Because of the tragedy of 9/11 that killed innocent people in the twin towers in New York, and because of the US war on terror aimed at Muslims defying US global hegemony, many scholars and laymen have been analyzing religion’s role in society and the degree to which religion contributes to peace or violence. In this second part of my essay on violence and society, I briefly examine the rhetoric of religion and philosophy that is very far from the reality of what actually takes place in society.
The issue of defining violence is one that scholars and politicians have grappled debated over the centuries. The US war on terror changed course instruction in colleges and universities and convinced some scholars to analyze violence in its narrow sense that reflects official policy. Others, however, adopted the broader historical context and take into account all forms of violence including state terrorism as manifested in war. Needless to say, the narrow definition of violence is the one that mainstream media, many analysts and even scholars follow, while the broader definition is viewed as criticism of official policy on terror.
During the slave-owning period in the US, violence was not the institution itself, but rather the runaway slave injuring or killing anyone in the process of trying to escape. Similarly, violence was not the systematic elimination of Native Americans by white European settlers in the 19th century during the Westward Expansion era, but the Indians fighting for their land and their way of life. In the early 1920s, violence was not the Ku Klux Klan lynching blacks, but the black sharecropper fighting for his rightful share of production and injuring the white farmer who cheated him. Mainstream newspapers, politicians, judges and even scholars at the time went along with the definition of violence that government provided and the courts upheld.
Similarly, in the early 21st century, the US defines terrorism very narrowly, focusing only on militant Islamic groups. The US globalized anti-terror campaign projects the image in the public mind of Muslims as inherently more violent than Jews or Christians. This is not intentional but many people perceive it as such, just as people stigmatized all Indians and all blacks as violent. However, many Islamic countries rank well below the US in violent crime and overall violence in society, whereas the US ranks among the top in the world, despite having created a police-state society.
Influenced by the prevalent culture of violence, there are those even in the field of philosophy that try to question whether violence ought to be considered necessarily “bad”, evil or immoral. After all, to prevent further violence who would not want to assassinate Hitler, Stalin, Bin Laden, and the list goes on to include Muammar Qaddafi, as well as other mostly non-Western leaders opposed to the West. In short, academic disciplines, including theology and philosophy have adapted to and reflect the prevalent political conditions, rather than analyzing the topic from a distance without the cultural biases that government provides as part of its political propaganda.
All major religions claim, at least in doctrine, that they espouse peace and oppose violence in all its forms. This is as true of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as it is of Hinduism and Buddhism. In Sacred Fury Charles Selngut points out the glaring contradiction between the claims of peace and harmony that all religions peace and the reality of religiously-inspired violence. During the 1930s, the Vatican supported the militarist and racist Italian Fascist regime and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. This contradiction between what the Catholic preached and what it practiced is ancient, and not just with Christianity.
Even the legendary Buddhist leader Ashoka known for his love of peace and harmony in the Maurya dynasty in the 3rd century B.C. was a bloodthirsty warrior before he discovered inner peace through religion and tried to externalize it through policy. Because all living things are connected, non-violence was an integral part of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism that preached peaceful coexistence and strongly condemned violence. As with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is a huge gap between the principles of non-violence and the reality of the faithful practicing violence, largely because religions rarely oppose the polit6cal and socioeconomic elites. Their role in society is to placate the masses and steer them toward institutional conformity that has a narrow definition of violence, one excluding violence by the state.
Some theologians of the Dark Ages (400-1000) believed that the devil causes violence, a concept widely accepted among the Christian faithful both in the Byzantium and Western Christendom (Catholic Church) well beyond the Middle Ages. If all violence stems from Cain killing his brother Abel, then there is no hope for humanity because it has the seeds of evil within it. The proclivity toward violence is because we are born sinners. Acts of violence are merely the empirical manifestations of evil. Therefore, violence is the individual expression of will, not something institutional.
The irony about Christian views on violence is the glaring contradiction even at the level of church doctrine, to say nothing of what the church actually practiced during the destructive Crusades and the Holy Inquisition that was itself an instrument of Christian violence. The Crusades reveal another side of religion that of militarism and religious fanaticism are justified in the name of God. After the Crusades followed by the Black Death, the church institutionalized violence by setting up its own courts, using its own licensed torturers and executioners. The dreaded Holy Inquisition set up to silence critics of the church was nothing short of a terrorist network sanctioned by the Papacy to make sure Catholicism remains the unquestioned spiritual authority across Europe maintaining the social and economic status quo.
Many people identified the church with “legitimate” punishment emanating from a higher authority and could not be questioned, no matter how unjust. God was not the compassionate Father that Christ referred to, but the harsh judge dispensing punishment through the Holy Inquisition to heretics and potential heretics. Even during the Reformation, John Calvin viewed God as a lawmaker and doctrines as laws to be obeyed very strictly. Europeans took this mindset of a harsh punishing God with them when they went beyond their shores, trying to Christianize non-white people using extreme forms of violence.
Soldiers, merchants and clergy from Portugal, Spain, and northwest Europe, landed on Africa, Latin America and Asia trying to subjugate the indigenous population in the name of Christ. White European Christian hegemony had a mandate from Heaven to colonize and enslave non-white people, take their land and exploit their natural resources, while doing them a FAVOR by Christianizing them to save their souls while enslaving them and appropriating their property.
The level of violence visited on non-Western people by Europeans and Americans between the 15th and 20th century was unprecedented. Without becoming involved in the debate about how many Africans were killed in the trans-Atlantic slave trade during the hunt, during transport, and then in the New World, it suffices to say that this was one of the most violent eras in history. Yet, it was often justified by the superior Western Civilization and its Christian faith. Caucasians continue to stress their own genocides and holocausts, rarely mentioning the extreme violence resulting in genocide they inflicted on Africans and Natives of the Western Hemisphere.
This double standard is part of the Western-centered way of thinking that omits violence on a massive scale inflicted on non-whites who had been depicted as the violent savages. The clergy sided with the colonial masters, all along preaching peace, love and harmony to the subjugated natives and Africans. “God was European” and non-whites were beastly creatures in need of taming by Christianity, helping the presumably violent non-whites into conformity and a docile existence under white masters. It is not much different today when the US and Europeans have narrowly defined violence to be associated with the war on terror, and Christianity and Judaism going along with the policy while paying respect to Islamic doctrines.
Because violence raises questions about the political regime, the value system of society, the dominant culture, and the economic and social structure, all disciplines have dealt with the issue, including philosophy. It is true, of course that philosophers have mostly confined themselves to analyzing violence in the domain of ethics, with some exceptions of those who have dealt with political philosophy that necessarily raises the issue of human nature.
After the English Civil War, philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote The Leviathan (1652,)arguing that humans in the state of nature and left to their own devices are prone to destroy each other in a state of chaos. Hobbes was making was the same assumption as Christian theologians, namely, humans are irrational and guided by fears, ambitions, greed, etc., all tendencies that could lead to violent behavior, as was the case in the utterly destructive English Civil War. The only restraint on violence is government, a dictatorial regime at that, as far as Hobbes was concerned. On this score, Machiavelli agreed with Hobbes’ assumptions and conclusion about the most effective form of government to engender order and prevent chaos that leads to violence.
Growing up later in the 17th century, John Locke argued that man is rational and basically good, rather than carrying the seeds of evil as Christian theologians and Hobbes had insisted. Self preservation dictates avoiding violence for it leads to self destruction, so man lives a harmonious existence out of self interest. Moreover, there are no innate ideas; no Cain vs. Abel syndrome. On the contrary, society shapes human behavior and institutions play a role in the individual’s propensity toward violent behavior. If environmental factors shape human behavior, then institutions can be reformed to condition people to accept peaceful and harmonious coexistence instead of a violent one.
A contemporary of Locke, Beccaria for the first time in the history of Western thought argued that criminal conduct must be divorced from superstitious thinking, as well as Christian assumptions about criminality belonging to the domain of innate evil. Deviant behavior leading to criminal activity is a mental illness, and/or a learned process due to societal influences, that is to say, an environment so intolerable owing to poverty and misery that the individual is driven to extremes such as injuring or killing to steal as Jean-Val-Jean in the famous novel Les Miserables by Hugo. Novelists in the 19th century adopted this line of thought in classic works such as we find in Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and others trying to search the underlying causes of criminal conduct rather than dismissing the criminal as evil deserving imprisonment, or death. Influenced by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, they viewed government as an instrument of violence conditioning the individual.
With the Industrial Revolution spreading across northwest Europe, rapid urbanization and rise of the working poor resulted in a sharp rise in crime and violence in towns and cities. There were different schools of thought on what accounted for this phenomenon, depending on the individual thinker’s ideological perspective and academic training. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor analyzes the correlation between the flooding of poor unskilled laborers in London. The city becomes an urban jungle and people literally fight to survive each day. In other words, the Industrial Revolution created the social conditions for a rise in crime confined mainly to the poor, but government policy catered to the industrialists whose profit motive was the underlying cause of violence among workers.
Writing about the same time as Mayhew and Dickens, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued that violence is class based and that the state is by far the instrument of most violence. Rather than the objective arbiter in society, the state represents capitalist interests based on cut throat competition that includes countries going to war to secure markets and raw materials. Against the institutional violence of the owners of capital that control the state, the working class reacts to the exploitation for its own survival and its progeny. Like John Locke and Beccaria, Marx and Engels believed that indeed humans are not evil by nature, but rational capable of making prudent decisions under harmonious circumstances that obviously do not exist in a capitalist society rooted in competition and war.
Marx and Engels and many intellectuals espousing Marxist thought accepted that indeed workers and the poor become violent toward each other because of endemic poverty and powerlessness to take on an entire institutional structure responsible for their condition. This view was in sharp contrast to the prevailing one that poor people innately were more violent than the wealthy, and the prison statistics proved it, given that prisons were and still are full of poor people. As the religious theme of evil began to lose its following in an industrialized scientific age in the Western World, the theme that poor people are more violent became popular with conservatives who embraced the theory because they wanted more police restraint and greater conformity of the poor.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud rejected the rationalism of the 18th century and its 19th century followers, insisting that humans are irrational. Notions of how to explain violence during the Age of Imperialism 1870-1914 changed also because of Darwin’s theory of evolution that linked humans to lower species, and to Social Darwinism that was a form of racism popular in Imperialist Europe and US.
As the Great Powers were able to rely on the Industrialization of their countries in order to militarize and compete globally for markets, and as they went to smaller wars of Imperialism from 1870 to 1914, violence at the government level became prevalent to the degree that overall violence in society exploded as well as measured by the building of new prisons. Some historians have called the period from New Imperialism to the end of WWII the era of violence, owing to the global wars that resulted in the deaths of millions, including the Armenian and Jewish holocaust. Philosophers reacted to the age of mass destruction and violence and tried to offer deeper explanations for the phenomenon.
Influenced by the rationalist thinkers from Locke to Marx, 20th century existentialists, including Jean-Paul Sartre who like Marx was an atheist, lived the horrors of the age of mass violence in the mid-20th century. Reflecting the utter disillusionment of the European middle class with democratic institutions and rationalism rooted in the Enlightenment, Sartre viewed violence as the outgrowth of life’s inherent meaninglessness and absurdity, and of man’s desire to control, manipulate, and destroy the other. In essence, violence may be the attempt of man to infuse his mind with the illusion of possessing god-like powers, thus transforming himself from an object, a mere consciousness, into a subject, a creator who not only shapes his own life and destiny but the environment as well.
This illusion affords meaning to an otherwise absurd existence, but violence against the other in various forms reduces the other into an object. The irrational tendency to manipulate, control, torture, destroy the other affords the illusion of a transcendent experience of a god-like powers. Considering that society conditions the individual to revere power and to seek it whenever expedient, then it is utterly fulfilling for the individual to wish to exercise such powers over the other. This is partly because the sense of god-like, including in the form of violence, affords an illusion of life-engendering experience and ephemerally satisfies the inner void seeking contentment.
Knowing one has the potential to visit violence on the other affords the illusion of enormous sense of fulfilling power. Regardless of whether the individual entertaining the illusion is a four star general commanding thousands of troops in the battlefield, or the manager of an insurance company in charge of thousands of employees, the illusion kills the void within, the sense of nothingness in human existence. Illusions of power can be equally satisfying just knowing of the potential to visit some form of violence on the other. As Franz Kafka observed, people seek experiences of power, regardless of whether they are world leaders with the ability to declare war and cause mass destruction, or merely petty bureaucrats or mid-level administrators working for capitalists or the state. Perhaps it is the monotony of daily life and the need for purpose, the realization of temporal existence, the absurdity of life itself lacking meaning that both the ambitious government leader and the insurance manager alike seek to escape while transcending the temporal existence through some form of violence.
Perhaps because of their finite existence against the background of an infinite universe, people worship power; and what entity but the state with the ultimate form of power and ability to cause mass destruction. This is manifested in the human tendency to accept temporal and spiritual lord, not just in the Medieval period in Western Christendom, but from the earliest civilization in Sumer to the present where spiritual and secular elites have no difficulty exercising power over the masses. The tendency to worship power, akin to worshiping God, can lead humans to express their desire for partaking in power by engaging in acts of violence individually, or as part of group such as the military carrying out “state-sanctioned” killings and mass destruction.
Just as the tendency to worship power that makes people docile in their acceptance of violence by authority figures, a learned behavior given the hierarchical nature of society, there is the issue of free will and violence as their ultimate expression affording the illusion of god like existence. There is a realization on the part of human beings at some point of their lives that no one is free, that we are all objects, rather than subjects, with a confined free will because of institutional and legal perimeters on the individual, social mores imposed on the individual, and a sense of utter dependence on the amorphous society. Therefore, the individual is not in control of his own destiny, he is not a subject, living instead inside a societal prison.
One way to escape is back to the state of nature through violence where chaos may reign as Thomas Hobbes warned. Another immediate way to escape is through violence in varying forms that amount to reducing the other to an object. Therefore, violence manifesting itself through the domination, exploitation, manipulation, physical and psychological destruction could be liberating, exhilarating, and empowering for the one inflicting it on the other or others. After all, there is no social justice in society, there is no equality in society, there are no values of harmony implemented in practice as preached in doctrine, and there is no value system of humane coexistence.
Instead of institutional mechanisms to promote human creativity and collective progress for the benefit of all humanity, there is a legal and institutional structure promoting individual competition, and institutional mechanisms promote aggressive behavior in every endeavor from business competition to military rivalries that point to violence as a solution instead of the problem. Aristotle was correct that humans are political animals living in the “polis” (city-state) that molds them. If society as Locke and Beccaria observed promotes violence through its policies, if it promotes injustice and inequality, if it does not try to address social justice issues, why is anyone surprised that that is a culture of violence that can simply go away because the priest and the philosopher claim humans are and ought to be peace loving?