Friday, August 06, 2010

Violence Makes us Feel Better

I didn't think much of it when I stepped out onto the balcony and noticed the swarm of police cars camped out below. I'd often joked about how 911 was really unnecessary at our building because the police were usually already there. But as I looked down from my eighth floor view, I noticed entire families watching from their balconies as well. Okay, so that was new. So were the two helicopters. My stomach clenched, and decided to head downstairs. A tall, hook nosed officer at the door politely told the small group of us that no one was allowed to come or go. I waited by the elevator, willing it to come quickly. Back in my apartment, I headed out to the balcony and noticed the police tape for the first time. They'd marked off a small section of trees to the right of the front entrance. And there were more police cars. So many I lost count.


It was my first thought. My wife had left a couple of hours earlier to head for work, and I'd drifted off for a short nap before working out. I checked my cell phone. Breathed a sigh of relief at her text message. She was outside the city. I checked online to find out more. Apparently a woman had been thrown off a balcony on the 11th floor. The story talked about a "massage" parlour being run out of our building, her screaming, and the police kicking down the door but unable to prevent her from being thrown off the balcony.

I called my wife. Twittered. Exchanged messages. Everything heightened. Everything alive. I felt sadness, felt the barbarity of the act, but more than anything, I simply felt. What I didn't like however, was the suddenly heightened sense of importance I felt at being so near a tragedy. It was wrong, but I was too close to look at it, too close to understand what was happening. Even now, a few days later, I wish for greater sadness. Because the truth is that the most dominant feeling I experienced once I knew that my wife was safe, was excitement. Not the excitement you feel when you accomplish something or watch your team win a championship or share something with family or friends. No, it was something much darker than that.


Scientists have some evidence that extremely violent behavior is a result of reduced platelet serotonin levels in our brain, and that it is a dissociative disorder arising from a lack of maternal bonding and affection. What it hasn't explained is why all humans still tend towards violence. If we exempt those struggling from emotional dysfunction, (a relatively high number in our society) the better answer for the general populace when looking at violent behavior is the basic psychology behind it.

Violence makes us feel better because it raises our status, and it does so in two ways. The first is association. Being associated with violence, even as a bystander, in a liberal democratic society, immediately enhances our status, because for many of us, our daily survival is never in question. Western society has done a better job protecting its people from violence than any other in the history of civilization. We live longer than ever, and our child mortality rate is absurdly low. We may not like all that progress has brought with it, but we live in a far safer society than that of our ancestors. Violence has a darkness to it that is powerful and entrancing, and its allure is even greater when we don't have to worry about it actually affecting us. Think of the Iraq war, with hundreds of thousands of civilian Iraqi deaths, encouraged by many pundits while we simply cheered our soldiers, with no risk to ourselves, and only vague political mush to excuse our excitement over what was, and still is, happening there. When we associate with violence, we become the Roman mob, cheering the spectacle of blood at the Forum, quickened by the darkness that violence brings. It creates not only a heightened sense of awareness in our brain, but serves as a means to delineate the daily routine with an event of significance. And if the event is significant, so are we.

Violence also makes us feel better by doing. That is, we commit acts of violence against one another to preserve our status and enhance our own sense of power. That may not manifest itself in something as barbaric as throwing someone off a building, because the violence Western culture suffers is often more hidden and more subtle. Take for example, supposedly Christian forums where one believer will rip apart someone who doesn't agree with them about a minute point of Scripture. Or how whites trash blacks and heterosexuals tear apart the gay community. People wonder at the vitriol on the internet now, and argue that people would never say these things if they weren't anonymous. But that's not true. It's a different forum, to be sure, but I still remember my grandfather talking about "n******" and other races as if they were inferior. Every day I see acts of violence commited against women in both words and posturing, violence that doesn't always manifest itself physically, but does so behind closed doors more than we imagine.

And the more I read, the more I am convinced that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins do not know what they're talking about. Dawkins, in particular, has made a career out of pontificating that religion is the world's great evil. That most of the violence done throughout history was done in the name of religion. He's right, of course, excepting the Soviet experiment in the 20th Century, which was responsible for the death of about sixty million people. But doing something or committing an act in the name of religion has nothing to do with religion itself. If that were true, then atheists would be the most peaceful people on earth, and the only group who can legitimately make that claim would be the Tibetan monks.

There is a difference between verbally ripping someone to shreds and physically killing someone, but how much? What is the difference between a young person who was so emotionally abused that they will spend most of their life trying to heal, and the young person who was shot in the leg?

Whether we like it or not, the presence of violence, or even the threat of it, gives us status. This is a highly tuned evolutionary premonition, and in the eyes of many Christians, it is the prevalence of our sinful nature. And yet, it abounds. Is there anything more absurd than listening to a Christian talk about grace while mocking someone who believes differently? How is that not violent? How is that not merely a religious excuse for status grabbing? The same is true of those reject religion, and yet attack, with great vitriol, those who disagree with them, and do so with condescension and laughter. Violence has nothing to do with religion. It has its own friends and its own kind of power, and in many ways, has its own group of worshippers, a group that spans across all races, genders, and systems of belief, and it is far more dangerous.


I'm back on the balcony. The police tape down below is gone. They say the woman is in critical condition. They think that she will live. It is unnerving to think about what happened, or how I felt when it did. I am hoping my sadness takes hold. Mostly though, I'm thinking about a Jewish rabbi who taught odd things, when he walked around Palestine at the turn of the Century. A rabbi who taught that servanthood was better than violence. That finishing last was more important than raising your status. Even at the end, when the Romans would kill him for speaking out, his disciples did not fully grasp it, and through the centuries, his followers haven't done a great job with it either. And that includes me.

Lowering our status is not something we can do naturally. It is something we must work at, something we must ask help for in doing. We want to matter. We want to be important and have people look up at us in admiration. And unlike most civilizations, because we live longer, the task is even more difficult. Even the best of us will resort to violence because it's easy and "feels" natural. Most of us will never physically attack another person, but we will lash out verbally to remind others that they stand below us. We will mock them until they squirrel away, their self-esteem torn apart, just so they know that we're 'higher' than they are, that we're better than they will ever be. We will rape the environment without thinking about, because 'that's the way things are', and our status as humans is greater than the other living creatures with whom we share this planet.

Despite all the evidence that stands against the silly rabbi and his silly ideas, I will hold on to the hope that there's a better way. That perhaps this Jew, who spoke in a time and place of war and bloodshed, offered us something better. Better than the dark high that violence gives us, better than the feeling we get when we establish our own importance.

No one likes to feel worthless or unimportant, but perhaps we've gone about this the wrong way. Instead of spending hours on the internet establishing why we're right, what if we volunteered at a shelter instead? Or perhaps volunteered with a neighbourhood charity, as opposed to creating endless documents about why our ideas about religion or science are better than those around us. For most of recorded history, humans have used violence to increase their status. Perhaps it is time to try something else.