I think about violence fairly regularly, a possible result of various childhood and early adult experiences, though more likely it’s just the general prevalence of it. But the lens through which I view violence was definitely formed at the private high school I had to go to – a colonial attempt to emulate the English elite model that somehow transformed into a rugby obsessed, educational black hole that endorsed bullying as essential to the construction of character. I was quite small as a boy, not really growing significantly until I was sixteen, so my experience of the worst of this violence was as a weak kid who learnt it was a bad idea to try and stand up to bullies (in this sitcom bullies don’t suddenly back down when confronted, revealing themselves as cowards, they knee you in the stomach and elbow you in the back of the head). It was pretty horrible to be surrounded by this violence but to also be embraced by a context that rewarded said violence socially, if not materially, was baffling. My public school years leading up to this private highschool did nothing to prepare me for the levels of violence that were commonplace there.
One of the worst aspects of this didn’t really come home to me until my final year, when we suddenly had at our disposal the physical and social tools to perpetrate this violence ourselves. This was abhorrent to me, I couldn’t stand the thought of it – it actually made me feel ill. Yet I watched those kids who had gone through the same, or worse, shit that I had perpetrate and embrace this violence, instead of reviling it. It was their turn, I was told when I asked a couple of my friends why they did it. It took me a long time to come to terms with that reality, to actually understand in real terms how violence just begets more violence – a comfortable cliche that doesn’t do itself justice.
Our very origins are based, I think, on conception and conceit. At a fundamental cultural level violence seems to make sense to us, so it follows that we would look for its part in the birth our species. We think of ourselves, in this culture we call civilization, as the pinnacle of the human race. This conceit, that our culture represents our whole species, is massively damaging to our view of cultural phenomena like violence.
Believing our species coalesced in violence makes it easier to perpetuate it, that much is obvious, but the depth of violent conflict in our thinking and behaviour is terrifying. It finds easy expression in our political and social agendas in ways we just don’t notice, let alone question. We make war on drugs, obesity, terrorism, poverty and disease. Business is conducted as warfare (The Art of War by Sun Tzu being a standard business text). There are relationship battles, the grander battle of the sexes; we fight for the hearts and minds of the people.
In ‘Origin of the Species’ (there’s that conceit again) Darwin conceived evolution as war: “Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” Ignoring the ‘higher animals’ thing, nature conceived as hierarchy rather than obviously interconnected systems, the belief that we were actually produced through violence, on an evolutionary level, makes it far easier to see the cultural evolution and acceptance of violence as ‘natural’.
Violence isn’t necessarily about hitting someone, of course. We learn to exact violence in the cleverest, most intimate ways. We only have to look at the intricate use of violence in an abusive relationship – the horror of the physical violence is the crescendo; it is what enforces the continual emotional and intellectual violence of the relationship. It’s all about control and dominion. We all understand this, even if we are inarticulate in the face of it, we all understand. We’ve been made to by our very surroundings, which has a knock on effect into our internal lives. We commit violence on ourselves; constructing an inner violence that warps and betrays our internal lives, condemning our ability to relate to each other and the world around us into a search for and a shameful or embarrassed purchase of the latest aphoristic self-help book.
We understand when violence breaks out in traffic jams, sporting events, chat shows. We condone or damn it but we certainly comprehend its mechanisms. We celebrate it if it happened on a grand enough scale, in the form of public holidays, parades, statues. Even in sermons. Regardless of its expression, we all understand it. We identify, sympathize and empathize. We get it.
The whole idea of being a victim of violence is totally fucked up by the cultural significance we give to the act, let alone how we view the practitioners of it. When an event is resolved through violence it somehow becomes validated by it, like violence has lent it some of its greater meaning: the philosophy of violence. We debate back and forth the meaning and intent, implication and inference, practice and theory. I find this a terrifying confirmation of violence’s legitimacy in our culture; that we are capable of talking about violence in such shades and with such specificity.
Where do we think it comes from? So many people believe or accept by default that humanity is inherently violent. Not just capable of violence but fundamentally violent – unstoppably and biologically violent. Which might suggest, through a sense of evolutionary destiny, that our violence is forgivable? Because, come on people, it is plainly, as anyone can tell, unarguably (I mean, look at the evidence) just in our nature. Almost any biological creature is capable of violence, humanity being a good example of that, but we take that fact and contort it into a syllogism mighty enough to rationalise itself away.
Go to this link, or this one and have a look. Do some math. When faced with this are we forced to believe that it is beyond our will? That violence is, what? Inexorable? Inescapable? Preordained? Divine? When considering these consequences do we have to come to the conclusion that our drive to violence is inherent? Biological? God given? If we don’t accept a premise approximating that, what would that mean? Would it mean responsibility? Could we survive if we had to think of a history and present drenched in our bloody choices? If not does it mean we are forced to conceive of a future just as bloody?
If we were to take away our capacity for violence, our toleration of it, our civilization would collapse. It is necessary for our continuity, political, social and material, that someone or thing suffers and dies – not maliciously or cruelly necessary, only by barren, practical necessity. We believe we have to accept it in our world, to tolerate it, if our world is going to continue. It is the oil on the cogs of the machine that brings to our table what we believe we require.
In ancient Rome, when gathering evidence in a court case, from a slave, it was inadmissible, that is to say illegal, if the information wasn’t gathered with the use of torture. There’s a modern argument that torture is, after opining the use of torture as a yardstick of barbarity, actually okay, if the information gathered is important enough. If this paragraph seems to not make much sense, seems to contain contradictions and paradoxes, it’s for very simple reasons.
The use of violence has simply gone on too long, become too complicated. Violence, enduring and horrendous, becomes the default because, y’know, what else are we gonna do? How would you fix it, buddy? Come on genius, solve the world’s problems.
Why is it so hard to just stop?
I’ve read that a culture can’t change its belief in its fundamental principles, because once it does it ceases to be that culture and becomes something else. To aspire to forget violence, to find another way to communicate our needs and desire on the world and ourselves, would mean a change of culture. We could become something else.
When I was in Barcelona recently, with my brother, we were staying in a Hostel. We were in the main bunkroom, a room that had maybe 25 or 30 beds. On the first night there myself, my brother and a number of other people were trying to get to sleep, a venture continually thwarted by a group of 20-something English travelers who were treating the bunkroom as a staging ground for their drunken adventures. They would leave and someone would get up and turn the light out. A short while later they would come back, turn the light on, drink more, talk loudly, and then leave again. Someone would get up and turn the light out. This repeated every twenty minutes or so.
I figured this was something you just accept as the price of a cheap bed. Until midnight – then it gets really fucking annoying. I had been getting angrier and angrier, quietly fuming away on my lower bunk, my brother trying to sleep above me. The pattern of drunken visitations continued, with the added bonus of a couple of disparaging remarks about one sleeper’s big white arse sticking out. Then, at 2am, one of them made a snide comment questioning the whole room’s desire to sleep when we should have been out drinking. The sort of loud mouth, fuckwit comment only protected by the comforting, arrogant presence of a large group of drunken friends. I snapped. The slow burn of my frustration and anger launched me out of my bed with a yell of, ‘Get the fuck out of here’ and had me, before I realized it, propelled halfway across the room, dressed only in my boxer shorts, wanting to hurt someone very badly.
When I got to them, the group of three nearest to the door, I didn’t stop. I transformed my momentum into violence very efficiently, shoving one hard in the chest, propelling him out and into the corridor wall, hard. I was still talking, though I have no idea what exactly I was saying. I turned immediately and grabbed one of them (the one making all the comments) by the throat and pinned him against the wall. The third one I reached for and I think I got hold of his shirt before he broke my grip by moving backwards very quickly. My brother had jumped off his bunk and followed me, backing me up while, very wisely, trying to calm the situation down. I was inarticulate in rage. I couldn’t express to the guy I had by the throat what I wanted to because I wasn’t thinking that clearly, I just wanted to put my fist straight into his face.
I wasn’t scared. The rest of the group had backed out onto the little balcony, giving me room and abandoning their friends. I definitely wasn’t scared. I wanted one of them to swing at me. The only cap on my actions was that I hadn’t damaged anyone and I wouldn’t start a fist fight unless one of them tried to hit me. I wanted someone to swing at me so I could start swinging back, I desperately wanted a reason, something I could look back on later and say that I not only had provocation for my anger but direct cause for my violence. I wanted to hurt someone so badly I could barely contain it.
I think of what I must have looked like: I’m not small any more. I’m an inch or so shy of six foot, broad shouldered with an athletic frame. I exercise frequently and am strong. I’m balding, so I keep the bald man’s traditional skinhead haircut. I was bigger than two of the guys I attacked and wider than the other. I also have a few tattoos on my torso. I would have been scary. Seeing someone in a rage is always scary. Seeing a half naked someone who looks capable of violence charge at you and grab you or your friend by the throat is, I imagine, sobering in the extreme.
The end result was that they backed down and got out. No one threw a punch. When they came back they were quiet enough that I didn’t wake up. The next two nights were the same, very quiet and considerate. In the intervening time they didn’t make eye contact with me, even when I sought it.
I’ve told a few friends about this now, and I don’t believe I’ve coloured it too much to benefit me. Every time I’ve not only been forgiven my actions, I’ve had them approved. I had cause. It was understandable. It was so out of character that it must have been justified. I’m sure most, if not all, of these responses have been out of care for me. But I… I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m aware that I haven’t told one particular person who would have been horrified had they been there and witnessed it.
The worst thing, and the most relevant to my thoughts on violence, is that the anger that I channeled wasn’t the anger those drunken English kids generated. I had been conflicted and confused about something for days; something I’d left behind before but had come back to prey on me, causing a very specific kind of doubt and conflict. There was real turmoil inside me, and those poor Brit bastards just brought it out.
I’m ashamed of myself. I hate violence. I hate the process and the results. Yet I perpetrated it. Worse, I let anger fuelled by personal confusion become violence against stupid but blameless targets. I manifested the lessons I had learned at school. Which makes me hate even more that there is part of me that is secretly proud of the violence I became, that I actually feel better about myself because I have had that capability confirmed.
This is the language of violence, the thing that our lives are steeped in. The distant acts of our past waiting inside us for an opportunity to present themselves – whether it is outwardly on others or what we inflict internally on ourselves. A perpetual cycle of violence and scars subsumed in the currents of our lives only to be heaved up by the tides on other shores.
I want to replace the violence, and the underlying hatred, in my life. I want to be able to feel love and exact the results of that on the world instead. But I can’t find the path. Or I can’t identify it. Yet it must be there because I’ve seen others walking it.
Hate is the process and violence the result. Replace the hate and change the result. Sounds easy enough.
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.