Culture of Violence

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Culture of violence,” “culture of violence.” If I hear that phrase wheeled out one more time to excuse a mass shooter, I’ll scream. That doesn’t mean I’ll head to the gun shop.

Which is to say, when it comes to cultures, here in the USA, we’re lucky enough to be able to take our pick.

Even a cursory scan of history reveals that we have a vast variety of options.

Starting in the way-back 1600s, the nasty Pequot Wars were bloody, but only the plundering pilgrims were set on “wiping their enemies off the map.” As historian Bernard Bailyn once put it memorably to the Smithsonian Magazine, “The Indians were not genocidal on the whole.”

The Africans dead from slavery and the North Atlantic slave trade number in the tens of millions. Probably 30-60 million. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented 6,500 white terror lynchings after that. As soon as freed Black towns got up and running, and possibly competitive, white mobs burned them to the ground, as they did immigrant Chinese settlements in the same period once the dangerous work on the Transcontinental Railroad was complete. Many thriving Mexican towns on what whites wanted to be Texas met the same fate.

Given the bloody, butcherous history of white racist violence and slaughter, it’s remarkable that aside from a few smart, self-defense committees, non-violence, lawsuits and honest journalism have been, and continue to be, the dominant tactics of the civil rights movement.

Does the US have a culture of violence? Not the United States of women. Even after witch burning and sexual slavery and rape in marriage and rape in bondage and domestic terror and forced childbirth and forced sterilization and sex work…. When it comes to gender-based violence, women have mostly turned to mutual aid, not mass murder. One wonders how history might have been different.

In a “culture of violence,” you’d think LGBTQI people, and especially trans women of color — the most targeted group when it comes to hate crimes — would have every right, and most certainly the urge, to commit hate crimes right back. But they don’t. They — we — make their own culture instead, and it’s a hit.

Finally, kids. In 2016, the latest year for which I could find numbers, 1,637 children died from firearm related violence, and thousands more fear gun violence in their schools. And yet, no kid-led army has staked out the National Rifle Association and its toadies. Not so far. They demonstrate and organize.

To repeat, when it comes to cultures, the US has lots. We’ve simply allowed, until recently, a bunch of white western guys, rooted in one particularly patriarchal, white, hierarchical and militaristic set of values to write and enforce their own rules. That said, segregation, spousal rape, white crime on indigenous land, anti-LGBT hate crimes and domestic child abuse were all legal until very recently. The white, male, militarist culture of violence isn’t inevitable. It’s a societal choice. Let’s switch.


Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including The New York Times best-seller, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species.  She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media.