A Brief History of Violence


For most of history, violence was really cool. The concept of cool didn’t exist yet, of course, but the concept of violence sure did; and man, was it boss. Violence was redemptive. It was wacky fun. When the three musketeers meet a new friend, first they try to kill him, and only afterwards does everyone shake hands.

This state of affairs lasted for a long time. There are only three real events in the history of violence since then: the humanist/imperialist dialectic; World War I; and the action movie.


I. The humanist/imperialist dialectic

A couple hundred years ago, violence suffered a setback. It was an age of reason, and some people think that reason serves as a natural counter to violence, but actually, violence is often rational. When the medieval theocratic Ottoman Empire wanted to become a rationalist modern state, the first thing it did was commit genocide (note: that was not literally the first thing it did). The Khmer Rouge thought of themselves as rationalists.

So reason was not a counterforce against violence, but humanism was. Robert McLiam Wilson once wrote that violence is a failure of the imagination (I’m citing from memory here), an inability to “swap shoes” with the person we’re bludgeoning to death. This isn’t rational, of course, it’s just make believe. But humanism is all about making believe—making believe, for example that there’s some connection between us and other humans.

The power of make-believe implicit in humanism offered at least the possibility of tempering violence, but violence had a counter-counterforce: imperialism. Imperialism addresses none of the issues humanism raises; it does not lessen the impact of violence in the imagination, nor does it answer why humans connected by tenuous imaginary bonds should or should not hurt each other. What it does, though, is make violence safe. Violence is never perfectly safe, no matter how many guns the Lone Ranger shoots out of people’s hands (“Ouch! That stings!”), but it can be pretty safe. Pretty safe people may have difficulty imagining that they may “swap shoes.”

I’m using “imperialism” in a really loose sense (which is fine, because people have always defined the term in ways they found convenient: Lenin pretty much defined it as “Things the Soviets are not in a position to do”), covering all sorts of colonial conquests from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The common elements of these wars (and, when there were not wars, these suppressions and massacres) were:

  1. they exhibited an extreme disparity of power, which allowed one side to participate in lots of violent acts with minimal casualties;
  2. they took place far away from home, so your family and your stuff was safe regardless of what happened to you; and
  3. you could leave when you were tired of fighting. Back home the fields were still green and Punch was still amusing.

There are some broad assumptions here—obviously not every soldier was allowed to leave when he was tired of fighting—but overall, violence doesn’t sound so bad when it mostly involves people who are choosing to participate, and even then at only slight risk.

Ho ho! But it goes without saying that only one side got to choose to participate, and only one side had slight risk. When humanism allowed us to “swap shoes,” violence may have been tempered, but when rationalism taught us that we could make some sweet cash by killing other people with no repercussions, violence waxed. Whether this dialectic resulted in more violence or less, I do not pretend to know.



Then something happened, which we call World War I. World War I was not safe, and it was extremely unpleasant, and many of its participants did not get to go home to mom when they got bored, or scared. “Too many white people died” is one contemporary way of putting it. What is undeniable is that violence had a watershed at the Somme. It didn’t seem fun anymore. While it’s important to remember that violence is often not fun for someone, the Great War was fun for no one except maybe Eddie Rickenbacker. Afterwards, people talked about peace. They built monuments to peace. They thought there would be no more wars. That was a silly belief, because if what you want the most is something someone else can take away from you, the end result is always violence, and this is doubly true if what you want the most is not-violence. But, regardless, although people participated in violence, they didn’t enjoy it so much. After WWI, wars were not fought for glory, they were fought for results. This was a big deal, perhaps the most important even in the history of violence. The history of violence is endless, of course, but even humanism failed to make violence as unpopular as the simple act of killing an entire generation of Europeans in agony.


III. Action movies

Unlike humanism and imperialism—big, nebulous concepts—anyone can pinpoint when World War I happened. And anyone can chart the rise, shortly after the war, of a cinema that realized that as bad as violence may be, it sure looks cool. It’s hard to remember the unpleasantness of the trenches when Chow Yun-Fat is flying through the air backward, shooting everyone in slow motion.

A combination of factors, including an increasingly subliterate population, an international market that eschews nuance, and the undeniable beauty of seeing someone jump over a car to knee a man off a motorcycle has if not repopularized violence then at least ruined its obscurement. We have a hard time imagining a strong protagonist as something other than a killing machine, even though the whole purpose of civilization is to allow non-killing machines to be strong protagonists. We want to believe that the smartest and most dangerous man in the world spends his time beating up criminals in Gotham’s dark alleys. We want to believe that the living embodiment of the American dream does not spread democracy, capitalism, or equality, but rather throws a metal disk at people’s heads. We can say we don’t like violence, but all of our dreams are about shooting someone while jumping out a window.

No one’s ever come up with a study on the relationship between attitudes towards violence and violence that I’ve been satisfied with. I don’t even know what kind of violence units you can use to measure violence, let alone calculate causes of these affects. All I know is that violence started out beautiful; then there was a tizzy over whether it was beautiful or ugly; then for a brief moment it was ugly; and now, oh Lordy, is it ever beautiful, and it is only getting more so.

Every day, regardless of what we pretend, it is growing more beautiful.

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