Thursday, 31 July 2014

VIOLENCE AND SOCIETY: An Introduction (Part I)

There is hardly a major motion picture, especially coming out of Hollywood that does not deal with violence, often extreme and gratuitous, and often making hundreds of millions at the box office, thus reflecting public fascination with violence. Computer-video games, comic-hero books, novels, and TV shows are all consumed with plots dealing with violence. In short, popular culture, especially in the US and more broadly in the Western World, is immersed in violence.  Violence also finds expression through a number of sports, including American football, European/Latin American soccer, boxing, hockey, martial arts, etc. One could argue that even ancient Romans had the gladiator games, so there is really not much change in that regard or in the glorification of sports violence as entertainment.

There is something seriously wrong with a society’s moral compass when its major form of entertainment as well news programs has violence at its core reflecting its core values.  Yet, when a 14-year unbalance student unloads a gun on his fellow students, everyone wonders about the source of violence as though that student came from another planet to behave in such manner. Many scholars argue that owing to the pervasive nature of violence in the mainstream (commercial) culture, many people, including young people, are desensitized and accept violence as “normal” because it is at the core of secular Western culture. 

This is not to say that there is only secular Western violence, because we have seen and continue to see examples of atrocious acts of religious violence, between Sunni Muslims killing Shiite Muslims, Jews killing Muslims and vice versa in unconventional wars and state-organized wars.  Given that a political decision was made by the US and then other governments to label Muslims who engage in unconventional war as terrorists, it must be state that violence itself is politically defined and a given society in different era of history has given its own definition. For example, human sacrifice would be deemed an act of extreme violence today, but not so for the Minoans, Etruscans, among many others, including the Aztecs. At the same time, it must be stated that a society differentiates what it deems violence on the basis of what the state accords, namely, killing in war is not violence punishable by a court of law because the state sanctions it, while a citizen killing another in a crime of passion may be punishable by death in some countries, including the US.

Violence is the result of environmental (social conditioning) factors as well as genetic (neurobiological).  There have been thinkers throughout history, among them Machiavelli and Hobbes, who concluded that humans are violent by nature, that is innate tendencies owing perhaps to original sin or instinct for survival or hunger for power that makes human violent from birth to death. Others, among them rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment as well as Western and Eastern religious figures, including non-violent Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi rejected the view that humans are violent by nature, attributing violence to learned behavior.  

From the classic work of Enlightenment thinker Cesare Beccaria’s, On Crimes and Punishments (1764) that injected scientific reason into the field of criminology until the early 21st century in the US where capital punishment has not been reconsidered despite the massive scholarly works indicating it is not a deterrent for criminal activity the world has not advanced as much as many would like to believe in how it views crime and how it responds to it in the last three centuries.  

A factor that Beccaria tried to stress must be removed in dealing with criminal, the irrational or emotional continues to dominate. This is rather intriguing about human nature considering that people do not necessarily have a strong emotional response to mass killings, even of children as victims, during wars. They have no problem readily wanting the blood of a man who killed during a robbery amid tense moments, but that same man becomes a hero if he kills one thousand people in war because killing under the legitimacy of the state is a heroic endeavor. 

There is something seriously wrong with a society’s value system when we have chronic cases of gang rapes in India that authorities overlook, on the one hand, and Israeli citizens cheering, celebrating, and singing once they learn that their bombs have killed children in Gaza. These cases of organized violence, one carried out by individuals and tolerated by the state and society at large as we have seen in India in the past four decades, and the other case where the state is carrying out war crimes against Palestinian children while US lawmakers demonize the victims of war crimes and defend the war crimes as defined by the United Nations. 

As civilization becomes more modernized with greater sophisticated technological and scientific tools available to facilitate and improve people’s lives, violence at the individual level as well as mass violence in the form of state-sponsored warfare and unconventional war has increased, with the 20th century leaving us a legacy of two global wars and many smaller wars. At the same time, the most advanced technologically and scientific nation in the world, namely the US, has the highest incidents of individual violence on the world on a per capita basis. This may not surprise some criminologists who see a correlation between US record of wars from 1898 to the present and the record of crime by individuals. 

As an integral part of the human experience, violence is a mirror of the human condition reflected and articulated in literature, art, theater, music, dance, as well as many academic disciplines from psychology to criminal justice, from social work to religion. Violence transcends gender, race and ethnicity. Although there is no scientific evidence that women are less destructive or cruel than men by nature, throughout history men, especially Caucasians have been among the most violent. Th3e male rite of passage to manhood has been based on the ability to demonstrate physical strength and dominance over the other, male and female. This is deeply imbedded in patriarchal culture. Besides patriarchy, poverty, social injustice, a culture of militarism, authoritarianism, and materialism and hedonism are some factors that account for violence.    

Contrary to popular opinion, violence is not limited only to individuals physically attacking others or property for a variety of reasons from mental illness to ideological considerations. Throughout history, far greater violence has been carried out by governments against other groups of people or their own than individual acts of violence associated with crimes of passion, abnormal behavior, etc. In the 20th century alone, we had the holocaust of the Armenians carried out by the Turkish government, the holocaust of Jews, gypsies, and Communists carried out by the Nazi regime, innocent Cambodians falling victims to the assassin regime of Khmer Rouge, Muslim Bosnians victimized by Orthodox Serbs, Rwanda tribes slaughtering each other in the name of ethnic cleansing, the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that resulted in hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced and thoroughly destroyed both countries and left them to a fate far worse than before the invasion; and these are just some of the worse examples.

Given that nations systematically pursue policies that exterminate people in the hundreds of thousands or millions, individuals are influenced by the culture of violence that is prevalent in society. When governments indoctrinate people to accept mass killings in the name of whatever pretext from patriotism to securing freedom for the people at the receiving end of military attack, then the individual can just as easily find causes for aggression and violence that society glorifies. 

If nations are bloodthirsty in their quest for political, economic, military hegemony, that ideology of power is inculcated into the mind of the individual. If government objectifies masses of people, including children it kills in the name of some principle as a pretext, so does the individual objectify the rape victims? If the government has no desire for peaceful coexistence and the only goal is exploitation, domination and destruction, why should people behave any different in their inter-personal relationships?  

The political and civic leadership of a society has a significant responsibility in the level of violence, as we can clearly see when comparing gun violence in the US vs. Switzerland, the latter ranking 5th in the world in individual gun ownership, but lacking the culture of violence of the US that ranks number one. Therefore, while gun violence is an issue in the US that has a culture of violence, it is not so in Switzerland with a very high gun ownership. 

While the correlation between state-sponsored violence and individual violence has been well documented and analyzed by scholars ever since the Enlightenment era, it was in the interwar era (1920s and 1930s) that scholars focused on the inexorable relationship between state-sponsored institutionalized violence manifesting itself in military and police policy, one the hand, and individual violence, on the other. The mass devastation of the First World War, followed by the Great Depression in 1929 and the rise of Fascism, Nazism, and military dictatorships in a number of countries from Japan to Eastern Europe resulted in some interwar existentialist thinkers to conclude that human beings sought out violence because the rationalism on which Western Civilization stood had collapsed and there was a search of meaning on the part of people who drifted toward nihilism. 

Ironically, during that same period, Mahatma Gandhi formulated his nonviolence philosophy as a means of ending British colonial rule in India. The irony here is that while the sharp contrast between the non-violence path India under Gandhi’s leadership assumes in the interwar era, on the one hand, and the institutionalized violent path that Europeans too under ultra-right wing racist regimes. These examples between Europe and India further illustrate the cultural uniqueness of the two societies, one immersed in materialism, militarism and the psychology of violence as the vehicle for power, while the other under Gandhi seeking self-determination through heroic non-violence at a time that British soldiers and police were beating and killing anti-colonial protesters.

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