Violence is here to stay – we need to understand it
Over the coming months, The Conversation will be running pieces looking at the history and nature of violence. Here, Professor Philip Dwyer from the Centre for the History of Violence begins the series with an explanation why.
Violence – to state the obvious – isn't new.
But interest in the history of violence has increased dramatically over the last ten years, brought about by a resurgence in scholarly works that deal with the mechanism of violence both at local, national and global levels. These studies often mirror debates in the press about whether we as a society have become or more or less violent over time.
We in the West – a vague enough term but which we will simply define as Western Europe, North America, and Australasia – may have witnessed a drop in the number of recorded homicides to the point where most western societies can now boast historically low rates of 1 in 100,000. But that is not the case everywhere. In El Salvador or Honduras, some of the highest in the world, they are around 70 in 100,000.
Homicide is only one marker of a violent society. There are many others that include rape, domestic abuse, assault, terrorism, and war, to name but a few of the varied faces of violence. In Australia, the reported number of rapes in 2010 was about 28 in 100,000.
In Sweden, one of the highest in the world, it is closer to 66 in 100,000 and almost double that in South Africa. Sexual assault rates, defined more broadly as physical assault of a sexual nature, are much higher. In Australia, the reported number of sexual assaults in 2011 was 129 victims per 100,000. However the number of assaults on females aged between 15 and 19 was four times higher (546 victims per 100,000).
Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist who postulated in his 2012 book The Better Angels of our Nature that the 20th century was one of the most peaceful centuries in human existence, appealed to many because of his essentially positive message – that somehow humanity was improving.
Many scholars disagree with him, including historians who believe the 20th century was one of the bloodiest in history, in relative as well as in absolute terms. Larger percentages of the world's population were killed during the two world wars than in any other previous wars.
At the core of those two diametrically opposed assertions is an argument about numbers. From our perspective – the history of violence – it misses the point. It tells us little about the nature of violence, why some cultures are more violent than others, why some periods are more violent than others, why we react in particular ways when confronted with violence or violent images, and why is it that men in particular, it would seem, are more violent than women.
Are we (men) preternaturally inclined to violence and, if so, is that violence only contained by the limits placed on us by communities and states?
There are all sorts of reasons why violence occurs – both among individuals and among states – that range from the psychological and the biological, through to religion, politics, the economy, race, state structures and evolving community attitudes.
Our own society may express complete repugnance at interpersonal violence of any kind (a husband beating a wife, a footballer getting into a punch-up, a young man indiscriminately punching and killing a passer-by), and yet society permits what can only be termed ultra-violence on the screen (both computer and cinema). Is that a natural outlet for what has been repressed?
Society is outraged when confronted with the image of a journalist being beheaded by a radical Jihadist, or the image of a seven-year-old boy holding the decapitated head of a Syrian soldier. Australians are less outraged, it would appear, by the images of children suffering under the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.
Why is it that one image of violence evokes such an outpouring of public shock and horror, while others are met with relative indifference? What determines our reactions to violence? What do those reactions say about us as a society? Just as importantly, what does it say about the perpetrators, war, and violence?
There is a natural reflex that compels us to abhor violence and to always condemn it, to see it as "bad" in every circumstance. The problem with that approach is we risk not understanding how a situation came about that led to violence in the first place.
An emotional response to violence does not take into account the larger historical context that may lead to a more measured response. Moreover, violence is not always bad. In some instances it serves to bring people together in positive ways.
The manner in which Australia is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war, and the landing at Gallipoli in 1915, highlights the notion that violence has become an integral part of the founding myth of this country, no matter how inaccurate that view may be, and no matter how much historians rail against the idea of Anzac.
Throughout history, violence has played an enormous role in human affairs, and will continue to do so no matter how much we might strive to create a civil society in which it is absent. Societies and individuals can and do regress.
Since violence is here to stay, we hope the articles that will appear over the course of this series will throw some light on what it means to be violent in particular places and at particular times. The contributors will examine all forms of violence, its multiple meanings, as well as the aftermath of violence, and its representation in modern media.
The problem for academics, as it is for the "spectator" of violence – for we are all consumers of violence in that we are exposed to it every day on the small screen – is that the more we examine it and reflect on it, or the more we "watch" it, the more "normal" violence tends to become.
I would argue that understanding violence is the first step along the path to changing attitudes, and eventually to changing behaviours.
History of Murder public talk
6pm Wednesday 8 October The Centre for the History of Violence and The Lock-Up present a free public talk on the history of murder by Professor Pieter Spierenburg from Erasmus University, Rotterdam.
- Reserve your spot for the History of Murder now.
Philip Dwyer does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
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