Violence and Culture

violence

Today’s Boston Globe had a “big” front page story, taking much of the space, covering Roger Goodell’s “apology” for his treatment of domestic violence among football players. The NYTimes coverage was smaller, but full of historical details about misdemeanors of all kinds and how they have been treated by Goodell over the past several years. What I saw in the stories was not just the holier-than-thou stance of Goodell, nor the details of the Rice incident, but the fundamentally violent American culture coming forth.

I may certainly be wrong, but American football, perhaps more than any other sport except hockey, has become an appeal to the bloodlust of Americans. The players are more like gladiators than talented performers. So, should it be surprising to find many involved with violence and other misdemeanors off the field? Coaches deny that they encourage the players to be violent, but that’s laughable. I find an undeniable connection to our passion for guns and media’s dominant violent depictions.

Discussing this over breakfast with Ruth, she asked whether humans are essentially violent creatures. Is violence genetically inherited? I have seen many articles that claim it is, but so what. It is not at all surprising to find violent genes because early hominids probably had to act in violent manners to survive. They lacked the means to employ any other strategy. But as they became more and more civilized, they were able to find other means to survive without resorting to violence. Agriculture brought adequate food for survival. I found this definition of “civilize” on the web: “To raise from barbarism to an enlightened stage of development; bring out of a primitive or savage state.”

The Goodell story, to me, is simply more evidence that we are still in the civilizing process. Although we tout ourselves as being civilized, we aren’t all the way and perhaps not far enough along to rest on our laurels. The process of civilization rests on the creation of institutions that enable humans to put their “barbaric” side in abeyance as it becomes, in theory, unnecessary for survival. Much of such a process has taken place over the millennia of human history, but seems unfinished or inadequate.

Another essential characteristic of human beings is unconditional love. Humberto Maturana argues that it is the most basic of human emotions. But it has not fared nearly so well as violence has from the “civilizing” development of human societies. Why? A critical question for our times as the world continues to become more violent. Perhaps over the long run, civilizing has reduced violence as Stephen Pinker argues in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Perhaps it is only the American fascination with it that makes it seem to be everywhere and increasing. But I believe the evidence shows no mater how we compare to history, it is still a serious issue.

One of my arguments for the continuing large presence of violence versus love is that emergent cultures promoted materialism in one form or another. On the large scale, it was in one form of imperialism or another. What is this but one nation going out to have what belonged to another. And what better way to get it but violent means. The measure of national status was materialistic and power. Imperialistic tendencies have diminished as nation boundaries became more fixed and stable, but it is not gone as the reading of any paper on any day will demonstrate.

Materialism also remains at the microlevel in the political economies of every non-socialistic state. Human well-being is measured by what one has. The notion of scarce resources remains in the economic theories on which societal institutions are based, even as we are overwhelmed by the quantity of goods in the marketplace. Life is a struggle to acquire ever more goods. The marketplace is the civilized answer to previously violent means of acquisition, but crime and riots still show up frequently in the news.

At the bottom of materialism is a belief that human nature incorporates a having gene that dominates our social behavior. We are driven to acquire more and more goods. Our identities are tied to the quantity and types of goods we own. I am taking a course on the origins of the U.S Constitution, and was reminded in the last class that early drafts of the Declaration of Independence began with “… certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Property.” Happiness eventually got substituted, but the intimate connection between the two remains.

My work always argues that violence and other social pathologies spring from this error, the assumption that we are havers by nature. It is not the place here to elaborate this notion. You can find it in my books and many prior blog posts. Modernity was predicated on the hopes that humans would continuously progress toward a more perfect state, given the institutions that were evolving. Another way would be to say that modernity is just another phase in the civilizing process that has been occurring over the millennia. Maybe so, but it is not the end by far as all this violence, big and small, affirms. In a nutshell, my work looks at how we can restart the process and end with a flourishing world where violence fades into the shadows,

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