29 March 2006

By any means necessary

The use of force or violence to bring in change has been in effect from time immemorial. Kings, dictators, political parties, terrorists, the state police and even individuals – like a schoolteacher, a parent or a husband – have been known to use force to induce discipline and change in people. Looking at various political regimes and ideologies throughout history, or perhaps at one’s own life, we know it works. No-one doubts its practice… or effectiveness.

But, is it all bad? When faced with resistance, it seems like a logical recourse. From the point of view of self-defence, its inevitability cannot be denied. Some say that violence is show of ‘lack of intelligence’ because peaceful methods are always available to us. However, people do resort to violence, sometimes at the slightest instigation, to take what they feel is their own, or to effect a desired outcome, by any means necessary. And, to hell with peace and civilization!

What brings on this violence – or the thought of violence?

I’m sure there are many theories on this, and the one that appealed to me, when I came upon it recently on the Internet, is one which was proposed by RenĂ© Girard some forty years ago. In his theory, Girard connected violence, literature, mythology and religion, stating that human culture is based on sacrifice as the way out of mimetic, or imitative, violence between rivals. Not an easy theory by any means, but if the idea of violence repulses or attracts you, why not read on?

Jeramy Townsley, in a paper from 2003, titled ‘The Theory of Violence, Religion and the Scapegoat’, describes Girard’s concepts as follows [pretty heavy stuff]:

The starting point for Girard’s theory is “acquisitive mimesis”. Girard proposes that much of human behavior is based on “mimesis”, an all-encompassing expression of imitation, but focuses on acquisition and appropriation as the object of mimesis, contrary to most of the extant literature on imitative behavior (Girard 1979, 9). Girard describes a situation where two individuals desire the same object; as they both attempt to obtain this object, their behavior becomes conflictual, since there is only one object, but two people. “Violence is generated by this process; or rather, violence is the process itself when two or more partners try to prevent one another from appropriating the object they all desire through physical or other means” (Girard 1979, 9).

In this way, Girard takes issue with the dominant conflict models that focus on aggression or scarcity as the sources of conflict. Such models propose that “many of our problems are the direct result of concentration of wealth and power” as well as “exploitation and colonialism” (Farley, p. 17-18). While this perspective goes a long way in explaining various types of conflict that societies experience, Girard believes they are insufficient to explain the diversity of situations around which we find conflict. He believes that these insufficiencies are avoided when conflict is, instead, modeled on acquisitive mimesis, or “appropriative mimicry” (Girard 1979, 10).

He sees aggression as part of the problem of conflict, not part of the cause. Since conflict appears to be fairly ubiquitous, yet aggression is limited only to certain types of conflict, aggression may not be the correct model. Similarly, scarcity, while also a potential cause of conflict, again is not the source of the issue according to Girard. He does not believe that scarcity in the animal world would explain the violent challenges by lower males against dominant males. Imitation, however, also common to both humans and animals, he believes has more explanatory power to describe the origin and perpetuation of violence (Girard 1979, 10).

Yes, it’s pretty heavy stuff. I’m still trying to make sense of it.

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