Generations of violence

I am finally reading J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and it’s as good as people say. Vance’s describes several generations of violence in his family and the harm it did to him and his sister. He attributes this domestic violence to the culture of the Appalachian Scots-Irish. This is likely true, in part, but let’s be careful here.

In Vance’s history, children are raised in households where the adults (who may or may not be parents) are always fighting. Not just arguing, but fighting. Those adults fought because the adults who raised them fought, and so on.

However, my wife and I are the age of Vance’s parents. My parents (the generation of Vance’s grandparents) fought, a lot, although not as violently as Vance’s kin. They were Utahns of several European stocks. Similarly, my wife’s parents fought, a lot. They were children of immigrants from Slovenia and Lithuania. Of course, not every couple in my parents’ generation fought. But I believe that the average level of domestic violence in that generation was much higher than today. Keeping data on domestic violence is a recent idea, so who knows? But many friends in my generation have similar memories.

My wife and I don’t fight — by our parents’ standards, we barely argue — so what changed from their time to ours? My parents grew up in a harder time. They were children in the Great Depression, we grew up far more economically secure. They were children in a more violent world. My father saw combat in the Pacific and saw it before then among the rough men at the copper mine where he worked as teenager. I’ve been spared these things.

My parents’ generation were also harder people. But they weren’t harder in the way they liked to imagine. Mad Men got this right: my parents and their friends drank (a lot) more than my peers and I have. In professional and business settings, at least, they worked fewer hours. My friends and I have been more self-disciplined. When we entered the workplace, it showed.

My parents were harder people in that they were not psychological. What I mean is that they had less ability to reflect on their interior lives, to monitor their emotions, and to see their interpersonal conduct from the perspective of the other. They had limited fluency in expressing their emotions. In a disagreement, they lacked self-control because they were enraged before they knew that they were even getting angry. They were unable to accurately recall how or why they fell into their furies. Therefore, they couldn’t see how their statements and actions might have caused their own suffering. Being unable to see who they were inside and how it helped explain how they behaved toward each other, they weren’t skillful in living together. They were intelligent and well-educated, but they couldn’t “work on their marriage”. I don’t think they understood what that would entail. My parents wanted to treat each other better than they did, but they lacked the tools to do it.

This absolutely wasn’t their fault. They were raised by an even harder generation. Perhaps the most surprising thing my mother ever told me was that as a girl, she never saw her parents kiss; nor anyone else’s. People deride contemporary narcissism and self-involvement, and they have a point. But it’s also true that romantic sentiments, interpersonal sophistication, and the psychological worldview are among the riches of the modern world.

So my thought about J. D. Vance’s family is that perhaps their problems shouldn’t be attributed entirely to a Southern / Scots-Irish culture of honour and violence. Instead, his parents and grandparents were on the same cultural trajectory as every other subculture, a movement towards a warmer, more self-aware, and more peaceful domesticity. It’s just that they were perhaps a couple of decades behind my parents.

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