Ubiquitous Assault on the Senses

Saturday, 11th December 2010
How will future generations view early 21st century Britain? An age of enlightenment that allowed more women than ever to work, redefined loud arguments as domestic violence, exposed childhood sexual abuse and extended the benefits of prosperity to more people than ever. This is the spin of the neo-liberal media, i.e. you've never had it so good or experienced such a wonderfully fair and harmonious society. Surely you don't want to return to the dark ages when parents routinely spanked their children at the slightest hint of disobedience and women were chained to the proverbial kitchen sink? In affluent communities violence has been confined mainly to virtual reality, blasted through speakers in the form of death metal and rap, projected onto mega-screens and translated into a captivating and highly addictive games. We are not just separated from the harsh realities of nature as our forebears knew it, but shielded from the consequences of violent ideation, now a dominant form of entertainment. This genre of entertainment may be likened to less technologically advanced spectacles such as gladiatorial fights in ancient Rome, or more recently boxing, wrestling or fencing, but over the last 20 years we have witnessed the gradual encroachment of war themes into our leisure life It's no longer just war movies, thrillers and video nasties occupying little more than one or two hours a week, but over 80% of the most addictive video games, paintball, Laser Quest and steady repetitive raucous beats and metallic dins accompanying electronic sound marketed as music and played in locales as diverse as sports centres, shopping malls and even offices. Indeed some young people find it hard to concentrate without a continuous blur of discordant noise at work. So paradoxically one may not shout at one's spouse for fear of being charged with domestic abuse, but one may play gangster rap at full volume while washing the car. If one dares suggest first-person shooters trivialise violence, one is soon ridiculed as reactionary and wait for it, against progress. Dare one suggest rap triggers feelings of hatred and intolerance, one is routinely slammed as intolerant of our wonderful cultural diversity.
So while many of us feel increasingly powerless to change any aspect of our lives, we can only sit back and watch the spectacle of millions immersed in virtual violence in the safety of their bedrooms or offices. Paradoxically many first person shooter fans would be utterly horrified by the slightest hint of real-life gore. Recently an Italian teacher in a farming community arranged for her class to view the slaughtering of a pig. Parents were horrified, how could children learn the truth about meat processing. Sadly many pupils had previously believed meat comes from supermarkets in the same way as petrol just magically gushes from a filling station pump. Did our ancestors dream of heroic battles six to eight hours a day? Did they revel in death and destruction? At stake is the viability of human solidarity for if we dream of exacting revenge against perceived foes in times of economic disparity and limited per capita resources, we are doomed to repeat the worst democidal excesses of our recent history. To what extent is violence an inextricable part of the human condition and to what extent can culture either channel violent urges into socially useful activities or trigger violence in otherwise peaceful individuals?

I would measure progress, not in terms of material possessions or abstract statistics championed by bureaucrats, but as a broad measure of social harmony, contentment and self-fulfilment, a delicate balancing act focussed on the reduction of conflict and personal suffering, e.g. ambition can drive innovation leading to significant improvements in life, but also cause conflict and selfishness.

Human beings have a vast array of instinctual behaviours that may be unleashed under certain conditions. Some of our behvaiours require little active thought, either because they are essential to our existence and have been inherited from millions of years of evolution or because inculcated behaviours have become second nature. A healthy baby need not learn to suckle, breathe or even cry in response to basic nutritional needs. By contrast, humans did not evolve to drive cars or type, but many of us perform these tasks with amazing agility. In comparison with most other adults human babies are pretty helpless. Other newborn mammals can walk within minutes of birth. However, many other ingrained behaviours are learned skills building on our intellectual hardware and primitive reflexes, e.g. neurolinguists such as Noam Chomsky believe complex language relies on a specialised brain functions absent in other species, but clearly the exact manifestation of our linguistic abilities depends largely on our environment. Our humanity determines our intellectual potential, while our environment determines how we develop and utilise our intellect. Without applying reason and compassion in the forebrain, a male responding to his innate libido might be inclined to sexually assault any unaccompanied attractive female within easy reach. Were we to let our basest instincts guide our actions, modern civilisation as we know it would never have arisen. The technological progress that helped us expand our food supply, tame nature to meet our needs and lower infant mortality relies on advanced forms of social organisation and co-operation, in which our intellect and sociability prevail over primitive forms of social control.

Violence has long been a feature of human existence, but its role and pervasiveness have varied enormously over the millennia. Many anthropologists have observed we are the only animal that wages war against other members of our own species, but disagree on whether tribal warfare first emerged in the Neolithic era as stone-age humans began farming and establishing more permanent settlements around fifteen to ten thousand years ago, or whether internecine conflict has always accompanied homo sapiens sapiens throughout the Paleolithic era. We might consider some exceptions, e.g. a lion may fight a rival over control of a pride and then slaughter cubs that are not their own. However, not only are lions some of the most ferocious mammals, but their survival depends largely on brute force and obedience within a tightly knit community and, more important, on hunting other animals. They evolved to be top of the food chain, not to go forth and multiply and thus dominate through numbers. On the African plains, aggressive predators are in a minority, while the vast majority are mere grazers, browsers or warblers. Violence as a survival strategy only works if your species has a low population and can feed on a much larger number of easy prey. It is plainly foolish to apply human ethics to other species. Lions are born to kill and care only for their immediate family. Notions such as compassion and solidarity simply do not enter a Lion's mindset.

We descend from a line of vegetarian and omnivorous primates, who succeeded in mastering their habitat through dexterity, cunning and social organisation rather than the exertion of physical force, which was largely reserved for travel, work, foraging, hunting of small animals and occasional defence against predators. Around six to sevem million years separate us from our closest primate cousins, chimpanzees, but why would violence evolve as in innate human instinct? First wee need to define violence a little more accurately. Many primates do not hunt at all preferring to forage as vegetarians should their habitat provide plentiful food, but we are most closely related to chimpanzees who do not only hunt, but have been observed resorting to violence as a means of conflict resolution and imposing their power on more submissive females. By constrast Bonobos, close cousins of chimpanzees, are Obviously any carnivorous animal exerts physical force to catch and kill other animals. Few animals practice cannibalism except as a last resort in after a natural calamity. However, we do not relate to other animals in the same way as we relate to members of the same species. To a carnivore, other animals are food, not sentient beings. At this point it might be useful to distinguish intra-species violence from inter-species violence. Some would take an absolutist stance against murder of all sentient beings and thus promote vegan pacifism, arguing that human technology allows us to be at one with nature. However, most Vegans in wealthy countries relies on a huge human infrastructure that has completely reshaped our planet and effectively ethnically cleansed whole species from their natural habitats or confining them to wildlife reserves. To enable the apparently peaceful existence of a middle class Western European family with their 4 bedroom house, two cars, household appliances, endless gadgets, holidays abroad and weekly supermarket shopping sprees, we need to inflict violence on a huge scale against the planet's delicate eco-system, something many of us would rather deny. So we might not witness real warfare firsthand, but it is committed in our name so we can drive our cars and fill our refrigerators without much thought as to how that delicious frozen salmon ends up in our freezer. This warfare may not always be waged against non-collaborative communities, but simply displaces traditional human communities and other species in the name of progress.

In many ways we are slowly emerging from an age of apparent harmony, in which people from different socio-ethnic backgrounds learned to live and work together. Certainly throughout history different ethnic groups have intermingled, but also fought bloody battles. Most of us have enough trouble trying to care for our immediate kith and kin. We can easily relate to our immediate geographic community and if this is cohesive enough, we might help disadvantaged neighbours. Charity really does begin at home. All of a sudden we have been asked to care not just for other members of our ethnic community, i.e. a group of people with a common language, mores and cultural identity, but all 6.7 billion estimated to grace our planet in 2010. As this is clearly impossible, we just pretend to care and look after ourselves, but often seek revenge against rivals by playing victims to justify our selfish actions. In reality while many of us pretend to care about the wider human race and some of us have been known to help strangers in distress, unless we are very rich and/or resourceful, we can only practically look after number one and our immediate family and friends. More important a socially competitive and high-consumption society pressures people to acquire more material posessions for themselves, either through hard work or financial manipulation. As a result millions are so busy struggling to make ends meet in a never-ending rat race, they have little time for others. Philanthropy has become a luxury afforded to the fortunate professional classes with time on their hands, while often members of idle classes prefer to indulge in media therapy (watching TV, chatting on Facebook etc.) rather than help others in their community. And even when people do help others, deep-seated cultural prejudices condition how this is targeted. The idea that billions of atomised human beings immersed in variations of the same global culture will learn to love each other is clearly a myth.

Postscript

While the Web is deluged with gamers' rants against any attempt to limit their freedom to indulge and many journalists in mainstream newspapers make a living out of promoting virtual violence as a legitimate genre of entertainment, my thoughts are not entirely unique. An Yugoslav Australian, Dejan, reached similar conclusions:

Are we becoming a violence obsessed society? I think we are.

Is it the excitement or the adrenaline rush? Maybe its a product of the life pressures we face today or even a mixture of the aforementioned? Something surely is driving us towards this culture where violence is being glorified and aggressiveness respected. It seems that way. The political sphere, the media and entertainment industries promote this aggressive culture that cant be leading the world towards a prosperous future, quite the contrary. Read full article at http://socyberty.com/society/the-obsession-with-violence

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