Want to end social violence? We all need to work towards cultural change

Some of the Step Back Think team

Ben O’Toole, Juliette Wittich, Karen Turner, Anna O’Halloran, Coco Bernard and Matthew Hughes of Step Back Think; a not-for-profit dedicated to ending social violence.


Type into Google “one-punch Australia” or “king-hit Australia” and you’re immediately served with countless news articles: A fractured skull. A lost eye. Broken teeth. Brain injuries. Concussion. Death.


All these stories come from 2016 alone. Since January, seven lives have been lost to social violence in Australia. Navigate through these articles and you’re confronted with images of heartbroken families and beautiful young men and boys. For, while women are also victims of this disturbing trend, both perpetrators and victims are overwhelmingly male and young. This phenomenon is known as social violence, and it’s a direct result of cultural trends we desperately need to change.


What is social violence?


Anna O’Halloran is the CEO at Step Back Think, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to abolishing social violence.


“In order to properly address the issue, we need to be specific in our definition,” she explains. “So when we say “social violence” we mean physical, interpersonal violence in a community setting. It’s very different to family or domestic violence. We’re talking about fights in the pub, assaults on the street and brawls in the schoolyard.


“There are a number of colloquial terms for social violence with which you’ll be familiar. We hear “street violence”, “physical assault”, “coward-punch,” “youth violence”, “alcohol-fuelled violence” and more. The media is particularly partial to “king-hit” and “one-punch”.


How did social violence become such a big problem?


While no type of violence can be justified, it seems inconceivable that someone you’ve never met, or had an exchange with, could maim or kill you. As a community, Australia has become increasingly violent – this much is clear from government data and anecdotally. And for some reason, the problem presents more persistently in Australia than other parts of the developed world.


“I remember spending a six-month exchange in Sweden as an undergrad student,” says Anna. “I was going out a lot, and most people were drinking quite heavily – yet I didn’t see a single instance of aggressive behaviour the whole time I was there.”


So how did this happen? Why is social violence almost normal – even expected – in Australia? Anna explains that it’s important to take a hard look at the social and cultural norms that pervade our society. This means considering what it means to be “masculine”, and why power and violence are all-too-often associated with “maleness”?


We don’t have all the information


In 2013–14, 19,000 incidents of social violence were reported to police in Victoria alone. But this is a type of violence that is likely to go unreported – meaning the number of incidents not made known to the police must be even more staggering.


A lack of information from perpetrators makes it even more difficult to compare local data with the rest of the world. We can’t rely solely on media reports either – one-punch assaults that happen to be picked up by media – the fear, sensationalism makes it clickable news.


One thing we do know is that social violence in Australia is connected to our relationship with alcohol (much like many other types of violence). Step Back Think recently made a submission to Parliament on the need for a nationally consistent approach to alcohol-fuelled violence”.


Step Back Think is also launching a fortnightly newsletter, The Social Violence News Round-up, to put more focus on incidence, and using social media as a means to help us address the issue. Last year they released a video campaign, “It’s not worth the gamble,” which features two strangers in a verbal altercation at a bar. A commentator steps in and reads the betting odds: through from a “first punch” at $1.80, “near death” at $5 and “death to either party” at $7.


The metaphor is simple – it’s not worth the gamble.



The impacts of social violence are catastrophic and widespread


One of the most devastating consequences of social violence is “the ripple effect”. The victim is often left with serious injuries. Permanent disabilities. Lasting psychological damage. And in Australia, there have been seven deaths due to social violence since January of this year. But it doesn’t end there.


“Talking to victims, first responders, families and friends – I’ve seen so much suffering generated from single attacks.” says Anna. “Parents, siblings and other loved ones’ lives are devastated by what’s happened.”


“Paramedics and police also face psychological distress. Seeing this kind of violence – it really stays with people and creates secondary trauma, the symptoms of which often mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


“Of course, the perpetrator also faces negative consequences. They often end up serving time in jail, losing their job, suffering from the psychological impact, or they are isolated from family and friends. There are no winners – only losers.”


One problem is that there are no government-run behavioural-change programmes specifically for perpetrators of social violence – unlike alcoholism and domestic violence. So how, then, can we teach boys and young men to step back and think?


Step Back Think


Step Back Think was created in 2007 by friends of James Macready-Bryan. Known to those close to him as MB, James was left with permanent brain damage when he was attacked on his 20th birthday by a man he’d never met before.


The not-for-profit organisation strives to use education, awareness and partnerships to drive cultural change and put an end to social violence.


“2016 is an important year for education around social violence,” says Anna. “We’ve revamped our education presentation to make it more comprehensive and we’re helping support teachers to educate students.


“We’re also working on a huge campaign – getting 40,000 participants across Australia, to wear orange laces in attempt to raise awareness of the causes and consequences of social violence in May and June. We want to make it clear that everyone has the opportunity to get involved and a role to play in eliminating social violence.”


"Lace Up" – orange laces to raise awareness of social violence

A Lace Up exhibition match from 2015 with Gridiron Victoria.


Some of these causes are problematic constructions that surround masculinity. Anna points out that many girls are raised to think that when they are upset, a natural reaction might be for them to cry, scream, throw things and be hysterical… but what are men taught? How do their parents, peers and partners expect them to react? And how do these stereotypes and restrict our ability to foster healthy relationships?


To effectively change this culture, all of the community needs to participate and give their perspective.


“We don’t want to suggest that the role of women in social violence is to alleviate the behaviour of boys. We don’t want to perpetuate the idea that females are here to motivate males, ”says Anna.


“What we do want is young people to understand that getting into a fight is just as risky as driving drunk. And that it’s not cool or glamourous – it’s endangering lives. That’s how we will begin to really prevent these deaths,” she concludes.


Find out more at stepbackthink.org or follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


lucy godwin, communications manager