Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Human Propensity for Violence

I am asked, for a homework assignment in my Introduction to Anthropology course, "Which theory do you think best explains the existence of warfare and violence in human societies? Explain your choice." Now, the theories mentioned come from the reading, a wonderfully written text that I have few specific complaints about called Culture, People, Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology, by Marvin Harris. The options for me to choose from consist of the following briefs:
1. "War as instinct: This explanation proposes that we humans have innate aggressive tendencies that make us hate other people and want to kill them. Warfare is just one of the ways by which this tendency expresses itself (Lizot 1979:151)."
2. "War as sport and entertainment: War is a big game. People enjoy the thrill of using martial arts and risking their lives in combat. (It's better than the movies.)"
3. "War as revenge: This is the most common explanation for going to war given by nonstate combatants. It is frequently accompanied by the belief that the spirits of the ancestors who have been killed in previous battles will not rest unless a relative of the culprit is killed in turn. The desire for revenge keeps wars going generation after generation whether the combatants win or lose."
4. "War as a struggle for reproductive success: Sociobiologists explain nonstate warfare as a means of obtaining higher rates of reproductive success: The fiercer the warrior, the more wives he will have, and the greater the number of surviving children. Thus natural selection favors the practice of warfare."
5. "War in general is a struggle for material benefits: It is fought only to the extent that it provides material advantages for some of the combatants."

As I read through the options left to me, I couldn't help but notice that none of the above truly represented my own ideas on why we, as humans, seem to universally be a violent species. while I know people who would be labeled as pacifists or 100% peaceful, I also know people who would label me as such and can't help but wonder at how wrong their view inherently is. The human, especially my own, penchant for violence or physical reaction to events is something that I occasionally sit back and deliberately contemplate and it is an interesting train of thought, one with no real answer so far as I can see.

I do believe that violence, especially to the stage of being formally called warfare, is a choice. The choice to follow though from a thought into an action against oneself or another that is harmfully physical or mental in nature is one that is consciously made. To those who claim that certain decisions were not in their control and resulted in violence, I merely respond that perhaps there may have not been the time allotted to allow one to thoroughly and deliberately think through one's reaction, but the decision was there, even if the result of past decisions made. Mayhaps the decision isn't one made directly before the action occurs, but at some point in one's past, a decision was made that determined the outcome of one's own (re)actions.

Why the propensity for violence is there, however, shall probably forever stump me, but it makes for intriguing contemplation. My explanation at the current moment is that there is a combination of factors paving the way for even the gentlest of peoples to react to some situations in their life with violence and/or physically manifested rage; factors both buried in our biology, our genetics if you may, and buried in the historical context of our species. To both of these extents, I believe that violence itself is instinct, its has been bred into our culture and our very fibers of our being through generations of actions which very well may have begun their journey through time and inheritance as methods of survival.

I do not believe that we, as humans, have the "innate aggressive tendencies that make us hate other people and want to kill them". I do believe that we have innate aggressive tendencies, but not towards an ultimate goal of hating nor killing other People. This would not account for violence that is perpetrated upon oneself or those that we love, intentionally or unintentionally. While I have heard and have read/heard about/witnessed actions by people because of the belief that spirits of others against whom evils/crimes had been performed could not rest until they were avenged (hell, there are entire shows dedicated to the idea - ex: Ghost Hunters) or understood, their grievances set to rest one way or another, often via violence towards the perceived perpetrator, if not the actual one). I look deeper into the understanding I have of humans and human-nature (I feel that though my beliefs and understandings are no doubt culture-bound in nature, are yet valid due to my own existence as a member of the human society as a whole) and I can't believe that this is the true underlying cause. As I search my own memories of anger, betrayal, and my own outbursts of violence as well as those times when I deny myself such a relief, I find that it is less a settling of the true spirits of those ancestors or others wronged, and more of a settling of one's own spirits for the wrongs held either against one's actual own self or vicariously against oneself through others held dear.

Humans, we are strange in our sense of what justice is. We can not agree, all of us, on a single idea of what happens once we are gone from this world, yet, we , as individuals, will forcefully push others into such a future, and then as a whole, punish those individuals into this future as well. How are we to know that there is anything there, that we are not sentencing both our 'innocent' and our 'guilty' to what we might view as a heaven or a hell, or perhaps a nothing. How can we know that we are not doing them, instead of a dis-service, a favor? How can we in our limited understanding of the origins and futures of all things in existence, in the meanings of anything, presume to wage violence and warfare at all when we so little understand the true consequences of our actions? And yet we do, constantly, and the list of justifications given, oh! It reads as dictionary of definitions of insanity, greed, selfishness, and naivety.

It confuses me, and intrigues me all in one. I know, from examining my own reactions, to feel hurt, anger, desire for retribution, is biological, it is built into us as a species; the difference however, between those who give in to it, and harm others, intentionally on any level, or those who turn it inward, inflicting pain on oneself, and those of us who choose to step back, away from what elicits the urge....where does that difference come from. But I suppose, that leads upon a greater path that delves even deeper into a shared yet separate psyche....into the question that surrounds and has birthed my current path of study....who are we?

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