The Anatomy of Violence


Man cannot survive except through his mind.  He comes on earth unarmed.  His brain is his only weapon.  Animals obtain food by force.  Man has no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscles.  He must plant his food or hunt it.  To plant, he needs a process of thought.  To hunt, he needs weapons, and to make weapons – a process of thought.  From the simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man – the function of his reasoning mind.  [Ayn Rand, Fountainhead]

We live in a world in which violence is becoming an all-pervasive phenomenon.  If human beings are indeed rational creatures, why should violence, one of the most irrational forms of response, gain such ascendancy?  This article presents a psychological anatomy of violence.

There have been quite a few psychologists like Freud who thought that aggression is an inborn urge or inherited trait.  Freud believed that there is a death wish [thanatos] in every human being which is initially aimed at self-destruction but eventually gets directed outward.  Konrad Lorenz, Nobel Prize-winning ethologist, also thought that aggression was an inborn trait associated with the survival instinct of the species.  There is a fighting instinct in creatures which ensures that only the strongest males get mates so that healthy [aggressive?] genes are passed on to the next generation.

This view is not taken very seriously by psychologists today except a few who hold an evolutionary perspective.  Violence has many shades and hues.  The kaleidoscopic range of violence raises doubts about genetic factors being its only source.  For example, can we ascribe large scale, politically motivated riots to genetic factors?  Moreover, the frequency of aggressive actions varies across societies.  It implies that there must be socio-cultural factors playing significant roles in aggressive behaviour of individuals.

There is no evidence that aggression is an essential part of human nature, though there is a potential which is generated, at least in part, by biological factors.  If biological factors play only a part, it is obvious that external factors engender aggression.  The Drive theories focused on these external factors.

According to the drive theories, external conditions such as frustration or other environmental conditions drive human beings to inflict harm on others.  The most famous drive theory is the frustration-aggression hypothesis.  Frustration of a desire or goal, says this hypothesis, generates a drive to harm the perceived cause of the frustration.  The aggression may extend to other targets too. 

Most psychologists today don’t accept this theory either.  The objection is that frustration is not the only one cause of aggression.  Moreover, it is a relatively weak cause too. 

Man is not born with a large array of aggressive responses, as the quote from Ayn Rand at the beginning of this article indicates.  It implies that aggression is a trait or tendency that is acquired after birth like other complex forms of social behaviour.  Our society teaches us aggression, in other words.  The society teaches us violence either through direct experience [we become targets of violent acts at some time or the other] or by observing other people’s behaviour [real people who commit acts of violence on others, or violence seen in the media or movies or games, etc].

Our society teaches us how to inflict harm on others, which people are the appropriate targets for our violent urges, what actions of others justify aggression, and what situations or contexts in which aggression is permitted or even approved.  For example, the Pandits in Kashmir became the appropriate targets of large scale aggression in one period of time.  In the same Kashmir, today, the political party that is supposedly espousing the cause of national integration [ekta] is making a yatra which has the same potential for violence as the party’s previous Ayodhya yatra.  Both the aggression against the Pandits and the one upon the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya had the ‘moral’ sanction of a society. 

This view of aggression is called the Social Learning Perspective in psychology.   The social learning perspective was further modified, and today we have the widely accepted theory known as the General Aggression Model [GAM].

GAM says that aggression can be initiated by two types of input variables. 

(1) Situational factors such as frustration, provocation or exposure to aggressive behaviour either in the real world or in the world of the movies, media or video games.

(2) Personal factors such as irritability, attitudes and beliefs about violence, and tendency to perceive hostility in the other person or group.

In most cases, both the factors play some role in the violence that is perpetrated.  For example, the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 were instigated apparently by the situational factor of the Godhra train incident.  But the riots were not simply a retaliation; they had their roots in many personal factors such as attitudes towards and beliefs about the Muslims, political motives of certain leaders, and so on. 

When the factors – personal, situational or both – impinge upon an individual, there are two ways of responding to them. 

(1) Exercise rational thinking.  This will bring in restraint and the aggressive tendency will be under some control. 

(2) Resort to impulsive action.  This entails violence.

 Whether an individual chooses the first option (rational thinking) or the second one (impulsive action) depends on many factors such as the individual’s exposure to violence (real or in the media) and his/her knowledge structures (beliefs, attitudes, etc).

When it comes to a group, it is almost impossible to get a rational response to any given situation.  The mind is an attribute of the individual.  There is no thing called a group mind.  The group is more likely to behave like Thomas Hobbes’ leviathan.  Impulsive responses come naturally to a group.  Thinking is alien to it.  Riots and other forms of large scale violence are what you can expect when a group is unleashed on an emotive cause.  The violence will only turn monstrous when it is sanctioned by some ‘moral’ authority like a political party or social organisation. We have ample examples for this in India. 

Can we, then, blame the J&K government for preventing the BJP leaders and their followers from entering the state?  Are the BJP leaders actually behaving with any sense of social responsibility by taking a mass of emotionally charged people into a state that is already ruptured pathetically under the weight of protracted violence?

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2 Responses to The Anatomy of Violence

  1. Aditi says:

    Dear Matheikal, let me state upfront that I do not hold any brief for BJP.

    You ask :

    “Can we, then, blame the J&K government for preventing the BJP leaders and their followers from entering the state? Are the BJP leaders actually behaving with any sense of social responsibility by taking a mass of emotionally charged people into a state that is already ruptured pathetically under the weight of protracted violence”. Yes we can, and this is why.

    Jammu and Kashmir is an Indian State. Omar Abdulla is an Indian Chief Minister. Lal Chowk in Srinagar is not in ‘Pak Occupied’ Kashmir. It is the right of every Indian to hoist the National Flag with dignity in ANY part of India. If ANY State Government prevents this, cowering before separatist sentiments, it is NOT acting in national interest, and its motives prima facie are suspect. A National Flag is not a religious icon, and no political party can claim ownership for it.

    You have discussed Godhra and its aftermath. For a moment go back further, to 1991. When religious tempers were flying high over Ram Janambhumi-Babri Masjid issue and senior leaders of the BJP were crying ‘Mandir voNhi banayenge’, it was both the right AND the duty of the then State Government of UP to prevent the mob and the leaders from entering the State. This was their Constitutional duty, as a secular country. This is just not the case this time.

    Why did the (largely absentee) Chief Minister of J&K not take the wind out of BJP’s sails by agreeing to hoist the National Flag himself at Lal Chowk and by deploying all forces at his command?



  2. Pingback: The Root of All Evil: Aggression « Absolutely Mental

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