At the outset I want to inform the reader that this is not light reading. I'm writing this to wrestle with my own fears and questions about the nature of violence. I have witnessed and experienced a certain amount of it, in real life, and it has stuck with me and forced me to grapple with these questions all my life. As such this essay discusses topics of an extremely distressing nature, and if you have had experiences with violence this essay may bother you.
Trigger warnings, like political correctness, are not an act of cowardice but of courtesy. I want to be courteous to my reader, and not surprise them by discussing things they may not want to read about.
I'm feeling very philosophical today, and I don't have an answer, and this is pretty meditative as I research.
This is actually a question I've wrestled with a long time. Kind of a cloud of questions, really.
The thoughts are clouding me again because of a thread I read on Hacker News about The Girl in the Kent State Photo. I didn't read the article, and barely skimmed the comments, but the linked comment thread re-iterated a consistent theme in my understanding of life and humanity.
The day after the shooting, a banner was hung in the West Point cafeteria stating, "Us: 4, Them: 0".
America has a non-negligible percent of population who I can only describe as "bloodthirsty for no good reason". They've been here a long time, and remain here today. When we try to discuss the problem, the noise from political side-taking usually overtakes the conversation.
This isn't just an American phenomenon, and anyone who thinks it is has a really tunnel vision understanding of humanity and history. Celebration of pain is a universal phenomenon in human society.
(NB: I do not mean universal to all humans, but present in every human society.)
There's a word for this that I think is too weak: Schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude (/ˈʃɑːdənfrɔɪdə/; German: [ˈʃaːdn̩ˌfʁɔʏ̯də]; lit. 'harm-joy') is the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another.
Fascinatingly, the second sentence in the opening of this Wikipedia (accessed 4/24/21) firmly establishes this as a human instinct, and not a learned behavior:
Schadenfreude is a complex emotion where, rather than feeling sympathy, one takes pleasure from watching someone's misfortune. This emotion is displayed more in children than adults. However, adults also experience schadenfreude, although generally they conceal it.
This concept is too weak, though, because Schadenfreude is really more about misfortune than pain. There's no "See also" link on this page that describes the celebration of someone else's pain specifically, which is rather unfortunate because I'm having trouble finding a jumping off point to investigate why humans celebrate the deaths of other human beings.
My puzzle is this: we are told, quite often, that normal human beings feel empathy. They do not want to hurt others, they feel bad when they see others in pain. Yet, at the same time, we frequently see absolutely vicious, bloodthirsty behavior in normal, average people. I'm not talking about celebration of the death of someone evil. I think everyone would celebrate Hitler's death, and people certainly celebrated Osama Bin Laden's death. But what made the West Point students celebrate the deaths of Kent State students?
Certainly those students did not do something worth killing for. It is universally accepted that Kent State was a tragedy. Yet those West Pointers celebrated their deaths. Why? Are they psychopaths?
This might seem tangential, but is still a pretty strong question for me, and I think it's essential to understand why someone would celebrate it.
We can describe violence as the inducement of pain, but this misses some violence, and includes violence I would not include. Namely,
Actually, upon writing numbers 1 and 2 I believe I've found I hold a contradictory definition of violence. Let's redefine two non-exclusive violence paradigms:
These overlap to some degree. Material violence can cause psychological violence, and psychological violence can result in material violence. Material violence can be psychological violence. Initially I had termed these Personal Violence and Ontological Violence. Ontological Violence is clearly wrong because Ontological is Being. Material is the right term. But Personal might be more apt than Psychological. It was later in this essay I decided to change it. I'm still not sure this is the correct choice.
But this distinction seems pretty satisfying to me. A stabbing is material and psychological violence. An insult (or bullying) is exclusively psychological violence (though we can say that it may lead to material violence: through suicide). A car crash with test dummies is exclusively material violence.
What translates an act of Material Violence into an act of Psychological Violence is itself a question of state of mind and circumstances.
I keep trying to be open-ended, expecting not to be able to answer my own questions. This essay is not to answer my questions but to get a better grasp of the shape of the questions, but I'm finding it more and more easy to actually answer the questions and it seems almost anti-climactic to me.
It seems clear that what makes material violence cross over into psychological violence is actually pretty simple and relies on two conditions:
There are a lot of gotchas in these conditions and I'd like to explore them.
First, the definition of "lasting harm" is very important. As pain is not merely physical, but also psychological, we can recognize that even acts which do not cause material violence in a way that results in a permanently altered bodily condition can qualify. Two such examples worth exploring:
The act of rape does not have to result in physical violence. A friend of mine was raped, but she experienced no physical violence. She was threatened with it. This is clearly rape, but we can easily distinguish between a man physically holding down and striking a woman to force her submission and threatening her with material violence such that she submits. In the former, there might be long-lasting bodily harm in the form of broken bones, a concussion, bruising, physical scarring, etc. In the latter, the lasting harm is psychological. I cannot believe that this is no less material violent simply because there is no physical change of state. Let's explore why. Let's focus on rape induced by threat of violence.
As an aside: I'm trying not to speak overly clinically about rape but I'm doing a bad job of it.
The simple threat of violence can certainly induce long-lasting psychological damage. And I see this as non-material, exclusively psychological violence. There is no physical change of state in this case whatsoever. But if the threat of violence induces a person to undergo an extremely distressing act: the act of sex, we can see a much more severe effect of long-lasting psychological damage. Why?
What is the difference in sensation between sex when one has consented and sex when one has not consented? We have three events:
Three separate experiences separated by one degree of condition. It's clear that the difference between (1) and (2) is physical and the difference between (2) and (3) is psychological.
I believe this indicates that material-violence-induced pain results from a combination of the psychological state of the victim and the nervous system. In (1) the victim does not experience the change in state of their nervous system, in (3) the victim experiences the same change of state of their nervous system as (2) but does not have the psychological state to experience that nervous sytem change as pain. Instead, they experience it as pleasure.
I'm going to try to copy a list of types of psychological torture (Ojeda, What is Psychological Torture?):
Categories of Psychological Torture
Isolation: solitary or quasi-solitary confinement.
Debilitation: food, water, and sleep deprivation; extreme temperatures.
Spatiotemporal disorientation: confinement in small places, natural light denial.
Sensory deprivation: hoods, goggles, gloves, deodorizing masks.
Sensory assault: shouting, loud music, bright lights.
Desperation: indefinite detention, sense of futility.
Threats: of death or violence, to self or others, mock executions, witness torture.
Degradation: verbal, nudity, personal hygiene denial, overcrowding, contact with pests, contact with excrement, sexual, ethnic, religious.
Pharmacological manipulation: tranquilizers, hallucinogens.
This list bothers me. Because it's stunning how easy it is to torture a human being. It also feels like my two well-defined paradigms of violence, material and psychological, are actually less well-defined than I thought.
In our rape study I had seen the three different situations (about threat, threat with rape, and sex) as belonging to 3 different categories of being:
I'm making this up as I go to understand my thinking, so forgive me if this doesn't make sense and seems surprising.
I think that I think that that psychological and material violence correlate to two different types of events: psychological and material events. Psychological events happen in the head, and material events happen in matter. There is cross-over here, symmetrically, with these categories of violence: most psychological events have some component of the material: to insult someone is to create vibrations in the air. This is a material change, but it is not the change of import: the change of import is the psychological change in the person. You say "astronaut" and the vibrations in the air you produce reach my ear and are interpreted by my brain to form the concept "astronaut". But no one cares about the vibrations in the air, just the interchange of meaning for which the vibrations serve as a conduit. We could be extremely pedantic and talk about neuronal changes but I'd rather treat the brain as a black box for the purposes of this essay.
Most of these forms of psychological torture do not involve a material change of import. Putting a hood on someone is not a significant materially violent event. But it is very profound. Disorientation is extremely distressing. But I cannot think of this as purely psychological violence. It is material cum psychological. Why?
I believe it's because there is a physical experience. The physical experience of having a hood put over one's head involves the nervous system.
This seems so arbitrary to me, though. Part of my philosophical method in general is to recognize that categorization is useful, until it is not. There is a resolution beyond which all categorization fails. So perhaps I can chalk that arbitrariness up to this. I am exploring the concept beyond the resolution of my categories already. They are now failing.
These categories I have created exist for a very specific reason: there is a marked difference between an insult and a stabbing, and still further difference between a stabbing and chopping down a tree. All three involve some level of violence, and all three are categorically different. With my neat categories I can say that the insult is psychological, the stabbing is psychological and material, and the tree-chopping is strictly material.
But I think we have to accept that the utility of the categories is limited.
I write these essays mostly for myself, but if they're read (at all) it will be by non-professionals. I'll therefore explain some terms:
I am not a professional philosopher. It has been at least ten years since I studied philosophy in University. I never really directly studied ontology or phenomenology outside of my own personal investigations and my studies of Aristotle, who is considerably more primitive in his understanding of these subjects than, say, Husserl or Heidegger.
But. These differences between these two seem distinct to me. Ontology is objective: it is the study of being as it is. Phenomenology is subjective, it is the study of the nature of being from the perspective of an observer. The only way to understand ontology may in fact be through the cross-examination of results from phenomenological methods.
But I think that I am getting hung up on an ontological understanding of violence where the real distinction between material and psychological violence is purely phenomenological. That is to say, the distinction between material and psychological violence resolves to a kind of subjective ontology of events. It is therefore phenomenological.
Because the experience of physical pain, as opposed to psychological, is material, pain which is induced by physical sensation, whether physical pain or psychological, is in fact material violence.
Let me explain.
We have physical and mental pain. We also have material and psychological violence. Let's not mix them up.
Chinese Water Torture, which is not actually Chinese,
is a mentally painful process in which cold water is slowly dripped onto the scalp, forehead or face for a prolonged period of time. The process causes fear and mental deterioration in the subject. The pattern of the drops is often irregular, and the cold sensation jarring, which causes anxiety as a person tries to anticipate the next drip.
There is very little evidence pertaining to the effectiveness of Torture for interrogation purposes. The method itself causes lasting mental damage in victims proportional to the intensity of exposure. The television series MythBusters investigated the effectiveness of Chinese water torture, and while it was found quite effective, they noted that the restraining equipment was providing most of the effect by itself, and when testing the dripping water alone on a relaxed, unrestrained subject, it was found almost negligible. Nevertheless, in the Episode 3, Season 2 of the web television series Mind Field the MythBusters host Adam Savage said the following: "The creepiest thing that happened after we did this episode was that I got an email from someone from a throw away account. He said, 'We found that randomizing when the drops occurred was incredibly effective. That anything that happens on a regular periodicity can become a type of meditation, and you can then tune it out. If you couldn't predict it, he-said, 'We found, we were able to induce a psychotic break within 20 hours.'"
(Chinese Water Torture, Wikipedia, accessed 4/24/21)
Dripping water on a person's forehead is quite apparently a very mild form of change in material state. But the experience is significantly amplified by the physical sensation of being restrained, and also by the randomness of the drops.
This is material violence. It is not mere insult, it is a physical sensation which induces mental anguish. It is therefore material cum psychological violence.
I do not care that both nerve system and the mental processes involved in mental anguish are, in fact, physical processes (I am operating under a strictly materialist metaphysical framework, I do not care to dualize or idealize). What matters is that we phenomenologically experience the violence as physical.
If you'd like to watch the episode of MythBusters on the subject, I will link to the YouTube video here.
In two nights' ride he passed the lights of Casas Grandes off to the west, the small city receding away behind him on the plain. He crossed the old road coming down from Guzmán and Sabinal and struck the Casas Grandes River and took the trail north along the river bank. In the early morning hours and before it was quite light he passed the pueblo of Corralitos, half abandoned, half in ruins. The houses of the town loopholed against the vanished Apaches. The naked slagheaps dark and volcanic against the skyline. He crossed the railroad tracks and an hour north of the town in the gray dawn four horsement sallied forth from a grove of trees and halted their mounts in the track before him.
He reined the horse. The riders sat silently. THe dark animals they road raised their noses as if to search him out of the air. Beyond the trees the bright flat shape of the river lay like a knife. He studied the men. He'd not seen them move yet they seemed closer. They sat divided before him on the track two and two.
Qué tiene allá? they said.
Los huesos de mi hermano.
They sat in silence. One of the riders detached himself and rode forward. He crossed the track in his riding forward and then crossed it back. Riding erect, archly. As if at some sinister dressage. He halted the horse almost within armreach and he leaned forward with his forearms crossed on the pommel of his saddle.
Huesos? he said.
The new light in the east was behind him and his face was a shadow under the shape of his hat. The other riders were dark figures yet. The rider sat upright in the saddle and looked back towards them. Then he studied Billy again.
Abralo, he said.
They sat. There was a flash of white beneath his hat as if he'd smiled. What he'd done was to seize his horse's reins in his teeth. The next flash was a knife that had come from somewhere in his clothing and caught the light in turning for just a moment like a fish deap in a river. Billy dropped down from the offside of his horse. The bandolero caught up the packhorse's leadrope but the packhorse balked and squatted on its haunches and the man booted his horse forward and made a pass at the hitchropes with his knife while the packhorse sawed about on the end of the lead. Some among his companions laughed and the man swore and he hauled the packhorse forward and dallied the leadrope to his saddlehorn again and reached and cut the ropes and pulled the soogan of bones to the ground.
Billy was trying to undo the tie on the flap of the saddlebag to get his pistol but Niño turned and stamped and backed away sawing his head. The bandolero undallied and cast off the leadrope and stepped down. The packhorse turned and went trotting. The man bent above the shrouded form of the ground and unseamed with a single long pass of the knife ropes and soogan ll from end to end and kicked aside the coverings to reveal in teh graying light Boyd's poor form in teh losely fitting coat with his hands crossed at his chest, the withered hands with the bones imprinted in teh leather skin, lying there with his caven face turned up and clutching himself like some fragile being fraught with code in that indifferent dawn.
You son of a bitch, said Billy. You son of a bitch.
Es un engaño? said the man. Es un engaño?
He kicked at the poor desiccated thing. He turned with the knife.
Dónde está el dinero?
Las alforjas, called out one of the riders. Billy had swung under Niño's bridlereins. But the horse must have begun to see the loosening of some demoniac among them for he reared and backed and in his backing trod among the bones and he reared again and pawed and the bandolero was snatched off balance and one forehoof caught his belt and ripped it from him and tore open the front of his trousers. He scrambled from under the horse and swore wildly and made a grab again for the swinging reins and the man behind him laughed and before anyone would have thought of such a thing occurring he plunged his knife into the horse's chest.
There are scenes of violence, and phrases describing violence, that feel like milestones in my thinking about violence. This is one of them. The back cover of this book, The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, describes it as an "often dreamlike journey into a country where men meet ghosts and violence strikes as suddenly as heat lightning." This scene is the epitome of that violent heat lightning.
Another sign-post: I have absolutely no idea when I first heard of this, but there seems to be a plethora of incidences: a crazed person, typically a schizophrenic, suddenly shoves someone onto the subway tracks to be killed. This seems to happen a lot. The suddenness and simplicty of the act, coupled with how violent the result, is positively stunning. Under any normal circumstances, shoving someone is a fairly mild act. Sure, it is violent and confrontational, but not murderous, not "extremely violent". This is a distinctly different affair when the result is someone on a train track.
I use the word événement very purposefully. The simple translation from the French is "event" but it's a fascinating word because of its structure. The suffix "-ment" in French is used a lot, but often seems to "noun" a verb. I wanted to use the word "eventing" or even "happening" but these are really annoying words. In the case of "happening" I think it's too associated with an artistic form called "Happening". The meaning of a Happening might actually be perfect for my purposes but because it's associated with a type of art I'd rather avoid it. I'll use événement.
I believe that I have concluded my understanding of the nature of violence and now would like to understand why people can celebrate it while remaining decent human beings. Why a West Point graduate would celebrate the death of students over politics. This is why I'm degressing into the exploration of événement.
Event is one of those folk-words or concepts that is poorly defined in our minds. It's obvious that violence is "evental": that is to say, to experience violence is to experience a violent event. It is transitory in time, and can produce lasting effects. The effects are non-evental, they are states, but can be experienced event-ally: i.e., as sensations. I believe that I have some thoughts about events that might illuminate the psychology of our West Pointers.
We can think about events in two ways:
The Naming of an Event I call The Événement. This is why I chose the word événement. Because named events are made. The edges of an event are universally fuzzy, but there is no doubt there is a significant process by which we translate metaphysical events into named events.
Please bear with me, this is exploratory. I have thought about this subject quite a lot but never tried to formalize it.
Human beings have a habit of compartmentalizing concepts. We can think of words like named variables in a programming language. Except nearly all of them consist of arrays of meaning data. The word horse signifies a species of quadripedal animal that gallops, smells distinctly, makes a whinny, can be ridden, and is quite skittish. We have all sorts of mental conceptions that belong to the word horse, but when we're speaking the word we never make a mental review of all those concepts. The word horse is a stand-in for a constellation of conceptions pertaining to horse.
Events are a lot like that. When we formulate a named event, it becomes a stand-in for a collection of metaphysical events. The Stabbing for the victim is a whole lot more clear than The Stabbing for the reader of the newspaper. The reader can conceptualize the experience to the extent that they have the capacity (perhaps they have also been stabbed and can translate the experience; perhaps not at all). But for the victim, The Stabbing is much more a collection of metaphysical events than a singular named event. It is much more vivid.
For me, the experience of violence has made the ability to translate named violent events into conceptions of the metaphysical events much easier. Almost involuntary. I do my best, quite often, to not look at bad news too closely because of how painful it can be to involuntarily empathize with too many people.
I opened this section with the passage I did because of how illustrative it is of the metaphysical events of violence. It's clear what happened: a man stabbed a horse. The same is clear with the platform shoves. But describing them as I am reduces them to their named events. The experience of violence is profoundly traumatizing because of the metaphysical nature of the event, and it is this metaphysical nature that is most hard to understand for people living in modern society.
Violence is fast and confusing. Every fight I've witnessed proceeded similarly. Everyone in the vicinity detects a tension. The way you notice this is by hearing a raised voice, violent words, or seeing turning heads. I don't want to say that there's anything "magical" in this experience, but we perceive these subtle changes almost subliminally and it feels like some kind of supernatural force. Then, one of the combattants strikes, and the rest is a struggle of twisting bodies and fists and limbs. The combattants actually seem to devolve into their constituent limbs rather than human beings. Finally, however the fight ends, it ends, and the humans reconstitute themselves, and leave. People talk, because the experience of violence as a spectator is somewhat exhilarating. It's electric.
There's loads more to discuss about the experience of physical violence. Concepts like the connection between Thanatos and Eros can be very illuminating. People feel more alive after violence, because of the connection with death. Erotic fixation can manifest. Sex in war, rape in war, is directly connected with the violence, not tangential.
But this essay really isn't about that, though I might write about it at a later date.
The real reason I wanted to discuss events is because of this distinction between the literal experience of violence and the second-hand description of it. The difference between the collection of metaphysical events and the named event that points to it.
It is far easier to integrate an event as a named event than as a sequence of painful metaphysical ones. This much is obvious. I think that it's also apparent that the experience of empathy is intimately linked with the decomposition of a named event into its constituent metaphysical ones.
Empathy is painful. So is thinking. There is some debate about the nature of empathy, and whether or how much mirror neurons are involved. But the basic concept of empathy is just experiencing what another experiences through psychological imagination. It's not the same as sympathy. Sympathy I think of as lesser empathy: empathy is the psychological experience of another's pain, sympathy is feeling emotional anguish for another's pain. Pity is closer to sympathy than empathy.
When we refuse to decompose a named violent event into its constituent metaphysical events it protects us from the painful experience of empathy. Is involuntary empathy a form of violence? I'd say obviously not, but this question definitely exposes cracks in my definitions. Either way, when I refuse to decompose the named event, in order to avoid empathy, it is certainly an act of cowardice.
It would be trite, almost pat, to say that the West Pointers have never experienced violence, therefore lack empathy, cannot break the named event of Kent State into its constituent parts, and therefore celebrated it. In fact, I believed this at the start of the essay. As I was describing the événement I was thinking this was exactly the answer to my initial question. But it's not.
First, there was far more violence in the past than in the present. Far more people had experienced violence in the past than the present. But we're supposed to believe that people were less bloodthirsty in the past? Absolutely not! Public hangings were a regular family event! Bloodsport like gladitorial combat was as regularly attended as we attend the cinema! And lest we forget, abused individuals are far more likely to become abusers than the non-abused.
Actually, that's not true at all, that last sentence, and I'm going to leave it so that I can correct it: while it is the case that more than half of the adults who become abusers were themselves abused, it is not the case that adults who were physically abused as children are more likely to abuse their children (NIH, 2015). This is profoundly weird. I think I may be misunderstanding the import of this study, perhaps it only applies to physical and not sexual abuse and that's what's significant. I really don't get it. Instapapered for later.
But my initial point about the past and present stands: people in the past were significantly more likely to have experienced violence, which, by my understanding, means they are more capable of empathy. But they were also significantly more bloodthirsty. Why, then? My model must be wrong.
Or is it? Perhaps there is a tertiary factor. Let's just call it evil. I really don't mean to describe this supernaturally, and I don't feel like modelling metaphysical evil, but let's just say that there is some quality to human beings which is evil. And let's suppose this quality has significantly decreased in the present. We can easily point to a significant reduction in violence over time. In fact, one of the fascinating aspects of hunter gatherer tribes is that the rate of death by murder is exactly the same as that among chimpanzees.
Warfare was a routine occupation of primitive societies. Some 65% were at war continuously, according to Keeley's† estimate, and 87% fought mroe than once a year. A typical tribal society lost about 0.5% of its population in combat each year, Keeley found. Had the same casualty rate been suffered by the population of the twentiety century, its war deaths would have totaled two billion people.
(151-152, Before The Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade)
† Lawrence H. Keeley, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago
So what the hell is it that causes a person to be bloodthirsty, to celebrate death? Clearly there is some level of otherization. I am of the belief that all forms of prejudice and racism are just types of otherization. The West Pointers identify as an in-group out-of-which they identify the Kent Staters. This is obviously related to politics, and all politics are in reality Identity Politics. Because we identify ourselves by our politics. This itself may be a modern phenomena, but really, what did people identify themselves before? Religion? I think the distinction between politics and religion is somewhat arbitrary. In fact, I think the distinction was probably more clear when religion was more common. Fascinatingly, it seems to me there was only a brief period when the religious instincts of humanity were separate from the political instincts (probably best marked as the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). This is a subject for another essay.
I don't know if I'm beginning to systematize my philosophy, but I don't think that I can answer my question with the tools I've built in it. Or, perhaps, because I'm already at 5500 words, I'd rather not spend even more words when I feel like I've made so little progress on my initial question. Or perhaps I just don't like how prosaic the answer seems to me:
People celebrate violence because they are evil and see the victim as other. Everyone has a little bit of evil, and everyone sees someone as other.
It actually takes effort to see no one as other. Liberals, I believe, otherize the least amount of people. But they definitely otherize. I feel less sympathy for conservatives. This is wrong, and I know it, but it is a fact. Does it mean I should practice empathy for conservatives? Definitely. I think I could write a decent essay justifying my contempt for conservatives. But I won't, and shouldn't, because the justification of contempt is not healthy.
I want to specify that by conservatives I mean the modern American conservative movement which I think would be more accurately described as reactionary than "conservative". I should probably write a more formal description of political orientation, but for now, if you're interested, you can check out my negroni article.
I'll leave you here, dear reader. I've written enough, and you've read enough.
One final thought I never found the space to work in: according to Nature magazine, psychological torture is routinely experienced as worse than physical torture (Nature, 2007). I think there's more to explore here. It implies the mental state of the victim is more profound than I've given it credit for even here.