Is Everything About Violence?

This was a Reddit answer on a related question. It touches briefly on issues such as human nature, origins of war, and decline in violence.

Question: Why is almost everything about violence? Our history is full of wars, genocide, conquer. In modern society most of films, tv series, video games are about violence. Internet and social media also. In workplaces, everything is about power and connections and exploiting. Our politicians are not different, they are the mirror of society. Does the terror and evil come from inside us? Is it that we can’t escape our nature ? [Link; I’ve corrected some typos etc.]

Answer: This is an important question in two ways. In the sense in which we are indeed a violent species, it is important to answer “why”. But the assumption behind this question is equally important. The assumption is that that in some important sense, human life is inherently violent. Here are some reasons to think that this assumption is one-sided. In other words, here are some reasons to think that not everything is about violence and when there is violence, it does not come (only) from within us.

(1) Historically speaking, our current society is rather peaceful

Saying that violence is always part of human life is quite misleading. Violence is not a fixed fact. For example, likelihood of dying from violence has been dramatically reduced in the course of our written history. The probability of a person dying of violence in the 20th century is breathtakingly low (around 1.3% according to Steven Pinker, compare with rates around 15% in many other eras and societies). This is so even when taking into account the world wars. The danger in the assumption that “all is violence” is its blindness to this trend: not all is violence, and we can only reduce violence when we are realistic about it’s nature as a preventable part of the human condition. We cannot design a healthy diet while thinking that all food is unhealthy. Nor can we design a good society by thinking that everything is violence.

I think this principle applies even to your mention of conflicts at the workplace. We do not do justice to the problem by claiming that it is universal. It is not. Workplaces full of genuine co-operation do exist. The systems responsible for your bad experiences should not be excused as an inevitable outcome of the human condition. They are not.

(2) Biologically, humans are not a terribly violent species

Humans are a rather docile ape species. We are significantly less violent than, say, chimpanzees. We show the same physical characteristics as all other domesticated animals, such as dogs: we have small chins and chests, males with feminine facial structure, and tendency to play even as adults.

(Ironically, communal violence against aggressive individuals (i.e. capital punishment for violence) might have been the selective force behind human self-domestication. But whatever the reason, the biological consensus seems to be that humans are a relatively peaceful ape species. Indeed, many studies show that only a surprisingly small minority of soldiers can ever pull the trigger in fights (less than 20% of Americans in WWII). This is why most damage in wars during the last two centuries are caused by bombs, cannons, and other “faceless” methods. Those who do kill do so often with the help of substances, such as alcohol, and tend to show serious symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress-disorder). Similarly, high levels of aggressive emotions, such as hostility, lead to heart failure and other health problems. This would be odd if we were “designed” to be violent.

The archeological record about war is also mixed. There seems to be no consensus, but for now, it seems possible that humans did not engage in systematic killing before large scale settlements began around 10 000 years ago. For example, there is no rock art from the Pleistocene depicting human-to-human violence. Indeed, Tolstoy might have been right in War and Peace, when he write:

“In the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature.

(3) We are biased to think that the world is more violent than it actually is.

News and mass media normally report on abnormal events. It is the very abnormality of violence that makes it a common headline. Then comes the availability bias: a cognitive bias that makes us believe that things we frequently hear about are also frequently occurring. The paradox of the 20th century shows this well: how is it that we typically think of the least violent of all centuries as the most violent one? Because mass media and globalisation offered as memorable spectacles of violence, I presume. In the same vein, why do we often think a species like homo sapiens is very violent? Because the curiosity-inducing abnormality of violence makes it a great material for news, stories, and Hollywood films. And once these spectacles and stories are up for grabs, our availability bias makes us thinks these are also frequent in the real world, too.

Don’t get me wrong: humans do commit horrifically violent deeds. Violence is a terrible part of human life. But in order to reduce it, we should be sober about it. 

Some sources:

The main source for point (1) is Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature.

For point (2), you can see Richard Wrangham’s Goodness Paradox and Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods‘s Survival of the Friendliest. A great overview is given by Rutger Bregman in chapters 3 and 4 of Humankind which offers the most comprehensive discussion of this overall issue. For the relationship between hostility, anger and heart failure, see this article

Point (3) is developed in various ways by the Pinker, Bregman and many others.

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