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A Special Supplement: On Violence

All the same, there is a plain contrast between what may be described as commonplace violence, the rapes, murders, assaults that are present in some degree in all civilized societies and may, as we have suggested, be illustrations of the possibilities created by civilization, and those great acts of violence—armed rebellions, large-scale riots, the savage repression of strikes or demonstrations (Bloody Sunday in Petersburg, the Sharpeville massacre of 1960)—that often seem the enigmatic symbols of some great principle. If only we could understand these, we say to ourselves, if only we could uncover the logic of such events, we should be able to grasp truths about human life that, once known, would not indeed eliminate the tragic from our experience but would make it more bearable and perhaps shift its field from the social to the cosmic.

This is what historical materialism would do if it were a genuine hypothesis; and, to take a different doctrine but one that is open to precisely the same logical objections, how satisfying it would be if we could see in all rebellions against authority, especially those designed to injure or kill its representatives, the primal rage against the father, Zeus at his deadly work with Kronos, who is in his own youth the slayer of his father Ouranos—Ouranos, both son and husband of Gaea, the earth goddess.

One of the hardest things for the student (as distinct from the agent or patient) of violence to accept is the appearance it often has of irrationality. This is not always the case. The killing of the adulterer or the seducer of the innocent in southern Italy or Greece is a perfectly rational procedure. We understand it, as it were, from within; we see the point of what is done and we understand, even if we don’t share, the system of honor which requires such killings. But if a man were to murder his wife’s lover and then show plainly by his conduct that his chief concern after the killing was that he had spilled blood on his new trousers, we should be puzzled, unable to understand the act from within.

Mob violence is often like this. The Gordon riots, for example, are on the surface utterly puzzling, for what was the Pope to the London mob of 1780? Of course, that we find a set of human actions puzzling doesn’t mean that we believe them to be unintelligible. But the apparent lack of rationality provokes us to frame hypotheses scientific in character. We don’t need such hypotheses to account for why a man writes a letter or gets his boots soled; but we do need some hypothesis to account for the movements of St. Vitus’s Dance. If we get one, then the convulsive movements of the disease become intelligible, though not in the way intentional acts are intelligible.

Now there seems to be that about violent action on a large scale which is closer to St. Vitus’s Dance than to the act of writing a letter. This is how the internal social violence of contemporary America is taken by the sociologists; and this is not surprising since it is the belief of many sociologists that macroscopic social phenomena are a subject matter demanding explanatory hypotheses of the scientific kind. The vast output of sociological studies of violence is an index not only of social concern but also of a deep conviction that here are a challenge to and a justification of the claims of sociology to be a science. Further, social violence (apart from the violence of the established authorities in waging war) is treated as a pathological sign.6 This is natural enough; but it indicates that the student is working from within a set of beliefs according to which change is desirable and peaceful change the norm which is violated by the ghetto or university riot. This tells us more about the students of violence than it does about its perpetrators.

Most of the material on violence collected by the sociologist is in one way invaluable in that it tells us something about the incidence of violence in our society and about its forms and its authors. In this the work is not fundamentally different from that of the historian, though it is often phrased in a disabling jargon. The explanatory hypotheses are another matter. Either they presuppose what is not plainly the case, and what ought to be argued, that the human actions which constitute violence are the outcome of social “forces” analogous to the moving particles and the magnetic fields of physics and are not intentional, distinctively human actions at all; or they are simply common sense dressed up in the language of sociology (or clinical psychology).

The former raises fundamental questions about the methodology of the social sciences. All that need be said here is that the best examples produced so far are the rather frugal hypotheses instanced by Professor Popper in the course of his polemic against historicism. Examples are: “You cannot introduce agricultural tariffs and at the same time reduce the cost of living”; “You cannot have a centrally planned society with a price system that fulfills the main functions of competitive prices”; “You cannot make a successful revolution if the ruling class is not weakened by internal dissension or defeat in war”; and the like. Such commonsensical hypotheses presuppose that we are concerned with human action in which the agents pay attention to rational criteria, and not with pathological phenomena. Much of what the sociologists say has regard to hypotheses of this kind, and their conclusions are acceptable despite the apparatus of argument they attach to them.

Professor T. R. Gurr provides us with a rich example. In Why Men Rebel he begins a chapter entitled “Relative Deprivation and the Impetus to Violence” as follows:

Beneath the complexity of human motivation neuro-physiologists have identified two great “appetitive systems” that provide the motivating feelings against which everything that happens to us is measured and judged [sic]. Stimulation of one of these systems provides our feelings of elation, satisfaction, and love. Stimulation of the other leads to sensations of anxiety, terror, depression, and rage. These feelings color our perceptions of the world and energize our actions. Learning is based on these appetitive systems, first directly, then indirectly: we learn to do and to seek out those things that bring satisfaction, and to avoid those that have noxious effects. 7

The passage scarcely needs to be glossed. The model of human motivation to be used is clear and the idea of human rationality entertained is shown by the strange account of what it is for a man to judge what happens to him. But at the end of a long chapter in which this initial position is developed according to such concepts as “tension,” “response,” “aggression,” “values,” “goals.” and so on (including a delightful reference, sadly not expanded, to twelve “viscerogenic” and twenty-eight “psychogenic” needs), Professor Gurr concludes thus:

If any single sentence can summarize the arguments advanced in this chapter, it is that men are quick to aspire beyond their social means and quick to anger when those means prove inadequate, but slow to accept their limitations.8

This is splendid and is cast in language appropriate to the study of human actions. Far from being a summary of what has gone before, it represents a shift from a model which would do just as well for the study of the behavior of rats to the model of human behavior presupposed in our ordinary discourse about it. The former model carries with it the idea that education is manipulation and it is an appropriate model for a servile society.

If we look at the comments of those who are politically concerned and in some way connected with radical movements that may issue in violence, these turn out to be crisper but are sometimes vacuous or stupid. In the interesting collection of essays entitled Violence in America I find the following remarks, all of them depressingly typical of much that is spoken or written by men who work for causes of which one in general approves and who often show immense devotion to these causes. “Violence of the oppressed is directly proportionate to the violence exercised by their oppressors” (p. 46). It is not quite clear from the context in which this remark occurs whether or not it is intended as a historical generalization. It may be intended only to apply to mass violence in the American city during the past decade. Even if this is so, and even if there were a satisfactory convention for quantifying violence, it is only sometimes true that mass violence is triggered off by corresponding police violence, that large-scale police violence is a response to mass violence.

But notoriously it isn’t always like this. A trivial police action may trigger off a strong response; and a powerful police action may provoke no overt response. Or take the following, all gathered from Professor Staughton Lynd’s self-indulgent “A Radical speaks in defense of SNCC.” “In the Deep South the prima facie case that whites have imposed on blacks a ‘law and order’ expressive only of the wants of whites is overwhelming” (p. 225). Why the hesitant prima facie? It is like saying that prima facie there is evidence for the killing of Jews by the Nazis.

…”the Movement” [i.e., SNCC and SDS] prefers to make its decisions by consensus, not by delegating decision-making authority to representatives. Again, in contrast to the sharp distinction in liberal democratic theory between thought and action, the Movement places a high premium on “putting your body where your mouth is,” which is to say, acting on what you believe. It should be easy enough for any moderately sympathetic listener to extrapolate these clues into a sketch of future institutions. [pp. 226, 227]

The present reader is certainly moderately sympathetic but the only institutions he can extrapolate these clues into are scarcely defensible by anyone of Professor Lynd’s views. If decisions in a very complex society cannot be made by representatives, then it is certain that a vast amount of time must be set aside for continuous discussion; but there must then be other persons not parties to the discussion who keep the sanitation working, provide supplies of paper, chalk, ink, light, heat, soft drinks, hamburgers, tobacco, and whatever else is necessary to keep the discussion going. This is a fantasy of university students and their more simple-minded teachers and can only be entertained in a rich society in which the necessities and luxuries of life are, as it were, provided by an invisible hand. Professor Lynd is a scholar and he injures the radical movement by providing it with this fustian apologia.

There is indeed a problem it would have been useful for him to have looked at in more detail. The organization of representation in liberal societies is sustained by highly organized parties and this may mean that the very process of representation removes from the voters any clearly felt and understood control over the representatives. Radical students, many of whom come to be professionally concerned with the study of this problem, are right to be anxious about this; but the continuous assembly of the student body can obscure the problem and is occasionally a somewhat cynical exercise in those very arts of party management against which the protest is directed; the revolutionary minority may wear down the mass of students until the numbers present decline to the point at which a vote can safely be taken. Where intense political feeling continuously possesses the body of students, as in recent weeks, such artful procedures are neither necessary nor relevant.

  1. 6

    Cf. Bienen, pp. 6, 10, 11.

  2. 7

    Gurr, p. 20.

  3. 8

    Ibid., p. 44.

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