife beat a husband, or the reverse. There is very little symbolic violence; little threatening, shouting, bribing. People, from infancy onwards, are nudged into certain actions or thoughts by gentle, if consistent, pressures and suggestions.
In England a fairly radical change has been occurring over the last two generations. The inequalities within the family are being challenged. There is talk of laws being introduced to ban all corporal punishment whether in school or the home.
Yet elsewhere the amount of inter-personal violence seems to grow. Crimes of violence, robbery, murder and rape, appear to be on the increase. The media is full of violent images, both in fiction and in the news. So people have a sense of anxiety about the threats of attack, even if these fears often bear little relationship to actual trends or crime statistics. In Japan or England the hundreds of thousands of people who are killed or maimed in road accidents are hardly noticed, but if one little boy kills another, or two schoolgirls are murdered, the whole nation is traumatized.