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Teenage brawls: From the “ghettoisation of minds” to ultra-violence

4 July 2023 Expertises   147815  

Hamid Zanaz
Hamid Zanaz

According to the French Ministry of the Interior, 357 clashes between gangs were recorded in 2020, an increase of almost 25% compared to the 288 recorded in 2019. In March 2020, the government declared a general mobilisation against brawls between young people, after several fatal brawls, particularly in the Ile-de-France region. An emergency: every 44 seconds, according to an INSEE survey, a gratuitous violence is committed. A complaint is filed every two minutes!

Worse still: these figures are no longer surprising. They are just statistics that do not tell the suffering of the victims. We have become used to violence, used to being afraid of our young people. “We have children who hit more and more, earlier and earlier and who hit harder and harder. It’s already happening in the nursery, and then in primary school”, warned Maurice Berger, a child psychiatrist, several years ago.

This physical violence by adolescents is explained by most observers and analysts as the consequence of, perhaps even the inevitable response to, the violence of a society unable to offer them a future. Ultra-violence against precariousness, unemployment, racism. In a word, against ghettoisation. Political, social and economic ghettoisation… But this explanation is a bit short-sighted, because it excludes cultural confinement, which is nothing more than a devastating “ghettoisation of the mind”.

In his book “Sur la violence gratuite en France – Adolescents hyper-violents, témoignages et analyses”, Maurice Berger proposes a new psychological approach to try to understand what is going on in the mind and the unconscious of these young people, whose violence is sometimes unheard of. His approach is based on his experience, as a doctor, with a group of teenagers of whom he studies some specific cases. It is therefore a very different view from the usual discourse, even if it means shaking the comfort of received ideas.

Working in a reinforced educational centre for juvenile offenders, Maurice Berger, who is confronted daily with young perpetrators of “gratuitous violence”, discovers the role of family disintegration experienced by the majority of foreign families from Africa, the Maghreb countries, Kosovo, Albania and the Roma. Cultures which, according to him, accept inequality between men and women and where children are often witnesses of domestic violence. “In the centre where I work, we have 88% of young people of North African origin, he told Sud. Radio, that’s where the most important traces remain.”

In 69% of cases, these violent children were exposed to domestic violence in the first two years of their lives. Cultures with high levels of gender inequality have more violent children, which correlates directly with more domestic violence. This violent image of the father that these children carry within them resurfaces whenever they find themselves in a conflict situation. They are capable of acting violently for a shove or for what they consider to be a “bad look”. The exchange of blows is their favourite game, a kind of muscular eroticism. Violence has become the norm. A means of expression.

The primary causes of violence, the doctor explains, are to be found in early childhood. Mothers have often had such a disastrous childhood themselves that they are unable to smile at their babies, to talk to them, to understand when they need to be reassured by a hug. As if expressing tenderness was impossible, and love was an unaffordable luxury. Like play. Indeed, most of these parents, for whatever reason, do not play, or not enough, with their children. And yet, play is essential to an individual’s psychological growth. The result is that too many of these children reach adolescence with simple, poor, stunted thinking and no imagination. And above all a total lack of empathy. Banalization of violence and non-thinking. And most of them are unable to explain their actions other than by this one word: “normal”. “Normal” to beat up…

Deprived of a normal and peaceful life during their early years, these children fail to develop thinking skills. They have a language delay and therefore have difficulty learning. Surrounded by family and neighbourhood prejudices, they fear being different from their ethnic or religious group. Lacking argumentation, they quickly resort to hitting, even for a minor dispute.

What some consider as “enslavement” is the defeat of the word. Impulsive, they see the other as an object on which to unload the tension they feel in the moment, as a burden. Unable to understand the emotions expressed by the other’s face, they interpret them as threats. We are therefore far from Emmanuel Lévinas’ thesis: the face of the other, for these adolescents, does not command “Thou shalt not kill”. On the contrary, the face of the other invites them to an act of violence.

Victims of difficult memories, they live only in the present. A present which, according to them, has little to offer them, but which has the advantage of isolating them from the past as much as from the future, a present where everything is settled by violence. Immediate and gratuitous violence, with little or no legal sanction. And when one is not punished, one starts again. “You get a six-month suspended sentence for hitting someone who will never be able to do his job or walk again”, Maurice Berger laments.

According to Maurice Berger, this phenomenon of violence has a psycho-cultural basis. It can be said that this basis is maintained and even aggravated by the victim discourse that is increasingly developed in the neighbourhoods: France doesn’t want you, France doesn’t like your religion, France doesn’t consider you to be fully French, you are discriminated against in employment, France refuses to provide you with housing, France exploited your parents, colonialism massacred your grandparents, France refuses to recognise its crimes in North Africa, etc. This is a dangerous and irresponsible discourse, not only because it ethnicises and Islamises the debate, thus rejecting a priori the idea of integration into society, but also because this insidious incitement to hatred pushes some young people to commit the irreparable.

The most serious thing about this case is that, by some semantic sleight of hand, they have managed to make people believe that fighting against this discourse of exclusion and confinement is, on the contrary, an expression of racism and of France’s supposed Islamophobia. But it is exactly the opposite!