Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Logic of Violence

Doing another on-line class for Savvy authors. One of the things I am trying to get through is that different people in different places and different times do violence for different reasons, and they do violence in different ways. This leads to a cultural, pervasive and internally consistent "logic of violence."

If you understand another culture or individual's logic, you can avoid violence or even manipulate it. If you don't, you can precipitate violence that would never have occurred in your own culture.

The exercise (which will be laid out in the Drills book, by the way) begins with choosing a neo-lithic base, either as a farming community or hunters.

Marginal societies live closer to hunger than most of us can imagine: a bad hailstorm or a wildfire can change the balance enough that many of the tribe will starve over winter. Most systems of preserving food were unreliable and climate specific, before modern refrigeration and canning (with the exception of distilling).

So, the first question- what does your society value and what can society not tolerate? Skills, from basket weaving to pottery to making arrowheads are critical. Farmers need endurance; hunters speed and strength. How do you encourage this in children, what do you reward?

And not tolerate: when people starve, do you tolerate those who don't work? Those who steal? And how do you punish them? Death? Banishment? Pain? Humiliation? Certainly not incarceration. Who would agree to feed a non-working prisoner when four hard workers starve each winter?

The class comes to consensus on these, and so long as they are reminded of certain things (like there isn't unlimited land or resources, other tribes live on your borders) you can see echoes of what the writers choose in history.

Then the hard decisions come: You are done. Out of resources. Your tribe will not survive this winter unless you violate borders or attack another tribe or subjugate a village.

You decide what you will do so that you do not see your children starve, and then you decide how to do it. Somewhere in the mix of the culture already established (fierce, long traveling hunters, peaceful people drifting through acorn lands, or tough farmers who will not yield, or....) and the need, they will pick a victim.

The decision is cold, what will get the most at the least risk. One of the options of potential territories to invade includes a tribe known for cannibalism. No one ever suggests attacking them.

That mix of who you are and who you choose to attack will drive a very logical analysis of how to attack. This is for food, not for honor. It can trigger revenge and if you lose too many people you will be helpless. The students will strategize and they will strategize well and safely. They are writers and peaceful people, but this logic isn't new to humans, not by millennia.

This, incidentally, is one of the things I hate about most fiction: our society has not been marginal for some time. When we fight it is usually non-lethal, fun and over matters of social status (the Monkey Dance) or pride or honor (dueling). That has it's own logic: a contest of skill and social aplomb, with an audience. Lethality of the process has steadily decreased over time as we have come to value life more. All of that is not only unheard of, but counter-productive when applied to the violence based on the logic of hunger. Authors who don't know the difference (and I'm not even sure my beloved George MacDonald Fraser really got this part) frequently do fight scenes that might not be bad, but are stupid...and for me that is worse.

Then the fun part of logic-- after teaching all of your children that it is a good thing to shoot arrows at a squirrel but a bad thing to shoot arrows at their siblings, the children are going to ask some questions when you bring home some grain and meat and clothing and weapons of another style, all still dripping blood.

You'll have to explain to the children. More, you will have to teach the children to do what you did (just in case, sure, until someone notices how much easier raiding is than farming and how slaves give you leisure time...). You will teach them how to do it and you will teach them to be okay with it...

Part of the logic of violence in any culture is why and when it is allowed...and why and when it is necessary. I hesitate to say that religions start here, with trying to excuse the first major violation of ethics... but I have a gut feeling that at the very least the stupid parts of religion start right here.

And once these excuses are in place, once the rules on when violence is demanded are established, what does it take to change them? We all have come from societies that at one time were hungry and we have things written into our laws morals that date from those times. How many of them have we kept even though we are no longer hungry?

18 comments:

stazza said...

I hesitate to say that religions start here, with trying to excuse the first major violation of ethics

I don't suppose you've read the Bhagavad Gita?

karrde said...

One of the currents of thought that runs around now is thought about how cultures define The Other.

The Other is that group of people which Our People treat as evil, or hateful, or not-fully-human.

This concept might be part of the mix that allowed parents to tell children not to point their arrows and knives at each other, but that it was alright to use them on The Other when Our People went out together.

Just a thought...

brian said...

I agree with the premise and the tool of analysis, but you seem to be making the same mistakes modern economists do - which is start from a wholly rational being or tribe and extrapolate outward.

Even marginal bands of humans develop patterns of behavior based on what could seem irrational or imaginary, but seem very very real and vital to those that experience or are cultural conditioned to it.

Kai Jones said...

Having watched while you set this drill for other people, I think a lot of people want more guidance than exists (that is, you don't provide it and so they seek it out). I think that's where religion comes from, wanting guidance/not wanting to make decisions and take responsibility for them.

The corollary to the study finding that most people overestimate their skills is that people who are very good at what they do, people who are very smart and talented, tend to underestimate themselves and falsely believe that everyone could do what they do.

Anonymous said...

I can think of only one fictional writer who manages to convey this thinking well, He is called K.J.Parker. He manages to create characters who can commit atrocious acts that seem completely justifiable to both character & observer,in light of their reasoning, to a degree I have never found with another author.
By the way Brian makes a valid point. Be careful of the narrative fallacy.

Been reading your blog for years & really enjoy it.

Looking forward to the new book.

Joshkie said...

I think Religion all often is an easy way to separate each other into groups and to justify violence agains the others. Who can argue with your god when he says it's ok.

Most moral codes I've ever read about only applied to and count for those in with in the group. Those outside the group are usually fair game.

The Battle of Jerico anyone.

Josh

Joshkie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joshkie said...

What narrative fallacy what mistake? It is a thought exercise with no correct answers. Whatever rules the group come up with or withany group the rules with in it are the rules. Whether they make sence to out side observers or not.
Point out things the group might not have thought of is not directing a negative. That would only be valid if if he was limiting choices which I did not see.

Josh

Anonymous said...

K.J.Parker is a woman. I have read lots of her work & never knew. Shameful! You know what the say about assumption.......

Josh, I don't think Brian is judging.

Kai Jones said...

Joshkie, Judaism is the obvious counterexample. Not only has rules for dealing with outsiders, but has a very limited set of rules that outsiders may fulfill to be considered good/worthy (the Noachide commandments).

Joshkie said...

Anon-
I realized that my self, but there is a implication that one way of thinking is rational and the other is not.

Kai -
Thats just adding a sliding scale of otherness. Some are more other than others. A lot of the old Test Amment is about the 13 Tribes of Judah "God's Chossen people." and how special they where and they could do what they wanted to others. What did the people of Jerico do other than live on the promised land? I guess they were not worthy. I guess they where not a Righteous Gentile.
Righteous Gentile = not us but like us. So not a threat.
This not to single out one religion over the others; as I said they all seem to do this.
I wasn't trying to turn this into a religious debate. We tend to do this othering with other deferences like skin color, where you live, rich/poor (the haves/have nots).
The point of the Post to me was how do groups deal with those out side the group, and how do you choose who to do violence to.

Karrde -
Evil and Hateful are justifications for the decisions that we make. We feel they are a threat to 'us' so we do what we must to procect 'us.'

Would you sacrifice someone with in your group to save someone out side your group?

What is the reason or logic that you would use to make these decisions?

Just some thoughts,
Josh

Brian said...

Rory - I've been reading your blog for awhile now, but this is my first time stepping out from the lurkers' shadows. I have purchased your book for myself and others, and look forward to your forthcoming effort(s). Your writing and ideas are always worth the time spent and engendered contemplation.

My life has been repeatedly interrupted by violence and its fall-out. Years ago, I set out to learn how to fight back, and in the process, have been learning far more about myself than I ever anticipated I would. As I learn to live without (in spite of..?) a life-long fear of conflict, one therapeutic activity that threatens to become more an all-consuming passion is writing. Discovering/reading your thoughts on this endeavor, particularly regarding attempts at depicting and/or understanding violence, made me realize immediately I'd be a regular and rabid reader of your stuff.

This particular post and the comments that have followed have gotten me thinking of two reads that stuck with me. Professor Avalos' book is a recent read, while I first read Hartung's piece years ago in Skeptic magazine and tracked it down just now on the Web:

http://www.prometheusbooks.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=90_199&products_id=926

http://strugglesforexistence.com/?p=article_p&id=13

Actually, incidentally, my disabusing myself of supernatural religious beliefs and ritual (and refusal to pretend otherwise) in my teens incurred me several physical violent group beat-downs. Unfortunately for my pious assailants, I was still an infidel when I regained consciousness.

Scott P said...

If you ever get a month or so with nothing to do, read Elaine Scarry's book, The Body in Pain. She makes a long and thorough argument about the effects of inflicting and observing pain/violence on the creation and destruction of culture and artifice. Not a page turner, not the kind of thing you can jump around in either, if you read it you have to read it end to end. Still, it is profound and original thinking.

Andy said...

Cool thought exercise. Can I form an alliance with a neighboring tribe and take out the cannibals?

Travis said...

I don't know. Can you trust your neighbors?

Seems like a golden opportunity for them to let you take the frontlines and mop up after. Of course they might be mopping you up rather then the cannibals...

Joshkie said...

Rory you ever read Robert E. Howard? He deals with a lot of these issues.
Conan is a clasic.

Just wondering,
Josh

Brian said...

You know Rory, your book, along with some other bits of thought gum that was in the 'ole brain hopper for a few years got me to a realization - that what religion mostly is is Monkey Hacking. I mean if we, as social animals are prone to the Monkey Dance, as you say (and I agree with), what religion sought to do, before the advent of psychology, propaganda, marketing and designed drugs - was control human behavior. Now I say that in an ethically nuetral way. You can hack humans for a lot of purposes, some benign others less so. I'm a happy atheist, but I don't hate religion, in fact I find it a powerful useful tool in the human toolkit and respect it. I just approach it as an ancient Greek or a Samurai would. I don't ascribe much to it, and what I do I assume it to be as potentially harmful to my aims as it might be helpful.

But to me a cat like Jesus was looking to hack monkeys. I mean, if you come out in the middle of a materialistic world culture like the Roman Empire and say something like "The wretched and the poor are the one with value, and that values is judged by something outside your ken" you are going to ruffle feathers. And whne feathers get ruffled people react violently. It was only reading your description of monkey dancing while at the same time reading Margaret Atwood's "Payback" that that sort of came together. It always bugged me - that New Testament line where the J man says "I come to not bring peace, but the sword.." always stuck in my craw trying to figure it out. Then I realized, thanks to you and Atwood, that what Jesus was doing was upturning the social order - and while his aims and methods might have been for the greater good, the process was going to turn man against man, brother against brother in terms of it they accepted what he was saying or not. In my humble opinion, and it is very humble, but what early christianity was about was teaching people, in the context of the ancient Roman world, that they weren't what society told them they were.

On a slightly different track, it seems to me that the Buddha was all about teaching people that they weren't what they thought they were in their own mind. And Socrates was basically saying "You don't even know how to think." and Aristotle was saying to Socrates "Yes, but..."

And Judaism, mentioned above, is interesting in it's own response to some of the other problems that religions face. I happened to listen to a recent talk by Slavoj Zizek at the NYC Public Library where he related a well known story that he was told by among rabbis in Eastern Europe. Two rabbis are arguing what a passage in the Torah means, and at some point when it got heated, God himself appears and takes the side of one of the rabbis. The rabbi says "See, even now God agrees with me." The other rabbi, nonplused turns to the other Rabbi and to God and says, "Oh Lord, did you not tell us that the Torah itself was your Word and was never to be disobeyed under any circumstances?" God replies "I did." "Well", says the second rabbi, "even if you now stand in front of me telling me something that is different than in the Torah I can only go by what is written in the Torah, for that is the whole of the Law."

That story got a very good chuckle, and I find that good. Judaism is in fact innoculated against some of the other problems other religions face, but it tangles itself up in deadening leagl arguments to do so. I think this also goes a long way to explain the very real and very necessary sense of humor one needs in that particular religion and also brings human compassion into the search for justice, because it warns of the danger of being to fundamentalist in practice if not in thought.

As Hagakure, the Japanese book of the Samurai, says as well "Fish don't live in clear water."

Rory said...

As some of you know, I'm way behind. there is one thing I wanted to say to Brian, because I understand where he's coming from with modern economists.

Using violence to acquire goods is the bedrock of early economy. before trade (before we were even human) we were killing for food.

I think that things get more rational the closer they are to a marginal state. An affluent society can afford significantly more bullshit than a starving society. Also, as networks grow and people put in mechanisms to correct for things (that may be entirely imaginary) predictability goes down.

Violent criminals are in some ways the most rational people I know. Not if you listen to their words but their actions are vert cold, very predictable risk-reward assessments.

Boyle's laws and thermodynamics and Newton's laws are simple, predictable... but make the system and collection and interactions complex enough, you get climate and weather... which are the physical equivalents of economics.