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. 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).
Posted by Douglas Storm