Newly Pacified

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Peter Frost looks at what drives people to violence:

I first went to elementary school in a largely English Canadian neighborhood of Scarborough. Schoolyard fights were only occasional, and there was almost always a good reason. My family then moved to a largely Scotch-Irish town in central Ontario. There, the schoolyard fights were a daily occurrence, and they seemed to happen for no reason at all. I eventually found out the reason… something to do with “respect” or rather the lack of it.

We like to think that people everywhere respond to situations more or less as we do. If the response is anger — red boiling anger that can kill — we assume there must be a very good reason. Otherwise, the person wouldn’t be so angry.

Hence the puzzlement over the Boston bombers. What drove them to such an act?

“Normal” is a relative term, and in other societies, such as Algeria, people do kill for apparently trifling reasons, as Frantz Fanon discusses in Les damnés de la Terre:

Very often the magistrates and police officers are stunned by the motives for the murder: a gesture, an allusion, an ambiguous remark, a quarrel over the ownership of an olive tree or an animal that has strayed a few feet. The search for the cause, which is expected to justify and pin down the murder, in some cases a double or triple murder, turns up a hopelessly trivial motive. Hence the frequent impression that the community is hiding the real motives.

Boys in such a society are expected to get in fights, come home with bruises, and play “manly” games that build courage and endurance:

This pattern of behavioral development doesn’t differ completely from my [Peter Frost's] own. The difference is largely one of degree. But there’s also a difference in kind: the violent male as an independent actor who fights for himself and his immediate family. For “normal” boys in Western society, male violence is legitimate only when done under orders for much larger entities: the home team, the police, the country, NATO… Everywhere else, it is evil, criminal, and pathological.


Male violence has long been viewed differently in different societies. In our own, it is stigmatized, except when done “under orders” by soldiers or the police. Some societies, however, had no police or army until recent times. Every adult male was expected to use violence to defend himself and his family. Yes, you could go to a law court to settle your differences with someone. But even if the court ruled in your favor, the sentence still had to be enforced by you, your brothers, and other male family members. That’s the way things were done. For millennia and millennia.


Initially, all adult males everywhere had to defend themselves and their families, not by paying taxes but by getting their hands bloody. This situation changed with the rise of the State. In other words, some powerful men became so powerful that they could impose a monopoly on the use of violence. Only they or their underlings could use it. Male violence had been “nationalized” and could be used only if ordered by the State or in narrowly defined situations of self-defense.

In this new pacified environment, the violent male went from hero to zero. He became a criminal and was treated accordingly. Society now favored the peace-loving man who got ahead through work or trade. This process has been described for England and other parts of Western Europe by several academics, like Gregory Clark. With the establishment of strong States toward the end of the Dark Ages, and a subsequent pacification of social relations, the incidence of violence declined steadily. Violent predispositions were steadily removed from the population, either through the actual execution of violent individuals or through their marginalization and lower reproductive success. The meek thus inherited the earth (see previous post).

Or rather a portion of it. In some parts of the earth, particularly remote mountainous areas, State control came very late. These are societies in the earliest stages of pacification. Male violence is a daily reality, which the State can only contain at best. Such is life in Chechnya … and elsewhere.

(Hat tip to Konkvistador.)

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