Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Call of the Wild

The thing about atavistic power is that it works.  The people who say "violence never solved anything" haven't paid much attention to history.  They are probably carefully blind to how many of their own life decisions are based on a fear of some level of violence (or disapproval, which is on the same continuum). The people who speak that way have 'solved' themselves to a great extent, their own philosophy making them very little problem for the people who use violence.

Atavistic power is Desmond Morris' phrase for one of the three types of human power.  Social power determines who is 'cool'.  Who you can and can't listen to, the opinions that you can or can't express in certain company.  It's not really backed up by anything but social approval or disapproval- but people have died for that.  Then there is the power to get things done: money and influence and contacts.  Lastly is atavistic power, the power of violence.

Morris asserts that these powers are always separate.  The people who get things done never get to decide who is cool. Bill Gates will never be a trendsetter. President Obama will be crucified for using a joke that Leno would get laughs from.  The actors who try to get into politics either become jokes or, if they are successful, lose their pull at influencing public opinion through personality alone.  It's a weird dynamic and I can come up with some counter-examples, but very few and mostly weak.

And atavistic power.  Thugs don't get elected. Politicos use thugs, they rarely are thugs. (Saddam is the only one I can think of who occasionally enjoyed doing the killing himself.)  Same with social power- a star resorting to violence quickly loses his status.

(Strangely, less so in professional sports and only in rap music do I see a set of people trying for all three types of power, with some success.  More Hmmm.)

Anyway, there is something very important that I may have to let go.  I've exhausted all of the resources I have.  Without direct access to XXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXX or XXXXXXX XX XXX XXXXX, one of which ain't gonna happen and the other is against the rules... there's nothing more I can do here.

But there is and I know it. Atavistic power is usually negative (that doesn't mean bad) it doesn't accomplish something, it just prevents others from accomplishing things.  When atavistic power -force- is used to stop (negative) a murder, that's good.  There is one instance I can think of where atavistic power can be positive (which, again, doesn't mean good, it just means making something happen, creating).

There are a handful of people who know what to do, who can do it and even agree that it should be done.  But no one wants the responsibility. Out of fear of an imaginary downside, they let the issue languish, and it has a real human cost.

So there is one more thing I could do- go to these places and see these people and exert my atavistic power until they were far more afraid of me than of doing the right thing.  That's the one place it can be positive (not the same as good): using fear or pain to force action when the hesitation is based on a lesser fear.

That's the dark side calling, by the way. They have cookies.


  1. That's how you get to be a Jedi, you know. By hearing the seductive voice of the dark side telling you that the ends always justify the means ... and resisting the call.

    "With great power comes great responsibility."


  2. Nice!
    Star Wars references are cool.

  3. Rappers may create an image that they are violent, or that they are thugs, but rarely is this the case. Snoop Dogg recently announced that he is quitting marihuana. Brotha Lynch may rap about eating "baby brains and baby veins and baby spines," but I am 99% sure he is not really a cannibal.

    Dr. Dre raps about how he has "a lot more to lose than you" now that he is well established. Not quite the nothing-to-lose gangsta image you'd expect. So really the atavistic power they seem to hold would seem to be just a different iteration of social power, because the violence in their lives simply doesn't exist. And when it does (as in the case of P. Diddy, Eminem, or Mike Vick in pro sports, like you mentioned), they pay the price.

  4. Jay Gischer11:08 PM

    The fear of violence can be so very subliminally applied that just becoming aware of it is an accomplishment, in my view. Once you are aware how fears of violence are shaping your decisions, you can consider making other choices.

  5. The cookies from the dark side cause diabetes.

  6. The cookies from the dark side cause Darth-ness ...

  7. Interesting as usual, Rory. I've used atavistic power regularly over the last 30 years but usually as a last resort. The threat of use, however, was always in the background. I tell rookies that, with very few exceptions, when things go physical, you've probably done something wrong. Taken a bad position, engaged in "monkey dancing" (my new favorite phrase), etc.. I then realized that I'd just previously told him 5 separate stories about instances where I'd choked someone out ( we were discussing that, although CJSTC recognizes the LVNR as a legitimate technique, many agencies (mine included) have moved it into the Deadly Force category. I don't think he got the irony. Oh, well.

  8. Wait... did you say atavistic power or ativan power??? I've used the latter with great effectiveness.

  9. Or avian power, where you just fly away ...

  10. So. The Three types of power referred to are:
    1. Social
    2. The power to get things done (which should be better named, IMHO. Maybe something like affective power?)
    3. Avastic Power

    I understand the other two but I'm having trouble understanding Desmond Morris' definition because of the definition of the word "atavistic" by itself. defines it as:

    Relating to an inherited trait that reappears in an individual after being absent from a strain of organism for several generations. Atavistic traits were formerly thought to be throwbacks to ancestral types but are now known to be due to the inheritance of a pair of recessive genes.

    Power is defined as:
    The ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something.

    If we combine the definitions from websters we get something like:

    The ability to do, act or accomplishing something from or using a trait that reappeared in an individual after that trait was thought absent.

    So his definition is confusing me.

    Why doesn't he just say violent power or something along those lines?

    Or am I missing something?

  11. Violence is a primal behavior...

  12. Drew-
    Thanks for the counter-counter examples. Also, ativan power. Seen it used and often wished...

    James- Yeah. I used to believe that there was always a way to avoid force, I just didn't always have time to find it. I've backed that down to almost always. Some threats want to go there and you can talk them down if you find the hook; but a very few need to go there. Change them would involve a time machine.

    EC- I'm 11 time zones away from my library. DM did have a specific word for the 'power to get things done' but I couldn't remember it. He used 'atavistic' as a way to say that it came from an earlier time, was something that we, as a species should have outgrown. It's also likely that atavistic has a specific meaning in anthropology slightly different from the biology definition. Not sure.

  13. Yummm cookies....

  14. Whenever I heard someone say violence never solved anything, i always figured they meant that it only created temporary things. If you try to influence someone through force and might, and you won't always be strong and mighty, someone else stronger is going to provide a new solution by kicking you in the teeth.

    Violence obviously affects decisions and situations, but since its seen as legitimate in only very few instances (law enforcement, self-defence), people try to resist things that are made via violence. Better to appeal to something less transient than whose the biggest person in the room right now.