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South Pacific Judicial Conference

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 3 March 1987
The Hon and the Rt Rev Sir Paul Reeves, GCMG, GCVO, QSO

People have tried to distinguish between the violence of an individual and the constraints and force of the state. Ultimately, that is a very difficult distinction to sustain. So my immediate reaction to your Conference theme Controlling the Violent Society is violence is controlled by violence. Certainly that was the position of Thomas Hobbes. He said society is riddled with violence and the only protection for the individual is an absolute and all powerful state itself prepared to use violence.

Not surprisingly then our response to violence is constantly a matter of debate. In June 1986 the Auckland paper the New Zealand Heraldreported on the one hand a senior police lawyer who said the justice system is becoming lopsided in favour of criminals, and on the other hand, a former President of the Court of Appeal, who reminded judges of the right to exercise judgment on the side of mercy in cases of violent offending.

In New Zealand as you have heard there is a ministerial committee of inquiry into violence. Many of the submissions have been concerned with why people behave violently. The President of the Māori Women's Welfare League said frustration, cultural violence, under achievement, unemployment and low self esteem were the major causes of violent offending. A psychiatrist told the committee violent offending by young people arose from direct abuse by adults or from observing parents being violent with each other. Another psychiatrist suggested some violent sex offenders might have suffered minimal brain damage or attention deficit disorders as children. This would make them prone to react quickly, unrealistically and violently to what they think is rejection.

Violence pervades our society. Its roots go deep into our psyche, our history, our social and economic experience. Plainly the origins of violence are mysterious. It may be more profitable to speak about some characteristics of violence from a perspective which is theological and tries to deal with the human condition realistically.

So let me set up three characteristics of violence. The first is continuity. Once you start using violence you can't get away from it. Violence expresses the lazy habit of simplifying political, social and human situations.

Violence deals with our [an]tagonists by simply denying they have a viewpoint that counts. Violence allows no room for dialogue, its outcome is capitulation. The pressure, always, is to keep on using violence. What was meant to be a temporary expedient becomes permanent. Violence continues.

The second is reciprocity. "All who take up the sword will perish by the sword," said Jesus. Violence creates, begets and procreates violence. The violence of the colonialists creates the violence of the anti colonialists. Nor does violence bring any kind of freedom from violence. Victorious sides have a fatal tendency to split into groups which perpetuate violence. If any person or group is tempted to use violence they should realise violence imprisons its practitioners in a circle that can't be broken by human means.

The third characteristic of violence is sameness. It is impossible to distinguish between justified and unjustified violence, between violence that liberates and violence that enslaves. This is true not only of physical violence but also economic violence, where the privileged proprietor is pitted against his workers and psychological violence where the victim is led to do what he did not want to do. There is no such thing as major and minor violence. Violence is a single thing and is always the same. Violence is fury, it is madness.

The Director General of Television New Zealand told the Ministerial Committee inquiring into violence the public demand for violent programmes is insatiable. Violence is within us as well as around us. We violate our own space before we violate the space of others.

In theological terms violence is a sign of the sinful human condition we all share. Inevitably it brings some people before a Judge to account for violent behaviour deemed to be criminal in intent.

I have no easy answers to these issues except to quote Scripture and express a hope. "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" are words always worth remembering. My hope is the Deputy Chairman of the Ministerial Committee of Inquiry into Violence in speaking to this Conference on the topic Are there Solutions to Curbing Violent Crime? will give you the benefits of the thinking of his Committee.

Your Conference theme is not an easy one. What you get out of this meeting is related directly to your willingness to wrestle with the issues.

I declare the Conference open and look forward to entertaining you at Government House tomorrow. I wish you well.

Last updated: 
Tuesday, 3 March 1987

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