We need new metaphors to help us create safer, nonviolent communities everywhere. Our organizations and communities are alive; they are not machines. We each have a living metaphor freely available to us – our own bodies. Let’s use the human immune system to think about how we could improve our “social immunity”.
Preventing violence within groups of people has been a puzzle for thousands of years and as a species we have met with sometimes more, sometimes less success in stopping people within a group from hurting each other, and by hurting each other we don’t mean just physically hurting. We have all known since childhood that although “sticks and stones don’t break your bones”, those verbal sticks and attitudinal “sticks and stones” often do break your heart.
A community is not just a gathering of people. A gathering of people could be people waiting to get into a movie theater or a mob. A community can be thought of as a group of people sharing similar interests and values, a shared language and a practice. The definition for community used to include geographical location but with the burgeoning development of on-line communities, that definition has had to change. However, the fact that we may now connect with each other across the globe does not mean that we have learned how to consistently practice nonviolence behavior toward each other, particularly when there is conflict.
Learned skills and attitudes about practicing nonviolence must be turned into systematic ways of keeping our natural inclinations toward violence contained. This need will continue to become even more important as we face the challenges of forces we cannot control, such as climate change, population expansion, and economic deterioration.
We make an assumption in the Sanctuary Model that violence is a group phenomenon and that when violence has occurred the entire group has failed to prevent it, not just the individuals immediately involved. We see the violent person as the weak link in a complex web of interaction that culminates in violence after a cascade of previous, apparently nonviolent events. This movement away from individualism and an absence of context means that new strategies for intervening in and even preventing the emergence of violence become available to the group. Consequently, every act of violence must be analyzed as a problem for and of the entire community and must be resolved by the individuals involved AND the group.
When we shift our focus away from individual outbursts of violence and instead look at all episodes of any kind of violence as a breach of our social defenses that occur in a context that is likely to involve everyone in the group, then we begin thinking in a different way about the entire issue. A useful way to think about this interaction between individual and group is through the metaphor of our own immune system. We think of this as a group’s ability to enhance its “social immunity”. Let's spend a minute looking at our bodies' amazing immune system.
The Intelligence of Our Body’s Immune System
We are each surrounded by potentially harmful bacteria and viruses all the time, and yet we usually stay well. That’s because of the amazing system we have evolved to fend off attacks from invaders. Each of us is born with an immune system that enables us to live in the complex world we inhabit, right along with all kinds of smaller living beings – microbes – in a largely symbiotic way. That means we help them and they help us. The bacteria in our digestive tracks are a good example of this helpfulness. Without them we would not be able to digest our food and we could not survive. At the same time, there are many microbes that are parasitic, that feed off of us and sap our life energy until there is nothing left and we die. Some can cause problems for us that are chronic, like Hepatitis C or HIV, and others are so virulent that we are killed quickly, like bubonic plague.
Our immune system has memory which is why vaccines work – the immune system remembers the threat and can respond to it immediately. Usually our immune system is capable of distinguishing between what is dangerous and what is not. We need booster shots sometimes because that memory is failing or is known to be short-term.
Usually our immune system is so smart that it can determine what is a part of us and belongs within us and what is a foreign invader that should be eliminated. But sometimes our own immune system misidentifies threat and turns on itself. This is the situation that describes autoimmune diseases.
We have two interactive immune systems, one that is called “Innate” and the other “Adaptive”. All animals have an innate immune system and seems to have been around for at least 500 million years. Vertebrates, being more flexible and exploring many different environments, needed to have an immune system that would adapt to new challenges. These two systems interact with and fortify each other.
What keeps our immune system healthy? As long as you are healthy, your immune system is steadily working to keep infectious agents away from your vital organs, and as a result, you don’t get sick. But if you are overtired, stressed, depleted, hungry, under the influence of toxic substances, or have simply been fighting too hard and for too long, then you are likely to have difficulty fending off an infectious agent. Similarly if the infectious agent is overwhelmingly powerful, then your defenses are breached and you get sick. Once the immune system is vulnerable, all kinds of things can snowball.
The social body is vulnerable in a similar way to the physical body, and we call a group’s ability to protect itself “social immunity.” We define social immunity as the social body’s ability to recognize and respond to threats to its well-being. We used the metaphor of the computer earlier, so think of such a threat as a computer virus. If you have adequate virus protection software, then it automatically senses when your computer is threatened and reacts to that threat. Similarly, whenever such a threat enters a relatively healthy social body, complex social activities are set in motion to defend and protect the social body against the emergence of violence. Someone senses the emotions of an escalating conflict, brings the parties together, grievances are aired, apologies are made, and restitution is accomplished. We view a physical infection as an exception to the rule of health. Similarly, in healthy organizations, violence is the exception to the rule of peace that typically governs a social species. Everyone who works and lives in a community is part of the “firewall,” and whenever there is a breach in that firewall, violence is likely to break through.
But when we are in a poor state of social health, when there are unconscious interpersonal conflicts, when there are secrets, when there is a great deal of stress, the usual defenses of the social body are breached. It is at these times that violence is most likely to emerge. Instead of finding someone to blame, we can then ask, “How and why has our social immunity failed? How did the violent impulses that exist potentially within all of us all the time suddenly emerge?”
Protecting social immunity means that there must be universal training so that everyone in the system is on the same page. Conflict management resources must be available and accessible, and everyone in the system must be expected to utilize those resources as acts of socially responsible behavior. Social norms of nonviolence must be accepted, endorsed, and supported, and the emergence of violent incidents must be accepted as signs of collective, not just individual, disturbance. In the Sanctuary Model, Red Flag Reviews are our method for routinely responding to any rupture in our social immunity.
Unsafe behavior must be identified, confronted, and given clear and consistent responses by the entire community, but if we are not to make things worse, then these responses must be designed to instruct and correct, and they must be fair from the point of view of the people involved. Otherwise, people who are being punished feel unjustly treated and the impetus for violence and retaliation escalates. In the Sanctuary Model, individuals are still accountable for what they do and don’t do. However, there is a general awareness that violence emerges in the context of the group and that some individuals are most easily triggered by what is going on in the group. This means that we cannot fool ourselves into believing that we have solved the problem just because we have created some consequences for the perpetrators If we view violence as a contagious agent that can be spread physically, psychologically, socially, or morally, then we can begin to think about what keeps us safe from “infection” When we start thinking this way, it becomes easier to define our individual responsibility for keeping our social immunity intact, since every one of us is a potential carrier. One of the most important barriers against the emergence of violence in any group, and therefore a vital component of our social immune system, is interpersonal trust.
The Importance of Trust
Trust is the basis of all social relationships and is a vital component of the social immune system in any environment. Trust at the organizational level has long been recognized as an essential quality of successful organizational relationships over time, but this topic has become even more important in an era when change happens rapidly and the time available to create trusting relationships is often very short while being no less essential. As one business consultant has written, “All work place practices and changes should be evaluated by a simple criterion: do they convey and create trust, or do they signify distrust, and destroy trust and respect among people?”.
Since building and sustaining trust is such an important aspect of developing social immunity to the emergence of violence, previous breaches of trust between management and staff, members of staff, and staff and clients must be addressed in a constructive way that provides community members with opportunities to restore relationships and reestablish trust. That’s when saying you are sorry really matters.
Restoring Broken Trust: The Usefulness of Apology
Sometimes, the only way to repair a relationship and reestablish the sense of trust that has been breached is to apologize. Apparently, strong norms of politeness govern our interactions, and when these norms are violated, retaliation often occurs. Apologizing or explaining things before the person gets upset is more of a deterrent to hostility and retaliation than giving the same information after the person is already upset.
Commitment to Nonviolence
We recognize that the best protection against violence is a shared Commitment to Nonviolence. But to fulfill that commitment, everyone in the community must respond to every episode of violence as a breach of community norms. And we also recognize that the best method for nonviolence is democracy. So, when the social immune system becomes compromised, often due to repeated and overwhelming stress and trauma, potential solutions must include everyone if they are to be effective. Democratic processes help strengthen the social immune system, and when democratic processes are eroded, our social immunity is inevitably compromised. By making a Commitment to Nonviolence we commit to eliminating all threats to safety including physical, aggression, demeaning language, threatening glares, apathy, avoidance and any other behavior that permits people to impose their will on each other and abuse power. If staff do not feel safe they cannot help clients feel safe and if clients do not feel safe they cannot do the difficult work necessary to change.
To create nonviolent environments, it is necessary for us to make some reasoned assumptions about how violence evolves within a group. Rarely is an episode of violence in a community a singular and unconnected event. Violent episodes always have a history but that history is not always immediately evident. Violence is relational. It may take a great deal of probing and investigation to figure out cause and effect relationships but they are there. Conflict is the alarm bell of the social immune system so when tracing the evolution of an episode of violence, look for the conflict, particularly the conflict that was below the surface (link to collective disturbance). Unfortunately, rather than reviewing the full complexity and deep understanding of emergent violent episodes, it is quite likely that the only thing that will happen is a lot of finger-pointing and blaming. Getting to the heart of violence requires change and rather than change we substitute scapegoating for real problem identification and solution in far too many cases.
Keeping Your Social Immune System Healthy
Since the earliest days of the therapeutic community movement, it has been recognized that when therapeutic milieu principles are practiced and nonviolent norms are accepted as routine a decrease in violent acting out occurs. A team that shares similar assumptions, goals and practices are able to develop “team mind”, a way of working together smoothly and flexibly while providing a strong and certain perimeter of containment and safety within which traumatized and overwhelmed clients can explore the stormy world of the past while changing behavior in the present.
If we have a shared understanding of these ways in which violence evolves in a group, then it becomes possible to create nonviolent environments. Establishing and routinely reiterating nonviolent norms within the entire community is vital. People tend to live up to expectations and when we expect socially responsible behavior on everyone’s part, we tend to get it. Recognizing the signs of a growing crisis is vital and having enough interpersonal trust established that it is safe for staff members to surface conflict among each other without fear of retribution is necessary if crises are to be averted. Institutional leadership must be willing to recognize the role they play in either creating or resolving collective disturbances and must be willing to surface and address uncomfortable conflicts that may be resting at the level of ethical, not procedural, dilemmas.
An environment committed to nonviolence, therefore, is one that is committed to understanding every episode of the emergence of any kind of violence and learning how and why the normal social barriers against violence broke apart and therefore how to better protect the well-being of the community in the future. This is why it is vitally important that every episode of physical, psychological, social, or moral violence is thoroughly debriefed and that the results are communicated throughout the whole community – so that social learning can occur.
In order to protect our social immune system, members of the community must have a basic understanding about the roots of violence, what triggers violence, and the manner in which violence spreads. The roots of violence are in the adversity the person has been exposed to, including the structural kinds of violence inherent in poverty, racism, discrimination and all forms of injustice. Violence can be triggered by anything that hurts the person again, reminds them of some pain from the past, and that provokes the natural human desire to retaliate. Unfortunately, nobody comes into a social service environment with a handy movie of their life available so that staff members would know each individual’s vulnerabilities. So, we have to institute “universal precautions” in our service environments that can at least minimize the chances that we will trigger people’s pain. Committing to Nonviolence represents some of those universal precautions. Violence spreads easily in any community because of the social nature of the human species. We are deeply programmed to respond to one person’s aggression with our own retaliatory aggression – instantaneously and in a deeply biological and psychological way. So, the less violence there is in any environment, the less violence there will be. See: our guidelines for keeping your social immune system in good health.
Link to Bloom, S. L. and Reichert, M. (1998) Bearing Witness: Violence and Collective Responsibility.
Link to Bloom, S. L. and B. Farragher (2013). Restoring Sanctuary: A New Operating System for Organizations. New York, Oxford University Press.
Key characteristics of a healthy social immune system