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Saturday, November 3, 2007Exploring Violence....
In the past century dreadful diseases like diphtheria, leprosy and typhoid were halted; sterile women have been given children; numerous devices have been developed to let handicapped people participate in society. Many of the things we prayed for during ages have been achieved by means of expensive scientific research.
What is hard to understand however is that humans spent even more scientific efforts and even more finances to destroy all those benefits. For each disease we have overcome, we have created weaponry to introduce more and worse. For every feeble child we brought to life in a sophisticated hospital, we killed thousands of children in wars of hysteric madness. A few blind we gave sight and a few paralysed we made walk, but we have willingly crippled millions for reasons no sound reasoning can grasp.
This is more than just an interesting academic enigma, a profound religious mystery, or a rewarding literary subject: It is a matter of everyday survival, and the most urgent question of this century.
People are accustomed to violence for a long time. Throughout history, wars seemed to be natural misfortunes, like plagues, famine or hurricanes. In all civilisations people have been tortured and sacrificed; from the swamps of early Mesopotamia to the manufactories of modern times, humans were chased, deported, abused, starved and destroyed as cattle, and left to die on battle fields or from exhaustion – all by other humans. The victims were slaves and workers, natives and minorities, children, women and men.
Such massive and recurring aggression between humans begs for justification. Aggressors uphold that their actions are rightful and meaningful, a step towards an improved world, the warding off of evil worse than all the victims sacrificed. But the other party tells the same story the other way around. While it is wrong to accuse all parties equally, it remains surprising that no one ever waged war with motives that were wicked from his own point of view. While each warrior claims to make the world a safer place for his kinsman, the world becomes an ever more dangerous place for everyone as long as wars are fought. While politicians on all sides claim that only a strong army can secure peace, wasted wars proliferate together with arms and armies.
Most generals have declared one time or another that their trade is peace. This is an attractive catchphrase. How could a country ever have too much soldiers and too strong weapons, how can an army ever strike too soon, if the goal is that noble? Peace however is a political trade, and can only be reached by means of diplomacy, openness and international justice, long before war is even considered.
As long as it is widely accepted that starting a war is an effective way to solve difficult problems, despite all historical and statistical proofs of the opposite, leaders will send their citizens into agony whenever they fail to see other solutions. War is not the continuation of politics with other means, as von Clausewitz wrote, but its negation. Once war is the only option left, nothing is assured about the outcome but suffering at all sides. If an army reaches its goal – they hardly ever do – it will be submission, occupation or destruction: all precarious situations crying for revenge and new violence whenever circumstances allow.
Since the first civilizations, humanity has been told by undisputed authorities that it is dangerous to counter this endless procession of self-inflicted misery. Priests told us that we will be saved in the end if we just carry our yoke patiently, and honoured academics upheld the same dogma by decreeing, undisturbed by the absence of supporting scientific data, that our offspring is forever cursed by aggressive genes, branded every critical analysis of our violent behaviour more dangerous than violence itself, and even blamed pacifism for atrocities committed by unchecked totalitarianism.
Sometimes indeed one must be big enough to cede for an undesired fate: we must appreciate the courage of a patient who accepts a fatal disease, or of an officer who surrenders to avoid a useless slaughter. But to preach submission to our own bloody madness is a shocking absurdity.
Harvard professor E.O. Wilson only needed a few examples (one of them that the peaceful Samai of Malaya behead chickens before cooking) to demonstrate once and forever that 'human beings have a marked hereditary predisposition to aggressive behaviour.'2 No genetic research is presented to back this claim of innateness. We were violent in the past, so it must be in our genes, so only naïve people do believe it is possible to put an halt to war ever. This viewpoint became common sense during the twentieth century at a rate only comparable with other convenient pseudo-scientific dogmas, like the impossibility of pain in animals made up in the seventeenth century to support the abuse of animal power, and like the race theories of the nineteenth century made up to back colonialism. Genetic research is a possible source of medical relief for ill people, but ideological speculations in the same field are unscientific and despicable. Wilson was even honoured with a Pulitzer Prize. To provide excuses for public life as it goes is a fast lane to popularity and success.3
Another Harvard professor, economist David Landes, sanctifies aggression from an historical point of view: ‘Imperialism has always been with us. It is the expression of a deep human drive’.4 But only a few decades ago it was equally possible to say that slavery and human sacrifices had always been with us. Yet both disappeared from most places since. Obviously, their longevity was no proof that they were the inevitable expressions of a deep human drive. Imperialism was only with us the last five thousand years, while slavery exists twice as long, and solidarity and cooperation are older than humanity.
Whenever the nation of such ideologists gets involved in an armed conflict, they spontaneously replace their philosophies about an inevitable human condition with a peculiar kind of dualism. The innately violent humanity is magically split up: one party - the own - has a history of peace, justice and kindness, while the other party has a history of psychotic malice. Soon books, reviews and documentaries illustrate the looked-for wickedness or righteousness with ancient myths, historical anecdotes and recent news stories. There is always enough such material to be gathered for all parties.
This essay sticks with an analysis of our common behaviour, because all other viewpoints risk ideological contamination. It agrees with Wilson, Landes etc. that we, humans, are occasionally violent. It also agrees that we are not always violent. The important difference is that this essay rejects that violence is an inevitable normality. It wants to understand processes, not natures. It asks what causes violence, not who is violent. It asks the difficult questions about Us, in contrast to an easy slapping of the scapegoat Them.
Even if it would be true at all that violence is innate, it would be meaningless, since people can evidently live in peace as well as participate in war, as circumstances change. Compulsory genes can not explain the ever recurring outbreaks of violence beyond measure between periods of peace and prosperity. The Spanish and Norwegians – to name any at random - once violently submitted large parts of the world. Today, neither of them seems to hold such plans, but instead build economies on internal cohesion and international cooperation.
Nothing is so far from science as to predict that the future will repeat the past, without considering the always evolving prerequisite constraints. To predict today’s circumstances for tomorrow might yield two hits out of three for weather forecasters, as the weather changes between known patterns every three days on the average - it certainly brings no benefit to historians.
Our academies are still haunted by the Platonic fantasy that something ‘innate’ is a forever fixated stamp from an immovable higher world. This fantasy has been nurtured for ages to keep oppressed people meek.
One of the worlds’ leading geneticists, Richard Lewontin, has refuted such biological determinism. It is, he wrote, ‘a fundamental principle of development genetics that every organism is the outcome of a unique interaction between genes and environmental sequences, modulated by the random chances of cell growth and division…'5 The only thing we know for sure about the influence of each of those three actors - genes, shifting environments and random chances - is that the unpredictable variation of their influence is essential to life. Not only is the influence of genes on the development of individuals unpredictable, there are simply not enough genes to determine our behaviour:
There is enough human DNA to make about 250,000 genes. But that would be insufficient to determine the incredible complexity of human social organization if it were coded in detail by specific neuronal connections. Once we admit that only the most general outlines of social behaviour could be genetically coded, then we must allow immense flexibility depending on particular circumstances.6
250,000 genes is the number of words in a weekend edition of an average newspaper; a decent library contains this number a million times. Therefore genes are no prescriptions; they rather constitute a grammar in which all the unpredictable books of all our libraries could be written without ever running down. To claim without proof that aggression is inevitable, is to leave the field of science and take the path of ideology. Such best-sellers furnish pretexts for scum and destroy the hopes of unfortunate people.
The predisposition to violence we have inherited lies not in our genes, but in the ideological platitudes we have embraced in the course of the last ten thousand years. Wilson can not show the violent genes he so enthusiastically writes about. This essay shows that ideologists like Wilson are the true carriers of inherited violence.
if repeated and acclaimed, such ideological platitudes become excuses for more warfare and other brutalities, and thus turn into self fulfilling prophesies. This is for instance how historians produced the indogerman myth, on the basis of which Nazism wrote history. It is easier for historians to ignore history, than for history to ignore historians.
The thesis of this essay is that the circumstances that drive humans from peace to war and back, and make us act violent one time and caring another, shifted to the worse when forced labour was established. Humanity as a whole however never accepted this outcome: our longing for peace and justice is as old as forced labour.
When humans become entangled in forced labour, more children are raised for profit, either as a work force, as a social security, as an asset or as a merchandise. But once those children are adults the needs they must fulfil return multiplied, and the solution of the previous generation turns into new and bigger problems for the new one. Each generation holding the same mode of production will need to multiply its population with the same factor as the previous one, and caring childbirth turns into a human avalanche. If each generation doubles its number, a population would become its tenfold each century, its thousandfold after three centuries and its millionfold after six. Thomas Malthus once wrote that humans, if unchecked, multiply ever faster, while their means of subsistence increase only steadily. He was too optimistic: even if actual means of subsistence increase, potential resources are depleted by ever intensified exploitation.
Early farming is exemplary for the introduction of forced labour. It started ten thousand years ago, and continues to spread globally. The ensuing flooding by humans of a limited planet forces us to intensify ever further our procurement of life necessities. In the course of this process, growing violence is directed towards fellow humans as well as to the environment we have to live off. We gradually destroy our habitats and our neighbours, and tangle ourselves ever further up in a global destitution trap. Mass production of humans causes mass production of goods, while intensified marauding for food, space and resources are presented as just wars or as scientific progress.
Almost thirty years ago, Marvin Harris considered the role of child labour, while summing up probable origins of farming:
One of the strongest pulls was the possibility to intensify agriculture and stock raising through the use of child labour. In many hunter-gatherer groups, children play only a marginal role in the labour force until adolescence. Child labour, however, can be extremely productive in such operations as weeding, harvesting, herding, and retrieving animal droppings.7
But Harris ignored the possibility of an ensuing population explosion with the remark that ‘four or five children could probably be reared per mother at a low cost [..] without depleting the necessary non-renewable resources’. This remark is in strong contradiction with the worldwide presence of forced labour. Farming households, then and now, do not worry about non-renewable resources, and are not interested in adjusting their number to it. If early farmers had done so, the immigration of farmers in Europe, the fall of Troy nor the colonization of America, and for that matter not much of anything else in history would have happened. Still today farming populations outgrow their living space on all continents, and youths struggle everywhere for a place to survive while fathers consider a large progeny a blessing.
Shortage today has its origins in child exploitation: it is the consequence of violence exerted on children. The calamities caused by the resulting population pressure lie not only in the future: they are on the rise for as long as forced labour exists, and news broadcasts show them day by day. They grow still together with the violent exploitation of the environment we have to live in, and with genocides, wars, urban showdowns, exploitation and abuse. Whenever we hear news bulletins about hunger, plagues, landslides, floods or other crises, we must bear in mind that most of the time we do not witness the blind fate of natural catastrophes, but the outcome of violence inflicted by ourselves.
People learn from catastrophes happening within the hundred-years horizon. But today we can no longer, in a peaceful way, restrict our dwellings to places protected against storms and floods, or migrate to greener valleys when our land is hit by drought, or temporarily avoid exhausted grounds. We believe that we have mastered nature but accept the fatality of hunger, natural catastrophes and plagues as if we have nothing to do with them - as if we did not force them upon us, and can do nothing about them.
The human avalanche destroys reserves and shelters that were self-evident before. As long as there is still enough space, people avoid hazardous places. This goes for small as well as large disasters, because infrequent catastrophes stay longer in our memory. Today houses are built in river beds and on beach level, places that were still commonly avoided only a century ago. The inhabitants of those houses undergo casual floods patiently, until one ‘unexpected’ deluge drives the survivors uphill again, if there is still a little space left. After one tsunami, people avoid to live at the shoreline for a few generations, until population pressure pushes them back.
Ill-treating children is not, as it seemed to be, a private family matter, but the nearly unnoticed fountain-head of the massive cruelty that governs humanity. There is an immediate connection between the exploitation of children and the most ruthless social, civil or international structures and outbursts. This straightforward relation is however carried out by complex and fuzzy mechanisms. Meticulously trying to follow each detail of the causal chains of violence as it spreads, can hardly make its all pervading origin transparent. Neither is it sufficient to pinpoint at isolated aspects like environmental politics, capitalist exploitation, corrupted leaders or bad morals: if those elements play a part then it is the part of cogwheels, driven as well as drivers in one immense machine fuelled by child exploitation.
Population and violence
Simple arithmetic demonstrates that the gathering of supplies becomes more violent when the number of people grows significantly. This violence is not especially directed to other humans, but to whatever comes in the way: the environment, other tribes etc.…
Intensified exploitation often displays human cleverness, and always reveals human failure.
Suppose you lived on a bountiful island together with your loved ones. On this island dwells another similar group, and the relations between both are distant but courteous. Then climatic conditions change and suddenly the plants and animals that provided food for free demand increasing attention. In order to bridge periods of scarcity, fields must be watered, sheltered from birds and rodents, planted, weeded, reaped, stored. Animals must be kept, fed and sheltered. All those techniques are self-evident to people observing nature forever. The only thing new is the rising exploitation of falling resources.
If the good climate returns, you would soon forget this troublesome interlude, and take up the old way of gathering abundant food at minimal effort. But if the bad climate keeps returning, new evolutions can emerge.
If the climate change persists for just one generation, the benefit of child labour becomes apparent, and is called upon in case of need; if climatic crises keep reappearing during three or more generations, occasional child labour can become systematic. Once child labour is systematic, it will find ideological backing and child breeding will become an economic factor. Women become part of production - as breeders of the workforce and as part of the workforce themselves.
Because more children are raised, each next generation will be bigger, and each new generation will have to work harder.
Technology is pressed to speed up exhaustion of the environment because resources shrink, because the climate gets worse, and because more mouths must be fed. Because there is ample room on your island, the first generations will find more or less bountiful virgin grounds. But every settlement thriving on children will overflow sooner or later. Although the population threshold depends on technological advances and on the fertility of the land, sooner or later new emigrations are inevitable. Some will be chased away with ideological pretexts, some will follow a promising leader, or buy their selves a place on a precarious lifeboat.
The other group on the island lived through the same circumstances and expanded in the same way, and a violent confrontation is only a matter of time. Warfare - violence between groups - is not the continuation of politics, but a the continuation of violence against women and children. While technology and ideology grow grimmer, the harshness of war also hardens the rules of society.
From this point on it is no longer sufficient to bring the population in balance with the environment again, in order to recover a peaceful existence. By that time youths will be raised with the ideological brain cancer that brutality is honourable; that the other groups are born evildoers; that criticism is disloyalty and even enmity. If the bountiful climate and the fertility of the land would return, it would be too late: ideology and economy no longer allow to feed the extended population in the older, more relaxed manner.
Summarizing the history of your island, it is obvious that coercion was first imposed on women and children; then on the natural environment; then on neighbours.
A choice of solutions
Traditionalists tend to ridicule this population worry with the observation that we will always find solutions to shortage. This might be true, but the solution found could well be undesirable and even unacceptable. Child labour was itself a solution to shortage. Emigration to other planets, eating toxic food and waste-burgers, farming fish and wildlife, wars, earthquakes, hurricanes and even starving to death are solutions, at least if they are applied with sufficient intensity and keep an adequate distance.
The human intellect can do much better than dig new pits to fill up the old ones. Besides to invent or to undergo solutions, we are obviously capable to chose between solutions on practical, moral and social grounds. And, even better still, the human intellect has the capacity to avoid problems for which no acceptable solutions are known yet. Prevention of problems - a common practice in daily life - is usually the most humane and cheap solution, and the most intelligent all together. If problems are not tackled on time, only horrible solutions might remain.