Posts Tagged ‘Rudyard Kipling’

We, they and the roots of violence

December 4, 2022

The application of physical force is the motive force for all material events in our universe. The use of physical force as a tool – whether for survival or anything else – is enabled by the genes of every living thing. The ability of any living thing to exert physical force is enabled and constrained by its physiology.

violence: (n) the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy; extreme physical force; vehemence, intense, turbulent, destructive

Any use of physical force by any living creature is not always considered a violent act. If the physical force applied is insufficient to cause damage it does not qualify as violence. Usually the intention to injure, damage or destroy is needed to convert the mere act of using damaging, physical force to being a violent act. In language the word is often used even if no such intention exists. For example hammering a nail can be described as violent. An incoherent idiot may be excused his behaviour because of his violent thoughts. When a volcano erupts or when the growing roots of a tree destroy a house – say – they are often referred to as violent though it would be difficult to ascribe any destructive intentions.

Violence (like any force) is a vector. It has an object acted upon, a magnitude and a direction. Without the concepts of we and they there would be no human violence.

We and They (Rudyard Kipling)

Father and Mother, and Me,
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But-would you believe it? –They look upon We
As only a sort of They!

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
While they who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn’t it scandalous? ) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

It seems to me that the use of physical force between humans is converted to violence only when

  1. we and they exist,
  2. the magnitude of the force applied is sufficient to injure, damage or destroy, and
  3. the intention to do harm exists.

Human violence thus needs an object, magnitude and intention. A pat on the back is not violence. The same magnitude of force used to murderously swat a fly is violence. Intention requires a mind. For things with minds a we and a they exist. In fact, it is the concept of a we and a they which is necessary for intention to emerge. Predators are we and prey are them. Weeds are them. I am, of course, a part of we. When a lion kills the offspring of its predecessor, the we obliterate the them. We are invariably good. They are not always bad but we are never bad.

War, genocide, torture, the Holocaust, the atrocities in Rwanda or Myanmar, violent conflict in Ukraine, are not examples of abnormal human behaviour. They are an integral part of human behaviour and though we often call such behaviour “inhuman”, it is just a label. Caligula and Genghis Khan and Hitler and Pol Pot were all human. Potential Hitlers are being born every day. All past atrocities are just examples of how humans could – under appropriate circumstances – behave even today.

“There, but for the grace of God go I” – John Bradford

Atrocity is a part of that primal human behaviour which is rooted in We and They. Whatever it is that makes humans a social animal (presumably our genes) creates our concept and our need for We and They. From families and tribes to gangs and nations, it is being able to conceptualise a we which has enabled survival and led to development. It is the concept of we which underlies cooperation and which has given us language and development. And it is being this social animal with a sense of we which has distinguished humans from all other species in the level of cooperation that has been achieved. Much of our cooperation is manifested as the joint and coordinated application of physical force. That is true whether in building the Taj Mahal, going to the moon or implementing Hitler’s final solution. When survival – or perceived survival – is at stake We may always resort to atrocity against Them. Our evolutionary success is rooted in We and They and in our ability to apply physical force.

Along with We comes They and then violence becomes a word.

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:



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