This talk was given in the course Introduction to Anthropology, AT1501 Lecture 19, at the University of Aberdeen, 2008.
Anthropology seeks to de-familiarise those cultural practices which we recognise because of salience in own lives.
We are going to think about some questions this morning relating to violence and aggression.
We start with the familiar one:
How do we know what it is that we see?
What do we see when we witness aggressive behaviour?
And how does this kind of behaviour fit our assumptions about what it is to be human?
To what extent can we attribute our definitions of violence to behaviour we see in the social interaction of others?
Is violence relative?
Should we try and relativise violence,
or are there some things we ought not explain away through saying there are good 'cultural' explanations for them? That is an issue I think you might talk about in your tutorials.
These are questions we will try and find some answers to in this and the next lecture. And in doing so,
We will be returning to some fundamental questions about what it means to be human.
What might or might not be 'human nature', and how that relates to what we think of as nature itself.
For example, many of you might have grown up thinking that aggression and violence are part of evolutionary survival mechanisms.
That is, being aggressive and behaving violently towards others is somehow part of our nature. Part of what is animal about human beings.
As we often think of it like this, acts of violence can appear to be a reversion to a more basic nature. Or an emergence of a true inner nature given us by the needs of evolutionary survival.
In fact, violence is never far away in the Darwinian notion of the survival of the fittest.
We have learned to be a bit careful however, when we start looking to animal behaviour to explain human behaviour.
There is something about being human which is a moral quality.
And that moral quality is undermined by times when our human or animal nature takes control of our actions.
You will notice that this kind of thinking fits very well with the distinctions between nature and culture that both Tanya and I have talked about.
We tend to think that violence is somehow natural, while the control of violent behaviour is a cultural thing, an aspect of civilisation.
One consequence of this is that we still find our media saturated with images of people in tribal communities or indigenous people as war like, as violent.
From images of south sea cannibals to African warriors to native Americans, some of the excitement of the primitive is its association with danger.
You will remember the film 'Yanomami: the fierce people' that we watched much earlier in this semester.
The danger of that film is that it confirms many things we tend to take for granted about people who are not civilised, who apparently do not have enough culture or society or civilisation to control their basic human or animal nature.
Now when you hear the news, or watch television, you will see that it is not just indigenous people who are portrayed as violent.
People in developing countries, people in the middle east, people who are not as developed as we are, often seem to have more problems with violence than we do here in this country.
It is all too clear at the moment how we have, and continue to, export the violence and injustice which we then somehow can be blamed on foreign and unfamiliar people.
Violence is always an emotive subject.
It is always a political subject.
It is always a moral matter.
And that is because of our views of what it is to be human, and how that somehow involves controlling and civilising human nature.
We see culture as moral, nature is not supposedly a moral entity. Morality is confined to humans because it involves free will and choice.
What we are going to do today is ask the question: Is violence always morally suspect? When is it not immoral?
When the state uses it to make people abide by the law?
When one country uses it to get what they want out of another?
When one country or person uses it to defend their interests? Their lives?
I asked you earlier in this course to think about football hooliganism.
I questioned whether you think violence is relative?
Should we try and see it as such, or are there some things we ought not explain away through 'culture'?
So Anthropology seeks to de-familiarise those cultural practices which we recognise because of salience in own lives.
What do we see when we witness aggressive behaviour?
How does this kind of behaviour fit our assumptions about what it is to be human?
And how does it not fit with what we think of as humanity?
Now I hope you will see that the argument I will make today involves contextualising unfamiliar practices in a way which generates a picture of different cultures,
And the relationship between universal human attributes, and specific socially created meanings are apparent.
What I am pointing out is that the issues we have talked about are still there, whether we focus on them directly or not.
One strong theme is that of what understandings of others, and of ourselves, can be achieved through anthropological methods of investigation?
Violence is an emotive topic.
As we saw with the Yanomami film 'Ax Fight', it is very easy for us to make judgements about what we perceive as violent actions.
Morality, fear, voyeuristic enjoyment, and incomprehension are all feelings we might associate with violence in others.
Anger, jealousy, lust, hatred, these are explanations we might put forward for violent acts.
So violence or aggression is something which is obviously bound tightly into our ideas of a moral universe.
It also has a bearing on our ideas of order.
I have already mentioned how it relates to a notion of civilisation.
Now today, I will attempt to show you some of the reasons for our reactions to violence.
I will try and show you that our reactions are historically and culturally specific.
I will also hope to show you that definitions of violence and aggression themselves depend on their context, and are thus not universal attributes of human nature, but specific attributes of specific forms of social interaction.
I'll say that again.
My argument today is that violence and aggression are two things.
That is, both socially defined,
and secondly not part of a universal human nature.
I believe that understanding this involves accepting that our own preconceptions about the world are just that, preconceptions, and not 'objective' knowledge.
One way into the topic of violence is to think about what we mean by the term.
The use of physical force, or even the inflicting of harm on another person, is not always defined as a violent act.
There is the issue of LEGITIMACY to be taken into account.
Now in Modern western society, the State has a monopoly on all uses of force.
Thus the power that law enforcement agencies have to use physical coercion are not defined as violence.
Or when they are, in say anarchist or socialist political protest, just by calling what the state does 'violence', you are questioning the legitimacy of the state and its power.
By calling what the state does violence, one has already undermined its position and authority.
So violence, we can begin to see, involves a breakdown of legitimate order.
Another arena in which violence is legitimised by state discourse and rhetoric is in interstate conflict.
While this may be termed violence, it is never the home side which is violent, or aggressive.
The rhetoric surrounding the recent confrontation with Iraq, for example, looked to blame the other for aggression, and provoking violence.
The use of force by the home side was always 'in 'self defence'.
That is, it was constructed in specific opposition to aggression.
Keeping the peace involves an act of force, but a legitimate act of force.
The legitimacy again stems from the consensus that there is a need to maintain order.
Or to maintain a fragile state of peace in the face of its disintegration into hostility, aggression and war.
There is another arena where use of force to inflict physical harm is sanctioned as legitimate - that of punishment of children and of wrong doers.
These two uses of force appear different:
with children, parents or teachers are legitimate users of force in order to socialise children into a state of orderly behaviour, to make them conform to the requirements of society.
In the use of force over offenders, the state takes over the role of legitimate power, and uses corrective measures to punish and correct the behaviour.
Now when the state uses force in this way, the individuals offence is defined as against the state, not against other individuals.
The offence has been against the state monopoly on the use of force.
This, of course, can involve the ultimate sanction, removal of the offender from society altogether through capital punishment.
Now we can draw two points from this.
Firstly, inflicting physical damage on another person is not always defined as violence, or aggression.
Only when there is a contest over the legitimacy of the act, will it be termed as violence.
Secondly, there is a notion that the use of force is legitimate when the social order is threatened.
The moral and political philosopher Thomas Hobbes set out the basis for just such a conception of the legitimate use of force in his treatise 'Leviathan' first published in 1651.
Hobbes argued that to avoid what he called the 'state of nature', which was a 'perpetual state of war', rational human beings ought to contract with one another to give up their personal right to use force, in return for the state offering them protection from anyone who used force against them.
In Hobbes' famous phrase, human life in the state of nature was 'nasty, brutish and short'.
To avoid the inevitable conflict that ensues from not having laws to govern behaviour, people willingly give up their right to follow their natural instincts to murder, rob and molest others.
The state takes on the role of protector - the only legitimate user of force.
Force is used by the state to punish those who break their contract with it by attacking other people.
The association in Hobbes is between
and human drives and desires.
In the writing of Hobbes, and many subsequent moral philosophers, political theorists, social theorists, anthropologists and so on, violence is seen as the break down of the moral and social order.
Hobbes was in fact imagining a time before any such order.
He then described a way of leaving the state of nature and generating a civil society.
So violence and aggression are seen as reversion to the natural state of human beings - animals driven by innate desires.
And isnt this just exactly the assumption we have seen made about primitive people.
Hobbes state of nature is the natural state of humanity, and therefore when we see pictures of the Yanomami fighting, and are told they are 'fierce' people, it fits perfectly with what we feel we already know about primitives, savages, or whatever.
The point is that part of our self definition as civilised beings comes through an opposition to uncivilised beings. And uncivilised has the connotation that natural drives and desires are not kept in check by these people.
I urge you to read that Alcida Ramos article, in your reader, if you have not already done so.
It shows just how easily our own stereotypes of natural and savage man can be projected onto people who are 'in the state of nature', as the Yanomami might appear to be.
Now my point is that the idea of state legitimacy, and the order of social relations that we perceive as essential to a civilised society, has as its backdrop an opposite notion of human nature.
Human beings need removing from nature, and socialising, before they can suppress their animal instincts and drives.
One such drive is thought to be aggression.
Think of the comments of tabloid newspapers on murderers - ANIMAL, they blazon, Monster, savage and so on.
Now this is a specific kind of moral discourse, in which people are admonished to behave like humans, not like animals.
But the message is also that animal nature lies inside each person, ready to break forth and drive them to unspeakable acts at any time.
On the other hand violence gives us a voyeuristic thrill because we believe it represents freedom.
Freedom from social constraint, and freedom from human morality.
It seems so sad that most popular media manage to encourage, perpetuate and delight in these wholly contradictory messages, forcing people to believe that their only hope of freedom lies in the specific actions of one who is driven by their innate drives and desires.
That is, freedom in this discourse is equated with being driven by the most powerful force of all - nature.
One is constrained in both instances - by society or by nature, and there is no way out.
But when we turn to the analysis of 'violence', aggression and warfare in tribal societies, we find that often our own moral judgements projected onto their behaviour.
Simon Harrison discusses warfare and aggression in Avatip, a middle Sepik village in Papua New Guinea.
Harrison begins with a criticism of Sahlins - someone we have come across in another part of this course.
Sahlins had argued many years ago that tribal communities came into being as SOCIETIES (that is recogniseable moral and political units) only when they control and regulate the use of force.
In parallel to western notions of the state and society regulating the innate desire of humans to be aggressive, Sahlins sees the development of societies that have an outside influence and political name in tribal life as societies which control the use of force.
This is an example, for Harrison, of the imposition of a Hobesian world of nature onto tribal societies.
For Sahlins in this argument, the implication is that the only explanation needed for tribal warfare is the lack of a state to restrain the aggressive urges of individuals.
For from Hobbes we get the notion that society = peace, and war is the order of nature.
So the existence of tribal warfare, of headhunting, and homicide cults in the Sepik does not appear to need explaining - it is the natural course of affairs.
It is also from this notion that we get 'pacification' as a defining moment in colonialism.
Harrison makes an argument, however, that for Avatip, violence between groups is not a breakdown of the social and moral order and an invasion of instinct.
He says that both peace and war are both forms of fully social action.
That is, as forms of social action, they both draw on the same set of morals, values and motives.
In Avatip, prowess in warfare, and homicide, were traditionally highly valued male attributes.
However, Harrison explains that Avatip people do not see these as drives or desires as something that is within men and only waiting to find expression.
In fact, men who go to commit homicide do not feel hostile to the people they go to kill at all.
The reason they fight them is quite the opposite.
It is said that homicides become 'deaf', that is, they become unable to hear and sympathise with their victims.
They do not recognise them as kinsmen and exchange partners, or as people at all.
Now this kind of deafness is a ritual state which men work hard to achieve.
And once it is achieved, the person has no control over themselves.
Thus men who are preparing for warfare are taken away from their own village so they will not kill their own wives and children.
The removal of sympathy from these men by the rituals and magic of the cult, work to nullify the sense of kinship and belonging men have to anyone.
To fight, one must be made into a state where one cannot have fear, have remorse, or shame, or sympathy.
This is achieved through rituals in which spirits from the male cult come to take over the body of a man.
People are not seen as a mixture of innate drives and cultural constraints upon those drives.
Avatip notions of the person see each person as a 'source of significant acts and communication with others'.
Thus violence for Avatip is another form of social action. It is a communicative act, not an anti social or anti communicative act.
Aggression and self will in Avatip are opposed to social concern, and care for others. They are opposite modes of sociality. One (aggression) does not represent a breakdown of morality or social control.
Avatip believe that men in normal consciousness do not desire to hurt other people.
All people are recognised as kin to some extent, particularly because one has exchange partners, cousins, in laws, and so on, in all the surrounding villages.
This means that men must be made to forget their connection in order to fight.
They must be changed by spirits to desire violence. But this makes them dangerous to everyone, not only outsiders.
The idea put very simply is that there are no enemies of normal men, because men are inherently sociable with all other people.
In this Avatip view then, the escalation of violence between groups is always under control.
It does not amount to a degeneration or descent into chaos, but rather the intentional outcome of ritual action by men.
Now Harrison tells us that warfare as a form of communicative action had a specific purpose, and was thus used for specific ends:
The argument is that to make a community into a political unit boundaries had to be established. For a village or a group to act as one entity in marriage transactions, or economic endeavours, they had to be defined against outsiders.
Many things in Avatip worked against the formation of boundaries - connections through marriage, through trade, through friendship and so forth.
Thus men had to be forced, by ritual and spiritual means to forget their connections to others, and fight with them in order to produce difference from them.
So you can see why Harrison argues that violence was not a breakdown of the social order for Avatip, and was a form of social action.
We see aggression as the antithesis of social order. Avatip do not.
So we see that violence is not always the prerogative of the state, nor is it necessarily a breakdown of social order.
Viewing it as such comes from a particular tradition of thought which constructs persons as a composite of natural instinct and cultural or societal morals and understandings.
This is our own view, and I hope I have shown you why morality plays such a large part in our notions of violence, and also why we feel both attracted to it, and repulsed by it.
Finally today, I move onto the difficult issue of domestic violence.
While we might accept Sepik villagers have different moral constructions which makes violence necessary to the maintenance of their society (as the Hobbesian philosophy imagines it is in fact to our own),
it is more difficult to suggest that we can explain wife beating as something that is morally justifiable.
Penny Harvey's article does not go so far as to do this - it is not in fact the job of anthropologists to make moral judgements.
She does discuss some of the issues surrounding domestic violence in the Andes, and makes the point that in such emotive situations, we tend to assume that violence is directed at women because they are women.
In this case, however, violence towards women is not a function of their gender, nor of innate aggressiveness in men, but rather the outcome of a particular set of social relations.
Harvey tells us that Andean women are prepared to tolerate a high degree of physical abuse from their husbands.
This tolerance is not based on shame or passivity, women in fact accept the legitimacy of their husbands violence in many situations.
They appeared to Harvey to accept the confrontational aspect as one of the unpleasant consequences of falling in love.
The husband as an individual man was not the cause of the problem.
She warns that negative stereo-types easily attach to the people anthropologists write about, and a focus on wife beating and drunkeness feeds such images.
There have been two ways of dealing with this problem, one is not to write about this aspect of peoples lives
the other is to blame domestic violence on western influence.
Harvey is not happy with either.
In the first, a true portrayal of peoples social life is avoided,
while in the second, we start having to make decisions about what is authentic and what is inauthentic in Andean cultural practice.
This causes many difficulties as it is 500 years since the conquest, and most things Andean people do would be inauthentic by this measure.
She points out that in both responses, wife beating is treated as familiar and recognisable.
But Harvey argues that women's treatment comes not from their status as women, but rather that the antagonism in their relations with their husbands is to do with affinal relations.
(affinal is a way of saying in-laws).
In Andean families, relations of kinship and respect prevail.
Older people should be respected by younger people, and older people enforce their will by beating their juniors if they step out of line.
Yet between affines, there is no hierarchy, rather competition and antagonism between people who are viewed as equals.
Thus when a woman enters the house of her husbands kin, she is ambiguously placed - as a kinsperson, she should bow to her husbands authority, while as a sexual partner, she should be competitive and antagonistic towards him.
Courtship in the Andes is a violent affair, whereby men's amorous advances are forcefully rejected by women.
This kind of violent pursuit is seen as both erotic and fun by adolescents there.
Further, affinal relations are characterised by the same violence - ritual battles are enacted between groups of people and the losers are feminised, and taken as mock sexual partners buy the victors.
Harvey concludes that in the Andes, the rendering of physical hurt can acquire an uncontested legitimacy if it expresses either the erotic disorder of affinal relations, or the hierarchical order of kinship relations.
In both ways, women endure physical hurt, as psuedo-kin if they err in their husbands household, and as the lovers of their husband.
Thus women do not contest - that is define as violence - all beatings they receive, only specific beatings which do not seem motivated by either wrong doing on their part, or erotic desire.
We again see that violence is defined by its context, and motivated by specific social factors.
Thus it can be rendered as legitimate use of force in more contexts than those of state power.
And that its motivation is not necessarily a breakdown of social relations, nor an expression of innate drives in humans, nor of the oppression of women, as women, in all circumstances.
These are really difficult issues. But I am sure that we should not take the course of either avoiding the issue (it would be much easier in a first year course for me not to discuss these really difficult things), or of saying that violence is always the same thing, and every time we see it, we should accept it as confirmation of our pre-conceptions about human nature.