The Human Nature of Violence
— By Robin Fox
The real "causal" question here then is not why so many young males act so violently. This is digestion; it just happens as long as the appropriate stimuli (the analogs of food) are fed in (females, other males, resources). The real causal question is how so many cultures manage through initiation, intimidation, sublimation, bribery, education, work, and superstition to stop them and divert their energy elsewhere. Sending them off to war is a popular solution, as are dangerous sports and genital mutilations. This is the diarrhea. Lager louts and football hooligans are not a theoretical problem, however much of a social problem they may be. They are expectable and not in need of explanation. Quiescent conformists and career-oriented yuppies are the anomaly. They need explaining. What causes them?
But we could approach them through the escalation model too. Yuppies are known for their competitiveness, but they manage to keep this to the level of display and menace, never taking it to physical attack (verbal attack I count as menace). The question here becomes then, how are they kept to this level? The answer lies in the expanded human capacity for inhibition of aggression - one of the main functions of the evolution of the amygdala and the huge neocortex. This allows humans to indulge in fantastically elaborated sequences that are unavailable to animals. But the structure of escalation is similar.
As I have tried to show in analyses of Irish ritual fighting - a subspecies of pub fighting generally - virtually the same sequence is gone through as with the animal example, and again, serious physical injury is the exception rather than the rule. Major escalation points are the "Taking Off Of The Coat" and what I have called the "Hold Me Back Or I'll Kill Him" phenomenon, in which the spectators are invited to intervene to prevent further escalation. Firmly held, the antagonists can continue the ritualized fight without much fear of damage. Circuit breakers include parading the weeping mother who begs the boy to come home - so he can withdraw with honor. Both sides usually then indulge in a triumph display. (See The Search for Society, chap. 7.)
This works, as we have seen, among familiars - among those who, however subconsciously, know the rules and tacitly agree to them. Among strangers there are no rules, and as the ethologists have pointed out, a great deal of human violence looks more predatory than ritualized. The young attackers of the jogger in Central Park - out on their self-described "wilding" - were into the stalk-attack-(rape)-kill mode. The jogger was more like a prey animal, not a conspecific in a more or less evenly matched fight. But here again the question is not what "causes" such violence - predators are violent by definition - but what causes the context to be rendered "predator/prey" rather than "conspecific/familiar." Whether we like it or not, phenotypical racial differences make it very easy to define another human being as a prey animal rather than a conspecific. That this is very deep rooted can be seen from the fighting behavior of chimpanzees. Within the group, fighting is ritualized, but "foreign" groups are attacked like prey, and individuals are often killed and eaten. But given this perception - of the other as prey - the violence follows. Predators attack prey. It is what they are supposed to do. Territory holders attack trespassers. The only ritualization, as George Schaller said of lions, is to run like hell.
(It might be objected that these are not, with humans, predator/prey relationships because humans do not kill other humans for food. But [a] they often do and have done throughout history, and [b] one might use the analogy with rape [which indeed is often involved], where the behavior is gone through with no intention of investing in any relationship or offspring. It is the proximal mechanisms that are operating. Once the "pseudospeciation" of the other is achieved, it is predator motives that operate, not those of - essentially - sexual competition.)
If we are to apply this approach to, for example, pub violence, there is some hope. First, we can assume it to be inevitable; it is going to happen. Pubs are arenas where inhibitions are lowered and conflicts easily provoked. But we do not need to be appalled or disgusted. This is not diarrhea; this is digestion. What we need to figure out, therefore, is not how to "cure" (i.e., eradicate) this, but how to de-escalate in the proper sequence once it occurs. If people are too drunk, this is difficult because alcohol does seem to interfere with the capacity for inhibition so necessary to ritualization, and people can act unpredictably in consequence. They become like the experimental monkeys whose amygdalas have been removed, and who therefore can't get the sequence right.
But usually people are not that drunk, and a good publican, for example, knows when to use humorous diversion, when to appeal to the crowd for support, and when to become suitably intimidating. He knows this because he is going through a process deeply wired into the human animal: he is in a conflict situation in a crowded arena with familiar conspecifics (even if they are not regulars, they are regular pub goers and the setting and rules are known to them). When the whole thing goes wrong it is usually because the sequence has not been respected and gets out of hand - a publican becomes aggressive much too early and triggers a wild response, for example. Or drunken spectators interfere at the wrong moments. Of course, if a motorcycle gang comes in, bent on violent mischief, then we are in a predator/prey situation and we either fight or run like hell. Ethology is not a lot of help; a gun would be more useful.
My only final words of advice - not probably very helpful to this audience - are to treat violent episodes as natural events: not to seek their elimination, but to observe carefully the escalation sequences that seem natural to them, and learn to control these by effective de-escalation through the sequence, or the circuit breakers. Whether we are talking about pub fights, so-called soccer hooligans, or international conflict, much the same rules seem to apply. (The actual players - politicians, military, and diplomats - in international conflicts are in fact usually well known to each other, and they know the rules. The Cuban missile crisis - and a great deal else of the "cold war" - for example, could very easily be mapped out according to the escalation sequence described here, One of the problems with Saddam Hussein is that he is not a "familiar" in the international club, but a local predator running loose.) Thus treating violence as normal, and not as a disease, might in fact help us, paradoxically, to control it better in the end. The temptation is to think in terms of eradication of the pestilence. But if I am right, then this could be the totally wrong analogy, and pursuing it will probably only make things worse.