Perspectives on the violence we do not see


Institutional Communication Service

17 October 2022

Violence challenges us: to avoid being affected or hurt by it, we are tempted to ignore or justify it because it is a complex phenomenon to understand. The study day "The violence we do not see", held at Università della Svizzera italiana on Saturday, 8 October, tackled the issue from multiple points of view, using various disciplines such as law or neuroscience and, above all, building a space for discussion and dialogue. During the afternoon, five thematic ateliers discussed violence in the areas of the school, family, health, work and social media.

"This study day," stressed Pro-Rector for Research Patrick Gagliardini, "is part of the activities of the so-called "third mandate," which sees USI active not only in education and research but also knowledge transfer, connecting the experience of stakeholders in the region with the academic perspective. As explained by Annamaria Astrologo in her welcome speech this event is part of a strand of research and collaboration with institutions from the area carried out by Professor Astrologo herself of the IDUSI Law Institute together with Professor Sara Greco of the IALS Institute of Argumentation, Linguistics and Semiotics. The conference was organised with Ciao Table, Swiss RJ Forum, Objectif Désistance and Reparative Justice Group Ticino.

The purpose of this day is to think about violence starting from the point of view not of the perpetrators and victims but from that of the spectators with the idea - which is at the basis of restorative justice, as explained by Bruno Balestra of Gruppo Giustizia Riparativa Ticino - of empowering people starting from relationship and encounter. Piera Serra of the Ciao Table association stressed the importance of supporting those who witness violence by creating opportunities for social exchange.

The first look at violence, in this day based on multidisciplinarity, was through law: Roy Garré, historian and judge at the Federal Criminal Court, explained that law presents itself as a method for managing conflict that makes use of dialogue and speech rather than violence. However, the relationship is not so simple: the law, particularly in the criminal sphere, has often manifested itself in violent ways; the spread of two important legal traditions, such as Roman law and the Napoleonic Code, is linked to the violence of armies. Above all, it is in the family sphere that the limits of law become visible. The shadow of the pater familias, a figure with almost absolute powers in the family sphere, remains. Today, this is no longer the case. Still, despite the advances related to human rights and, since the 1970s, to the more significant consideration of victims, the law continues to stop at the doorstep, as evidenced by the difficulties in outlawing corporal punishment of children.

Università della Svizzera italiana researcher Rosalba Morese brought the perspective of social neuroscience, a discipline that studies what happens in our brains in social contexts. It is thus possible to study in detail how phenomena such as empathy work (similar areas are activated in the brain both when we feel pain and when we see someone in pain) or which interactions diminish the effects of social exclusion (physical contact is more effective than supportive messages). Significant is the so-called "bystander effect": the presence of other people witnessing an incident of violence "deactivates" areas of the brain that predispose to intervention, an effect that also occurs in digital interactions.

Sara Greco, professor of argumentation at Università della Svizzera italiana, addressed the issue of violence from the language perspective.

Violence is often surrounded by the silence of perpetrators, victims and spectators; however, words, as tools, can be used for different purposes, including hurting. It is, therefore, essential to know how to use language to see and deal with violence. Professor Greco presented three clues to look at violence in language. The first is attention to the unsaid, to what is not explicitly stated but implicitly assumed and is difficult to question. The second is to treat as relative the involvement of the perpetrator of a violent act, the "it happened that" instead of "I did." And finally, the use of pronouns such as a "we", that excludes others and leaves no room for the individuality of an "I" and a "you." Fortunately, words make it possible to deal with violence through argumentative dialogue in which one recognises the value of the other and is willing to listen and question: a dialogue that often needs appropriate room for listening.

The afternoon, as mentioned, featured participants broken up into five groups to discuss violence in the contexts of school, family, healthcare, work and social media. To close the day, one representative from each group briefly explained the content that emerged from the discussions. Several cross-cutting issues emerged from this concluding panel discussion, such as the tendency for institutions to conceal violence in schools, health care and the world of work and abandon the victims and bystanders. Some targeted legislative interventions are certainly needed to address violence, but above all, spaces for sharing and dialogue among the various actors need to be created.