Anti-violence post #1

Some things in life are predictable: death, taxes, humorous non-sequitur third option. Others – like my update schedule – are less so. Sometimes you can see the car headlights moving inexorably towards you, and you try to get out of the way, only to realise the road has been covered with crazy glue, and your shoelaces have been tied together. Other times, they buy an electric car and switch off the headlights, and sneak up on you. Christ, I hate my neighbourhood.

Another thing that can be placed in the “predictable” category is the storyline of my comic. Well, large chunks of it, anyway – especially if you are already familiar with my political and social views and the way I like to express them in my work. I’m hoping to mix in a few surprises along the way, within that overall framework of inevitability, but I don’t think I’m really giving much away when I say that the main theme of the first half of the story will be the causes and consequences of violent behaviour. Since it’s a subject which will no doubt continually crop up as the story progresses, I’m going to jot down a few musings here, mostly to help keep my thoughts in order.

So, let’s start off with the basics. Violence is essentially a reaction against vulnerability, sought because it delivers feelings of safety and control – but ultimately, these feelings are just an illusion. You can see this across the board, from full scale warfare right down to one-on-one encounters. A telling example is the way governments use euphemisms like “security” to justify expanding their own power and hegemony, revealing that even large and powerful groups of people still function with the exact same deep-seated fear that drives all violent behaviour. Because what is security, exactly? The ability to gain so much control that you will never have to fear violent attack? Such a situation is patently impossible, yet it is the very thing that violence promises to deliver, and so people continue to fall for it. This psychology scales down with surprisingly little change, even to an individual level. The school bully, looking to control the other kids because he feels threatened by them. The guy who starts a bar fight with almost no provocation, because he is trying to compensate for feelings of powerlessness resulting from social isolation and emotional disconnection. The husband who has been taught all his life that emotions are effeminate and wrong, and thus ends up being so filled with fear when it comes to relationships that he tries to exert control by beating his wife. In fact, sex itself is, for a number of different reasons, one of the most vulnerable experiences in life, which is why some people will turn to violent behaviour to try and deal with it, either in reality or fantasy (the psychology is basically the same either way, despite how illogical and contradictory it seems from a more superficial perspective).

The consequences of violence are numerous and well-documented. History books are filled with innumerable accounts of lives that have been ruined through senseless and careless acts, and the media takes a certain macabre delight in delivering fresh tales of similar woe each day. It’s not exactly difficult to see that violence causes far more problems than it will ever solve. So why, then, do people keep returning to it? Why are they so unendingly inured to the obvious outcomes? There are numerous factors at play, but in the end, it all comes down to perception versus reality. The real problem here is that even though violence only delivers the illusion of safety and control, this illusion is the result of the brain equating mastery of its immediate surroundings with a more general and wide-reaching feeling of empowerment. It still feels very real, in the mind of the person committing these acts. And its absence is very noticeable. This is why violent behaviours, once learned, are amongst the hardest to let go of.

Human behaviour is driven primarily by fear, so anything which creates a feeling of safety is naturally going to be very attractive. Violence, however, actually decreases safety whilst making the user feel safer. It’s like buying a gun for protection: you might feel safer with a gun at your side, but in reality, a society full of people carrying guns is far less safe than a weaponless one. It’s easy to see how this works with something like a gun, which so obviously changes the balance of power, but this same psychology extends to all violent behaviour, to varying degrees. Because the feeling of safety increases whilst actual safety decreases, the result is an unending behavioural loop, driven by fear, in search of something which by definition can never exist.

Even when you recognise this reality, finding a way out is still extremely hard. To revisit the gun analogy: a society full of people carrying guns might be dangerous, but a society where everyone except you is armed is even worse, from your own perspective at least. Trying to go against this system means putting yourself in an even more vulnerable position – which, when you’ve formed behaviours around compensating for vulnerability through violence, is not only a truly daunting task, but it seems quite illogical if not outright stupid (I mean, get rid of your gun, when everyone else still has theirs? That’s crazy, right?). Fear can build up to such a level that abandoning violence can become seemingly unthinkable; so instead you run in the other direction, deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, despite knowing full well that you’re moving further and further away from the only path out of this mess.

I believe it can be done, however – so long as people are actually willing to make that choice. And the more people who do, the easier it becomes, because people naturally feel less vulnerable in groups than they do alone. More importantly, though, the need to move on from violence is becoming increasingly urgent, as an examination of human development will reveal.

A look at the history of violence reveals some interesting paradoxes. For example, we live today in a period of history where, on balance, you are less likely to be killed by another human than at perhaps any other time that has come before (this depends greatly on which part of the world you actually live in, of course, but I’m just talking about statistical averages here). It’s hard to judge this when you look back into the distant past, and you could likely find examples of civilisations that lived in relative peace long ago, but for the most part, human development has been driven by selfish, individualist desires. At some times, it made more sense from an individual perspective to form alliances and live together; at other times, it was easier to simply kill as many rivals as you could. Periods of peace usually resulted from strong alliances which were too powerful to be challenged, rather than a more genuine desire for equality and non-violent life. Further back, in tribal settings, there were likely all different kinds of lifestyles – some tribes were warlike, others lived together with some modicum of cooperation, usually out of necessity, because group survival is often more advantageous than a more individualist approach. For that reason it’s also more likely that most violence was inter-tribal, when borders and territories overlapped, because violence within the tribe would have a destabilising effect. One of the ironies of modern society is that the only reason we can tolerate the existence of predators like serial killers, etc, (not to mention less extreme forms of violent behaviour) is because we’ve become successful enough to weather the inherent instability they create in the system. They, too, are reliant on a successful and prosperous society, whether they realise it or not.

However, whilst statistically we are in a relatively peaceful period, the scale of violence has been steadily increasing throughout history. Early societies had much less developed hierarchal systems, and mostly through accident were somewhat more egalitarian than later civilisations, simply because they had not yet developed the means to concentrate power in central sources. They were presumably still violent in different ways, but it was disorganised, chaotic. It was only once further development had been made that centralized warfare could begin, and increasingly powerful nation states gradually scaled up acts of violence as the centuries progressed. The culmination in the 20th century, of course, is well known to us all, with the dropping of two atomic bombs, the Holocaust, and other acts of genocide and mass violence. But therein lies the paradox: even though these unimaginable acts are modern and unprecedented, they are being committed in a time when the majority of the world lives in relative peace. As I mentioned, even when you take all these acts into account, the 20th century was still the time when you were least likely to be killed by a fellow human. The scale of violence is increasing, but the percentage of the total population particpating or falling victim to these acts is decreasing quite noticably. Today, there are millions of unremarkable people living unremarkable, largely non-violent lives. It’s just hard to realise this, because the numbers we’re talking about here are on a completely unrelatable level.

So what do we make of this? Should we assume the trends will continue, and that violent behaviour will gradually die out, even if its last gasps are unimaginably powerful and horrible? This strikes me as an extremely dangerous gamble. One of the reasons why the scale of violence is increasing is because of the fear-driven behavioural loop I detailed before, so as violent people become an ever-shrinking minority, their fear will scale up accordingly, as they are increasingly intimidated and alienated by the rest of the population. Factor in spiralling weapons technology, not to mention widening gaps between the wealthy and the poor (and other kyriarchal factors, which, due to the insatiability of human greed, tend to naturally expand until the system collapses), and you really have a recipe for distaster. Personally I don’t think complacency is a viable option here. We live in a time where we have the capacity to completely eradicate ourselves from existence and set back the development of life on Earth by millions if not billions of years. A single mistake could snuff out what could well be a unique and never-to-be-repeated feat of evolution: intelligent and compassionate life. The fact that we have made it this far is a pretty encouraging sign, but still, there is very little margin for error here.

But letting go of violence will be a difficult task. Humans tend to be primed toward violent reactions, because violence is the simplest and most straightforward way of regaining control of a situation, and when experiencing fear, the natural reaction is to try and assert whatever control is possible. Fortunately, however, evolution has provided us with all the tools we need to live without violence, provided we employ them intelligently. The most powerful of these is love – which is, as the Flight Of The Conchords so aptly put it, the very strongest adhesive. It is the force that binds us together as social animals, and keeps our more selfish tendencies in check. However, it also requires very high levels of vulnerability, and can generally only be realistically applied to strong, established relationships (and even then, the high vulnerability factor can backfire spectacularly). Everyday encounters with strangers require a different tact. In these scenarios, we rely more on empathy – the ability to, bizarrely enough, consider the needs of others, beyond our own survival requirements. I say ‘bizarrely enough’ because this seems in direct violation of natural selection, and the law of survival of the fittest – and indeed, Darwin himself said that if such a thing existed, it would likely disprove his theory. This is not the case, however. We just need to take a closer look at the specific circumstances which gave rise to these behavioural mechanisms.

Most people don’t like acknowledging this, but moral behaviour emerged for largely selfish reasons. Self-sacrificing, truly altruistic behaviour is actually just a side-effect of this original moral development, because once the behavioural mechanisms were in place, there was nothing governing their use, so some unexpected new paths began to open up. But to understand why this behaviour is even possible, we need to examine the selfish roots of morality. As I mentioned previously, group survival is sometimes more advantageous than individual survival; depending on environmental pressures, it may simply make more sense for organisms to work together to achieve mutually beneficial aims. This is not even a solely human trait: why would insects such as ants and bees form large colonies where most individuals sacrifice their own chance at reproduction for the sake of the group? Because that was the only way that species could survive. Through chance and natural selection, they carved out a niche in the environment and successfully reproduced. Most of the colony might not get any shot at reproduction under normal circumstances, but without the colony they wouldn’t even exist at all, so it is an agreeable compromise. This approach is best explained through non-zero sum game theory, but unfortunately mathematics is not exactly a strength of mine, so I will have to hand you over to someone more knowledgeable than myself if you would like to know more about it. Don’t worry if you feel the same way about maths, though – if that guy can put it in terms that even I understand, then I’m sure you won’t have any problems with it.

Whilst there are many animals which cooperate to varying extents to enhance their own survival chances – insects, birds, fish – it is the mammals who truly made this behaviour their own. Mammalian development is marked by the appearance of the limbic system, and later, the cerebral cortex – the parts of the brain dedicated to complex functions of thought, emotion, and even consciousness, among other things. This paved the way for much more complex types of social behaviour, and also marked a shift in reproductive strategy: whereas earlier species generally produced large numbers of offspring so that a few could survive, mammals tend to produce fewer offspring and invest greater time in aiding their survival and development (yes, there are numerous exceptions to this, obviously – it all depends on what approach is best suited to the environmental conditions). Social animals are also prone to developing hierarchal social orders, as each member of the group struggles to maximise their own benefits without disrupting the system to the extent that it collapses. Much like with the bees and ants, even though some members of the group are lower in the social order and don’t gain as much as the alpha group members, they still benefit more from social behaviour than they would if they went out on their own.

True to evolution’s usual style, however, this new brain development did not supersede the older, reptillian brain model… no, it simply grew right on top of it. The ancient brain structures are still there at the base of the brain, even in humans. Which is why mammals are still capable of all different kinds of behaviour, despite the powerful new systems in place directed towards social cooperation. Generally, behaviour is determined by whatever is best suited to an organism’s immediate survival needs, but humans have reached a unique position in this regard – because we now possess consciousness and free will. The ability to look beyond our immediate, knee-jerk reactions, and see the broader picture. And the one thing that has correlated with the decreasing tendencies towards violence throughout history is our slow realisation of just how broad that picture is. As the world has grown smaller, cultural and language barriers have slowly eroded, and with painful, step-by-step progress, we have gradually come to realise that we are all the same, and we are all stuck on the same tiny boat, adrift in an unimaginably vast cosmic sea.

Unfortunately, as with the uniquely human knowledge of our own mortality, this realisation also brings fear, especially in the minds of those who built their philosophies around smaller and more insular perspectives. And so the same old laws of behaviour come into play – for most, hope for survival is placed in the creation of stable, peaceful societies; but for others, the more primal reaction to fear takes over. Whilst this obviously contributes to the large-scale, modern acts of violence, it also leads to a very different type of behaviour, when coupled with a more developed sense of empathy: it drives people to shift their violent reactions into the realm of fantasy and fiction. Empathy is only half of the equation when it comes to moving away from violent behaviour, and if the personal motivations for violence are not similarly dealt with, then behavioural problems will inevitably arise. (And as a sidenote, this gradual empathetic development also explains why people today can be so melodramatically “shocked” and “appalled” by the latest piece of gratuitous, shock-value entertainment when we a just a couple of hundred years from the time when those same adjudicators of social morality would have been attending public executions and then returning home to their slave-run households. At the same time, it is clearly still an ongoing process, because even today, these same people so often seem to be the ones supporting the latest “justifed” war or super-tough crackdown on minor crime and things like that. I sincerely hope people in the future will look back with similar disdain at our times.)

Obviously there are lots of different reasons for portraying violence in a fictional context aside from simply deriving enjoyment from it, but I’m going to focus mainly on the basic appeal of fantasy-based violence because psychologically, there is very little difference between that and actual violence. It’s still appealing to the same basic emotional needs, it still creates the same fear-driven behavioural loop, it still requires the user to suspend their empathy in favour of their own selfish enjoyment. The main difference is that by removing most the more immediate and obvious consequences of violence, people find it much easier to justify their behaviour – even when they encounter the actual consequences that will always follow from the promotion of violence. But there is another more subtle difference, one which in some ways makes fantasy-based violence even worse than real violence, in terms of the way it draws in otherwise-well-meaning people and slowly distorts their behaviour, pushing them towards things they never would have considered otherwise. And, I mean, considering how disturbingly easy it is to manipulate behaviour in real life, you’d think people would naturally be wary here, but sometimes, all those empty promises of safety are just too alluring.

This part is difficult for me to explain, because my understanding of it is still largely intuitive, and it’s hard to put it into words. The best way I can think of is through the proverbial trainwreck scenario – where you want to look away but at the same time you can’t, because for some reason you just have to keep watching. What is it, exactly, that draws you towards whatever horrible scene you are witnessing, in spite of your survival instincts which are telling you to get the hell out of there? It becomes somewhat clearer when you look at it in a more primal setting, and replace the trainwreck with, say, the sight of a predator having just made a fresh kill coming into view as you climb to the crest of a hill. Fear immediately fills your awareness, and as usual becomes the driving force behind your reactions – but how do you react, exactly? Fight, or flight? Running is not always the best choice, especially if there’s still a chance that you can sneak away unnoticed, but you need time to make that call. You need to be able to take in the entire scene and judge your options accordingly. But in order for this to happen, you need a behavioural force that can stand toe-to-toe with the extremely powerful urge to run away as quickly as possible. Which is why violent and dangerous scenes capture our attention so vividly – because if they didn’t, then we would make careless judgments, and then we would likely die. This behaviour would have been carefully shaped by natural selection, and has been around for a long time. Just think of a deer caught in the headlights of a truck (though yeah, obviously they didn’t evolve to deal with a threat that rushes towards them at a tremendous pace).

The key, however, is that there are two forces at play here – the desire to flee and the need to accurately assess the situation. These two forces balance each other out, and when working properly, allow us to move effectively through dangerous environments. But when people seek violent expression in a fantasy-based context, what they are doing, whether they realise it or not, is they are trying to create a sort of “safe space” in which to experience dangerous situations. Which is, of course, quite absurd. If something is safe then it is no longer dangerous, so we are already dealing with a distorted view of reality. However, whilst it may seem relatively harmless so far, the real harm lies in the cancelling out of one of the two extremely powerful forces at play during dangerous situations – namely, the survival instincts urging you to flee the danger. This leaves only the second force, the desire to accurately assess the situation, and because it is no longer being held in check, it so easily takes control of people’s behaviour and begins to slowly distort it. The results differ based on a variety of other factors, but they are by and large not exactly the best outcomes one would hope for. Remember, this behaviour is being driven forward by fear – specifically, a desire to try and control that fear, so that it will no longer hold any power over you. But fear is an intrinsic human emotion; you can’t just stop feeling it. It is the very act of trying – and inevitably failing – to deny this reality that feeds the fear-based behavioural loop at the heart of all violent behaviour, leaving you with no recourse but to assimilate that fear into who you are. The end result, then, is you become that which you fear – a fact which should become fairly obvious through a simple comparison between your fears and the violent fantasies which speak most clearly to you. Again, just the same basic psychology as real violence.

So what we are left with, essentially, is that the modern fascination with violent fantasies is the result of people being held in thrall by a fundamental lack of understanding about how their own minds work. Which, when you think about it, is probably a fairly accurate description of a lot of the different things that people do, and I certainly don’t claim to be above such problems – in fact if anything, I have spent too much time heading in the opposite direction, cancelling out the need to assess dangerous situations and thus allowing the desire to flee to rule my behaviour. However, whilst we may seemingly just be discussing one of the many imperfections of modern life, when you look at the inevitable consequences of promoting violent behaviour, we see that the stakes are raised considerably.

It is here that we encounter another paradox: the increasing retreat into fantasy-based violence coinciding with the decline in real-life violence, statistically at least. It is tempting to go with the usual correlation-equaling-causation explanation, and say that a fantasy-based outlet may even be aiding the decline, but this is not true. The decline in violence is due to the expanding human perspective and our increasing empathetic development, and the retreat into fantasy is merely a by-product of this process. Correlated, yes, but otherwise unrelated. And we are now reaching a point where, as some of the larger obstacles to a violence-free lifestyle begin to erode, the promotion of violence in a fantasy-based context is starting to impede our development, in much the same way that institutionalised religion – once a necessary force for social cohesion – is now an outdated and inaccurate social construct. Both of these concepts create mental structures which make people slaves to their fears, rendering them incapable of developing more sophisticated philosophies and moral faculties.

To which you may be thinking, so what? Fantasy-based violence clearly doesn’t lead to real-life violence in most circumstances, and we don’t all need to be freaking Gandhi to get along. Well… it depends, really, on what you’re after. It’s true that a fantasy-based outlet removes most of the harmful effects that violence has on other people – but it does nothing for the personal consequences of violence. And that’s the thing: when the cost is largely personal, it comes down to personal choice, and it is a choice which all people have a right to make. If people can see the consequences and choose to pursue it anyway, then they are free to do so, and indeed, a society which prohibits such a choice is not a free society. But with freedom and choice comes responsibility, and when consequences can be seen and yet are not being heeded, then I believe there are some choices which should always be argued against, regardless of whether people are willing to listen. Especially when the real problem is that these consequences are difficult to see, and most people are simply unaware of them, or else are remaining deliberately ignorant through self-deception and cognitive dissonance. Again, it is much like religion: people have a right to practice their faith, but I also have a right to argue against it.

There is another reason to recognise this, beyond simply acknowledging people’s right to make their own choices. You need to know when to give up the fight, and realise that some people simply don’t want to change, no matter how hard you try. To draw one final comparison, violence is again much like religion in the sense that both of these concepts are a sort of security blanket that people cling to when experiencing fear – so the harder you try to pull it away, the tighter they will hold on. After a while, arguments with people who think this way can really start to mess with your head, so it is important to know when to put your own needs first, and let people lie in the beds they have made for themselves. By all means, give it a crack, but not everyone will be moved by logic alone – and trying to force others to conform to your beliefs will only cause further problems. As long as they are willing to shoulder the personal consequences and they are not harming others, there’s not much else you can do.

But to be honest, I am not even convinced that the consequences are solely personal. Fantasy-based violence does not usually lead to real-life violence, but that is only because people can still take refuge in a successful and prosperous society. The real test would be to see how they react when that thin illusion of control is taken away – and that is not something I like to contemplate. A society that promotes violence as a legitimate reaction to fear is one that fosters its own self-destruction – a lesson learned time and again throughout history.

More importantly, however, with our rapidly developing technology, we are quickly gaining access to levels of power which humans have not previously possessed – and indeed, which we did not evolve to possess. Which doesn’t automatically make it bad or evil or anything – I’m not arguing against scientific advancement here – it just means we need to be much more aware of our limitations. There is a tendency to equate technological development with mental development, and to think of ourselves as far more sophisticated than earlier, less advanced generations, but in reality, we are still very much the same. We are still following the same outdated, harmful philosophies, developed when we thought the world was flat and there was some kind of all-powerful beardy man in the sky watching over us. We believed humans were central to everything, and that we had a divine right to do with the world as we saw fit. We were, and we are, still driven by fear. And just as we always have, we are still holding up violence as an acceptable and even a desirable reaction to that fear. How much longer can we carry that evolutionary baggage without succumbing to the inevitable?

Letting go of violence, and finding new ways of understanding and dealing with fear, are undoubtedly some of the biggest challenges we face if we wish to survive the development of high technology and continue our evolution into the future. It is where we are headed, and one way or another it is what people have always wanted, even though most of us have never gotten past the stumbling block of our own fear of vulnerability. It is a bitter irony that in our knee-jerk reactions to avoid this fear, we always seem to make things far worse for ourselves than they could possibly have been otherwise. But that is why it’s so important now to look beyond what is immediately in front of us, and try to map out a realistic, sustainable future. Violence is completely incompatible with such an effort, because it is by its very nature a corruptive force, which will always break free of whatever neat little boxes people try to keep it in. It requires the suspension of empathy, even if only temporarily and under certain prescribed conditions, which undermines the foundations of a peaceful, mutually-beneficial civilisation.

Buying into that violent mindset means that even when you can see the car headlights coming towards you, you just stand there and wait for them to come, because you’ve deceived yourself into believing that the outcome will be something other than the blindingly fucking obvious one. And if your fear of that inevitability drives you to actually try and change that outcome, then you will not only understand the mindset of the person driving that car; you will become him.

Assuming you aren’t run over first.

Tags: , , , , , ,

One Response to “Anti-violence post #1”

  1. John Banister Says:

    The violence you describe is not the only violence. Violence is not only defensive or driven by fear or to compensate for a lack of control. Violence that achieves immediate-term success is also immediately gratifying. When people agree that violence should be in defense of something rather than the most direct route towards a visible goal, they’re taking up a social compact. However, not everyone does so, and not everyone who appears to do so is doing so in fact. In general I think there’s a lot of overlap between the group of people who don’t find value in the social compact and people who don’t find value in planning ahead in general. There exist lots of people who don’t give a damn about what is beyond that which is immediately in front of them. People also exist who are happy to employ others to use the threat of violence to achieve their own ends. For example, any corporate entity who convinces the government of a municipality to declare eminent domain on behalf of the corporation. There’s a reason why the police officers doing the evictions carry guns. When all violence is defensive. – when it is never ever used proactively to achieve a perceived benefit, then violence can be done away with altogether.

Leave a Reply