Common Shock: Witnessing Violence Every Day: How We Are Harmed, How We Can Heal
reviewed by Ronnie Casella - 2005
Title: Common Shock: Witnessing Violence Every Day: How We Are Harmed, How We Can Heal
Author(s): Kaethe Weingarten
Publisher: New American Library, New York
ISBN: 0451212916, Pages: 384, Year: 2004
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Common Shock, by Kaethe Weingarten, takes an atypical approach to the study of violence. She does not focus on the victims of violence, and she does not focus on the perpetrators. She writes for over 300 pages about those who witness violence. In a book that would sit well with parents, people in social services, researchers in psychology, sociology, and medicine, and teachers and school administrators, Weingarten strikes a relaxed tone that draws equally from the her personal experiences, research from a variety of fields, and her own research in countries throughout the worldall on the phenomenon of witnessing violence.
She begins the book with a scenario, which like others is based on her own experience: she had taken a friends 7-year-old daughter to the park. While there, the daughter sees a father smack his son in the head, and the author notices that the daughter is riveted to the scene. Within minutes, the daughter is kicking and screaming and wants to leave the park. The author reflects that had she not seen what the daughter had seenhad she been chatting with another adult, for exampleshe would not have known what distressed the girl. The author, having noticed this distressed reaction to witnessing violenceand many more she talks about in the bookcalls the reactions common shock. They are the everyday shocks we confront each day as we witness violence. This little girl, according to Kaethe Weingarten, experienced common shock, as do all of us as we go about our lives in a world that is far from peaceful and just.
Kaethe Weingarten covers a lot of ground. She discusses many kinds of violence that we potentially witness, and extends her analysis to examine the distress caused by having loved ones die, or caring for elderly parents or terminally ill friends, or confronting tragedies. She speaks with much measured expertise and empathy for those who try to process their experiences watching as violence occurs and draws from her own experiences dealing with a life-threatening cancer and the effect that this had on her family. In a chapter that examines the traumas that accompany illness and dying in families, she writes almost like a novelist about the mix of feelings and psychological responses that accompany harrowing experiences of tragedy within families. And in the interdisciplinary fashion that her breath of knowledge makes possible, she draws from novelists, such as James Agree, who in his book A Death in the Family gave us an exquisite first-person account of a young James trying to cope with the death of his father. It becomes apparent, in fact, that art, literature, and film have dealt with greater care and consistency with common shock than have social scientists. For this reason alone, Kaethe Weingartens book is a real contribution.
The book also takes us through the more clinical consequences of Common Shock. By referring to events such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the subsequent effect that the assassination had on people, and dealing with issues such as depression, memory loss, breakdowns in society, the author describes consequences of common shock. She deals with biological, psychological, interpersonal, and societal consequences in ways that would appeal to a range of readers, including people who may turn to the book as a way of dealing with their own personal traumas as well as academics who may turn to the book for further insights into research on such issues. This too is another contribution: in no way does Kaethe Weingarten pigeon-hole what she has to say. Her audience is not merely parents, professionals, or academics, but all of us who are likely to experience common shock.
Though the book has this far-ranging quality, it also aims to speak specifically to individuals in education and social services who may experience common shock. She notes that people who go into teaching and social work hardly recognize how their livelihoods open them up to potential common shock. She discusses other professions, such as policing, the clergy, and journalism, in this context as well. For educators and other such professionals, she writes, Few professionals are aware when they choose their careers that they may place themselves at great risk in the service of these lofty goals. For in caring for the people they serve they expose themselves daily, repetitively, and cumulatively to the violence and violation that permeates the lives of their constituents (p. 93). In talking specifically about teaching, she explains how educators are often burdened by the hardships they hear from students, are witness to abuse between students, and are involved daily with youths whose lives are overwhelmed with severe problems.
These are important points. But a potential problem with her analysis strikes me. The careful reader will inevitably ask, How far do we go with this common shock idea? Undoubtedly, police experience common shock when confronted with horrific experiences; so do ordinary citizens when an ordinary day turns suddenly tragic. But does the girl mentioned earlier, who had seen a father hit his son, also experience common shock? How about common shock when we see a kid who is hit accidentally, or how about when we see a kid trip and fall? How about common shock when a bird is struck by a caror how about an insect crushed underfoot? No doubt, Kaethe Weingarten would have measured and appropriate responses to such questions, but at times her good points about common shock start blending with phenomena that may be best explained through a different kind of perspective and with other kinds of vocabulary. She talks for example about empathetic stress reactions that could affect teachers, including burnout. I couldnt help wondering if burnout was really a form of common shock. Though burnout can be severe, must all negative reactions to our sometimes unjust and competitive and violent world be matters of common shock? Maybe burnout is just burnout.
But this is a piddling complaint, for the book addresses many important topics, opens up a new line of analysis on violence, and reminds us that as our world evolves we have not become more peaceful, and therefore we need to learn how to cope with the violence we see. While perpetrators and victims will always grab the attention of social scientists and those hoping to alleviate suffering and correct injustices, passer-bys, onlookers, and others who witness violence can also feel the trauma as if they had experienced violence personallyand to some extent, they have. Their trauma can be as serious as it is for those who are at the center of violenceit can also be as inconsequential as it is for the kids who talk about fights as if they were mere entertainment or just another event in a day of many events. While common shock is a problem; a much more serious problem may be the common shock we dont experience when, in fact, we should.