The Origin of Violence

On september 9 of 2001, myth and history would come together in a event that were to change the world. Just as the Tower of Babel, that went down because it represented man´s ambition of reaching the infinity through the finite, the Twin Towers would fall and with them the illusion of reaching a world of peace.

It seemed incredible that, just when Europe was ceasing centuries of war, the Middle East was assuming the world protagonism on war. After centuries of being ignored, the ancient problem of violence would have to be solved if we wanted not only to advanced, but to survive as a species.

Violence has been a constant in all nations and epochs, which is why it is imposible to negate that it is part of human. Canalized, it fulfills the purpose of serving to the defense of dreams and to plant the seed for creation through processes of destruction. However, man has moved too far away from his origin. In modern times violence has reached unsuspected scales of destruction, because it counts with vast technological means that contrast with the precarious phycological state of the human being.

That is why in this post we will try to go into the reasons why a natural aggressiveness turns into an abomination like quartering somebody with a chainsaw. It is not anymore an spontaneous aggressiveness but a calculated attitude capable of, for example, planing for months and months the way of throwing an atomic bomb over a civilian population.

What is the reason for violence? It is commonly said that violence is due to evil or to human nature.

To study the first one, let´s take the example of the ones who, for the majority of people, are the example of pure evil: the nazis. This political party exterminated millions of jews, gypsies, homosexuals and slavs. Their action are a referent of how low can humanity fall in desperate times.

Nevertheless, when Hannah Arendt attended Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, she realized something extraordinary. This german had been the coordinator of “the final solution”, that was the orchestrated plan of erasing from the face of earth the Jews. Naturally, everybody imagined him as someone closer to a demon than a human.

To the surprise of all, Eichmann was like any of us. He was a bureaucrat that was trying to live a correct life and follow the orders of his superiors. In his quest for standing out, he didn’t questioned orders nor he asked for the consequences of his acts, but he simply executed them. To explain this, Hannah Arendt came with the concept of the banality of evil, which is that evilness which is not scandalous, that resides in acts so little like closing your eyes and jumping to the powder keg. It was, definitely, the mix of a perverse system with men incapable of questioning what led to the extermination of millions of human beings.

Of course, people are not going to easily accept being compared with the Nazis. That is why the psychologist Stanley Milgram performed what was known as the Milgram experiment, where various volunteers from the area of the University of Yale, United States, would assist an investigator in a memory and learning test. In the experiment an interviewer would ask to the subject certain answers. If the subject gave the wrong answer,   a third person (the volunteer) should apply him an electric shock. This volunteer didn’t know that this was a phycology experiment, nor that the electric shocks were unreal and that interviewed was just an actor that pretended to feel pain.

As time went on, the interviewed suffered higher and higher shocks. With any kind of protest by the volunteer, the interviewer would say things like “the experiment requires that you continue” and would pressure him with the use of a camera. By the end, 100% of the participants had applied electric shocks of at least 300 volts.

In this experiment, it was proved that the sense of obedience to an authority is stronger than morality. All the principles, preferences and fear, everything that composes our personality, are eliminated in a pressing situation. In our peripheral interests, human beings are the circumstance, something that becomes more complex once you move closer into that circle of things that are really important for a person, where each time you need a more extreme situation to break personal commitment. In other words, somebody like Gandhi was capable of bear the humiliation of the british soldiers, only because for him non violence was as important as his next breath.

Imagen 1.png
The “circle of the self”. The deeper you get, the harder it is to break.

So, if it about finding the evilness of the Nazis, we have to talk about a system more than a few wicked man. Now, as it is shown in the movie The Nuremberg Trials, evilness happens because goodness let it exists and, by doing so, it stops being goodness. Hitler was the creation of the fear of the german people, the cruelty of the Treaty of Versailles, the millenary repudiation of all Europe against the jews, the complicity of the north americans banquers and even of the condescending attitude of Winston Churchill and Stalin. In the battle of good against evil, if finding the guilty is the purpose, you need nothing more than looking at the mirror.

On top of that, we cannot forget that morality has always been the construction of the victors against the vanquished. For example, on the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche explains how there was a time in which everything that we call immoral, was called noble. People who were in power, that is, the nobles, would have a morality around increasing vitality, which is why the used hunting, will of power, war and other values that were rejected by the people. Nevertheless, with the rebellion of servants, which to him happened with the rise of Christianism, the values of the slaves became the new “noble”, which is why compassion and service became the new morality.

This does not look to take a definitive position on the debate about the objectivity/subjectivity of morals, but to simply show that evilness is a very poor reason to explain violence. In fact, the belief in the myth of evil has been one of the factors that has caused the greatest violence, because on one side it gives legitimacy to a discourse that defends a crusade, an atonement of the sins of the other, and on the other side it gives a refuge for violence to be justified, to say “I do it because I am like that”.

Facing this problem, psychologist like Steven Pinker have said that violence is an expression of human nature, which is also problematic. Human nature is a concept so ample that sins for obsolete. If there is one human nature, it is one that includes from hate to love, which is why one should talk about human condition, understood as the circumstances that lead to certain human quality to be expressed in a certain moment.

To that matter, the origin of violence is scarcity and separation.

Scarcity refers to a factor of absence of some basic human need. The more primary is this need, the more is the potential for violence. For this, it is useful to see Maslow’s pyramid of human needs, that hierarchically classifies human needs.

Maslow Pyramid of Needs. Other important needs would be those of touch and love.

Man has a need of self-actualization and, whenever it is not satisfied, he responds with frustration and violence. Much more basic than anything is the need of not starving, having a refugee and feeling the human touch. That is why the majority of people involved in violent acts have lacks on material needs like food, or in immaterial needs like intimacy.

How many times have we not been violent with somebody for an scarcity of time, called a hurry, or for one of energy, called tiredness? The radical difference between the same group of people that gets on a Transmilenio (mass transportation service here in Bogotá) when there are empty seats to when there aren’t, shows the power of scarcity on our conduct. Man is a complexity of needs that, whenever not satisfied, give room to a normally violent search to satiate them.

However, the latter does not means that a human being cannot endure one minute of hunger without turning violent. There is a relationship between scarcity and separation, in which the more separation there is, the less scarcity is required for there to exists violence. For example, if on a jail exists scarcity there will probably be violence and stealing between people to get resources, like food and cigars. On the contrary, between a community of close people like the Amish, scarcity will only gather them together, as they’ll have the common goal of helping one another. It is much easier to have abundance in group than in isolation. The limit in which the members of a community separate and start looking for ways to survive through any means is much higher when people have an union between them than when they are separated.

If one sees, the difference between hate and fear, is that whoever hates is not separated from the thing he hates, in fact, he has it so close that he is just one step away from loving it. On the contrary, with fear there is a separation that magnifies violence. An example of that fear, is the separation between the actor and the acted. Any time that the action is separated from its consequence there is an ignorance that creates the opportunity for an exacerbated violence, as when people in a big town don’t experience the direct effect of consumerism on rural zones. In the words of Paul McCartney, “If slaughter houses had cristal walls, we would all be vegetarians”.

Naturally, in a word that is separated from me, there is only the way of control and survival. This scared being creates all kinds of walls, mental and physical, untouchable spaces, inaccessible and therefore unknown. Taboo, which is what exist behind those frontiers, becomes mysterious and exotic, which is why feelings of terror, curiosity and disgust are mixed in front of the unknown.

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That is why any time that the self is identified in opposition to something, it is declaring war on the rest of humanity. The person who identifies with the believers in opposition to the atheists, with Real Madrid in opposition to those of Barcelona or with the good in opposition to the evil, creates a division between him and “the others”. Any dogmatic ideology, regardless of whether it promotes war or peace, is a violent act, because it is based on a scission, a separation, an elitism. To get to a barbarity as flaying somebody alive, there must be a previous process of depersonalization in which the other stops being equal to me, to become the “bad”, “paramilitary” or “crazy”.

In sum, violence is one of the greatest challenges that humanity has, as it requires of abundance and union to be solved. The latter is not a formula of immediate application, but rather the initial conditions that are required for exacerbated violence, whether it is physical or mental, to cease. After this, there can still be a natural aggressiveness, as aggressiveness is certainly part of the spectrum of human expressions and, canalized, can be very beneficial.

It is exactly in this context where the cathartic practices of groups like the Zoé in the Amazon has sense, which they do on a daily basis. In communities of reduced size it is not acceptable to fight or compete between members: violence is a luxury. Instead, in anonymous societies like that of the city, people live so immerse in violence, whether that is in the industry that gathers around it or from its subtle mechanisms, that it has become a normal and acceptable theme. That is why the first step for a wolf concluding being a wolf, is realizing that he is one of them.

As such, the tragedy of our times is that we have gathered the worst of many worlds. We have an economic system that works by the sweat of tired people that are in a hurry. We have replaced the motto of the hippies in the 60’s  of “time is love”, with “time is money”. Specialization tell us that we are not nature, community, body, thoughts, actions or feelings; that we have to separate politics from love, business from morals, work from play, the artistic from what’s useful and the country side from the city. Scarcity and separation have reached heights that have generated what is probably the most solitary times in the whole history of humanity. We have focused on solving the technological and material problem only, which is the scarcity of physical needs (for a few, anyways), but we have left aside the inmaterial problem, which are the inmaterial needs and separation.

Also, scarcity has become an ideology today, which make us have a perception of scarcity that creates the illusion of it. In a world where violence has become an dogma, the greatest battlefields will not be the huge meadows of the earth, but the depths of the human mind.

If you’d like to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of Charles Eisenstein and Neale Donald Walsch

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