Saturday, May 05, 2012

On Violence

In recent years I have been reading a great deal about colonialism and what went on during that terrible time. Related to this interest is the question of violence. Namely, are humans inherently or naturally violent creatures or is violence more appropriately a matter of culture. I confess I do not know the answer to this basic and important question. I do, however, have some ideas on the subject., however tentative and imperfect they may be.

First, it does seem to be the case that the United States, relative to many other countries, is unusually violent. I say this because we seem to be a nation of “violence junkies.” I believe this is so for several reasons. The content of our movies and television programs seems to be incredibly violent. While I do not watch a lot of television, the programs I watch feature ads for movies and programs that are overwhelmingly violent. Indeed, I would say that probably as much as 90% of the ads featured have violence as a basic characteristic, whether they are science fiction, crime dramas, or even ordinary dramas. I do not watch these programs but I know they exist and I know they have unusually violent themes. I cannot help but wonder about this.

As United States citizens we also appear to favor violent sports. Football, for example, has now overtaken baseball as our national pastime, and we are also enamored of hockey, boxing, and wrestling, all of which can be exceptionally violent. Even automobile racing appeals to violence for its audience. It is true we also like basketball and golf which, not as violent, are still very competitive. In fact, virtually everything is presented as a competition, even cooking shows, dancing and talent shows. Competition and violence are twin themes in virtually everything we watch or follow.

There is also the fact that our murder rate is unbelievably high when compared to most other cultures. This is partly due, of course, to our love affair with guns and their easy availability. Gun deaths, rapes, and muggings, to say nothing of stabbings are fairly commonplace. All in all it seems to me indisputable that our culture is unusually violent when compared with most other industrialized nations.

When it comes to the question of violence there are two competing claims, humans are naturally violent creatures by nature or they are not naturally violent. Those who hold to the first view cite evidence from the historical record, archaeology, and the study of our primate relatives. Those who subscribe to the second view cite ethnography and the fact that violence seems to be rare or virtually absent in some cultures. I confess I am not very convinced by the available evidence that humans are by their very nature violent. I think the evidence from primatology is highly questionable and that from archaeology even more questionable. The primate evidence, mostly from observations of chimpanzees and other apes, is slight, the evidence from archaeology is mostly speculation. I believe the ethnographic evidence, including my own experience with different cultures, is more convincing.

It seems to me to be true that some cultures are nowhere near as violent as others. It is possible to find villages in Mexico, for example, that within short distances of each other, vary widely in the amount of violence. I also believe that the violence of so-called “primitive peoples” has often been exaggerated. New Guinea Highlanders are regularly described as violent, constantly at war and raiding each other, and so on. In the roughly 30 months I spent living in villages there did not lead me to believe that violence was much greater than it was in my own home town. And while it is true there was raiding and warfare at times it was by no means “incessant.” In fact, the warriors I came to know all said they were pleased the fighting had been stopped and they no longer had to live in fear or fight. Women, too, were pleased their lives had become safer than they had been. Male initiation rites that had at their core the converting of boys into warriors were quickly abandoned much to the delight of the young men who feared them. And even at the height of fighting they usually stopped after one or two deaths, unlike our modern version of war that can continue endlessly with hundreds of thousands, even millions killed. We know from the ethnographic record, incomplete as it is, there were cultures where violence was extremely rare, but, of course, there seems to have been no culture in which it was completely absent.

My imperfect understanding of this leads me to conclude (at least for the moment) it is necessary to separate the capacity for violence from the propensity for it. That is, I suspect all humans have the capacity for violence if need be, but the propensity for violence varies from culture to culture, and even from individual to individual. Capacity implies the ability to act violently whereas propensity implies a natural inclination or preference for violence. While the capacity for violence is universal in humans the propensity is culturally determined or possibly a result of faulty socialization or enculturation.

One thing that puzzles me the most about violence is the presence of sadism. If you study the colonial period you cannot help but be bewildered by the sadism that was present in all colonial situations. Colonials from all European nations, with no exceptions, seem to practice sadistic acts for no apparent reason, cutting off hands and feet, heads, various forms of torture, abominations and perversions beyond belief, including the hunting of natives with dogs fed on human flesh and trained for the purpose. I cannot see what the necessity for this was as the natives were rarely if ever in a position to defend themselves or retaliate. I assure you this behavior on the part of those in power went far beyond ordinary punishment, gratuitous violence apparently for no reason other than the delight in cruelty. Sadism, unlike the mere propensity for violence, does not seem to me to be culturally determined although it seems some cultural traditions might have favored it somewhat more than others. I suspect it had to do with the corruption of absolute power, beliefs about the humanity of the victims, and so on. I doubt I will ever understand this but I keep on trying.

The discovery of America was the occasion of the greatest outburst of cruelty and reckless greed known in history.

Joseph Conrad

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