The Modern Survival Guide #66
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I am not a violent person. I don’t think violence has a very large place in most civilized interactions these days. But it does have a place, and I’m not so naive as to think that pacifism is a viable long-term strategy for any individual or nation.¹
It’s a common saying that “violence never solves anything.” As much as I might dislike deferring to Robert Heinlein, in this instance he was probably correct: this saying is totally wrong. Violence has solved an enormous number of issues over the years, one way or the other.² It’s just that violence has a tendency to create new issues, and new problems, which leads to the conclusion that engaging in violence isn’t something to be done haphazardly.
In the modern world, we are trained to avoid violence where possible; it is considered an action of last resort. But the key word in that sentence is “trained.” For some people that veneer of training is thinner than for others, but for all of us it is just that: a veneer. A gauzy covering curtain. A flimsy latch on a heavy door. Every single person you meet has the potential to be violent; it’s merely a matter of what will set them off.
So with that in mind, let’s start by accepting that violence is going to happen, and there’s a decent chance we may have to do some violent things in our lives. I think it’s a good idea to figure out in advance when violent situations might come up.
There are five common use cases when people engage in violence:
- Making someone stop doing something
- Making someone do something
- Making a point
- Killing someone
This article will cover these uses of violence, and then end on some general points about why we use violence. And a final point before we get started — I’m not advocating violence here. I don’t like it, and I don’t think we ought to be engaging in it very often. But that doesn’t stop it from being a part of life, and it’s a survival issue to understand it. And so, without further ado…
The Five Uses of Violence
We engage in violence to pit our skills against another person, for prestige and entertainment. In the old days this would have taken the form of ritual combat to determine who got to be chief, or the tribe’s lead hunter. These days, this is probably the most common use of violence we see in the modern world, and for the most part it can be summed up in one word: sports.
When you get right down to it, most sports feature violence in some fashion, in the name of competition and entertainment. Whether it’s boxing, wrestling, paintball, American football, soccer, or any other sport where throwing something at or hitting someone are part of the action, we engage in a LOT of violence.
Because here’s the thing: a lot of people like seeing other people get hurt, especially if it’s a reasonably “safe” hurt. We watch MMA for the takedown. We watch football for the tackles. We watch NASCAR for the crashes. We watch hockey for the fights, and the slams, and the stick bashing, and the headbutting, and the crashes, and… yeah, so hockey may take the cake.
This kind of violence isn’t particularly dangerous or detrimental to society. It’s regulated and major health consequences are usually mitigated. It’s controlled, safe violence, insofar as there is such a thing, and it provides a helpful outlet for aggressive tendencies and adrenaline. But it’s worth keeping an eye on, because there’s a balance here between the potential for harm and the entertainment value of the sport.³
#2: Making Someone Stop Doing Something
A lot of violence is perpetrated because one person simply wants another to STOP IT. Insert for “it.” Maybe “it” is chewing with their mouth open. Maybe “it” is making bawdy comments about someone’s mother. Maybe “it” is stealing, or raping, or murdering. There are a lot of potential causes for “it,” and they have varying degrees of justification and validity.
Violence in these cases is very commonly used because, if you want someone to STOP IT and they don’t respond to a strongly worded statement, there are no other options. The violence in question is often force-backed authority in the modern world, and by most social contracts that’s exactly what it should be.⁴ The government exists, in part, to exert force-backed authority. But this is also part and parcel of violence used in self-defense or the defense of others — not to mention the majority of domestic disputes.
#3: Making Someone Do Something
A huge amount of violence is perpetrated because one person wants another person to do something that they don’t want to do — usually some form of work or resource transfer. Enslaved people around the world live under the constant threat of this kind of violence, as do people who live in dictatorships or other governmental situations where absolute power is the rule. This is also an extremely common form of interpersonal violence, particularly in the areas of sexual assault, spousal abuse, and child abuse.
Apart from criminal uses of coercive violence, there are many examples of legitimate authority using force in this way. Jailing someone for failure to pay child support is, in essence, society trying to force them to pay child support. In past eras of corporal punishment, this type of force-backed authority was even more explicit; it didn’t take much to be put in the stocks back in the day.
Similarly, wars fought over resources are instances where one side really wants a resource, and the other side doesn’t want to give it to them. The purpose of violence in such a case is to take the resource, and force the other side to give it up. This used to be the most common form of warfare, until everyone eventually figured out that it’s easier to just pay for things.
Violence in these cases is common for the same reason we saw in the previous point: if you want someone to do something, and they don’t want to do it, there are very limited options at your disposal to make them do a thing. It’s worth noting that in both of these cases, the core purpose of violence is not actually intended to cause long-term harm or death; it’s either a preventive or extractive tool.
#4: Making a Point
Violence can be an extremely effective tool for making a point; indeed, this is the story behind an awful lot of government-sponsored violence, particularly against other countries. A large proportion of international “signaling” is all about saying, “I’m big and I’m bad and if I want I can pound you to scrap,” or, “This is my territory,” or, “These are my resources.” Violence is often a key tool in that signaling process.⁵
In interpersonal matters, you’ll see violence used this way in dominance fights. People who are in dominant positions, like gang leaders, and who have no other recourse to legitimacy for their position, will often use violence to send the message that they are in charge. This is not the same as competition; a competition is designed to see who is better; dominance is about who has power.
Another example of this type of violence is to make a point that something or some action is unacceptable. This is subtly different from making someone stop doing something; the point here is to let people know that no one should do a particular thing, ever.
As a last point, an awful lot of wars are about making a point. Sometimes that point is “I’m in charge.” Sometimes it’s “Those resources are mine.” And sometimes it’s a way of saying “This religion/philosophy/ideology is wrong.” But increasingly, wars are less about resources and territory, and more about making points.
#5: Killing Someone
Finally, we come to the last and most significant use of violence — killing someone. When this type of violence is used, the motivation is simply that one person decides that another person ought not to exist, and takes steps to rectify that situation.
It’s worth noting that none of the other uses of violence are actually about killing. Not really. They’re about sending messages, forcing resolutions, proving things, and making points, but not really about killing. Killing might be a byproduct, but it’s not the core point.
But sometimes violence absolutely is about killing. An example would be the death penalty. The point of the death penalty is that someone has done something so horrible that we simply cannot have them alive anymore. The world is better off without them in it. People like to throw in justifications on the theme of justice or revenge, but basically it boils down to “fuck that guy, he doesn’t deserve life.”
Genocide is another example. Genocidal violence isn’t about making a point or influencing action, it’s about wiping another group of people off the map. It’s not about resources, although that’s often used as an excuse. Nor is it about punishment, although that’s often used as a justification. You can get resources and punish people without murder.
It’s important to recognize that whenever violence is explicitly about killing, one side stops considering the other as fully human. This is an important component of any good murder spree: you have to demonize your opposition. People don’t generally like killing other people, but we’re much less conflicted about killing animals and pests. So the first step in any genocide, murder, or execution is justifying the action by lowering the target to the status of an animal or vermin, or making the case that their actions revoke their status as a full human being.
The “Why” of Violence
Ok, that was a quick primer on how people use violence to accomplish goals. Now let’s talk about the other side of the coin: why people use violence to do those things. This is a discussion of justifications, not specific goals. Most justifications of violence come down to three rationales:
1. Enforcing rules
2. Removing a problem
Sometimes we want someone to act according to a code of behavior. Sometimes we have a problem that can’t be resolved with words. And sometimes violence is fun; alternately, some people just want to see the world burn. These justifications aren’t limited to just one category of violence; most of them cross classifications. But you can tie most applications of violence back to one of these justifications.
Someone who uses violence to enforce rules is usually making a point or making someone start/stop doing something, although they may cross over into killing from time to time. Violence in these cases is most often state-sponsored violence or “legitimate” violence of one sort or another. When the cops arrest a drunk driver, that often involves a legitimate use of violence, for example. People justify violence when enforcing rules because, again, sometimes a strongly-worded memo just isn’t enough, and society only exists because people follow rules.
Someone who uses violence to remove a problem might use any of the forms of violence. Most people use violence in these cases because they run out of other options. In general, the only legitimate use of violence when removing a problem in civilized society is the case of self-defense. In this case you’re not actually acting to enforce the rules, you’re acting to remove a problem, i.e. someone trying to hurt you. Almost all other justifications of violence for removing a problem fall flat in any society where the rule of law exists, is fair, and is respected. You do not want to be in a society where that triad of factors is absent, because then violence comes very definitely to the front of the line as an option for removing problems.
Someone who uses violence for fun is usually involved in sports. This is the only legitimate use of physical violence for entertainment, and there are strict rules in most sports about what kind of violence and how much violence can be employed.
And last but not least, the evil bit: some people just like inflicting pain, and will use all kinds of violence to make that happen, for fun and pleasure. These people exist and are out there, all the time, every day. These are the true sadists of the world, and they’re often the sort of people who get violence used on them due to the other two justifications.
Justifications of violence should almost always focus on the first two points, and we should be very careful about the third. There are circumstances where it is justifiable to use violence to enforce rules. There are circumstances where it is justifiable to use violence to solve a problem. In both cases, they are the same: if your life or livelihood is at stake and you have no other choice. In such a circumstance, making the choice to survive is the only rational choice available. But, in any case where your life or livelihood are not at stake, or there are other options, do not resort to violence outside of sports. We’ve come a long way as a society and a species, don’t backtrack.
It is never justifiable to perpetrate violence solely for the purpose of inflicting pain. That’s evil. That’s Mengele-level evil. Don’t go there.
Violence exists in the world, and there’s no getting away from that ugly fact. The best you can do is survive it, and to survive it you have to understand it. This was a bare-bones summary article, but hopefully it’s enough to give you a little bit of insight into basic scenarios that can become violent.
And once again, I have to say, I do not advocate violence as a solution. Quite apart from the moral issues, which are many and thorny, violence begets more violence and more problems. There are better, more moral, more elegant solutions out there. Try to find them. But it’s not always in your best survival interests to count on them.
¹Pacifism is essentially ceding control of long-term consequences because one is unwilling or unable to contemplate short-term nastiness. This isn’t a good survival strategy for obvious reasons. It’s ok to be principled about doing no harm, as long as you don’t mind your principles dying with you, or as long as you don’t mind the hypocrisy of allowing other people to do your dirty work. Neither of those options are particularly palatable to a rational, honorable being.
²From the quote in the novel Starship Troopers, “Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than any other factor…” I’m not sure I totally buy into that concept, and I certainly dislike Heinlein’s fascist propaganda, but the man wasn’t entirely wrong. You don’t stop the Hitlers of the world with strongly-worded memos.
³This is why we all have that one friend or family member who complains that (insert sport) is being run by “wimps” now. They miss the days of open wounds and concussions. Draw from that what conclusions you will.
⁴Force-Backed Authority: Violence or coercion exercised by an institution with the legitimate right or directive to use force in the course of accomplishing its goals, usually a government or police entity.
⁵Gangs, of course, do the same thing, as do particularly psychotic individuals. It’s worth remembering that the civility of our culture decreases in proportion to levels of aggregation. A person is pleasant. A neighborhood can be rough. A region may act like a sociopath. A state often closely resembles a raving lunatic.