Fire From The Maddened Crowd

I’ve put off writing about the shooting of Congressor Steve Scalise and others — apart from the stray comment on social media — but it happened at the intersection of several of my interests and I don’t think most people are quite processing it fully. Where others might want to toss it in the ‘crazy shit’ box and move on, I want to unpack it and get a better look.

Not a tragedy

I have seen the shooting described as a tragedy. Matter of fact, the Virginia Democrats sent out an email describing it as a “terrible tragedy”. Of course, I do not condone the shooting, but it was hardly a tragedy. A tragedy is an event that happens despite our best efforts. This happened because of the GOP’s best efforts. Our understanding of the event has to acknowledge that fact.

There is a pretty clear causal logic here: the GOP has long argued that an expansive read of the Second Amendment is justified because guns are necessary to protect against tyranny. Their threshold for tyranny is low enough to include the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau, so it should not be surprising that when the GOP took control of the government and began a program of extraordinary peril to broad swathes of public, some people then viewed those policies as a form of tyranny. And the GOP has been nothing but clear on this point: if you see tyranny, you should take up arms to fight it.

I say this not to endorse the shooting, but simply to say that it is evidence that the system is working as intended. No doubt that intention was based in part on a prejudice that no liberal snowflake would ever have the backbone to pull the trigger. Now that they see they are wrong, GOP legislators are scrambling to reconcile their platform with the now-obvious threat. Mo Brooks, bless his heart, cedes not an inch of ground.

“What we just saw here is one of the bad side effects of someone not exercising those rights properly,” the Alabama congressman told reporters when pressed on whether he was reconsidering his position on gun control.

He scores points for logical consistency, but the obvious flaw in his argument is that he is no longer in a position to decide what counts as ‘proper’. Brooks wants to cast his party as a defender of rights, but rights are always asserted against the government — which his party now unfortunately controls. A tyrannical government will almost never see itself as tyrannical, and will always see anti-tyranny as improper.

Other GOP legislators are taking the obvious tack, and blaming the shooting on mental illness:

“I don’t see this as gun control issue,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who leads the archconservative House Freedom Caucus, said. “I think to default to that would be a missed opportunity […] ultimately to understand that the mental health component is an important thing for us to address.”

No points awarded here: it is far less brave and honest than Brooks’s view. Again, the problem is that the GOP endorses armed resistance against tyranny, but is in no position to define legitimate resistance. While it would be terribly convenient to their platform if the shooter were mentally ill, that only disqualifies the shooter’s political agenda if he was too mentally ill to vote — which we know was not the case.

Mental illness as effect

So far so good — I think many people inclined to read this far will readily agree with most of what I have written. But it’s worse than you think. For starters, the mental illness argument seems to be intended to delegitimize any opposition to the GOP — as if the shooter was himself incarnate all that is wrong with the left — while absolving the GOP of any responsibility for the shooting.

But the presumption that mental illness arises for reasons specific to the person, some genetic defect or family history, neglects the extent to which mental illness is a response to violence, particularly violence condoned or performed by the government. Look at how people of color talk about their experience of white supremacy: more and more, they are using language that echoes psychological and psychiatric clinical descriptions of mental illness. They talk about anxiety, depression, adjustment disorder, PTSD — not because they were born that way, but because they were born into a society that does them profound violence. Now ask: how is it not mental illness that so many white people are inured and insensate to the violence against colored people? I will come back to that question in a moment.

To spell it out: our government’s policies are violent enough to affect the mental health of many of the people hurt by those policies. It is nonsense for the government to then accuse those people of mental illness as if that invalidates their concerns. When some of these people turn violent, attempting to focus on treatment of mental illness is saying nothing more useful than, “Let’s make society safe for unlimited government violence”. That’s bass-ackwards and also not going to be particularly effective. So, yeah: it’s entirely possible for most people on the left to be mentally ill, because mental illness is how normal, healthy brains sometimes respond to violence.

 Violence as cause

To understand government violence properly, we need a better understanding of violence generally. When we say something is violence, what does that mean? A rough notion is that it causes people harm — but then we need a definition of ‘harm’, and it ends up being very turtlesy most of the way down.

When I was in grad school, I got the bright idea to try to rewrite a famous paper in political science by focusing on violence, instead of the economic uncertainty in the original. I thought the author was ignoring some deep violence in his argument, and that it made more sense to look at the violence. That meant I had to find a good scholarly definition of violence, and it turns out there is really only one in English-language scholarship.

That definition comes from a guy named Johan Galtung, who defined violence as the deliberate reduction in potential being of another person (I’m paraphrasing). If this seems obscure, it might help to ask why psychological abuse of children counts as violence: the answer, per Galtung, is that it wrecks the child’s power to imagine herself as something else, as some potential other, better person. It limits who that child can be. Violence as ‘reduction in being’ turned out to be very powerful tool for Galtung, because it allowed him to talk about all kinds of violence — structural, systemic, latent, etc. — other than the plain physical forms that most readily come to mind.

One of the most shattering things I read in in this project was a discussion of the Columbine school shooting by Willem Schinkel, in his Aspects of Violence. Drawing heavily from Galtung, Schinkel talks about the environment that the shooters grew up in — the extreme uniformity of it, even outside of the oppressive conformity of high school. This, he says, gave them very little by way of potential — the rigidity of their social context was a form of violence, and gave them very few options. Gun violence was one of their few options, one of the few models they had for other ways of being.

That’s not to excuse the shootings, but simply to say: violence rarely comes from nowhere. It is no coincidence that schools are the site of so many shootings: schools are most people’s first and most intensive experience of government control over their lives. In most schools, that control ranges from unpleasant to suffocating. Schools often limit their students’ potential being, as much as they expand it.

I know full well there are many great teachers in our schools and nearly all of them want what’s best for their students. But the system itself is one of structural violence against many students. Every time a school is strapped for cash, that’s a class that can’t be offered or an extracurricular that gets shut down, and some kid sees a little part of their possible self die.

To come back to my theme: if that first, intense experience with government is positive, you are more likely to be an active citizen and to think of government in a favorable way. No wonder the GOP hates public schools: starve the schools and you can raise a generation of citizens who think government is a trainwreck. The collateral damage is that one in a million of those citizens is going to be so broken — some even before they graduate — that they gun up and shoot a bunch of kids. As fervently as I support gun control, I know it still won’t fully address the actual cause of the violence.

Violence as a system

The paper I wrote — Violence and International Relations — was such a success that it became my dissertation topic. At the same time, I encountered baffling pushback from classmates and teachers. It very slowly dawned on me that maybe the reason we didn’t talk about violence in my classes was that we were part of the problem. American academia is very much part of the American establishment, built on a vast complex of structural and systemic violence. My professors had zero incentive to confront that violence, so they put my ass on the street.

One of the ways the system sustains itself is that we are conditioned to think of government violence as okey-dokey. This shows up in political science and in the public at large as an unwillingness to name government violence as violence. One of my committee members actually told me that capital punishment was not ‘violence’, because they are convicted first. He has a job. I don’t. And when Gabriel Giffords was shot, a highly respected political scientist wrote a blog post titled, “On the Rarity of Political Violence” — as if the United States didn’t execute and imprison more people than any other country in the world.

For the Scalise shooting, there’s this Charlie Pierce article, “When White People Realize American Politics Are Violent”, which manages to avoid naming a single violent thing that the American government does to its own people. Slavery is violent and political. Mass incarceration is violent and political. Police killings are violent and political. I honestly don’t understand how this is difficult: anything the state does is political, so any violence the state commits is political. It’s way less abstract than 2 + 2 = 4.

And so far, I have mostly talked about the violence that the government does to American bodies. I have said nothing about the extensive violence our government does to a vast horizon of potential being. If your view of yourself includes a possibility of getting married, and the government says you can’t, that is violence against you. The fight for gay marriage was a fight against government violence. Likewise, when the government watched as the 2008 recession wiped out people’s savings and left them homeless, but then bailed out the banks that were repossessing their houses — that was a form of violence. How much less potential did those lives have in 2010 than they did in 2007? You can only just begin to measure it in trillions of dollars. I end up agreeing vigorously with this guy:

“I’m never surprised by mass shootings in America. Considering how brutalized and under pressure most people are and how easy it is to get guns, I’m surprised every day there ISN’T a mass shooting.”

Unlike Europe, the civilizing process is incomplete in the United States, and there’s lots of historical and contingent reasons that mostly boil down to our original sin, slavery. As a result, we still have lots and lots of violence, and that violence is the main thing wrong with our country. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, ageism — name a thing wrong with American society, and you will find it comes to ground in government violence, whether sanctioned or performed. The American government. Our government. If that seems hard to believe, I strongly encourage you to ponder why the Scalise shooting seems so awful and the things the government does — from no better motive — are okay. The answer might be that you are so dependent on the illusory security the state provides — like any capitalist enterprise, it spends a lot time trying to convince you that you have wants and needs you don’t actually have — so dependent that you are inured even to the violence it causes to you, as well as others. I know I was.

And yes, I left grad school with an extremely dim view of the American state. (I also, for what it’s worth, picked up some robust mental illness — anxiety, depression — along the way.) But it’s not all doom and gloom! I am pretty sure I found a solution — the solution. I said earlier that government violence can make people mentally ill, implying that government policies can have profound, even organic effects on people’s brains. Well, if the potential is there for harm, it is also there for good. Stephen Pinker wrote a whole book arguing that the historical decrease in human violence is due to the fact that political development shapes peoples minds for better. Politics can make violence unthinkable. And Pinker is a psychologist. Or a neurologist. Or a linguist? (I’m too lazy to google it.) Point being: this is a pretty amazing claim from a leading student of the mind.

Pinker’s argument hinges mightily on the work of German sociologist Norbert Elias, specifically his work on the ‘civilizing’ process. Loyal readers will know I am a big fan of Elias, and his work was a cornerstone of my proposed dissertation. The short version is that as the modern state formed in late medieval Europe, the rulers of those states began to centralize their power by demanding better and better behavior from their subordinates, as a way to control them. This included routine rules like not raping and murdering as much, but also things like what forks to use on what dishes and what sorts of foods were acceptable and what to wear and when and where to poop. Most of what we considered ‘civilized’ behavior in the West dates back to this period, and it turns out that all these rules taught people better control over their impulses, especially when those impulses were violent. For most of us, we don’t kill people not because it’s against the law; we don’t kill people because it’s just simply not done.

What Elias did not predict and Pinker missed is that state violence is also decreasing, and has been for a hundred years or so. That sounds bonkers in a bracket that includes WWII, but consider that slavery was mostly abolished, capital punishment is nearly abolished, torture was almost abolished, and conscription is less and less common. Human and civil rights — the exact opposite of state violence — are more widely credible and more widely observed. Neither Pinker nor Elias can explain that decline: there’s nothing in the civilizing process that suggests states should relinquish their power to enslave, kill, torture, or conscript.

My argument — and I’m pretty sure it’s correct — is that as people became more and more civilized, they came to expect that same good behavior from their leaders. This was especially true in democracies, for obvious reasons, but even true in less-than-democratic societies. Even most authoritarians can’t quite gin up medieval levels of violence (Bashar Al Assad might be a glaring exception). I called this the ‘civilizing trap’ because it’s more important in academia to have good names for your ideas than it is to have good ideas. But I got the boot before I could do the research to confirm it. Why would the establishment not want to see that question explored? I don’t know, it’s not my problem any more.

My sense is that the GOP’s agenda has it exactly backwards: they believe that private political violence is the best check on government political violence, but these are the same people who cheered loudly when Trump promised to bring back torture. So not only do they lack the capacity to recognize meaningful state violence, they are pursuing an agenda that guarantees more private violence as well. Not that the shooting of Scalise was their fault, but c’mon: what did you expect? There is zero evidence that a well-armed society leads to less government violence. There are, on the other hand, tons of evidence that the only consistent means to reduce government violence is the disapproval of the public expressed in social norms and laws. We can literally think the guns away.

Responding to violence

So what does that mean for us, who got this far? Three things: first, we have to be eyes-wide-open in our view of state violence. We cannot let ourselves be accustomed or inured to it, and we must resist it as much as possible. The men with guns are there to diminish you, more than protect you. It’s not a matter of voting for the lesser of two evils: both parties, in this century and before, have been vigorous champions of the state’s capacity for violence. We hardly even talk about it, except as it pertains to “issues”. But violence is the issue. Government violence is the issue. We need to press that in public and popular discourse. Unfortunately for the current trajectory of the left, that means not getting too caught up in the lines between racism and sexism and classism and so on, but seeing that beneath them all is the violence of the state. It is this violence that we must stop — that we must make unthinkable, if we are to survive.

Second, we can’t get distracted by the more dramatic but far less consequential violence of regular folks, mentally ill or not. We have to focus on reducing state political violence, as a cause of private political violence. The guy who shot Steve Scalise was nothing against the awesome violence of the American state, which asserted an infinitesmal fraction of its power by shooting him dead right back. Again, that’s not to condone what he did. But in the bigger picture, it just doesn’t matter compared to government violence, and solving the government violence problem will go a hell of a long way towards solving the private violence problem.

Third, and this part may be hard to ponder: there may be a time constraint in this project. Our political apparatus was not designed for the tensions our society suffers, and they may pull that machine apart sooner than most people imagine. You can already see the cracks, and there are people who believe the Scalise shooting was the first shot in a civil war. I don’t know that I agree, but if that war is coming, the only way to prevent it — and to prevent the left from losing it, because we will definitely lose a shooting war — is to make violence unacceptable and unthinkable.

More immediately, my guess is that we will see more shootings of elected officials, and these will be used to justify new policies of violence — of drastic curtailment of our rights — by the government. We must not accept the narrative that these shootings are somehow our fault, that we must suffer for them. The government — those in government — must accept and account for its own role in the proliferation and promotion of violence.

The Politics of Crunchy Gravel

Watching Downton Abbey with Norbert Elias

My wife watches “Downton Abbey”, therefore I watch it, though I find it vaguely annoying. Recently she asked me, because of my obvious expertise in all things under the sun, “how many aristocrats are left in Britain?” No idea, darling; I believe Labour ate most of them.

A few days later, I happened to meet a Welsh woman, and so I put the question to her. “Oh, lots,” she said. And what do they think of Downton Abbey? “Well, it’s not as popular in Britain as it is in the US. I don’t watch it, but then I don’t care much for soap operas.” Soap opera? But it’s on public television — Masterpiece theater, no less.

I have been thinking about that exchange — now, of course, it seems so obviously a soap opera — and I am prepared to hazard the guess that British and American viewers have a very different experience of the show. The difference is primarily in attitudes towards class, especially understanding of the British class system, and Americans’ comparative lack of familiarity with that system. That is, I think most Americans who enjoy the show end up unintentionally endorse some ideas which they should find — and some Brits do find — abhorrent.

This discussions focuses primarily on the most recent episode, with some spoilers, so do yourself a favor and watch that episode first, then come back to this post, then go back and watch the episode again.

Ready? Good.

So in the most recent episode, the big event is Sybil’s death (the way-hot one, for the Spike viewers out there). You probably felt sad watching her die, as you’re supposed to. And you probably were annoyed that her father insisted on taking the advice of the upper-class physician over the more middle-class physician who correctly diagnosed her pre-eclampsia. And you probably suspected that, to some extent, Sybil was killed by the British class system, and that’s a horrible tragedy. Now ask yourself; how is Sybil worse for the class system than Ethel? You remember Ethel, right? We’ll come back to her.

Your reaction to Sybil’s death was probably very normal: her father made a horrible mistake relying on the advice of a social peer, rather than deferring to someone lesser in status, and her death was a senseless, needless tragedy. But there is a another way to understand Sybil’s death: as a necessary sacrifice to order. Keep in mind that her father is as much a creature — and protector — of the class system as anybody else in the show. And Sybil posed a horrible threat to that system by her actions: marrying a chaffeur, running off to Ireland, being tangentially involved in the independence movement there, being thoroughly happy, et cetera. In order to preserve social order, Sybil had to die. (This author I think misunderstands the episode.)

If this seems harsh, consider the politics of the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes: he’s a Tory, and “Downton Abbey” is his paean to ‘better’ days. This is, after all, a show in which the central tension is whether some rich people will have to move to a somewhat smaller house. But of course, the house and the families plight is symbolic of the social order in which they live — a grossly inegalitarian order anchored by extremely wealthy people in obscenely large houses. In the show that social order is shown to be rapidly eroding, and yet time and time again the family is saved by the hand of God Fellowes, and allowed to stay in their gigantic house.

Sybil — by being the bravest, kindest, most free-spirited character in the show — was a threat to the Downton order; her death was punishment for her allowing viewers to think against that order. Every other character who poses a threat to the existing order is depicted negatively: Branson, the chaffeur who marries Sybil, is depicted as hapless, angry, and often sulking. Edith (the other one), who writes a newspaper column suggesting — gasp — women might vote, is played as mildly retarded. Matthew Crawley, heir to the estate and aristocrat pretender, is kind of a dolt.

And then there’s Isobel Crawley, the resolutely middle-class mother of Matthew, played as a frumpy busybody by a woman 15 years older than Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora — the MILF, for the Spike viewers). That actress, Penelope Wilton, was born in 1946;  McGovern was born in 1961. Maggie Smith (the chicken lady), who is understood to be so old as to be paleontologically interesting, was born in 1934. And granted, actors play roles older than they are — usually because that character is supposed to be hot and awesome. The great difference between Isobel Crawley and Lady Cora is deliberate: it’s not just chance that one is a MILF and the other is a grandmother.

Fellowes does this because he wants to convince you the world “Downton Abbey” represents is better than what came next. This is him in an interview on Fresh Air, pining for the old ways:

“Well, I mean, we live in an era where there are sort of no rules for anything anymore. But of course the good thing about rules is you always know what you’re doing. You always know what you should wear. You always know (unintelligible), when you’re supposed to get there, what you’re supposed to do when you do get there. You know, we’ve lost that kind of security. I think that that is one reason why, you know, the show appeals because it seems to show a more ordered and kind of ordained world. In fact, of course, that is largely a myth. It was a world where all sorts of, as I’ve said, things were bubbling just beneath the surface. But nevertheless in terms of your daily life, what you wore when you got up, what you called people, what you did next, I think it was sort of easier to follow the plot than in our own time.”

Rules equal security. Give credit to the man for admitting it is a myth (even if he rolls that back in the very next sentence), but in “Downton Abbey” the myth is very much front and center. And in that myth, the worst thing you can possible do is try to change the rules. It is simply not true, as Fellowes claims, that we have no rules today. Instead we have different rules, rules that took the place of the rules in “Downton Abbey”, and it is incumbent on the viewer — especially the American viewer — to decide whether those rules are better or worse than the rules of “Downton Abbey”. Fellowes tips the scale against the present rather heavily.

Which brings us back to Ethel: a subplot in the series, something to show how meddlesome Isobel Crawley is. Ethel was a servant at Downton, fell in love with an officer being treated there during the war, had sex with said officer, was then spurned (I’m not sure how that played out — I missed an episode or two), fell into prostitution, felt obliged to give up her son, and now has been hired as a cook by Mrs. Crawley. The incumbent cook refuses to work with a fallen woman, and so quits; the Downton servants then forbid any junior servants (footmen, maids) to enter Mrs. Crawley’s house. You are meant to feel that Ethel’s fall, while perhaps unfortunate, is entirely deserved and her would-be redemption intrusive and offensive. So would you say that the rules provided Ethel with any security?

And in fact, “Downton Abbey” grossly underplays the extent to which that social order oppressed members of the lower classes, and also women. This excellent essay explains that Downton joins a long list of British cultural exports in understating that oppression. Trying to grasp the extent of that injustice by watching Masterpiece Theater is like trying to understand slavery by watching “Hell on Wheels”. Americans, I think, simply don’t understand that system, where many British viewers get it at a visceral level — and find its cloying depiction in Downton off-putting. (In my experience, most Britons are likewise clueless about American race relations.)

It is not simply that Americans should identify with the lower classes. In fact, I expect most Americans viewers are in the middle to upper middle class. But most Americans would also identify themselves with democracy over aristocracy, and here things get more complicated. The rules that exist in Downton — the rules Fellowes pines for — exist to sustain the aristocracy. They do not promote social welfare more broadly, but rather the interests of the very rich and very powerful, over the rest of the people in Britain (and at the time, much of the world as well).

Which brings me to Norbert Elias, German sociologist and later British citizen. Elias argues that what we consider ‘civilized’ behavior in fact owes its origins to the struggle between feudal lords and monarchs (that is, struggle within the aristocracy). As monarchs became more powerful, they also became important referents for manners and customs, as aristocrats adopted monarchical habits and fads in an effort to ingratiate themselves with the king. Some of these habits persist today, most notably in the arcane rules surrounding polite dining (the silverware, the rules about using napkins, the order of dishes served).

Everything about the rules governing “Downton Abbey”, and thus nearly everything we are supposed to admire about Downton — the clothes, the furnishings, the parties, the manners — derives from the Crawley’s desire to position themselves in aristocratic society. You can hardly overstate the extent to which monarchical attitudes and values pervade the characters in the show. If there were no king, nobody would know what to wear. Moreover, these rules depend rather strongly on some degree of oppression: if you are going to change jackets for every meal, you had better have a valet and someone to do your laundry, at minimum.  And to the extent that we admire the trappings of aristocracy unreservedly, we are endorsing a system that largely sucks for everyone not in the aristocracy (and even most women in the aristocracy, as well).

Consider Ethel once again: why would it matter to the servants of a Downton whether their former colleague is hired as a cook somewhere else? Because Ethel the prostitute is the farthest a person can get from the King, and the servants of Downton know they are paid to do everything possible to protect and advance the social position of their employers. Those most committed to the social order (e.g. Carson) are most adamant in their refusal to help or even acknowledge Ethel. According to the Downton rules, the people upstairs don’t get the fancy clothes unless the Ethels are kept far away from the people downstairs. Ethel is effectively dead to the staff at Downton, and hardly anybody mourns her.

So now the American viewer has to choose: do you stand with Fellowes and the monarchical order? Or do you think things are better? If you’re a certain kind of Briton, you can do the former just fine. But if you’re an American, your people have very famously rejected reliance on monarchy as an ordering principle for social life. From that position, it becomes very hard to defend the perspective Fellowes is promoting; the cognitive dissonance involved approaches violence.

The good news is that you can still watch and enjoy “Downton Abbey”: you simply have to choose your heroes. For the American viewer, Isobel Crawley should be the hero of Downton — the person doing the most to address the injustice and oppression of the class system. Branson is another hero, as is Edith. These are people challenging the order, trying to change it for the better. Fellowes doesn’t intend these people to be the heroes — they’re all portrayed as twits and slugs — but the viewer can root for them nonetheless. What Fellowes intends as flaws in these characters are virtues in democratic society: Mrs. Crawley’s earnest disregard for pomp; Branson’s bravery and awkward candor; Edith’s developing insistence on self-expression. To the American viewer, the plight of Ethel the prostitute should be every bit as tragic as Sybil the aristocrat — or what’s a democracy for?

This perspective also lets us explain the fairly obvious: Lady Mary (the hot one), the would-be heroine of the show, is a raging bitch. Her dedication to the social order is how we are told she is the heroine, but that dedication is absolute to the point of tyranny. She will do anything, trample anyone in order to preserve Downton as is. Any hint her husband gives of allowing or — God forbid — encouraging change at Downton is met with a temper tantrum. Her affection for said husband apparently exists only to legitimize her, so that she is free to play her real part in show: the staunchest protector of Fellowes’ fantastic vision. When you reject that vision, Mary is obviously the villain.

Joining the ranks of baddies is Carson the butler, Lady Cora, and Lord Grantham. These characters are all committed to the old order, and taking pains to preserve it. The dowager countess (the chicken lady) gets a pass the way old people get a pass on racism: one expects nothing else from her.

I think the attraction to many Americans in “Downton Abbey” is that we long to live beautiful, graceful lives, like the upstairs characters in the show. While there is much that is beautiful in “Downton Abbey”, we should watch mindful that this beauty comes at a staggering cost. Nor is it the case that aristocrats alone possess the ability to live beautiful lives. The show is fundamentally an infomercial for aristocracy, a slant American viewers should find unpalatable. Yet many people who should know better flock to it, because we simply don’t grasp the rules of that world, and don’t appreciate what goes unsaid and unseen in the show.

We don’t have to celebrate a world in which rules are absolute, redemption is impossible, and woman have no real place, in order to watch “Downton Abbey”. We can watch while rejecting Fellowes’ vision, rooting for the underdogs — Mrs. Crawley, Branson, Edith, Ethel — as they struggle to make beautiful, or at least meaningful, lives of their own. We can hope that someday the Crawleys will lose their great big house — or at least be forced to open a gift shop. We can aspire to our own lives of beauty precisely because the rules which govern that world are so unknown to us.


Is language violence?

Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log comments on the recent prison sentence handed down by a British court for a series of nasty tweets. I’ll not reproduce the tweets here; you can read them in Pullum’s post, after which he concludes:

Your mileage may differ, but looking at this I find myself siding with the judge. This isn’t expression of opinion. This is violence, verbally delivered, and is quite deliberately fanning the flames of interracial hatred.

Pullum argues that this sort of speech is akin to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded auditorium; it is “dangerous to the relatively peaceful society in which up to now he has had the privilege to live“. Of course, some folks disagree, and think that the defendant’s sentence was too harsh. Such a case would moreover be unthinkable in the U.S., with its robust protections of speech.

So the question raised by Pullum’s defense of the court is whether language can be violence? And is it a sort of violence the government should restrict?

In Western societies, the scope of acceptable violence has steadily constricted over the last couple centuries. More specifically, the scope of acceptable violence both for person-against-person violence, and for state-against-person, with the trends in state-state violence being less clear. This is part of Norbert Elias’s civilizing process, and it tends to be ratchet towards broader definitions of violence, rather than narrower. We are much more likely to decide that something counts as violence than we are to decide that it no longer counts as violence.

Violence means, roughly, injury to a human being. To say that language is violence is to argue that language alone can cause injury to a person. Injury can be physical injury, but it can also be psychic or emotional injury. Violence is a long spectrum, anchored at one end by death, and expanding on the other end towards some horizon yet unseen. So while being called a nasty name might not hurt nearly as much as a painful death, it still hurts.

One of the primary reasons for the decline in state-on-person violence, I would argue, has been the increase in human rights rhetoric and practice over the last several decades. A human right is essentially a constraint on the state, a decision that a specific area of human activity is beyond the legitimate purview of the state. So to say that one has a right to free speech — as we do in the United States — is to say that the state commits violence against a person where it restricts their speech unnecessarily. So we trade a lesser degree of violence by the state against persons — recognizing a right to free speech — for the risk of greater potential violence of persons against persons — allowing many kinds of hate speech. This trade-off is far more concrete where firearms are concerned: we limit government’s ability to restrict the possession of firearms, and accept a correspondingly higher rate of person-on-person firearm violence.

To argue that speech is violence is not a claim that speech should be limited. It is entirely reasonable to argue that the government cannot limit speech, while recognizing that speech can be violence. It is also reasonable to argue that the government should limit violent speech, while protecting speech more generally. British society has come to a different balance on this question than has the U.S., as is also true regarding firearms.

Twenty years ago, these tweets might have been legally acceptable speech in Britain. Twenty years from now, they might be unacceptable speech in the U.S. What counts as violence, and what counts as unlawful violence, can change over time, usually expanding to include new acts of violence. I would hazard that in a generation it will be well-accepted that language like the tweets in questions counts as violence. The controversy now is part of the process of getting to that point.


Actually, not angels at all

A review of Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature (Viking, 2011) might be the most significant work of political science for a trade audience in decades. In the book, Pinker addresses the modern decline in violence, and explains the causes of that decline. How could the explanation not involve politics? Indeed, Pinker’s account is deeply political, but also willfully ignorant of political science.

Meanwhile, the fact that Better Angels is political science has so far eluded reviewers, readers, and booksellers almost entirely. Better Angels was at one point ranked by as #3 in their ‘Early Civilization’ category, #5 in “Social History”, and #10 in ‘Psychology and Counseling’.1 Powell’s also calls Better Angels a psychology book, and none of the categories Barnes & Noble associate with the book include politics or political science. Peter Singer, reviewing for the New York Times, writes that “Pinker draws on recent research in history, psychology, cognitive science, economics and sociology” — but never mentions politics. This is a problem.

Pinker’s central question is, why has violence declined as an element of human affairs?  Answering this question requires Pinker to accomplish two tasks: first, to convince the reader that violence has declined, and second to offer a convincing explanation for that decline. This is a massive undertaking, and the result is a massive book. Folks short on time can visit earlier versions of the argument presented in Pinker’s TED talk and an article in The New Republic, both from March of 2007, both of which argue concisely for the decline of violence as a feature of human affairs.

In Better Angels, Pinker arrays a much broader range of evidence in favor of his proposition, drawing from history, anthropological, pop-culture,2 but especially heavily from political science. At least two chapters are dominated by the work of political scientists — the reader loses count of how many times Pinker begins a sentence with “As the political scientist [name] writes”, or some variation thereof. How Peter Singer missed this is anyone’s guess, but those pressed into Pinker’s service include Bruce Russett, James Rosenau, Joshua Goldstein, James Fearon, David Laitin, Nils Petter Gleditsch, John Oneal, and Ted Gurr, among many others. What Pinker has done, at least from page 189 to page 377, is synthesize a significant portion of the evidence amassed by political science on war, civil war, genocide, and other state-related forms of violence to argue all indicators demonstrate a decline in violence.

Having established to his satisfaction that the puzzle exists, Pinker then turns to its solution. He argues that a number of related threads in human development have driven the decline in violence, among them the Enlightenment, literacy, and education. Yet, Pinker writes towards the end of the book: “A state that uses a monopoly on force to protect its citizens from one another may be the most consistent violence-reducer that we have encountered in this book”(p. 680) and we can infer he believes this true outside the book, as well. Pinker bases this argument on a wafer-thin reading of Hobbes, and refers again and again to the beneficial effects of ‘Leviathan’ in his book. Recall that Leviathan refers to an indomitable Biblical monster; Hobbes viewed Leviathan as an absolutist, unlimited state. Casual readers of Pinker might instead form the impression that Hobbes had in mind present-day Finland, but nothing about Hobbes’s understanding of the beast implies the eventual elimination of torture, capital punishment, or conscription — all of which Pinker points to as evidence of the overall decline in violence. Part of the problem is that Pinker has a reductionist view of the state; he writes that “Real-life Leviathans are essentially human beings, with all the greed and foolishness we should expect of a specimen of homo sapiens” (160). We had this debate in political science a while back, and decided states are more than just their leaders. Pinker missed that conversation, or ignored it.

Another problem for Pinker is that Hobbes’s vision of human nature is arguably false. The best recent academic book on violence is sociologist Randall Collins’s Violence: A micro-sociological Theory (Princeton, 2008), in which the author argues that “The Hobbesian image of humans, judging from the most common evidence, is empirically wrong” (11). Collins’s argument is simple: humans find violence difficult to perform. Much as we might wish an enemy injured or dead, we find the actual doing tough work. Humans’ aversion to violence is marked by tension and fear “that comes not from concern for bodily pain; this is something that people endure surprisingly easily” (8). Instead, the tension and fear is caused by our emotional ‘entrainment’ with one another, and desire to avoid confrontation, so that people will often refuse to act violently to resist violence  to themselves. Collins supports his case with careful and voluminous use of empirical evidence — including an extensive collection of photographs and incident reports — and demonstrates that violence is much rarer and more dependent on social context than is popularly believed. This has obvious parallels with Pinker’s work, and speaks to a specific premise of his argument, yet Pinker ignores it. That is, Pinker does cite Collins — more than once — but he does not discuss Collins’s refutation of Hobbes.

Apart from Hobbes, Pinker makes almost no use of political science theory to shape his arguments. He may think highly of our evidence — enough to borrow it, at least — but he holds the theoretical foundations of our discipline in low regard, especially those of International Relations. He points out that ‘many scholars’ in IR hold an “influential theory tendentiously called ‘realism’,” by which “the absence of a world government consigns nations to a permanent state of Hobbesian anarchy” (291). Here his understanding of the state gets him in trouble, because he argues that realism requires leaders-as-states to act “like psychopaths and consider only the national self-interest”; however, he writes, “humans are also moral animals” insofar as they are also guided “by moral intuitions supported by emotions, norms, and taboos”; thus, “it is neither sentimental nor unscientific to imagine that particular historical moments engage the moral and cognitive faculties of leaders and their coalitions in a combination that inclines them toward peaceful coexistence” (291). This is his demolition of IR’s ‘realism’ — which he later puts in quotes to avoid confusion with any more realistic realism (674) — yet even few non-realists in IR would attribute peace to the ‘moral intuitions’ of world leaders. Pinker has drawn some criticism for sneering at people he disagrees with in Better Angels, but the problem for political science is rather more silence. Pinker barely mentions our theoretical perspectives — except to snipe, very briefly.

Instead Pinker draws on the work of Norbert Elias, a sociologist/historian whose book The Civilizing Process was first published in 1939, and is — granted — every bit as relevant to political science as Max Weber’s work. Elias’s argument is subtle but profound: European elites, beginning around the 12th century, began developing elaborate codes of etiquette designed to structure relations between monarchs and nobles, so that the monarch could better control and define those relations. These rules  taught people to restrain their impulses and consider the interests of others, and they were subsequently absorbed by the nascent middle class to became the standards of normal behavior among ‘civilized’ persons. The ability to restrain yourself from farting in public turns out to be closely related to the ability to restrain yourself from punching a public-farting person in the face. The upshot of this process is that the words ‘impolite’ and ‘impolitic’ may have somewhat different connotations, but in fact mean roughly the same thing. What we consider polite or not is in fact a legacy of the rules which began to structure society in the late medieval era, and these rules established a very specific political system. Of course, Pinker does not describe it as such.

Pinker prefers to talk vaguely of ‘social inputs’ and ‘social organizations’. For example, in a modest concession for Pinker, who became famous for his arguments about the evolutionary origins of language, he avoids similar arguments about the decline of violence: “Since it is indisputable that cultural and social inputs can adjust the settings of our better angels (such as self-control and empathy), and thereby control our violent inclinations, we have the means to explain all the declines of violence without recent biological evolution” (621-622). Speaking of market economics as a domain of human activity, Pinker argues “It really should be lumped with other examples of formal social organizations that have been honed over the centuries as a good way for millions of people to manage their affairs in a technologically advanced society” (628). What are these mysterious social organizations, these social inputs reorienting human nature? We might name them, simply, ‘politics’ — in which case Pinker’s argument reduces to, ‘violence declined because humans got better at politics’.

The last third of the book is given over mostly to discussions of psychology of violence, and how that psychology is changing. Psychology being Pinker’s expertise, it is not surprising that he spends a lot of time talking about the changes and less about the changers, so let’s be clear: Pinker thinks “social inputs” and “social organizations” can change the way we think. Who is doing the educating in the Enlightened West? Governments, generally. Who is running the nutrition and vaccination programs to ensure healthy brain development? Governments, generally. Who is driving the civilizing process? Governments, generally.

To put Pinker’s views more succinctly: politics shapes human minds. It is not just that Leviathan makes the rational calculus of violence less rewarding, but that government can make violence literally unthinkable.

Pinker’s argument is a pretty staggering claim for the scope of political science. Minds are blown. Those of us calling ourselves political scientists should be quite glad for it: Pinker is opening vast grants of inquiry to our discipline, where previously we might have felt unwelcome. So why is this not obviously a political argument, much less a political science argument? Part of it is that Pinker dresses it up like a psychology book, and Pinker is of course a psychologist.

The bigger problem is that political science has never quite grasped violence as its subject of inquiry. Consider the history of the discipline: it emerged in the 20th century, well into the civilizing process Pinker describes. At that point, within-state violence was a minor concern, but inter-state violence was still a growing problem. Our lexicon reflects this: when political scientists talk about ‘war’, they usually mean inter-state violence. If they mean intra-state violence, they will modify to ‘civil war’. Political science is a late entry in the Enlightenment, and so our perspective on the problem of violence is limited. We see violence — ‘war’ — as the product of conflicting ‘social organizations’, and generally ignore the extent to which those organizations are themselves a reaction to violence. But politics is fundamentally a response — perhaps an instinctive response — to violence in human society. Consider that Collins defines violence as “a set of pathways around confrontational tension and fear” (198). Violence is not the only set of such pathways; so what do we call pathways around confrontational tension and fear which are not unlimited violence? Again, ‘politics’. Granted, politics can lead to violence; but when a rule says, ‘if x, then violence’, the likely purpose of the rule is to avoid violence. And Pinker makes clear that people have been developing rules for the management of violence since the dawn of human kind. Eventually those rules merged and meshed to form the state, a fairly sophisticated social organization for the management of violence.

This brings us to the second problem for political science: ‘policy relevance’. A lot of people in the discipline view this as the gold standard of political science, especially International Relations. What this means is that our work orients towards the interests of policymakers, i.e. the state itself, and not regular people. Even when we write for trade audiences, our books are policy-oriented. Clash of Civilizations, the one political science book our non-political scientist friends have all read, is very much policy-relevant (also very wrong-headed).3 Point being, political science is most interested in what interests policymakers, i.e. the state. This brings us back to the least developed part of Pinker’s argument, that the civilizing process affected the state because it changed state leader’s ‘moral intuitions’. This holds no water whatsoever; the state in most instances throughout the history of the form has resisted such limitations. For example, the U.S. government at this very moment is debating a bill that would allow the state to imprison with no limits its own citizens on the mere accusation of terrorist-related behavior. Is this an advance in our leaders’ moral intuition? Hardly.

A better explanation for the historical decrease in state violence is that the civilizing process, once effected upon the people, was reflected in them against the state. To quote the famous Admiral; “it’s a trap!” Once people became inculcated into the mindset that violence was wrong for them, they began to think it was wrong also for the state. This is especially true in democracies, where the people are nominally (more or much, much less) the state, but true to some degree for any society affected by the civilizing process. The state as an organization has no interest in its own limitation, but has instead become trapped by the civilization of its constituents.

What this means for political scientists is that ‘policy-relevance’ will often put us opposed to limitations on the state. Consider the literature that developed in political science over the last decade, which argues, more or less, the government can or should do pretty much anything it deems necessary to kill terrorists. This was an argument for more violence, not less — against limitations on the state. An argument which said ‘the state can’t do everything it wants’ would have been, by definition, policy-irrelevant, and few political scientists made that argument. More generally, political science finds it easy to ignore the problem of violence because such ignorance is in the interests of the state. A thorough understanding of violence might put political scientists in the uncomfortable position of having to criticize the state’s interest in an unlimited capacity for violence.

While an understanding of violence might not be policy-relevant, it is politics-relevant; violence is the fundamental problem of politics. And we — political scientists — don’t have that understanding, not yet. So we don’t talk about violence, don’t think about it, and don’t write about it (at least, most of us). We don’t have a literature, nor a vocabulary, much less a popularist version of the same, so no layperson confronted with the problem of human violence immediately thinks, “Aha – political science!” Which is why Steven Pinker was able to publish an 800 page treatise on political science, without anybody recognizing it as such.

The bad news is that it took a Steven Pinker to frame the puzzle; the good news is that he did not solve it. That is a job — maybe the job — for political science.



1 Amazon also has a ‘Social Sciences’ category, in which Better Angels is ranked #29 — just ahead of Glenn Beck’s Being George Washington at #30. In Amazon’s ‘Politics’ category, four different editions of Beck’s Being George Washington occupy positions in the top twenty, including #1 and #3. Better Angels is not counted as ‘Politics’, but presumably would be #1 if it were. There is no political science category. Granted this reflects more on the bookseller than the discipline, but it is a problem the discipline should wish to correct. All of this on 4 December 2011.

2 Pinker spends a couple of paragraphs talking about pop music’s reflection of changing social norms in the 1960s, eg the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”. For Pinker, the ’60s were comparatively uncivilized, while the ’80s and ’90s saw a return to civilized norms. Given Pinker’s interest in pop culture, why then does he not write about the popularity of hardcore rap  in the 1990s — just when we were supposedly becoming more civilized? One of Pinker’s more disconcerting tics is his tendency to elide contrary evidence in this manner.

3 Criticism of Huntington’s work is readily googleable. For counter-example, Putnam’s Bowling Alone is also a political science book popular with trade audiences, and perhaps less chained to policy relevance.