The True History of Violence

[A speech to the Amherst College "Colloquium on the American Founding"]

There is a hilarious scene in David Cronenberg’s new film, A History of Violence — a film which, as the title suggests, is not exactly full of hilarious scenes. Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen, has just become a hero in his small Indiana town by single-handedly taking on and killing two villains who were trying to rob the diner he owns and manages. Comendably, Mr Cronenberg does not allow us the moral luxury of wondering whether or not Tom over-reacted, since he has earlier shown us the bad guys in the course of another robbery gratuitously murdering, without hesitation and without compunction, a motel manager, a maid and a little girl. We already know, in other words, what Tom has to intuit in a split second as he sees one of the bad guys pointing a gun at and threatening a waitress — namely that not only the waitress’s life but his own and those of the four other people in the diner are at stake. Accordingly, when in a series of lightning moves he disarms the other gunman and then shoots them both, we are meant to see Tom as being as much a hero as do his friends and neighbors and the TV audience before which he is subsequently lionized.

At the same time we are made aware that Tom’s teenage son, Jack, who is played by Ashton Holmes, is being bullied at school. Jack is a budding intellectual of fashionably melancholy disposition, and he parries the insults of the bully, played by Kyle Schmid, with wit, but there is no doubt in our minds or his own that he has backed down from the confrontation. After his father’s feat of courage, however, and perhaps inspired by his example, he decides to fight back — and in doing so beats the bully so badly that he has to be hospitalized. Jack is suspended from school and the parents of the injured boy threaten to sue Jack’s family. Tom, when told of the incident, naturally assumes that the occasion requires him as a parent to administer some verbal correction, and he says to his son, "In this family, we do not solve our problems by hitting people."

With typical teenage insolence, Jack replies, "No, in this family we shoot them!" — whereupon his father slaps him across the face.

To me, the funniest thing about this funny moment was that David Cronenberg didn’t think it was funny. At least I don’t think he did, since it is one of many in which he appears to be trying to make a very serious — a too serious — point about the kinds of self-contradictions in which people who commit acts of violence, however justified, inevitably enmesh themselves. To him, the "violence" of which he claims to be a historian is a mysterious and terrifying thing, a kind of moral miasma whose victims — those who, even for the best of reasons, take the fateful step of performing a violent act — can never escape it. Their lives are blighted. They have the mark of Cain upon them and will always be looked on by others with a certain suspicion, a certain fear, rather as people used to cross themselves when meeting the hangman. Yet this view of violence should not be taken for granted. The obvious thing lacking in Mr Cronenberg’s "history" is a beginning, which all histories need. He expects us to think of "violence" as he himself does, that is, as an eternal verity, something which has always been around, always exerting its baleful influence on mankind. I believe that such an assumption is in error, and that the real history of violence is yet to be written.

In the course of writing my forthcoming book, Honor: A History, I found that I could not do without at least an outline of that history too. Fortunately, it is relatively brief compared with the history of honor. In fact, violence is less than a century old. It will be celebrating its hundredth birthday next year, on the anniversary of the publication of Georges Sorel’s Réflections sur la Violence. Before that, there were of course violent acts. But "violence" referred exclusively to criminal violence — as its relation to the word "violate" suggests. Sorel changed all that by combining bits of Marx, Engels and Nietzsche with the élan vital of Bergsonian philosophy in order to make the case that that which was formerly taken to be merely criminal activity should be seen instead as a pure revolutionary act. His celebration of violence as the agent of social change made him a hero both to the left and the right in the years between the two World Wars when political violence enjoyed its heyday. To the true revolutionary, of course, all violence was political, and the revolutionaries of both left and right were only too happy to be presented with a theoretical justification for the otherwise suspect means by which they intended to accomplish their grandiose feats of social engineering.

After World War II, however, violence fell into disrepute. It enjoyed a brief vogue once again under the New Left of the 1960s and 70s, but for the most part even the left — at least the liberally-inclined soft left of Western Europe and America — turned pacifist and, therefore, firmly against violence. Hannah Arendt in her essay "On Violence" of 1969 attempted to perform the opposite feat to Sorel’s, by delegitimizing it either as pure act or as a tool of social change, but she shared with him the assumption that violence was morally undifferentiated — at its best only the bad alternative to more benign phenomena such as "power", "force" or "authority." She made an exception for clear cases of self-defense, such as Tom Stall’s, but she was strong in her belief that, as she writes, "violence can be justifiable, but it never will be legitimate."

Less thoughtful leftists tended to see this generic and undifferentiated violence as no more than the tool of the powerful for imposing social order on the powerless or — under the right revolutionary conditions — for the powerless to take back some of their lost or compromised freedom and autonomy from the powerful. Either way, the only moral issue involved was the Leninist one of who was doing what to whom? The violence of the established order was bad; that of its revolutionary opponents was, if not necessarily good, at least less bad. Either way, too, "violence" was politicized — nationalized, as it were — and the lonely individual, say a schoolboy fighting back against a bully, was left in a state of moral limbo. His situation was referred to the school psychologist.

It was the therapeutic culture that gave us our contemporary view of violence — the one that David Cronenberg relies on in his film. Rollo May, writing in 1972, identified violence as a pathological response to adverse social conditions. "We are going to have upheavals of violence," he wrote in Power and Innocence, "for as long as experiences of significance are denied people. Everyone has a need for some sense of significance; and if we can’t make that possible, or even probable, in our society, then it will be obtained in destructive ways." Of course, if generic violence had a generic cause, then it must also have a generic solution — a "cure" to continue the medical analogy. If you foster people’s self-esteem, their sense of their own "significance," they will lose the urge to commit violent acts, and therefore violence will be eradicated.

That cure or solution may sound just the tiniest bit utopian to some. What, for instance, are we to do if we come under attack by whole battalions, whole armies of sufferers from low self-esteem during the time of inevitable delay in raising the self-esteem of the entire planet? But the therapeutic approach to violence has an answer to that objection too. It is to urge us to break "the cycle of violence" by refusing to retaliate for violent acts against ourselves. If we don’t behave violently ourselves by "sinking to their level," as the non-violent response is sometimes revealingly described — by which is meant voluntarily lowering ourselves in the moral and perhaps also social hierarchy to the morally primitive level of those who behave violently — our shining moral example will remove one of the chief pretexts of the attackers’ for their violent acts. This is the sense that they have been injured by us. Deprived of this rationale for violence, they are much more likely to agree to some peaceful resolution of their grievances. This is the kind of thinking that lies behind the response of many on the left to terrorist acts.

I don’t have the time this evening, even if I had the ability, to offer a moral and philosophical critique of this approach to "violence" — though for your private information I can tell you I consider it to be dangerous nonsense. As the British defense secretary, John Reid, recently said in response to the suggestion that the bombings in London last summer were caused by Britain’s support of the war in Iraq, "The idea that somehow by running away from the school bully, then the bully will not come after you, is a thesis that is known to be completely untrue by every kid in the playground." But let us stipulate that even playground wisdom may be subject to correction. My role here is rather to offer the history that David Cronenberg promises but does not deliver. In order to do that, I must spend just a little time talking about what we had before we had the idea of "violence" to kick around.

To the progressive, of course, history only moves in one direction, and that is in the direction of Tom Stall’s otherwise dubious principle that "we do not solve our problems by hitting people." Even the non-progressive among us must see the benefits of a historical process which, so far as it is possible, drags "violence" kicking and screaming — that is violently, perhaps in the spirit of the inner city high school in Washington D.C. which recently organized a rally to "Fight Violence"! — drags violence, as I say, into the realm of the moral and the ethical and out of that which it once inhabited, devoted as it was to the private cultivation of personal honor. Few of us would regard it a good thing to go back to the days of the duel. But a careful historian would also suggest, I think, that there are natural limits to this beneficient process, and maybe even that the honor culture which, over the last century, we have done our best to abolish, might have something to teach us.

To me, the most obvious thing that the honor culture knew and that we have forgotten is the importance of point of view. In honor’s realm, violence is not generic and morally undifferentiated. It is most emphatically not understood as social pathology. There is bad violence and good violence. Bad violence is yours against me. Good violence is mine against you. There is no pretense of ethical consistency, no categorical imperative. I feel quite entitled to act on that maxim which, if you acted on it, would be utterly deplorable. Thus you could say, by the way, that "violence" is two hundred, not one hundred years old, and that it was invented by Immanuel Kant rather than Georges Sorel. This does not mean, however, that there is no check on the honorable man’s propensity to violence. It only means that he is answerable for it not to some abstract ethical principle but to those whom he regards as his peers — what we may call the "honor group." Even in the post-honor society of today we can recognize the existence of honor groups. They are different for each of us, and they consist of those whose opinions of us we feel are most important. We all live at the center of an informal honor group made up of family and friends, in whose eyes we would feel ashamed to look bad.

For honor is often negative in this way: difficult to win, easy to lose. Our pride in having it is generally much weaker than our fear of the shame of its loss. Honor remains especially strong in military societies, even though they rarely call it that any more. There the honor group of one’s unit, or the combatant army as a whole, may overlap with our personal honor groups — soldiers generally like to think of those with whom they serve as friends and nearly always have a strong sense of the presence of family members, perhaps especially when they are distant — but it remains distinct from them, a uniquely important honor group. Similar honor groups exist for sports teams, police and fire-fighters and, in a somewhat weaker sense wherever people are engaged together in a corporate enterprise.

In the military world, this sense of what is now sometimes called "unit cohesion" — the term sounds so much more social-scientifically respectable than old-fashioned "honor" — is on most reckonings that without which no army can function. It takes more than patriotism, more than ideology, more than a sense of righteousness or of grievance, idealism or the spirit of revenge, to make men willing to put their lives in danger, sometimes risking almost certain death. It takes the fear of looking bad in the eyes of the honor group — that is, of those whose respect is more important to us, at least to some of us, than life itself. "Death before dishonor" now seems to us a quaintly old-fashioned expression, but some suitably updated and euphemized version of it is still what makes men fight — and therefore is the fundamental datum in all international relations. Where that spirit exists, there is power; where it doesn’t there isn’t. That’s one of things I hope we have learned from our attempts to train a new national army in Iraq.

The ultimate honor group is of course the nation, and the era in which the idea of nationhood has become suspect, as it is in the world today, corresponds more or less exactly with that of honor’s decline. Progressive thinking always seeks to break down partial loyalties and the local honor groups that demand them by the assertion of a higher loyalty to abstract principle, and those who engage in progressive thinking tend to assume that this process of imposing ethical limitations upon group loyalties should itself have no limitations at all. If we approve of having brought familial and tribal and ethnic and religious and regional loyalties under the rule of law and ethics, why should we not be equally approving of the effort to bring national loyalties under the same umbrella? And are not patriotism and national sovereignty obstacles in the way of that desirable goal? Why must princes still be, as Hobbes observed they were three and a half centuries ago, in a state of nature with respect to each other?

In other words, the same moral evolution which once rendered dueling obsolete must, on this assumption, one day render warfare obsolete — an idea which, as we find it in William James’s essay "The Moral Equivalent of War" — is just one year younger than that of "violence." And just as the honor group that had to be broken down in one case was that of an exclusive and quasi-military caste of "gentlemen," so that which had to be broken down in the other was the nation. Thus in "On Violence," Hannah Arendt wrote that the reason why warfare still existed in spite of what she regarded as its impossibility as means of international problem-solving in the nuclear age was simply that "no substitute for this final arbiter in international affairs has yet appeared on the political scene." "Nor," she added, "is a substitute likely to appear so long as national independence, namely freedom from foreign rule, and the sovereignty of the state, namely the claim to unchecked and unlimited power in foreign affairs are identified."

You will notice, I’m sure, that she writes as if this putative "substitute" for national sovereignty must of necessity exist. If it doesn’t exist in the world, it is only because as yet no sufficiently clever ideologist has come along to design the alternative. Again, the limits of my demand upon your time and attention if no higher consideration dictate that I must decline the honor of challenging this assumption directly. I only mention in passing that, since Miss Arendt’s time, the ideologists have been busy doing what ideologists have only ever been successful in doing, which is to render what Orwell so preciently called oldthink impossible by the invention of new terms. "Violence," as we have seen, is one such term. The latest triumph of the ideologist’s art is something called "bellicism." Analogous, I suppose, to "sexism", "racism" et cetera, it is the belief which "peace studies" as an academic discipline has been designed to correct (just as women’s studies is designed to correct "sexism"), namely that violent conflict in human affairs is inevitable.

And here I must make the shameful confession that I am an unrepentant bellicist. As yet this is not quite so shameful as an admission of "sexism," but the day may come when it will be. What we see in the world today is a culture which remains as progressive as ever while the political and diplomatic world that it ostensibly describes and talks to remains mired in the 17th century — or, in some important respects, in prehistory. Peace studies, like its politically correct academic stable mates such as women’s studies, queer studies, post-colonial studies and the rest continue to develop ever more attractive and elaborate utopian theories of political change while actual political leaders — even as progressive a leader as Tony Blair — continue with the macho posturings of the long obsolete honor culture for all the world as if they were medieval war-lords. Is this just because they have taken insufficient notice of the academic utopians who would be so glad to instruct them, or is it because there is a point beyond which the honor culture, however much we despise it, cannot be reduced and replaced by ethical and legal considerations? Is there, in Roger Scruton’s words, a "need for nations"?

If it were so, if culture and reality were really so badly fitted together that one or the other was always bulging out of the frame, what you would expect to see is an ever-growing hypocrisy about the uses of violence, and this is in fact what we do see. Tom Stall’s hypocritical instruction to his son in A History of Violence is mirrored on the macro scale by George W. Bush’s hypocrisy about the reasons for war in Iraq. I am myself inclined to look with indulgence on the latter sort of hypocrisy. All politicians have to operate within the culture as they find it, and the President not only had to stress, for cultural reasons, the "evil" of Saddam Hussein and the danger of the Weapons of Mass Destruction, he also had good reasons for believing in both things. But if we had not learned our cultural lesson and grown to be ashamed of the honor culture that still surreptitiously guides international relations, he might also have said of both Afghanistan and Iraq: "We cannot allow the insult to our national honor of 9/11 to go unpunished. Nor can we allow the punishment to be anything but terrible. As for Saddam Hussein, it is actually better to make an example of him if he had nothing to do with 9/11. It lets even those who are remotely connected to our enemies, even those who are slightly inclined to disrespect for American power know that we do solve our problems by hitting people, and by hitting them very hard indeed"

Imagine the uproar that any such speech would have caused at the time of our going to war! Imagine the scandal if it were to be made today. Then imagine that somewhere way down deep inside him, beneath layer upon layer of progressive platitudes and shame at the very idea of sinking to such a primitive level of response, there wasn’t a part of President Bush, or any leader on taking his country into war, that was thinking it.


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