You better run all day
And run all night.
Keep your dirty feelings
And if you’re taking your girlfriend
You’d better park the car
Well out of sight.
Cause if they catch you in the back seat
Trying to pick her locks,
They’re gonna send you back to mother
In a cardboard box.
You better run.
Pink Floyd, Run Like Hell
Okay, I have to make an admission, here. I’m a sci-fi geek.
No, its true, I own it, and I’m okay with it. I just try not to advertise it to much 🙂
The other night, we were watching the most recent episode of BattleStar Galactica. In some ways it is a little too much drama for me: I like sci-fi with a comedy twist (Star Gate, for example), but I do enjoy Galactica as well. For those that do not share my, ummm, psycopathy, this particular episode revolved around a ‘Fight Night’ Ritual – the crew members were able to put their dog tags into a basket, one would be pulled, and that person would choose who they wished to fight. In the ring, all rank and hierarchy disappeared and it was just two people duking it out and purging all of their accumulated disputes, tensions, and anger.
After watching the show, my honey and I got into the beginnings of a heavy discussion on violence and its place – or lack of – in human society. He felt that ‘ritualized violence’ was the worst violence of all, whereas I feel exactly the opposite. Unfortunately, this discussion led to anger more quickly than most, so we had to stop and let it go for the time being. I decided that writing about it might be the best way to express my thoughts sans visceral and emotional escalation.
First and foremost, I believe that violence is a perfectly natural part of being a human being. Simple survival demands violence on some level or another. As omnivores, we kill and eat our food (even if we moderns separate ourselves from the act, it still occurs). Vegetarians and vegans escape this, but is it any less violent to kill a plant for food? Perhaps it is less – or perhaps that is merely a way to rationalize: another symptom of our quite natural tendency toward anthropocentrism. The more like us another species is, the more compassion and empathy we can muster.
Of course, that plays a huge role in my thoughts. While I recognize anthropocentrism as another, natural behavior, I also have made a point of looking at it, as objectively as possible, whenever I see an argument with that as it’s basis. I can empathize more with my dog than I can with the apple tree in my back yard: yet intellectually, spiritually, I can see that both are equally sacred and vital pieces within the community of life.
Moving on, when I look around our modern world, we have four primary forms of violence (aside from food production), all of which I would like to see addressed in more functional ways. The most abhorrent, to my mind, is Institutionalized Violence. This includes the state’s Monopoly of Force: police action, military action, and all institutionalized coercion. Institutionalized violence is cold and calculating, designed to oppress individual persons for the benefit of the mental construct which is ‘the state.’ I don’t believe it is valid to equate ‘the state’ with the individuals of which it is comprised, so long as the state, itself, can act in opposition to those individuals (both minorities and majorities).
The second mode of violence could be described as Rebellious Violence: violence in the pursuit of criminal activity, civil disobedience and revolution. This is the intentional application of violence to achieve a specific goal, just like Institutionalized Violence, but employed against the state rather than for it. I have no use for Rebellious Violence, most especially because I see it as part of the same system that creates and upholds Institutional Violence. Two sides of the same coin if you will. Each side justifying and giving a raison d’etra to the other.
The third subcategory may be described as Repressive Violence. Serial Killers, Spree Killers, Domestic Violence and other violent actions of individual upon individual. Serial Killers often (if not always) have deeply repressed sexuality issues, Spree Killers generally act in response to unbearable social conditions, and Domestic Violence is commonly understood to be a result of both prior domestic violence and environmental stressors. Violence between individuals that do not fit into these sub categories include everything from bar fights to crimes of passion and murder. Although they may not rest on repressed emotions in the long term, they are frequently the result of emotional outburst in the near term. Psychologists can continue to wrangle over the issues of why some people in some situations lose control and act while others do not. I suspect, however, that it is a function of each individuals total emotional integrity: another way of suggesting that repressed emotions and issues eventually fight their way to the surface, if the environment creates enough strain.
The final category is Ritualized Violence. In the modern world, this would primarily take on the form of sporting events, although one might include hazings, gang initiations and the like. Obviously, this covers a huge range of behaviors: by including everything from a golf match to a gang initiation (which may include rape and/or murder) I may be criticized for stretching too far, but there is a method to my madness. All of these violent behaviors have one specific characteristic in common, and, importantly, I think that this broad definition also serves to cover all violence behaviors in traditional tribal cultures. Bear with me.
Humans have evolved with a generally cooperative behavior strategy. Within the context of tribal, family based groups, hunting and gathering our food, cooperative behavior was quite useful and functional for the individual and for the group f individuals together. However, saying that humans are prone to cooperate is not equivalent to saying that humans do not engage in competitive behaviors. Quite the contrary, I believe that competitiveness is also a primary characteristic of human nature. It is compelling, in this modern world of uber-competitiveness, to disclaim competition as culturally driven. However, I do not think that this is the full story.
So what does all Ritualized Violence have in common? Competition. An individual may set themselves apart from the group or other individuals through these competitive behaviors. On a more personal level, one may test oneself via competition with others. And I do not believe that there is anything wrong with this. Although there may be cases where this competition gets overblown and hampers the functionality of the group. This is where custom and taboo become critical to creating a social structure that enables a full range of human behavior, while also defining (or enabling) modifying responses to damaging behaviors. Ritualizing Violence (from the most benign to the most heinous – a strictly morality based perspective) is one way that groups can create a framework for functional behavioral limits.
In Anthropological literature you will find a full spectrum of ritualized violence, from groups that deal with real life and death conflicts with other groups through full scale ‘battles’ that are decided on ;first blood.’ At the same time, you will also find societies with extensive blood feuds between clans (Inuit), to warrior cultures designed around male prowess, battle and conflict. We may find some of the examples quite unpalatable, but the fact is that regardless of the specific details, these are all cultures that have successfully survived and prospered (prior to colonialism and modern ‘civilized’ diseases) fro millenia. That inclines me to believe that there is a reason that they have adopted various ritual strategies: that they are addressing a very real aspect of human character.
At the same time, we find little or none of the other types of violence in these cultures. Without a state apparatus, there can be no Institutionalized Violence, nor Rebellious Violence. Repressive Violence, likewise is a direct result of cultural constraints that do not work for people. If you start with a culture that is adaptive and responsive to the needs of the people by default, then repression should be uncommon at its worst.
If we are to build functional, sustainable communities for ourselves, I believe that it is imperative that we consider competitive behaviors and ways of addressing that component of our humanity. I would certainly be impressed by efforts to reduce competition in favor of cooperative behavior – emphasizing games that are cooperative rather than competitive, for example. However, I think it is also critical that we recognize that violence does occur, and it will be up to us, and our descendants, to find ways to ameliorate the damage done when it does occur. I think that Ritualization is one way – and perhaps one of the better ways – of accomplishing this.
(Originally Posted December 8, 2006)