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Violence in Context

A white supremacist and long time resident of the California prison system, Robert "Blinky" Griffin once set fire to a prison yard to attempt the murder of a black jail guard, led an attack on a close friend that finished with a pencil embedded through his temple, and ordered the murders of people he had never met. Each is an example of raw Violence. Yet, people still defend Robert Griffin's actions. As Griffin's lawyer argued at his defense, "Prison at that time [the 1970’s], there was a lot of violence. It was a dangerous place. You had to survive on your own.”

Our third post began a difficult--probably impossible--journey to define Violence. At the end of that post, in true philosophical vagueness, I established that Violence is an injurious force linked to injustice, and conversely, justice. But, often the determination of what is just or unjust is obscured by context. Circumstance and personal bias cloud an objective view of the world.

Robert Griffin, his wife and his lawyer all defend Robert’s actions as self-defense; they believe he did what he had to do to survive in his situation. Though his crimes were vicious, his supporters believe prison made them necessary and inescapable.

Many people claim their “situation” or “world” as something separate from normal society, and that this “situation” or “world” makes violence necessary and morally justified. In the above case, the “world” of prison life in the 70’s is different than the world of today.

You see this justification for Violence all the time. Take this example from Law and Order. A homeless man goes on trial for manslaughter accused of killing another homeless man. His defense attorney argues that the laws of civilized society do not apply to homeless people, “We've evicted the homeless from our society, we've made them into outcasts.” The attorney justifies any violent act a homeless man can commit.

Obviously, the most difficult choices about when and where to use Violence occur in war. In one of the few war crime convictions of the Iraq War, the defendant justified murder by saying, "They knew it wasn't murder; they knew it was a war." The defendant appeals to the idea that all war is kill or be killed. War is extremely complicated and emotionally intense, but it does not justify any and all murder, torture or other unethical behaviors.

These arguments all silently plead to moral relativism; they say that their situation--be it the criminal underworld, life on the streets, or in a war zone--necessitate or justify Violence. Each situation appeals to the rough idea that, “you don’t know what life is like here so you cannot judge my actions.”

I disagree. While different situations create different moral dilemmas, murder is murder. Relying on situational ethics will quickly justify any act no matter how horrendous. In each of the above examples, thousands homeless people don’t murder one another, millions of soldiers refuse to commit war crimes, and only a handful of prisoners rise up the ranks to become the leaders of a ruthless prison gang. These choices may seem justified, but they aren’t.

Unfortunately, after 9/11 Americans said the world changed. As a result, we altered our methods of interrogation, eliminated the rights of foreign POWs and lowered the required justification for war claiming necessity: “we live in a post- 9/11 world.” We do live in a world after 9/11, but that doesn't justify Violence.

fifteen comments

In each of the above situations, someone defines themselves as outside of “society.” I guess I wonder why someone would want to exist outside of society, unless of course, they felt like doing things they knew society wouldn’t condone. Of course the prisoner and the homeless man it could be argued don’t have a choice about their situations, but I would argue they are still a part of society.

The strange one is the soldier. As I have written before, the war is opposite of civilization. But this is why war is wrong, not why murder is justified.


In the mere 12-15,000 years since Man learned to farm, we, as a species, have gone from simply throwing seeds on the ground to harnessing the atom & landing men on the moon. Additionally, we have increased the world’s population exponentially, especially with the advances in medicine & the quest for “eternal youth”.
Violence needs to be seen in a larger context of confounds, each contributing to the other, i.e. an increase in world’s pop = competition for resources = conflict/warfare = violence.
Mankind fights for what I call, simplistically, the “Four G’s”, Gold, Girls, Glory, and God. Under this umbrella, all resources, etc fall (i.e. Gold = precious metals, stones, oil, potable water, arable land etc.).
Take into account differences in opinion/attitude regarding Religion (extremists &otherwise), Politics, State Affairs, and one must come to the conclusion that there is no real end to Violence except with the total termination of the Human species (rather extreme I admit). Or put more succinctly, “If families can’t even get along nowadays, how can you expect countries too?”
Warfare (Violence) is Man’s natural state of being. He grows tired of all other ventures more than he tires of War. It is embedded in our very being. And for those naysayers who will contend that there have been/are peaceful cultures, I heartily agree that there are. Of course, just because one does not have swords, does not mean that one cannot die upon them (to paraphrase Tolkien).


It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be….
War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.


@ Charles – Here is a (lecture by Steven Pinker) that argues the opposite: as society has grown, society has grown more peaceful.

I don’t believe society is in a permanent state of war, nor needs to be. But believing war, conflict and violence are woven into the fabric of the human condition will never allow us to rise above that.

Also, one question: if Warfare is man’s natural state of being, what does he fight for?

@ Will – The Judge was a child molester and child murderer. I don’t take much stock in his opinion.


What about Cain and Abel?


@Eric C. – “Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.” R.A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers, 1959 (pg 26) Mr. Pinker gives an interesting speech. I get the sense that the speaker, though, like you, has missed “the trees for the forest”. From a cynical point of view, I’m quite sure the myriad dead and dying would be comforted by Mr. Pinker’s words. Additionally, I can’t help notice that Mr. Pinker quotes from the Bible’s Old Testament, as opposed to the New Testament, in which Jesus Christ speaks to his followers of the “Golden Rule” (Matthew 7:12 NIV) or the “Water of Life “ (John 4:14 NIV), or just simple Forgiveness.
Violence is a collective, not just considering warfare, systematic, approach against all peoples, practiced by all peoples. I would argue that giving the larger population (6 billion), one needs to look at “trees”, i.e. – the physical abuse of women, children, men (starting at the lowest unit – the family, to society at large), human trafficking (which then leads to prostitution, sweat shops, etc.), various other crimes committed by one man upon another – rape, kidnapping, torture, murder, etc.
The states of conflict: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Self are all very much alive and well in todays so called peaceful society, not just the battlefields spanning the globe. Society is in a perpetual state of war/conflict/violence and it always will be. *God has given us the ability to rise above our base condition. * To choose good over evil, right over wrong. Tragically, most of Humanity never will. To deny our baser drives is to give them a power that is often times harder to refuse than to quell. To expose them to the light of our consciousness is to truly deprive them of their power over us, as we come to realize the horror that we wish to inflict, not only on our intended victims, yet also on ourselves and our loved ones, who must suffer the shame, humility and horror of these acts.
We rise above the human condition (as stated by Maslow in his Hierarchy of Needs – if one needs a scientific approach as opposed to religious), because we can choose to do so, under the aegis of God!
So you understand my frame of reference; I have earned my B.A. & M.A. in Psychology. I am currently serving as a MAJ in the US Army, with over 15 years of service (both enlisted & commissioned time), who has been deployed to both OEF & OIF. I have, like many others, lost several good friends over the course of this conflict (though I was extremely fortunate to not have lost any of my Soldiers during my command tenure, though several were wounded, from RTD to VSI). I am preparing to return to a combat unit in the next several months for another deployment into theater. I have also served as a State Trooper, where I was “privileged” to witness the violence that Man inflicts on others/self on a nightly basis. I am a sometimes practicing Roman Catholic. I desire revenge against those who killed (not murdered) my friends (Thou shalt not murder (6th Commandment), not “kill”. There is a semantic difference in the lingual usage of the terms. (Additionally, the Roman Catholic Church uses the generic term “kill”, which is less specific & more inclusive)). I “know” I want revenge for the deaths of my friends, even as I know that they died doing what they chose to do and even as I know that all that my revenge would do is to continue the spiral of violence. I abide my time and wait for what my God will have of me.
As for an answer to your question; Man fights for/out of Fear, Anger, Hate, Self-Loathing, Hope, and yes, even Love (all those little creatures that Pandora let out of her box – if one is a Greek mythology buff). Only by rising above the base Human condition does one prove mastery.
“Correct morality can only be derived from what man is—not from what do-gooders and well-meaning aunt Nellies would like him to be.” – R.A. Heinlein Starship Troopers, 1959
I do not believe that society will ever be out of a permanent state of war/violence. Anything else is wishful thinking at its worst (I agree with R.A.H.). I believe that there are good men & women willing to stand firm in the face of tyranny, violence and war. Who are willing to give their lives if need be and just be thanked for it. Nothing else. Because they want/desire something better for their families. I believe that there will always be tyrants/strongmen waiting to grab power, by any means available to them.
I believe, know and think that you are wrong and desire to “wish” away the ills of the world. Just, if my assessment is correct, how you feel about me, thinking so very poorly of Mankind, overall.


Plato had it right when he said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”


@ Will (Before I respond to the above): http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Plato#Misat..


There are two issues here: One, is the world inherently, inescapably Violent? And Two, is conflict/separation the same as violence?

On the first, you write two things that are I think contradictory. First you write: “I do not believe that society will ever be out of a permanent state of war/violence.” “ Society is in a perpetual state of war/conflict/violence and it always will be.”

Then you write: “ I believe that there are good men & women willing to stand firm in the face of tyranny, violence and war.” “Only by rising above the base Human condition does one prove mastery.” But why stand firm in the face of war is war in an unstoppable, unescapable part of the human condition? Wouldn’t the human condition of the first quote actually be the permanent state of violence you believe the world is in? How could you rise above it then? Is war/violence escapable or not?

The question I put to you was: Why does man fight? The answer I think is quite simple: for peace. Even in your argument for the permanent state of warfare/violence it denies that war’s ultimate goal is usually peace. And the implications of the link I posted above are clear: society is getting less violent. You need to respond to it. Do you believe society is less violent than before (as the video says)? Why do you think both crime and war are less than they have ever been? If society is getting less violent, what does that mean?

What I’m arguing is that the world needs to rise above the Human condition (violence, war, etc.) and get past it.

You write I want to “wish” away the ills of the world. No, I hope for a better future, and I want to work towards it, instead of giving up on it as evil and vile.

Second, conflict is not the same as violence. Yes, all men are separated, and we all “fight” for resources. But we aren’t animals and we can get past that. I honestly believe there are two sides to almost every conflict, and knowledge, understanding and empathy would cure most of the world’s problems. And just because I don’t see eye to eye with someone—take you for instance— doesn’t mean I have to kill you.


Charles has brought up quite a few points that move well beyond the scope of the “context of violence” but are genuine philosophical issues.

First, we at On V have a seemingly contradictory stance on violence. We abhor it, and study it intensely, yet we agree with Pinker that it is going down. Even though over time it is decreasing, we still feel that we need to study it sociologically, militarily and philosophically to further its decline.

As to man’s inherent nature, we tend to argue that man is not inherently violent. Christianity would tend to agree. While man is corrupt and has capacity for evil and all men have this in some regard (reference Cain and Abel) as whole man is redeemable. And, even if man is inherently violent, clearly we can control those impulses and clearly peaceful societies can and do exist.

Finally, a quick aside on the Heinlein quotes. For simple quotable purposes, they are nice. I loved Starship Troopers when I first read it (also, it is interesting seeing the progression of Heinlein from Starship Troopers to Stranger in a Strangeland), but I have moved beyond it. Violence may settle more issues, but, for example, disease and infant mortality kill way more people than violence could ever hope.


Will, excellent Plato quote.

Let me pose a hypothetical. You’re sitting in a library reading. A man takes your pencil from your work space. He has taken what is yours for his own with no apparent intention to give it back. What is your reaction? Do you a) do nothing giving the pencil for lost, b) wait and see if the man returns the pencil, c) ask him his intentions, d) begin verbally assaulting the man, or e) begin punching him until he gives it back?

I would argue that a very low percentage of people would resort to d and e unless the man continued to be confrontational.

Now my example was just a pencil. What if it was your wallet? Your car keys? God forbid, your child? Obviously, as the inherent value of the object in question to you rises, so does the stress response of taking it from you. I take your child from you, options a-c decrease in viability.

There are those that would punch someone out for taking their pencil. Just as their are those that will quiver even when their child is taken from them, this is a matter of individuality. Individuals respond in different ways. But their options, because they are limited, tend to fall into one of the above categories.

Now this argument of trying to determine whether violence and conflict are the natural state of man has existed for centuries and attempting to prove one way or another will never lend to complete agreement, but I pose this:

If man were innately violent, why would we write laws, enforce, and obey them? Why would we live in societies rather than viking clans raping and pillaging the weak? Why would we not live in anarchy where the strongest rules and takes what he wants?

P.S. I love Starship Troopers, mechs vs aliens… does it get better than that? But seriously, the concept of only those who serve a country having rights as citizens was provocative.


“If man were innately violent, why would we write laws, enforce, and obey them? Why would we live in societies rather than viking clans raping and pillaging the weak? Why would we not live in anarchy where the strongest rules and takes what he wants?”

Anarchy is inefficient. It’s how animals live: individuals fight for mating rights, for example, one on one. Any male has the right to challenge another and fight. This leads the individuals to be big, strong, have horns, be highly aggressive, etc. Dogs and (female) lions took the next step: pack hunting. They don’t fight each other as much, or they fight briefly to establish a pecking order then stop and cooperate. Humans just took that idea to the extreme. If we (my group, people, country) can gang up on the “big guys” or outsmart them, we can take their stuff and distribute it amongst ourselves. That’s why humans are physically weak: we build guns to kill animals instead of using our hands. We have teams of people building things like castles, cannons, fighter jets, and nuclear bombs. We also realize that cooperation among groups can lead to even bigger and better groups more capable of fighting and defending themselves (be it from or against other people, animals, or even disease – we have armies of researchers working to fight disease).

What does cooperation require? Laws, or at least a written/unwritten set of rules to make sure everyone gets along long enough to get the job done. Hence, civilization. Violence is not gone, it’s just channeled more efficiently.

Now, humans still live in a state of “anarchy.” Not on an individual level because of our laws, but on an international level. With no enforcement mechanism at the top (which is now the global scale), then anarchy does rule. The world is just smaller now. For example, if I kill my neighbor, it does not start a “war” (feud?) between my neighbors and myself. The police come in and do the work of investigating and arresting me. That is order as we have created it in out society. The police have MUCH more power than I do (I can’t outmatch the SWAT team, or even a single police officer) But, if a country attacks another there are no international “police” with greater power, so the response is for the country to defend itself, bring in allies, etc. War. Anarchy. The strong DO survive and the weak ARE killed, and there’s nothing you can do about it if you aren’t the winner. Just like 10,000 years ago if you killed your tribal chief and took his place, you are the ruler now.

So, why not live in Viking clans, raping and pillaging the weak? Because the weak invented new technology, new tactics, got more people, and became the strong.


I think both Jake and Matty P are on the right track; man has found cooperation more beneficial and antagonism.

Basically the question is why we don’t live in a perpetual state of anarchy? Because it is hard, sucky and you’d tend to starve to death.

Jake brings up an interesting point about the state of anrachy among nations, the realist school of IR thought. And it connects to what Pinker says in the video: as man becomes more attached to larger groupings (Nation, state) as opposed to smaller groupings (family, tribe, clan) man becomes less violent. Strangely, Iraq, Africa, Afghanistan still fall in the later category. To connect to the above comments, I believe the world is moving away from tribalism, eventually to globalism.


It’s a matter of perspective. I would say that chaos necessitates altruism to allow for our continued existence and evolution while someone else would say we persist because our violent tendencies make us stronger and better and more ready for conflict.


Jake has an interesting point that the weak invented technology to conquer the strong and become the strong. God created all men equal; Smith and Wesson made it true.

As to Matt, conflict probably does make us stronger. But conflict is not always necessarily Violent.