How Well Does Alice Miller's Perspective On Violence Hold Up?

Charles K. Bellinger on the theory of Alice Miller

The following is from The Genealogy of Violence by Charles K. Bellinger

In my view, Miller's book For Your Own Good should be required reading for parents because it so effectively sensitizes the reader to the various ways to which parents can psychologically harm their children. It holds up a mirror to adults, forcing them to reflect on how they were raised. This process of reflection can break cycles of harm that have been passed down for generations.

As a general theory seeking to explain the roots of all violence, however, Millers' theory invites very troubling questions. The most obvious one concerns her apparent reductionism. Is she not reducing all violence to one narrowly conceived cause? It is difficult to see how this can be established.

There is no doubt that several child abuse causes great psychological harm, which in some cases leads to violent behavior in adults. But in many other cases violent acts are committed by individuals who were not severely abused as children. How does Miller's theory help us to understand these cases? Could she prove that every terrorist who ever committed a violent act did so because he was beaten as a child? Could Miller actually establish that all of the people who committed atrocities in Rwanda did so solely because they were abused as children? It seems more plausible to maintain that other factors need to be considered, some of them social and historical considerations that transcend the details of any particular individual's life. What Miller says is not invalid; but when she claims to put forward the one correct understanding of the roots of violence she is claiming too much.

Another difficulty with Miller's commentary on Hitler is the lack of proportionality between cause and effect. We can understand that Hitler hated his father, and that rage had built up inside him because he was beaten. It would make a certain amount of sense if Hitler, as a grown man, had seen a man who resembled his father and had flown into a fit of rage and killed the look-alike. But to kill six million Jews because one hated one's father? The lack of proportion here is so drastic that a more nuanced understanding is clearly needed.

Hitler received the active or passive cooperation of most of the German people. Thus, a more adequate understanding of the roots of violence will consider the social dynamics of scapegoating. At this level, it is not adequate to simply point to the child-rearing traditions of a culture. Reductionism at the social level is not any more convincing than reductionism at the individual level.

A further difficulty with Miller's book is the way it diverts moral responsibility away from the murderers and places it on their parents or on society in general. Violent people are understood by Miller to be victims of psychological oppression so great that they cannot really be held responsible for their actions...Her argument seems to be just another way of excusing oneself from responsibility by blaming one's actions on one's parents.

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