The Wrong Kind of Violence, Part 2

Sean and Julia
Gareth, Ann, and Breda
Their lives are bigger than
Any big idea

Paul Hewson



I ended Part 1 with a quotation from Robert Sapolsky, who wrote (to paraphrase): We don’t hate violence. We hate and fear the wrong kind of violence… When it’s the “right” type of aggression, we love it.

Do we “love” violence in the right context, as Sapolsky suggested? Perhaps sometimes. When the news broke a week ago that Dzhokar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, had his death sentence overturned, local sentiments were mixed. The Providence Journal (located 50 miles south of Boston) asked its readers whether Tsarnaev should spend his life in prison or face another death penalty trial. Several responded with a variety of brutal ways that he should be killed. As we saw in Part 1, people are often more at ease with violence if they feel someone has failed as a moral agent so badly that they deserve to be hit, kicked, beaten, shot, killed, etc.

Attitudes toward the death penalty in the U.S. have fluctuated significantly over time. In the mid-1990s, roughly 80% of U.S. adults were in favor of the death penalty for some convicted murderers. By 2019 this dropped to 56%. Support for the death penalty is lower in Boston, however, even in cases where terrorism affected the lives of many locals. In 2015, about 30% of Bostonians felt Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty, while 60% felt he should be sentenced to life in prison. The upshot is that attitudes toward state-sanctioned violence are not set in stone. There is variation in opinion among individuals, across time, and by geography. It is pliable.

Victims of the Boston Marathon bombers. Source.

Appetitive Aggression

Research by clinical psychologist Roland Weierstall suggests that some people may be more predisposed to violence than others. He found that about a third of former soldiers from various places (Africa, South America, and Europe) found harming others exciting. While some had “reactive” motivations for committing atrocities (hatred, revenge, or as a form of intimidation), others had “appetitive aggression,” defined as being aroused by another’s suffering.

It’s not just soldiers. A movie audience can become euphoric when the heroes rise up against the alien villain who intends to commit intergalactic genocide. (Note that this response would not adhere to the Jain ethic we saw in Part 1, where even necessary violence is regrettable and people distance themselves from it). Most people would probably agree that using violence to stop genocide, as a form of defense of ourselves or others, is justified. But other scenarios are more ambiguous. People also employ violence not only to stop ethnic cleansing, or even in the immediate defense of lives or bodies. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are defending property, wealth, territory, ideas, values, beliefs, or our “way of life.”

The final battle in Avengers: Endgame.

Here is a partial list of the reasons that people have committed or threatened physical violence, sometimes lethal. Some are generic. Others are specific and recent. Many seem to be spurred by moral sentiments:

Because a child didn’t remove his hat during the national anthem, for oppression, for liberation, for supporting the wrong football team, for resources or profit, because someone felt threatened, for an infidelity, for a disagreement about a cheeseburger, for feeling ostracized or bullied, for conquest or colonialism, for racism, for hating Muslims, because you and your brother were angry about the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the killing of Muslims there, for being Yazidi, for hating Christians, for questioning authority, for guarding giraffes, for honor killings, because a favorite team lost (or even won) a championship game, for championing civil rights, for an execution, for their sexual orientation, for revenge, for educating children, for robbery, for misogyny, for being Black and in a car after curfew, for protesting peacefully before curfew, for a chicken sandwich, for being a refugee, because a politician was in favor of admitting refugees, because you were “standing your ground,” for being an elderly man in the path of police in Buffalo (and Salt Lake City), to steal cattle from your neighbors, because a child littered, because Indigenous people prevented you from logging, for coughing on a bus during a pandemic, for coughing in public not during a pandemic, for being a public health official during a pandemic, to guard a statue of Christopher Columbus, for deterrence, for blasphemy, for hanging posters someone disagreed with, for protesting against an oil pipeline’s effects on the water supply, for being a Sami reindeer herder, because a woman was enraged at neo-Nazis, for hating Hispanics, for toilet paper, because a teenager playing rap music made someone feel “unsafe,” for being Palestinian, for being Israeli, because you didn’t want to wear a mask at a cigar store, for being a Communist, for not being a Communist, for spoiling the end of a movie, in case Bernie Sanders was elected President, for criticizing Donald Trump, for incarcerating undocumented immigrants, because of mistaken identity, for road rage, because of an insult, for wearing a mask during a pandemic, for not wearing one, for wearing one incorrectly, for Cabbage Patch kids, because it’s hockey, for being Asian, because indigenous people protested a windfarm, for no reason at all.

I intentionally made this list long to emphasize how dexterous our ability to use and justify violence can be. Human violence is also somewhat unique. Other primates can be violent, but I don’t think they harm each other for having different values. This isn’t to say that humans are only violent. I’ve argued before that humans evolved to be incredibly social and cooperative as well. Yet because our species is so behaviorally and culturally flexible, it is almost inevitable that at least occasionally ideas, interests, values, and beliefs will clash. Perhaps our adaptability comes with a cost.

To be continued…



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