01 December 2012

The "Why" of Violence

The youth was in a little trance of astonishment. So they were at last going to fight. On the morrow, perhaps, there would be a battle, and he would be in it. For a time he was obliged to labor to make himself believe. He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth.

He had, of course, dreamed of battles all his life--of vague and bloody conflicts that had thrilled him with their sweep and fire. In visions he had seen himself in many struggles. He had imagined peoples secure in the shadow of his eagle-eyed prowess. But awake he had regarded battles as crimson blotches on the pages of the past. He had put them as things of the bygone with his thought-images of heavy crowns and high castles. There was a portion of the world's history which he had regarded as the time of wars, but it, he thought, had been long gone over the horizon and had disappeared forever.

From his home his youthful eyes had looked upon the war in his own country with distrust. It must be some sort of a play affair. He had long despaired of witnessing a Greeklike struggle. Such would be no more, he had said. Men were better, or more timid. Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions.

He had burned several times to enlist. Tales of great movements shook the land. They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them. He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all. His busy mind had drawn for him large pictures extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds.

But his mother had discouraged him. She had affected to look with some contempt upon the quality of his war ardor and patriotism. She could calmly seat herself and with no apparent difficulty give him many hundreds of reasons why he was of vastly more importance on the farm than on the field of battle. She had had certain ways of expression that told him that her statements on the subject came from a deep conviction. Moreover, on her side, was his belief that her ethical motive in the argument was impregnable.

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, (1895)


You cite ideology as the main cause for violence in the 20th century. Why is that?

There are a number of things that make particular ideologies dangerous. One of them is the prospect of a utopia: since utopias are infinitely good forever, and can justify any amount of violence to pursue that utopia, the costs are still outweighed by the benefits. Utopias also tend to demonise certain people as obstacles to a perfect world, whoever they are: the ruling classes, the bourgeois, the Jews or the infidels and heretics. As long as your ideology identifies the main source of the world's ills as a definable group, it opens the world up to genocide.

You describe the concept of pure evil as a myth in the book. Why?

The myth of “pure evil” is a debating tactic. We don't think of it that way because that very awareness would undermine the credibility of our brief. If the myth of pure evil is that evil is committed with the intention of causing harm and an absence of moral considerations, then it applies to very few acts of so-called “pure evil” because most evildoers believe what they are doing is forgivable or justifiable.

Should we be worried that violence on a mass scale, of the kind we saw in the last century, will rear its head again?

I think we should worry. I don't think we will necessarily see it on the same scale, but the violence that did take place was due to features that were found in human nature. They haven't gone away and it's possible that they could re-emerge. All the more reason why we should fortify the institutions that are designed to prevent that from happening, like free speech, rule of law and human rights.

Interview with Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined


The U.S. push for markets and investor rights and political control, sometimes called Imperialism, is for Pinker just natural and doing good, taking advantage of positive-sum business games with “gentle commerce,” as well as containing those with ideology who kill people freely. “The very idea of a capitalist peace is a shock to those who remember when capitalists were considered ‘merchants of death’ and ‘masters of war’,” (288) to give one example of Pinker’s perspective.[35]  Pinker doesn’t mention any such thing as “aggressive commerce” or discuss the possibility (and reality) of the cross-border seizure of property by the more powerful states.  There are 17 citations to “gentle commerce” in his Index, and writers who promulgate the related ideas of “gentle commerce,” “Democratic Peace,” “Liberal Peace,” “Capitalist Peace,” and “Kantian Peace” (in the Pinker-friendly version of it) are featured and referenced lavishly.  But there are zero indexed citations to the word “imperialism” in Better Angels, and no mentions of Jagdish Bhagwati and Hugh Patrick’s Aggressive Unilateralism, John Hobson’s Imperialism, John Ellis’ The Social History of the Machine Gun, Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts, Penny Lernoux’s Cry of the People, Gabriel Kolko’s Confronting the Third World, Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy, Robert Engler’s The Politics of Oil, or David Harvey’s The New Imperialism.

Pinker’s ideological thinking stresses the development of positive and humane attitudes by individuals—in the Civilized states—moving them towards humane policy, opposition to slavery, concern for civilians in war, and moves toward democracy, while he essentially ignores the development of institutional forces that might overwhelm these individual factors and make for serious violence.

Edward Herman and David Peterson, "Reality Denial"


The use of violence, mild or extreme, by the state can be seen in two ways, or analyzed into two differing functions.  The first is governance, that is, control of behavior; the second is politics, the use of violence to maintain the social stability of the group or even individual known in a given circumstance as the state.  Both the function and the limitation of violence can be seen by glancing at the contemporary problem of terrorism.  It cannot be that the state objects to terrorism because its citizens are being killed.  In this country the citizens kill each other by murder and automobiles, fifty percent of the latter by drunken driving, and the state remains on the whole quite unruffled, except when some group of citizens forming itself as an organ of the state manipulates the state to take some action....No, the state objects to terrorism for quite different reasons.  A state maintains its legitimacy by maintaining a monopoly on the use of violence for politics and governance.  Terrorism is a challenge to the state's monopoly on violence for such purposes....The trouble with violence is that if it is used in its ultimate forms there is no further recourse.  So we may understand civilization as the strategy by which control and position are maintained without resorting to violence.  Legal texts are of the first importance, of course, in circumventing the use of violence as well as justifying violence.

Morse Peckham, "Literature and the State," (1987).


  1. We all need more kindness in this world...

  2. Here's the punch line from Lionel McPherson's paper "Is Terrorism Distinctively Wrong?" (Ethics 2007;117:524–546):

    "The deeply distinctive problem for nonstate terrorists now emerges. That they lack legitimate authority is only a rough indication of the problem. Political violence by nonstate actors is objectionable when they
    employ it on their own initiative, so that their political goals, their violent methods, and, ultimately, their claim to rightful use of force do not go
    through any process of relevant public review and endorsement. Nonstate terrorism’s distinctive wrongness does not lie in the terrorism but rather in the resort to political violence without adequate license from a people on whose behalf the violence is purportedly undertaken."

    Peckham thinks that states are saying "Hey, terrorists, you can't do that to my people. Only I can do that to my people." While one of McPherson's points is that it's the people on whose behalf the terrorists act who are saying "Hey, terrorists, you can't do that to the people of that state because we didn't give you authority to do so in our name."

  3. Does McPherson say it's "distinctively" wrong (and what does that mean)? From the "punch line" offered he says "non-state terrorism" is "distinctively" wrong and I assume the distinction is the lack of "endorsement."

    This seems fairly dubious as it seems to assume its categories are "agents."

    Also, how can there be a "non-endorsing" group to not endorse a "non-state" terrorism?

    From this I might assume that the Terrorism that is distinctively "right" is that perpetrated by a state (with "adequate license from a people"--an interesting use of the article "a" over "the").

    McPherson, again in this snippet, says a kind of terrorism is approved.

    I think likely Peckham would agree; in that terrorism, like ALL human actions, is an "utterance" and/or a "response." It is not done by "the people" but instead "a group of people" unrestrained by the so-called "governed." That is to say, rather, he might agree with the twist of definition that terrorism by the state is not "terrorism" but can be named anything else to mask the "rationale" for the violence. In this it is "valid" response.

    Terrorism is only terrorism in Peckham's view when it is inflicted by an external actor.

    The US is a terrorist state so defined by all other countries because it is constantly aggressively and murderously violent--via bullets, bombs, or strangulating sanctions.

    The distinction of defining an actor as "endorsed" or not seems irrelevant in any place other than a journal argument.

    Peckham's larger, and I think more important assertion, is that the state is a violent, controlling authority at all times in all ways. This is MOSTLY done by controlling verbal response in ways other than the violent.

    Terrorism is an affront because there is no action beyond it. It is an "ultimate" act.

    The "terrorism" of Peckham's piece is ONLY a word defining "appropriate" violence (or that is inappropriate violence).