But, as I was turning left at a lighted intersection, I noticed two cars carelessly pulled off to the right shoulder ahead. A stocky, blond man was stalking outside of the driver side of one car when he turned and began throwing punches through the window at the driver. After a series of small stops and starts, the driver finally pulled ahead so that the pugilist could no longer land blows. By this point, I had turned and was on my way. However, this display of violence shocked me out of my routine and unnerved me for the rest of the ride home. I began to think about why this violent act shook my sense of the world around me, which led me down the road of pondering the nature of humans, violence and society in which I live. I don’t live in a world free of violence, but I do occupy a bubble of protection that shields me from much of it.
In fact, when I reflect, the only time I can recall being a participant in a violent act (except for brother on brother action) was when a kid in the sixth grade punched me. He was pretty big, so I didn’t punch back. Considering the amount of suffering that humans inflict on other humans, I’m doing pretty well.
Violence: The Big Picture
Anthropologists have long argued about the nature of violence among human beings. Primatologists, archaeologists, and cultural anthropologists have all gotten into the game investigating how and why humans engage in violence (for this post, I’m focusing on the more general topic of violence--people hurting one another--and not the more specific form of warfare, which requires the existence of social institutions typically only found in “complex societies”). I am definitely not reviewing all of those efforts here, but suffice to say that in my own view, humans do hit, bash, maim and kill one another. In certain times and places, more so, and in others, less. I do not believe, nor do I think that the anthropological evidence supports, that humans are in someway essentially or instinctually violent. We enact violence, but that doesn’t make us intrinsically violent any more than eating candy bars makes us Candy Barbarians. Violence is one of several paths of political action. I’ll give a couple of quick examples.
Over the past couple of decades, there has been a decent amount of controversy in the archaeology of the American Southwest. During the late precontact period, several archaeological sites demonstrate episodes where some folks met very grisly ends--defleshed, bones battered open, and in some cases folks were eaten by other folks. One of the more prominent publications to come out of this was Christy Turner’s provocatively titled, Man Corn. While the archaeological evidence of violence is clearly present, we should not interpret Ancestral Pueblo people as “violent” or “cannibals.” The same people (both as individuals and as collectives) who in some times and places maimed and killed others, also developed new religious systems, art forms and ways of living successfully together in a harsh environment. I’m sure they also helped each other and loved friends and family. All people do horrible, wonderful and all things in between. Humans are capable of many behaviors. Creating essentialized identities based on only one of those behaviors serves the political purposes of the those assigning the identity more than it sheds light on the people being assigned.
As violence is a form of political action, when I cover politics in my cultural anthropology class, I assign two readings dealing with violence among human groups. I begin with the controversial New Yorker piece by Jared Diamond about the supposed revenge instinct as exemplified by feuding between New Guinea highland groups. Diamond basically argues that humans have a basic, seemingly biological need to engage in violence when they have been deeply wronged in some way. My post here isn’t going to discuss the many criticisms of Diamond’s piece, I only mention it to springboard to the second part of the assignment, described in the following paragraph. But, I hope an attentive reader would note my disagreement with Diamond based on the view of violence I described above.
I also assign a response by Paul Sillitoe and Mako John Kuwimb, which offers another view on the place of violence among highland societies. Again, I’m not going over the entirety of their discussion. They do offer, however, a take on violence that’s much more in accord with my own. In essence, they argue that violence and revenge worked as traditional checks on the excessive accumulation of political power by any one group. Kin obligations automatically provided a person in a conflict with a base of supporters to back them up. The willingness to go to bat for a kin member through violent action was one of the ways that group was able to retain its independence and autonomy. No one group was able to consistently have its way with another group. The potential and reality of violence kept things in a fluid balance. Violence was simply part of humans’ political took kit.
I want to emphasize an important point here. These folks didn’t start whacking on each other immediately; a number of mediating and other political options were pursued before violent action. However, in some cases, violence seemed to offer the best solution for the resolution of a particular conflict.
Sidetrack on America and Guns
In many ways, Sillitoe and Kuwimb’s argument shares superficial similarities to those of Second Amendment, gun rights advocates. However, US gun rights supporters’ defense of gun ownership as a means of establishing and maintaining individual autonomy is much more of an ideological--as in masking unequal political/economic relationships--strategy. The greater context of US society--presence of powerful social institutions like the military and criminal justice law enforcement, codes of law, entities like corporations with access to tremendous resources and power--makes arguments that guns provide an individual family with a sense of real independence illusory. I tend to agree with then candidate Barack Obama’s statement that guns are something that many working class folk “cling” to rather than looking at the real source of their anxieties, usually economic ones. An individual with a gun has no real capacity to resist the holders of real power in our society. In contrast, real and potential violence New Guinea highlanders were able to maintain a real independence.
The fervent commitment by middle and upper middle-class white folks in the US seems strange to me considering that most of those folks are also largely protected by the violence-free bubble. I might see the point of gun rights folks more if I was consistently faced with nightly attacks by people, bears or elk assaulting my home and threatening my family.
Bubbles of Security and Structural Violence
In my own experience living in the United States, the state, for the most part, maintains its monopoly on legitimate violence. This can be see as both a acquiescence of power by the citizens to the state and the state providing safety and security to its citizens. Subsequently, I have lived my life in a bubble of non-violence and any violence I do encounter, like the road rage incident noted earlier, startles me out of my routine experience.
All in all, I am happy with my violence free life. I do not want harm or injury coming to me, my family or those around me. However, when I consider the big picture of violence on the globe, I realize just how insulated I am from violence and that much of the violence that does occur is part of a system that makes my pacific and secure life possible. Violence happens to people, but it’s distributed unequally. I live in a politically, economically powerful nation-state where very high standards, including insulation from violence, of living are possible. Additionally, I am white and solidly middle-class, which distances me further from the nastier side of human existence. The benefits that I receive, however, aren’t automatic, they come from systems of inequality and the suffering of others. So, unequal distributions of violence aren’t just a matter of fact, but part of a system that benefits some at the expense of others.
One of the major problems with the violence and suffering that I don’t experience is that it is largely invisible to me. I don’t see its impacts, even though they are out there. In Paul Farmer’s (2004) widely read article, “An Anthropology of Structural Violence,” he begins with a vivid description of Antie, a Haitian woman in search of medical assistance. Antie’s breast had been consumed by a massive tumor, which oozed pus and drew flies as she waited in the long line of the free clinic where Farmer worked. Farmer notes how his medical training in the US didn’t prepare him for such a tumor--in the US, most folks would have been able to receive some medical intervention before the mass had reached the advanced stage that Antie’s had. Why the difference between Haiti and the US? It’s not because Haiti is somehow cursed, but because the people of Haiti have borne the burden of global economic growth of the past three centuries. Haiti has consistently faced tremendous obstacles erected by the international community to their own success. Put simply, Haiti is impoverished because the US and France are wealthy. The great poverty of Haiti and its human impacts are the result of the intrinsic inequality of the world economic system--for some to have so much, much as to have been taken from others. Some nations act as vampires, creating and sustaining their power from the blood of others, empowering themselves, while starving those they feed on. It is the suffering of those on the losing side that Farmer defines as structural violence. Or, more eloquently, in Farmer’s words:
Structural violence is violence exerted systematically--that is, indirectly--by everyone who belongs to a certain social order: hence the discomfort these ideas provoke in a moral economy still geared to pinning praise or blame on individual actors. In short, the concept of structural violence is intended to inform the study of the social machinery of oppression [Farmer 2004:307]
This entire post was inspired by a trip home from the pediatrician. I had just taken my two, chubby, talkative and active children to a well-visit. When I compare that luxury to what Antie had experienced, I’m again reminded of my unearned, privileged position in the global hierarchy of suffering and non-suffering.
While Farmer focuses on forms of violence like poverty, environmental degradation, and limited access to health care, more familiar forms of violence (injuring and killing others) is also a part of the concept. Much of the warfare that has taken place of the past few centuries and today has helped create and maintain the system of global stratification that characterizes the planet today. Economic links connect the powerful nations of the world to most hot spots of conflict throughout the globe. For example, ongoing forensic anthropological work icontinues to document the genocide of Maya people in Guatemala during the early 1980s. Much of that genocide was inspired by the right wing Guatemalan government's belief that rural Maya villagers were communist sympathizers who were aiding leftist guerrillas (Sanford 2003). The US government shared a commitment to anti-communism and supported that government, at least indirectly, in its efforts to neutralize the threat. Such assistance also had the goal of keeping Guatemala business-friendly with trading relationships that the US would favor. Those alliances, partly designed to maintain a global economic environment friendly to capitalist expansion that clearly benefits the US in its preeminent economic position, contributed to the deaths over 200,000 people.
My own lived experience has been shaped by structural violence, but so far, I’m on the winning end of the definition (I cringe at calling it “winning” because of the blatant injustice of it). My peaceful, relatively luxurious existence has been made possible by the suffering of others. I just don’t see that suffering. The road rage incident at the intersection was just a jarring reminder that humans do engage in violence, even if I rarely see it.
The point of this post isn’t that more people should punch each other at intersections. I am not arguing for more violence; I don’t want to hurt others nor be hurt by others. My point is that throughout time and space, humans have used violence and inflicted suffering on others. My criticism focuses on the unfairness of the unequal distribution of violence today. Why should I be in the bubble, while Haitian women and Guatemala Maya suffer?
While I wouldn’t want to be placed into the middle of a feud in the Highlands of New Guinea, something seems much more honest about being personally involved in the violence on which your lifestyle depends. For those highlanders, their autonomy and independence depends on their potential recourse to violence--they are not alienated from those actions. For myself, my life of security and relative wealth depends on violence, but it is far removed and suffered by others. I don’t see its effects or consequences, so I have a hard time envisioning and enacting change.
2008 Vengeance is Ours: What Tribal Societies Can Tell Us About our Need to get Even. New Yorker.
2004 An Anthropology of Structural Violence. Current Anthropology 45(3):305-317.
2003 Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. Palgrave/Macmillian.
Sillitoe, Paul and John Kuwimb
2010 Rebutting Jared Diamond’s Savage Portrait: What Tribal Societies Can Tell us about Justice and Liberty. Stinkyjournalism.org.