We live in a world awash with violence. Whether the randomness of the street, drive-by shootings and muggings, terrorist attacks in the form of suicide bombers, or one of the many armed conflicts currently underway around the globe. In spite of its pervasiveness the topic only surfaces in terms of a law and order issue. Its nature, implications, and origins are ignored.
The religious have no problems taking on the “moral” issues associated with sex; at most political figures can be counted on is that during an election year some will drape themselves with the mantle of law and order blaming their opponents for allowing society to descend into a state of lawless anarchy. But the issue of violence itself, where it comes from, what causes it and who has the potential to enact it, is like the object at the other end of the ten foot pole: nobody wants to touch it.
Suddenly, in of all places, the topic is cropping up in the entertainment sections of our newspapers. Thanks to the opening of David Cronenberg’s recent History of Violence movie critics across North America, and perhaps around the world, are forcing the issue out into the public eye. Whether you see the movie or not, just reading the reviews might be enough to set your mind spinning down the path of: What could I be capable of given the right circumstances?
Before anyone gets hot under the collar, I’m not planning on seeing the movie for a variety of personal reasons, and I’m not about to make assumptions on what the movie is about. I will refer to things people have said in some reviews, and a plot summary as a point of discussion only.
The plot for a History of Violence revolves around a small town diner owner who kills two men who attempt violence against himself and the patrons of his establishment. The ensuing publicity brings about revelations of his past; that he in fact has a history of violence in the form of once being a thug. While the utilization of those skills from his former life probably saved his and other’s lives, and made him an object of idolization, in other instances they would have had lumped among the criminal class.
Even in this so-called violent society that we live in (According to Statistics Canada, the rate of violent crime in Canada is on a continual decline; while murders and gun play seem to be on the increase actual incidences of violence are less) few of us, hopefully, will ever face a serious violent incident. While the fear of violence may dictate some of our choices, i.e. women not walking alone at night, avoiding certain neighbourhoods, etc., most middle class to upper middle class people do not move in circles where violence is an everyday occurrence.
The people most exposed to violence are those whose circumstances limit their housing choices to poorer neighbourhoods where violence seems to be most prevalent. As a person on a fixed income (disability pension), I know where of I speak. Domestic disputes, fights on the street, and disagreements at the speed dealers across the street are fairly common occurrences in my neighbourhood.
We have an extra chain on our door, and keep an axe just inside a cupboard door within easy reach. We may make jokes about it with each other, and to our friends, but the fact remains that it sits there, and will remain there, until such time as we move out of these types of neighbourhoods. It is our assurance that we can defend ourselves if the need ever arises.
Violence begets violence is how the saying goes, and there is a large amount of validity to that statement. I’ve always considered myself a pacifist, but I have what can be considered the means of inflicting violence on people at my disposal, which I know I would not hesitate to use. The fact that I’m forced to even consider using a weapon is disturbing, that I have no choice in the matter is only slightly mitigating.
Violence has long been humankind’s means of resolving problems. Whether a dispute between two countries or a personal dispute between two individuals, one side, usually the bigger, is always willing to “put up the dukes” to settle the issue. Whoever said violence doesn’t solve anything sure got the wrong end of the stick on that one. The reality is, one way or another, violence settles everything.
Perhaps what they meant was that violence doesn’t settle things in a fair and equitable manner. That would be closer to the point, because unless the little guy manages to sneak in a low blow or come up behind the big one with a brick and stove his head in, he’ll usually end up losing. No matter what some people may think, might does not make right, (if it did than every asshole who broke into your house has the “right” because he has the “might”) and it’s far too often the party in the right is the one on the receiving end of the thrashing.
In the case of History of Violence it appears that our perceptions of violence are being put to the test. Are the character’s actions in the first reel less heroic because he has a history of violence? Why? Is it because he no longer fits into our definition of the little guy standing up to the big guy? His intent, no matter what his history was the same; to protect himself and his customers from a threat.
What would our reactions be like if Viggo Mortensen’s character had been a veteran of combat instead of the underworld? Each situation trains a person for the effective use of violence in situations where it is called for. The former is violence that society condones, under the impression it is being utilized for the common good, while the latter is condemned because it is used against society.
However, what would we think if he were a veteran of an army that fought against “us” in a war? His skills were honed fighting and killing our fellow citizens the same as a criminal. Would that change our opinion of him or would we offer him the same respect as someone who fought for “us”?
We are highly adept at putting violence into a context that makes it more comfortable to deal with. “Good” violence is me bashing someone’s skull in with an axe if they break into my home. “Bad” violence is me getting my head bashed in by someone breaking into my home. The differences involved are obviously the intent behind the action, but that still doesn’t make the actions themselves different. Each resulted in a head being smashed in.
We all have the potential to commit acts of violence. It’s our choices of how and when to use it that seems to be an important distinction in the eyes of society. In Roger Eberts’s review of History Of Violence he quotes David Cronenberg’s explanation of the three layers of meaning in the title of the film. A character with a history of violence, the history of violence as a means of conflict resolution, and the innate violence implied in the Darwinian theory of evolution, the strongest wins out.
Cronenberg is implying, I think, that violence is part and parcel of the process that brought all species to the point that they are at now. If not for that capability we wouldn’t have survived. To be able to compete for limited resources against other species we needed to resort to violence.
As we have “civilized,” the need for violence in everyday life has diminished for most of us. Food, water and shelter are no longer matters involving a life and death struggle. Now the competition revolves around other less essential matters. Material wealth, philosophies of living, and abstract concepts motivate the majority of violence today. That’s not a judgment, that’s a statement.
I guess in one way this could be looked on as a continuation of the survival of the fittest theory. The philosophy with the biggest army wins and all others lose, thus we all evolve into one homogeneous species that think and believe the same. Well that eliminates the latter two motivations for violence but we still have the problem of competing for a limited amount of wealth.
Since that competition is the birthplace of so many different philosophies and abstract concepts we would eventually find ourselves back to fighting each other again. Hmm maybe they were right about violence not solving anything in the long run? Am I chasing my tail and running around in circles on this one?
Anybody who thinks there is an easy answer to the question of violence is fooling themselves. Blaming it on the media, television and movies is just avoiding the issue. It wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t the market for it. Violence is still an ingrained behaviour in humans that people have to be willing to unlearn.
Look how easy it is for any leader anywhere to whip his or her people into a violent frenzy. Look what happens in times of crises anywhere in the world. Given the right circumstances, who knows what each of us is capable of doing, whether we like it or not.
It would be too easy to say that competition causes violence, but competition does not necessitate its use. What appears to cause violence are those things we are led to believe are important. When we enter into competition around those items is when violence occurs. It triggers something in us on an instinctual level, an emotional response. Why do you think politicians play on people’s fears, or utilize emotionally evocative phraseology as explanations for their actions?
There will have to be a huge change in the way we think and react before violence is not so prevalent in our society. There is no such thing as a cure for violence, or a proper response to it. Social workers and the like can do all the studies they want on how environment and living conditions contribute to it, but until human’s no longer feel the need to fight for survival on some level or another violence won’t disappear.
If a so-called pacifist like me keeps an axe in his cupboard and will gladly bash someone’s skull in or bust their knee caps if they break into his apartment as a means of survival, I’d say there’s a way to go until we achieve that goal.