It would help if we had a single, clear story we could believe about violence – it’s getting worse because of this or that factor in our world, so we know whom to blame; it’s getting better as we all become more educated and secular, so we don’t have to worry in the long term. But the evidence is profoundly confusing.
Richard Bessel begins his lucid and well-documented book with a round-up of contemporary views, from those who think first of the astronomical statistics of humanly devised injury and death in the 20th century to those (like Steven Pinker in a much-discussed recent book) for whom what matters is the gradual change in sensibility that has made us simply more sensitive to the suffering of others – as well as the relative absence of major international conflict in the past half-century or so. As Bessel observes, Pinker’s statistics will seem a little academic if you happen to live in South Sudan or Syria (or Baltimore or Johannesburg).
The paradox of our era in the modern North Atlantic world is that while we are probably objectively more secure against the casual daily risk of violence than our ancestors, we are more anxious and more outraged by the prospect as well as the reality of violence, and more prone to extend its meaning to forms of offensive or menacing speech and action that would not have registered for those ancestors. We are, in a word, more preoccupied with violence; hence the subtitle, A Modern Obsession.
Bessel goes on to reflect on various kinds of violent behaviour: the theatre of judicial and pseudo-judicial punishment (including some horrific pages on the rituals of lynching in the American South), religiously inspired violence (a chapter curiously short on discussion of the present situation in the Middle East), revolutionary terror, war, the impact of violence on women and children (largely considered in the domestic context), the processes of control through policing and the various ways in which acts of extreme violence are remembered and dealt with in private or public ritual or in therapeutic encounters. The breadth of reference is almost too generous for clarity. And although there are dictionary definitions of violence offered early on, it is hard not to feel that there is a slight lack of focus – as there is also a lack of (sometimes, it seems, an impatience with) analysis of the causes of violent behaviour.
The word tells its own story. Violare in Latin describes excess, intrusion, transgression; no accident that it is so often connected to sexual coercion and invasion, “violation” in the sense of rape. If someone says that they are experiencing “violent” emotion, they are trying to crystallise a sense that they have been taken over; something that is not of their choosing or devising has entered them. And the paradigm cases of violence for most of us would be when controls or borders are broken down, when behaviour manifests that is hard to control or predict. In the light of this, lynching is indeed a clear case, but extreme judicial cruelty – as in the hideous narratives of public execution in Afghanistan that Bessel relates – is not. Revolutionary terror directed in detail by a Robespierre or a Lenin or a Pol Pot is not violence in the same way as a deliberate unleashing of or collusion with mob activity by some partisan authority, in early-1990s Rwanda or post-Partition India.
War in general struggles to justify itself through conventions, guarantees of predictability, jus in bello (right conduct even in the midst of conflict): it tries persistently to present itself as not really “violent” in the strict sense. But it is always slipping into transgressive chaos, unpredictability and excess. And, as Bessel’s citation of interviews about the My Lai massacre shows so plainly, war often includes what could be called calculated arbitrariness, the slipping of the leash, the crying of havoc so as to intimidate populations by unpredictable and excessive actions.
One of the disappointments of this book is that, despite a good chapter on domestic violence and the glacially slow development of legislation around marital rape, Bessel does not deal with the increasingly common use of systematic mass rape as a tool of war in civil conflicts in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and, most recently and brazenly, in the activities of Isis and Boko Haram. Extreme violence in war remains a gendered problem in ways Bessel’s discussion does not tackle fully.
His treatment of religious violence is judicious; he takes on board William Cavanaugh’s carefully argued account of how modern versions of the “wars of religion” in 16th- and 17th-century Europe frequently block out the decisive role of the emergent nation state as a “sacred” authority, so that an abstraction called “religion” is blamed for a complex of political and economic upheavals and clashes. Without completely endorsing Cavanaugh’s drastic revisionism, Bessel allows that the popular reduction of many-faceted conflicts to religious disagreement is hopelessly mythical thinking (a point reinforced by the work of the formidable English sociologist David Martin, whose books would be a useful addition to the bibliography). Yet it can hardly be denied that religious difference is, at the very least, a driver and a rationale of conflict in many settings, even if it is not, as the more simple-minded secularist might assume, a prime cause of conflict.
Lord Sacks’s book specifically addresses this problem of “religious violence”, confronting candidly how what he calls “altruistic evil”, killing for the sake of a supposed spiritual ideal, is one of the things that religious language and practice make possible. Sacks grants that it will not do merely to claim that religion – any defined system of faith and habit – is essentially peaceful. The answer to religiously rationalised violence is not to repudiate religion but to look harder at its diverse resources, so as to be clearer about what animates or galvanises its less constructive features and how the more creative elements can be foregrounded.
Sacks does this in a style, familiar from much of his other writing, that uses brilliantly subtle and original readings of biblical narratives. Having in the first section of the book broadly accepted René Girard’s theory of the origins of violence in rivalry for identical goods (I learn to belong in my society by learning the approved desires of my society; but this means that I am at once in competition with others in that society for the objects of desire), Sacks narrows this to sibling rivalry as a, perhaps the, fundamental form of violent competition and he offers an analysis of the Book of Genesis as a prolonged reflection on sibling relations.
Again and again in Genesis, younger brothers overturn the legitimate expectations of older ones, and varying degrees of conflict result. At first sight, this reads as a catalogue of simple displacement, yet it becomes more interesting when we look at the verbal detail. Younger brothers discover that their privilege is to secure the future of older ones; or they discover that the blessing transferred to them from an older sibling is balanced by an unexpected blessing for the latter which benefits both. The trickster Jacob, when he next encounters Esau, the brother he has defrauded, says that to see his face is like seeing the face of God. In other words, the stories are not about favouritism and rejection, whatever the appearances: they are about the blessing of difference – the dignity of difference, to quote the title of one of Sacks’s best-known books. There is no firm ground for asserting that divine choice makes an enemy of those not chosen, because God’s choice is always purposeful, directed at a common good.
This reading is an ingenious and often moving turning upside down of a rhetoric of “chosenness” that has often blighted Christian as well as Jewish self-understanding, and has undoubtedly fuelled the anti-Semitism that Sacks rightly sees as resurgent in so many contexts today. He is predictably cautious about applying it as directly as it might need to be applied to the situation of Israel and its neighbours now, but the implication is plain: Israel’s security and well-being depend on those of its neighbours and vice versa. Who has the strategic vision to put that into policy proposals at the moment, when so much of what Sacks deplores seems to be what garners votes in Israel, while a manic rhetoric of anti-Judaism flourishes in neighbouring countries and cultures?
One of his most penetrating observations is to connect monotheism not – as some would do – with intrinsically violent corporate self-assertion and exclusion, but with the recognition that it requires us to “internalise” conflict. Dualistic or polytheistic world-views allow me to ask, “Who did this to me? Which of the countless forces in the universe is trying to take me over?” Monotheism leaves me as an agent, challenged by the unitary focus of all good to sort out the various impulses within and act intelligently to redress an impaired balance or injured relationship. Given the refusal of the Genesis stories to take sides once and for all, my job as an agent is never to externalise the problem, but to begin from self-examination. What is my part in this collision, this catastrophe? And what must I now do to avoid perpetuating or worsening it?
Sacks is far more interested than Bessel in where violence comes from, and so has more to say about what needs to happen to the human psyche in order to control or channel it. Bessel plausibly concludes that even if we are witnessing a heightened degree of empathy towards the pain of others in our day, this is not an irreversible movement towards “non-violence and sweet reason”. But to make fuller sense of why we can’t assume such an irreversible trend, we need more of an anthropology of violence. Both these books hint in this direction.
Yet there is a wider discussion to be had, for which a study such as the American forensic psychiatrist James Gilligan’s 1996 book, Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, offers crucial resources. Gilligan, writing out of long experience with extremely violent criminals in America’s prison system, argues provocatively that the two most distinctive human characteristics – our urge to create imaginative and spiritual identities, religions and civilisations, and our proneness to both homicide and suicide – belong together. Honour, respect, self-esteem, the stories we tell ourselves and each other about what matters and why, so as to give us a sense of solid worth: all of this also breeds the blind anger and pain that show in uncontrolled words and actions and in the refusal to see and absorb the feelings of others.
Violence in human beings has something to do with our sense of meaning, our sense that something is at stake in our identity or integrity. When things that are bound up with this integrity are threatened or thought to be threatened, we can expect transgressive and extreme reactions. The betrayal of a sexual partnership, the real or imagined humiliation, the undermining of a national or cultural tradition, an insult to the symbols of faith – any of these, or any of them in combination, may provoke invasive and abusive behaviour, largely because they represent what is experienced as invasion and abuse. As Gilligan explains, this does not mean that we cannot judge or condemn such behaviours; but if we want anything to change we need to understand the triggers a good deal better.
Violence is not a simple, self-contained phenomenon with a straightforward set of causes, and thus a common package of remedies. It is one of the things that happens to and in human beings, precisely because human beings are always “transgressing” simple states of placid self-satisfaction and passive coexistence, and discovering or generating new things to care about, to invest themselves in – people, causes, faiths (secular or otherwise). We project ourselves into the life of others and their lives are projected into ours. We live not as rational atoms, but on the edge of various sorts of “ecstasy”. When this capacity for ecstasy takes root, perhaps in damaged or weakly developed egos, it becomes a capacity for forcible and uncontrolled intrusion into the reality of what is other – because the other is felt to be intruding on the self.
If violence is to be countered or controlled, it is in a personal and social (and international) order, in which there is always some commitment to mutual recognition and attention, so that the markers of identity and value do not become weapons of revenge. As both these authors soberly remind us, we are a long way from anything that much resembles this; and the journey towards it is indeed not an irreversible and self-evident progression.
Rowan Williams is a lead reviewer for the New Statesman