6.14.2008

holding the bully's coat, extended excerpt

Towards the end of Linda McQuaig's Holding The Bully's Coat, there is a great stand-alone piece, a meditation on war and human society. I really appreciated the historical perspective, the paradigm shift, the willingness to question our basic assumptions.

Although this post is not directly related to the war resisters, I'm tagging it with my "war resister" label, so that folks who come over from the Campaign website might read it.
When provoked, a gentleman didn't have to spend a lot of time in previous centuries thinking through the problem of how to respond. If his honour had been offended - if say, someone had questioned his integrity, or the virtue of his betrothed, or the extent of his bravery on the battlefield - he knew he had little choice but to challenge the offender to a duel. The stakes would be high; both men would have swords or pistols capable of killing the other. And the public, as well as family and friends, would come out to watch. Despite the potentially tragic consequences, the duel was an accepted part of social interaction. After all, humans have natural aggressive instincts, so what could be more natural than that two men, locked into an apparently irresolvable conflict, would resort to personal violence? It's all just part of the human condition. Or so it must have seemed, as the loved ones of the defeated gentleman watched him lie dying on the ground.

Looking back, the duel seems hopelessly quaint and primitive, an idea long ago shelved. It's not that humans have evolved so that petty insults no longer sting us or provoke our anger. It's just that, in the modern world, we've rejected the format of the duel as a way to resolve our disputes. Now, if someone insults us, we can sue that person for slander or libel. Or if a neighbour makes plans to build an extension on his house that will block our sunlight, we can try to stop him at a municipal bylaw hearing. If we were instead to show up at the offender's house with a weapon in hand, we'd be regarded as not only dangerous but weird and loopy.

Of course, violent personal behaviour still exists in pockets of our societies - in gangs and other outlawed forms. But our mainstream culture has fully adapted to solving disputes through the legal system. What once seemed no doubt utterly natural - that two men would resolve a dispute by recourse to personal violence - now seems part of a culture that exists only on the margins. This represents an apparently enormous change in human behaviour. What accounts for it?

Perhaps human nature has evolved, becoming more gentle and compassionate? Tempting as it may be to believe this contention, there doesn't seem to be much evidence to back it up. Duelling, which began in Europe in the mid-sixteenth century, was a common practice among upper-class men in parts of Europe and America, lingering even in some areas into the early twentieth century, when it finally disappeared. And yet, one would be hard put to make a case that humans somehow became more gentle and compassionate in the late nineteenth century. The twentieth century was perhaps the bloodiest century ever. One doesn't have to resort to statistics or laboratory studies to review the evidence around us in the modern world; humans appear to be still just as capable of aggression, violence and cruelty.

But if humans don't appear to have fundamentally changed, other things have. To begin with, our modern laws prevent duelling. If two men were to attempt to square off against each other with swords (or knives or guns) on a sidewalk or in a public park, someone would quickly call the police, and they would find themselves arrested and facing charges. But the prohibition against this sort of behaviour goes beyond the fact that we have laws against it. On another level, it has simply lost its cache, its social acceptability, its legitimacy. To behave that way is to identify oneself as a hoodlum, misfit or mental case. A normal person with a grievance doesn't even bother to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of being charged for criminal activities if he engages in some sort of duel. He's simply absorbed the notion, from all his experiences in life, that the duel isn't an acceptable form of behaviour. At some level, he is blocked from behaving that way because he knows if he did, his friends, family and acquaintances would regard him as, well, ridiculous. In fact, the duel has slipped so far outside normal practice these days that it likely wouldn't even occur to him that he could solve his grievance through a duel. The notion of a duel has become, as political philosopher Anatol Rapoport would put it, "an obsolete habit of thought."

So the disappearance of duelling from our modern culture probably has as much to do with our public disapproval of the practice as it does with laws actually banning it. What allowed duelling to exist for so long was the fact that it enjoyed some sort of public legitimacy, that it was accepted as a way to demonstrate one's "honour." So, for instance, as Alexander Hamilton prepared himself mentally the night before his famous duel with U.S. vice-president Aaron Burr in 1804, he felt he was conforming to an accepted social tradition. He even felt - strange as it may seem to us today - obliged to take part. As his diary makes clear, he was actually reluctant to take part for a number of logical and compelling reasons: he felt no ill will towards Burr, he opposed duelling on moral and religious grounds (and by this point, duelling was illegal under the laws of New Jersey, where the duel was to take place) and he realized his duel posed a great risk to the financial well-being of his wife and children. "I shall hazard much and possibly gain little," he wrote. Still, he felt the need to take part, because, he wrote, defending oneself in a duel was what "men of the world denominate honor." Therefore, if he declined, he would be the object of derision and contempt by those whose opinion mattered to him. So, with all logic and feeling against it, Hamilton made his fateful decision to bow to "public prejudice in this particular."

The peculiar set of social attitudes that drove Hamilton to enter into his duel have disappeared and been replaced with a set of social attitudes that would cause a similarly positioned person today to react very differently, without resort to violence. Thus, through social disapproval and legal prohibition, modern societies have rendered obsolete an institution that, for centuries, seemed just plain natural – an expression of the apparently basic human appetite for violence.

Of course, the duel was a particular institution. More broadly, we agree as members of society to give up our right to commit personal violence of any kind. We surrender that power to the state, as part of an implicit pact in which every other member of society does the same. The state then has a monopoly on violence, and we collectively - through our democratic voting power - determine the laws we will all live by. Only the police are given the right to use violence, and only to enforce the laws we've collectively agreed upon. By giving up the right to protect ourselves through violence, we achieve something even more precious - the right to live our lives free of violence.

Few today would lament this trade-off, any more than they would regret the passing of the duel. Modern living seems much more comfortable and congenial without violence in our midst. Indeed, the thought of any nation permitting such violence among its citizens - or unable to stop it, as in the case of nations where warlords are able to function - strikes us as evidence of a more primitive culture, something our society has evolved beyond.

Yet oddly we seem to see nothing absurd about continuing to accept an institution of violence between nations, namely the institution of war. As the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz observed in his classic 1832 book, On War, "War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale." Compared to the duel, war is of course a far more lethal institution, indeed one with the potential today to obliterate not just a few proud gentlemen but the entire human race. How odd, then, that we continue to find war acceptable, making it a central part of the way we organize our societies, even though it's an institution no more "natural" than the duel.

* * * *

Of course, war is generally regarded not as an institution but rather as the inevitable clash that results from deep-rooted human aggression. In other words, it's regarded as not something we chose to accept or reject but rather simply something that happens. This prevailing view doesn't imply that war can't be averted; obviously it sometimes can be, through diplomacy or political strategies. But the prevailing view does see war as a sort of normal and inevitable part of human behaviour. So while it's good to work at minimizing the chances of any given war, there's an unspoken assumption that war, in some form, will always be with us. Any notion of "ridding the world of war" is seen as hopelessly naive, rooted in some misguided notion that human nature can be reshaped into some nobler form.

Aggression does appear to be something that occurs naturally in humans, just as many other behaviours - laughing, crying, loving, hating, working, mating, communicating, making friends, helping others, co-operating with others - seem natural. So war may well be an expression of the aggressive part of human nature. The question is: Is it an inevitable expression of that aggressive side? Duelling - something that appeared to be basic and natural - simply disappeared over time; today duelling would be considered a silly anachronism, if anyone bothered to think about it. Could it be that war, like duelling, is an institution, rather than an inevitable expression of human nature? As an institution, war requires some form of social approval and support. Is it possible that ultimately such social approval and support could be withdrawn? In other words, is it possible that humans could choose to reject war?

Rapoport, who belongs to a school of thought known as peace studies, sees war in precisely this way, as an institution that continues to exist only because we continue to give it legitimacy. Rapoport points to other human institutions and practices that have failed to survive to survive over time – slavery, absolute monarchy, binding the feet of young girls, gladitorial combat. Political scientist John Mueller adds a few other practices that also became defunct once our society began to regard them as uncivilized and even repulsive: human sacrifice, the burning of heretics, bearbaiting, freak shows, Jim Crow laws, family feuding, public and intentionally painful executions, public flogging, executive for minor crimes, deforming corseting, laughing at the insane. And yet all these practices were at one time considered acceptable, with some of them deeply ingrained in the social fabric.

Slavery, for instance, certainly offends our modern sensibilities about intrinsic human rights. And yet what could seem more basic to human nature than the desire to control and take advantage of others – a desire ultimately achieved in actually owning another human being? Hence, one could imagine an argument in which slavery would be defended as simply a basic extension of human traits, such as aggression, selfishness and the desire for dominance, and the rejection of slavery would be characterized as naive idealism.

Slavery might in some ways be considered a closer analogy to war than duelling, in that slavery, like war, involved a significant infrastructure that many profited from - slave-trading and slave-shipping companies and manufacturers of slavery equipment, like chains and restraints of various sorts. Furthermore, like war, slavery was an institution that existed in many parts of the world, and as far back as the dawn of civilization. Slavery also conferred important financial benefits upon the slave-owning class, which typically was the dominant social group with considerable, if not absolute, political power. So any campaign to do away with slavery - like doing away with war - would seem to face formidable obstacles.

What's striking, though, is how quickly slavery largely disappeared from the world. If we look at the span of human history, we see that slavery existed for thousands of years, and then effectively disappeared rather suddenly in recent centuries. The Swedes were ahead of the pack - who would have guessed? - abolishing slavery in 1335. After that landmark, nothing much happened until the late eighteenth century. Then, starting with Portugal, which abolished slavery in 1761, a wave of abolitions swept through many parts of the world, particularly Europe and the Americas: England and Wales (1772), Haiti (1776), Upper Canada (1793), France (1802), Argentina (1813), Chile (1823), Mexico (1829), Denmark (1848), Russia (1861), the Netherlands (1863), the United States (1865), Cuba (1880), Brazil (1888). By the late nineteenth century, abolition spread farther afield, including Korea (1894), Zanzibar (1897), China (1910), Burma (1929), Ethiopia (1936), Tibet (1959), Saudi Arabia (1962) and Mauritania (1980).

How did this happen? One might guess that society abandoned slavery simply because it became economically unviable, as some have argued. And it's true that Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century economist who came up with the theory of modern capitalism, argued that free labour was more efficient than slavery. Still, slavery apparently remained viable and profitable as an economic institution, and it was certainly financially rewarding to slaveholders, many of whom depended upon slavery for their financial well-being and who might have been unable to make a profitable transition to a slave-free world. . . .

Nor is there any evidence of slave owners en masse having a sudden change of heart and freeing their slaves, although there were individual cases of this. Rather, the determining factor in ending slavery appears to have been the rise of strong abolition movements in a number of countries, particularly Britain and the United States. Such movements had the effect of changing the way people viewed this age-old institution. What had been regarded for centuries as an acceptable, natural form of human behaviour came to be seen as uncivilized, immoral and repugnant. As Mueller puts it: "Slavery became controversial, then peculiar and then obsolete."

Rational argument certainly played a role in this process. The abolitionist movement and those responding to it were influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, ideas about human rights and freedoms. Adam Smith's arguments about the greater efficiency of free labour no doubt underscored the inappropriateness - and lack of economic necessity - of slavery. So rational argument was marshalled, along with appeals to human compassion, in order to fundamentally alter the way a vast number of people regarded this particular institution. The abolitionist movement worked on a number of levels, spreading its ideas through intellectual debate and literary appeals, as well as through political action that resulted in laws abolishing various aspects of slavery, such as the slave trade. In other words, concerted and determined effort, based on rational arguments as well as emotional appeals, succeeded in stripping slavery of its legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Once the public no longer found it acceptable, slavery ceased to be viable, no matter how much certain powerful figures wanted to hold on to it.

Would the abolition of war, then, also be possible? This intriguing question is raised by Rapoport and others like Graeme MacQueen. It's important to note that the possibility of an end to war doesn't rest on the notion that humans would change in some fundamental way, becoming perhaps more peaceful or loving creatures. After all, duelling and slavery have passed into history without human nature becoming any more compassionate, or even improving in any detectable way.

The possibility of abolishing war also doesn't rest on the notion that the "warrior class" - those in the political, corporate and military establishments connected to war - would be converted to an anti-war stance. It's assumed that these people are unlikely to change, given their financial ties to the industry of war or perhaps simply because they've absorbed the values and arguments of a society long accepting of war's inevitability. Ultimately the views of the people in these elites - despite their enormous power - may not matter, however, just as the views of slave owners didn't matter once slavery had become peculiar, uncivilized and unacceptable in the eyes of the public.

If it seems inconceivable that war could ever be made to seem peculiar, consider the amazing transformation that has taken place in Europe in the last few decades. For centuries, Europeans were almost constantly at war with each other, from the age of barbarism that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire to the tumultuous world wars of the twentieth century. And yet, in recent decades, the inclination among European nations to wage war against each other has effectively disappeared. How to explain such a profound and sudden change, other than to see it springing from a kind of collective revulsion towards war - a revulsion that arose in the wake of the horrors of World War II? Given the scope and senselessness of that bloodbath, in which tens of millions of people died and much of the continent was destroyed, Europeans came to simply reject war as a means of solving their differences. To this end, European nations, with the support of their populations, came together and created the European Union, as a way of emphasizing their commonly held goals and as a forum for work¬ing together to jointly advance their prosperity. One could say that war among European nations lost its legitimacy. Today, anyone in Germany, France or Italy advocating war against another European nation would be regarded as unbalanced, unsophisticated, even ridiculous.

It's interesting to consider what role may have been played in bringing about this transformation by the establishment of the European Union, an institution aimed at breaking down patterns that in the past had led to war. In other words, was the ultimate result of de-legitimizing war among European nations advanced by the interim step of creating this new institution? Could a similar approach work in a campaign to de-legitimize war in general? Rather than focusing on trying to bring about a de-legitimization of war - a rather huge and difficult concept to convey - a campaign could set interim goals that would advance that ultimate goal. For instance, a campaign could set the interim goal of pushing national governments to pass laws banning participation in the arms trade, just as the anti-slavery movement focused on banning the slave trade as an interim step to the ultimate goal of banning the entire institution of slavery.

Rapoport reminds us that it's not even necessary to convert the general public to the philosophy of pacifism; it's simply necessary to undermine war's acceptability. Thus, the task is to destroy something, which is generally easier to accomplish than to build something. The strategy is simply to make the waging of war seem peculiar, uncivilized, even revolting. . . .

Indeed, the ever-increasing destructive power of war would seem to provide a solid rational and emotional basis to the war-abolitionist cause. It's interesting to note, for instance, how much more lethal the weaponry of war has become over time, with a particularly sharp increase in lethality since the mid-nineteenth century. Military historian Trevor Dupuy has drawn up an index to provide a rough measure of "lethality" - or killing power - of weapons through human history. For the first million or so years, the destructive power of weapons was relatively minimal. Throughout ancient and medieval times, the available weapons - the longbow, the crossbow, the early cannon - all score below 50 on Dupuy's "lethality index." This starts to change only in the mid-1800s, and by the late 1800s, rifles are scoring above 150 on the index. Then things really take off. By 1903, the Springfield rifle measures 495 in lethality. In the First World War, the lethality of machine guns comes in at 3,463; in the Second World War at 4,973. Meanwhile, the lethality of a Second World War fighter-bomber measures 1,245,789 on Dupuy's index. This is in turn utterly dwarfed by the lethality of the first nuclear bomb, which measures a staggering 49,086,000. By 1952, the hydrogen bomb scores 695,385,000 on the lethality index. Since then, the lethal¬ity of nuclear weapons has continued to grow in leaps and bounds.

The lethality of nuclear weapons is such that a nuclear war is simply irrational. Of course, nuclear war has always been understood to be irrational. But, as discussed earlier, the one apparently reasonable justification for it - the need for deterrence against the nuclear weapons of another power - was removed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, making it possible for Washington to begin the process of worldwide nuclear disarmament without jeopardizing American safety. We know that Washington has chosen to reject this path, and we can see in the documents produced by the Bush administration that the reasons for this rejection appear to be rooted in Washington's desire to consolidate U.S. control over the world.

But while a desire to control the world may be stronger in top administration officials than a desire to live in peace, this sort of megalomania is not shared by the American public. Polls consistently show overwhelming popular support among Americans for nuclear disarmament - even though the issue is not remotely on the actual political agenda. Ordinary Americans, like ordinary people throughout the world, intuitively understand that it makes no sense to support a policy capable of destroying humankind. We don't even need to think through the issue in some sort of cost-benefit analysis - the pros and cons of nuclear holocaust. It is intuitively obvious that there are only cons. John Mueller uses the example of a person in a hurry trying to decide how best to get from the fifth floor of a building to street level. The person could walk down the stairs - or jump out the window. Faced with such a decision, the person doesn't have to do a set of calculations to realize that the advantage of jumping - getting there faster - would be more than cancelled out by the disadvantage of ending up hopelessly crippled or dead.

And yet, astonishingly, we continue to prepare for the option of jumping out the window. . . .

There's more, and it's very good.

Ending the acceptability and seeming inevitability of war is a dream. But all great human endeavors began with a dream.

2 comments:

Jennifer Smith said...

Yeah, I love that part too. It almost gives me hope.

Cornelia said...

Historical progress is encouraging in a great many ways and they have quoted some pretty good examples in the article.