‘Violence Is Not Primordial…’

“Violence is not primordial, and civilization does not tame it; the opposite is much nearer the truth,” writes Randall Collins in a forthcoming book called “Violence: A Micro-Social Theory.”

Tyler Cowen calls it “one of the most important social science books of the last few years,” and summarizes the premise like so:

People are more naturally tense and fearful, sometimes full of bluster but usually looking to avoid confrontation unless they have vastly superior numbers on their side. The prospect of violence makes people feel weak and scared. The greatest dangers of violence arises from atrocities against the weak under overwhelming conditions, ritualized violence enacted in front of supportive audiences, or clandestine terrorism or murder.

Here’s a long interview with Randall Collins that explores many of his ideas about violence. Among the book’s theories that Prof. Cowen teases is an explanation of how British soccer stadiums were once built in such a way as to inadvertently encourage violence and how they’ve been changed to prevent outbreaks — a tidbit that definitely makes me want to check out this book.

When I saw Chris Hedges read from his excellent “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” back in 2003, he made many of these same points: contra pop psychology, people are very strongly disinclined towards violence, and so war-making can only happen by systematically overcoming these anti-violent instincts. And it was my brush with Hedges that got me reading Lawrence LeShan on war psychology and a bit of Elias Canetti (man, “Crowds and Power” is loooong).

So much of the genre stories I admire, most particularly Westerns, take man’s intrinsic violent nature as axiomatic. Even so, I think Collins’s counterintuitive argument makes a lot of sense. I look forward to his book.

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