Saturday, May 27, 2017

Is Violence Inherent to Human Beings?

by Laksiri Fernando-
( May 26, 2017, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) This short article aims to answer one significant comment by Dr/Prof Lasantha Pethiyagoda to my previous article titled “Manchester Carnage and the Need to Combat Terrorism and All Forms of Violence”. I thank for the comment.
The comment in full was as follows.
While the writer seems to sincerely believe that violence can be eradicated from human behaviour, he has not researched the fact that violence in human history has always been present and is an inherent feature of the human mind, together as groups or as individuals. Our thoughts are often violent, although we restrain ourselves due to social requirements or in fear of punitive repercussions. What needs to be addressed are the triggers for “terror” type violence and change government foreign policy (for example) that are unjust to hordes of civilians in far-away lands. However, it is impractical to imagine that these policies will be dismantled, given the enormous economic advantages that major (especially free market) countries have enjoyed for many years, at devastating cost to millions of “lesser” people.
I wish to answer his propositions in Q&A form.
Question: Has violence been always present in human history?
Answer: No. There have been peaceful periods in human history including in Sri Lanka. The period of Parakramabahu VI (1410-1467) was one. These periods can be relative, nevertheless significant. The human history has produced the term Pax Romana. Similarly, one can talk about Pax Sinica. The period of Ming dynasty opened up peace in China. Of course, violence has so far been more prevalent than peace. This is the challenge of civilization. It is unfortunate if we (LP included) emphasize the negative than the positive. Steven Pinker (The Angles of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence and Its Causes, 2011) shows the decline of violence today including in Sri Lanka. I am not saying he is completely correct. But the attempt should be to sustain the situation without being critical.
Question: Is violence an inherent feature of the human mind?
Answer: Again no. In 1986, UNESCO convened 20 experts/scientists to deliberate on the matter. They came up with what is called the Seville Statement on Violence. UNESCO General Assembly later adopted it as a resolution. There were five core conclusions as follows.
  • It is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors.
  • It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behaviour is genetically programmed into our human nature.
  • It is scientifically incorrect to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behaviour more than for other kinds of behaviour.
  • It is scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a ‘violent brain’.
  • “It is scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by ‘instinct’ or any single motivation.”
The Statement concluded as follows. “Just as ‘wars begin in the minds of men’, peace also begins in our minds. The same species who invented war is capable of inventing peace. The responsibility lies with each of us.” This resonated what the Buddha said.
Question: Do our thoughts always violent?
Answer: The UNESCO statement comprehensively answered this question. If I go beyond, yes, our thoughts are sometimes (not always) violent. This is more so in the contemporary, competitive and antagonistic, society. We should look for personal and social solutions.
Question: Do we restrain ourselves due to social requirements or in fear of punitive repercussions?
Answer: Yes, certain social requirements prompt us to restraint ourselves. Simply said, that is good. Even if we get angry with our spouse or children at a public place, we usually don’t vent our spleen. There are also ‘punitive repercussions,’ for example, if you hit your wife even at home! In old days, those were not there. Perhaps still in Sri Lanka, you might be able to escape from punishment for ‘wife beating.’
But is that the better method? I hardly think so. Temper control might be even better for your own health, mental peace and happiness. Therefore, proper meditation might be the better way. I am not an expert on the subject, but I have heard, perhaps there is a part of the brain which prompts us to keep grudges, continue hatred and creates violent thoughts. This mostly comes from the subconscious mind. Therefore, the mindfulness meditation or such mental exercises can bring calm to your thoughts.
Question: Could addressing triggers be sufficient to prevent ‘terror’ type violence?
Answer: Addressing triggers are of course necessary. What are these triggers? The views on the matter can be different. Could the ‘grievances’ be the triggers? LP’s questioning/comments direct in that direction. How do these grievances are created? Particularly in the Manchester case, we are still at the early stages of uncovering the facts. If we take Salman Abedi completely as a ‘lone wolf’ (I doubt it), we should know whether he had faced personal discrimination. Was he unemployed? Was he prevented from doing any business? If the triggers are related to government policies and wrongs, of course those should change. I have identified some.
However, as I have stated very clearly, none of these ‘triggers’ justify violent reactions let alone terrorism. This is a broad debate even in human rights. This is about rights and responsibilities of human beings. Lack of rights, should not allow a right to violence, specially under the modern circumstances. In the Manchester case, what we know very clearly is the existence of the IS group and its ideology. To distract a bit, I did my master’s thesis on political violence and the 1971 insurrection. My thesis was against the ‘frustration-aggression theory.’ In treasure this thesis than even my PhD! In my findings, it is not primarily the grievances that trigger political violence but violent ideologies. Therefore, combating violence also should take an ideological, philosophical and educational form. I don’t wish to use the term ‘struggle’ instead of ‘form.’
Question: How far the economic and international policies (free market) of the West responsible for the ongoing confrontations and violence?
Answer: Of course, the economic and international policies have created breeding grounds for violence and terrorism. I have very clearly identified the key elements of them (not all, given the restricted space) as invasions (Iraq, Afghanistan) and effected and attempted regime changes (Libya, Syria etc.) Money, oil and power have been the motives. However, to pin them all to ‘free market’ is not the correct diagnosis in my opinion. It could be easy and fashionable, but not totally correct. That kind of an analysis lacks precision and depth. It is like Kokatath Thailaya. There are countries who have benefitted from ‘free market’ when applied cautiously and preserving the national interests. China and India are two. Even Sri Lanka has benefitted in the past.
If one points out capitalism, as the structural condition of contemporary violence of the states and non-state actors, instead of mere ‘free-market, there is much truth in it. How can we talk about free market without capitalism? But that is a general theory. Moreover, many of our radicals or ‘Marxists’ are so shy to use that word (capitalism) these days, perhaps preferring state capitalism for their own benefit. One reason could be they are talking about and involved in not ‘class struggles,’ but ‘power-struggles.’
In conclusion, let me ignore Lasantha Pethiyagoda’s slight slight that the ‘writer’ (that is me!) has not researched violence in human history. He also seems to think that my advocacy of non-violence is perhaps naïve! Both are clear from his first sentence. My reservation about his comment, in turn, is that while beginning from the premise that ‘violence is inherent to human mind’ in general terms, he then further attributes further justification for specific violence that I was talking about to economic and foreign policies of governments. This is done without a single word condemning violence. I am sure he would, but he has not.