Blogging sure happens in fits and starts. The many distractions (teaching and administrative) of the fall semester put a quick end to my post-prolific August. Much of the time at work, I feel like a pinball bouncing around the board. However, recently, a couple of bell-ringing, lighted prongs knocked me into writing up this post.
Earlier this week, I was asked to participate in an informal discussion about the the “roots of violence” in human beings with a biologist and a political scientist. As I began to think about my component of the discussion, I definitely wanted to highlight the contextual nature of human behavior, which sometimes can include violent actions, and to counter any kind of claim about an essential predisposition to primordial barbarism. It was to be an informal talk, so I didn’t want to prepare some comprehensive take, like offered in Agustín Fuentes’ new book, but was hoping for a more intimate discussion of humans and violence. What’s a busy professor to do?
Luckily, the week before I had received a review copy of Gangsters Without Borders by T.D. Ward, which is an ethnography of the MS-13 street gang, notorious for numerous violent crimes. Here, I had some new material to weave into the presentation as this is a clear example of a group of people (that my students have some knowledge of) engaging in violent actions.
I was struck further as Ward began the book with a brief biography of José Amaya, a composite drawn from several gang members Ward had gotten to know. Amaya and I were born within a few years of one another, which pushed me to reflect on our two very different sets of experiences with violence (I discuss the notion of my protection from violence at greater length in Road Rage and Bubbles of Protection). Contrasting our biographies provided a nice demonstration of the importance of context in shaping behavioral options.
At a young age, Amaya was introduced to the uncertainty and fear of living in a place ripped apart by war in the beginning of the civil war in El Salvador. He became accustomed to seeing the literal flesh and blood that are the consequences of violence. To compound this situation, his parents moved to the United States when he was young and couldn’t afford to send for him for several years. By the time he arrived in the US as a pre-teen, his parents were strangers to him, who also worked low-paying and long-hour jobs. School offered no respite either. As a Salvadoran immigrant who spoke no English, he was subject to bullying from both Euro- and Mexican-American students. José turned to MS-13 as an avenue to protection, material and symbolic resources and simply the meaning provided by a family, albeit dysfunctional, that he didn’t have elsewhere.
One of the points that Ward notes that many overlook when discussing the violence street gangs engage in is that one its major causes is not savagery, but a search for compassion. A central symbol to the gang is to have Corazón, which simultaneously means courage, love and compassion. Showing courage through violence also demonstrates caring and compassion for other gang members.
I grew up in a comparative alternate universe. Born male and white in a society dominated by white men, that dominates other societies globally provides a tremendous advantage from the outset (and a large part of this advantage was built through the disenfranchisement of peoples in other places....like, for instance El Salvador). I had the additional advantage of being born into a middle-upper middle class household. My world was free from real want and extraordinarily little violence. I had an easy path through school, the major gatekeeper for symbolic resources in my environment. In all honesty, without trying very hard, I fell into a profession in which I can easily access my society’s material and symbolic rewards through culturally sanctioned means.
Through this comparison, I hoped to show how social, economic, political and other general cultural contexts shaped how Amaya was pulled into a violent lifestyle, while I was able to live in a violence-free bubble.
Humans are not violent or non-violent--they’re both. The best answer I could give was, “it depends.”
2013 Gangsters Without Borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran Street Gang. Oxford University Press.