Violence: obsession or necessity

The Friday Times; June 27-July 03, 2003 | Vol. XV, No. 18

IN THE PREFACE TO HIS PLAY “LEAR,” Edward Bond wrote: “I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners. Violence shapes and obsesses our society, and if we do not stop being violent we have no future…It would be immoral not to write about violence.”

This statement, especially its operative part, is most interesting. While Bond acknowledges that violence shapes and obsesses our society, he, nonetheless, thinks that if we do not stop being violent we have no future. He thus implies that while violence is clear and present in human societies, it may not be a natural or even an essential condition: hence, the warning that unless it is stopped, we will not have a future. This is corroborated by what he says at another point in the preface: aggression is an ability but not a necessity. Is he right (the question eschews cases of gratuitous violence)?

No. Firstly, ability itself denotes necessity even when it lies dormant for long periods. It can come into play when the need arises. Further, in an evolutionary sense it could be part of the weapons of survival of a species. Secondly, could it be that violence is embedded in human existence rather than existing outside it, and therefore can neither be regarded as essentially unacceptable nor entirely eradicated?

Human beings have the unique ability to generate surplus. In other words, human existence is not just marked by a strict biogenetic programme, but in fact allows for a diversity of actions, an ability not found among other animals. This ability forms the basis for both human progress and regression. The process is interactive – progress and regression emanating from the same source – and creates one of the many antipathies that inform human existence. How then can violence be stopped entirely, which is what Bond implies, despite his clear understanding that all societies have shown a tendency towards it?

Take the example of a State.It sustains itself through a combination of law and power, both internally and externally. It may acquire its legitimacy through an historical process that combines elements of a socio-political contract but it possibly cannot retain its locus standi without either a monopoly over the instruments of violence or by coming across as the most powerful contender that can use violence more effectively than others. Interestingly, other contenders, too, can claim legitimacy for themselves but they become legitimate only when the claim is brought home through effective use of force (violence).

When Albert Camus’ rebel decides on ‘all or nothing’ the script in the struggle thereon unfolds through the use of violence and counter-violence even as the battle is waged in the name of rights and legalities (both in the sense of law and propriety). The nineteen hijackers who blew themselves up along with innocent passengers on September 11 have been declared terrorists. The United States has declared war on terrorism on the one hand and created chaos in at least two countries so far. The violence it has perpetrated doing so has been declared as a necessary tool to restore the state of “innocence” shattered by the terrorists. The discourse gets its acceptance not because it is embedded in any higher morality or is reinforced by any natural law but because the United States, as also other states in the world, can make it stick through force of arms and an ability greater than the terrorists to generate violence.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel/…Beneath the bleeding hands we feel/The sharp compassion of the healer’s art

Thus wrote T S Eliot in East Coker. In the dominant discourse, the US is the wounded surgeon and its sharp compassion (violence) the healer’s art (necessary) because its use of force is legitimate even as that legitimacy itself is underpinned by its effective control of the instruments of violence. Were this equation to change in favour of the terrorists, the discourse would undergo a reversal. This is the general equation that works between the defender and the challenger. And in a world marked by nation-states, the only way the challenger can be effective internally is by controlling the state’s coercive apparatus or blunting it through its own ability to generate violence. Externally, the more powerful state manages to defeat the weaker state or at least forces it to kowtow, as Thucydide’s famous Melian dialogue reveals.

Sometimes we call this realism. The great historian E H Carr critiqued realism by pointing out that realism is not without its imagination, its purpose. He thus established the dynamics between Utopia and Realism. Even as one utopia is demolished by weapons of realism, another one needs to be established: “The human will will continue to seek an escape from the logical consequences of realism in the vision of an international order which, as soon as it crystallizes itself into concrete political form, becomes tainted with self-interest and hypocrisy, and must once more be attacked with the instruments of realism.” It is this that the terrorists try to do, attacking a utopia through weapons of realism to establish their own version of an equitable society. Whether they are today’s Islamists in Green, yesterday’s Communists in Red, or before them the Russian revolutionaries of 1905, the nihilists who took their cue from Ivan Turgenev’s nihilistic hero, Bazarov – all of them looked for a utopia that challenged the existing utopia through weapons of realism.

Some do it in the name of God, others after losing Him and attempting to create the kingdom of man on earth. But that distinction does not matter in terms of aspiring to something other than that which exists, and the instruments that need to be employed to get there. None of this of course means that what ought to be, and is being striven for, is, or would be, ipso facto better than what is. It simply proves Carr’s exposition of the dynamics between contending utopias and the umbilical chord of realism that binds them in a destructive relationship.

But Bond is right when he says that human beings have no future unless they stop being violent. The basic principle that underscores the equation between law and power has not changed. But the instruments through which violence can be generated have undergone massive advancement. Ralph Lapp called it the ‘Tyranny of Weapons Technology’. If the 20th century saw more people killed than the 19th and the 21st century is likely to see even more killed (by driving the weaker states to acquire weapons of mass destruction), this will not be because we have become more cruel since Nero’s or Attila’s times but because we can kill more effectively simply because of our possession of more sophisticated instruments of violence.

The writer is News Editor of TFT and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times

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