To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness.Steven Pinker, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”
This is on the final page of Steven Pinker’s breathtaking work on why violence has declined. While a provocative and uplifting book, still it clearly cannot reconcile the paths humanity took for us to get here, one where violence is not some lofty and heroic act, but neither is it a degrading and baseless activity (like it should be viewed today). Suffice it to say, violence is a strange code of conduct that feels validated when the time calls for it, and as time has gone on, the affordances for violence has thankfully narrowed.
Still it is not altogether absent. I can recall the moments I played football as a six or seven year old child. The hardest part of playing contact sports was in giving myself over to “switching on” the propensity for violence. I had more hatred for the ants that crawled up my muddy legs on dark and damp evenings than I did for my fellow player. But I remember I paid for that feeling one day when I chipped one of my front teeth. Will Ebner, who would eventually play for the University of Missouri, was easily the player who hit hardest, and who left me with the strange feeling of a chipped tooth rummaging in my mouth. That was not the moment that I decided to quit football. Rather it occurred in a locker room moment when a senior stabbed a freshman with a pencil. He sat crying, with blood leaking from his shoulder, holding it in simultaneous pain and disbelief. From what I remember, the coaches sat not one-hundred yards away in ignorance, laughing about God knows what.
Americans have a stereotype for being violent. Not only are we harking back to our beloved Roman ancestors in cultural unity, we relish the Spartan code in our military as well, which runs light and hits hard, with technological prowess and fierce training that is emulated in Hollywood films and video games. In contrast to European film, violence in our stories is given a free pass, while sex is held in disrepute. This goes further than film. Occasionally, in the school I used to teach at, harsher punishments came from students caught being sexually active than for repeat offenders in physical fights. Like several other teachers, I disagreed vehemently with this asymmetry. I felt sexuality to be somehow more normal, to be more in vogue with what we should be practicing for morals by the 21st century, than accepting violence. Back then we teachers had a phrase for students who acted a certain way: “All behavior is communication.”
It is an obvious point to make at first glance, but it’s the claws of psychology and the therapist’s chair that wins the day for this kind of idiom. “Boys will be boys” does not last for the reason that some boys are serial killers, while others just want to have fun. Just because someone is not speaking does not mean they are not saying something. It has been fascinating to go from the meek boy playing football (clearly never my way of communicating) to seeing the power of violence for boys and girls to elaborate their pains and fears from the teacher desk. Like Steven Pinker, it hurts to admit that, even going back as far as twenty years, the changes in violence renders me apoplectic. How could we have done this to each other?
In some cases we did not know. Lead-based paint in toys and on walls led to increased violence, and playing football at early ages caused increased aggression due to damaged frontal lobes. The farther the denial went, the more true we realized it to be, and while my father decries football as forever being ruined by new rules about tackling, as the NFL struggles to bring its violent warlike atmosphere into a new century, most people know that we are the better for it. Football is one of those pastimes that, when I ask the favored question with my friends about what will be seen as taboo one-hundred years from now, I have no doubt that football will be on it. In one sense, football as it is seen one-hundred years ago bears no relation to now. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt threatened to shut down football because 19 people died nationwide. Fans of football who are upset at its denouement do not see the history as just one more notch on a continuum, and what we see is thankfully a much more safe sport than where it came from.
More alarming is how 2021 was introduced with violence on Capitol Hill, and how for some reason this is viewed by right wing media as a “1776 moment”, as somehow revolutionary. It is disgusting to see that America as the stereotypical violent type who lunges out and punches the nearest person who disagrees with us is still the norm. Granted, America is a large country, but the peaceful masses do not make the papers. “What’s black and white and red all over” is a famous joke that repeats the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra of journalism, and rather than make scouring that violence like putting together a 1000 piece puzzle, we are too willing to display it for all the world to see.
Le Guin reminds us with her chapter called “The Ire of the Veksi” that violence can take on a social and moral code of its own, one that transcends the damage it does. Most people who can travel across different planes avoid the Veksi for their violence, and indeed our narrator gets this information about the plane from secondhand. The Veksi believe in violence like honor, similar to its use in the Deep South here in the United States. It is inhumane to target children, and when one dies, one village may seek retribution. Often with the Veksi, violence as revenge is not only tolerated but encouraged, and many who survive do so with permanent wounds and damage to their person. Assets among the villagers like crops, buildings, and amenities are left intact. If one villager has a surplus they share, or if they have plenty they use the opportunity to give weapons away as a demeaning display of dominance. It is almost a dare, the researcher relates.
Much of Le Guin’s chapters are placed alongside contrasting opposites. Whereas before with the Hennebet, getting them to struggle with important topics was close to impossible, the Veksi are so steeped in passion and bloodlust that children are not faulted for deserting their parents out of anger and rage. They are welcomed by other tribe members, understanding the corporal punishment that often befalls their kind. Children, strangely, do not express violence when together solely, but seem to imitate violent social mores when in the presence of adults, until it becomes inculcated into their behavior.
Le Guin’s account of the Veksi is disturbing, in part because she is reminding us that, not so long ago, violence was just as much a tool of communication as any other part of our existence. As far back as the 1600s, countries were at war more often than not, and the toll it took on poor families, in combination with other poor quality-of-life issues like child and mother mortality during childbirth, left existence as a desiccated remnant of what it could have been. More disturbing is the acknowledgement that our state of humanity is not what could have been. Just as likely we could have been plagued with violence as a code of thought much like the Veksi. It is not as if nature cares one iota if human beings are wise in their reticence to inflict violence, or if violence is the first card dealt, just as long as our genes propagate. And much like the messages of violence to be found in art like American History X, we learn oftentimes that violence and racism, hatred and prejudice, are instilled from family cultural underpinnings, and are learned through exposure and imitation. Many of our worst serial killers suffered horrible abuses at the hands of family members. It was still training, but with a more harrowing goal in mind.
An interesting thing to note, call it a postscript of this post: the Veksi, when they have sex, it tends to be violent, leaving both parties in pain, and sometimes with permanent scarring. If there is a frontier for expunging violence from our behavior, perhaps it lies somewhere here. That being said, aggression and sex lead to certain taboos that could be exhilarating. But especially for young people in university, where coupled with lack of sex education, drinking, and group mob mentalities such as those seen in American fraternities, it is a dangerous concoction. It is one that I have followed thanks to Jon Krakauer’s book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. Perfectly enough, the book centers on football, and we have come full circle for our post.
To conclude, we seem to still imagine that there are times and places when violence is called for, and oftentimes where the violence begins and where it ends lies beyond our expectations. Could the intense desire for expanding our surveillance state, thanks to the actions of those on Capitol Hill turn out to backfire for citizens critical of America on the left? Plenty of writers already seem to think so. All that we can say now is that our grandchildren will read textbooks of our time period and think, “Pa, it must have been hard, living the way you did.”
And though I will smile and nod, I’ll also think, “Oh my child, you have no idea.”