One of the common tropes in storylines, especially for fantastical fiction, is the idea of returning to a period of time when things were “the old ways”, kind of like a time travel journey to the 1950s, or even a trip to the ancient past. The main character is seen as a fish out of water as he or she tries to use his or her knowledge of that time (and his or her future time) to get through such an experience. Now, part of me was thinking of focusing this post just on the writing aspects of this sort of speculation, but while I was thinking this through, I started to wonder something, and specifically I was wondering why we became what we are today rather than having continued the way things were “back in the day.”
This was prompted by an article covering a shooting that took place in Denmark and how that community (and that country) is now having to do things to make sure that such a tragedy doesn’t happen again. In other words, they are going to become a lot like other places around the world where violence is somewhat expected. I mean, no one wants to be caught off guard, right?
And that got me to thinking about that infamous line that used to happen in the United States whenever something tragic occurred. If this was the 1950s, the response would be something along the lines of “I can’t believe such a thing like that could happen here.” Or my other favorite: “I can’t believe Bob did that because he always seemed like such a nice guy. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen here.” I think you might be getting the picture.
In the 1970s, that message, while still happening in areas where you wouldn’t expect to hear it (part of the response to gun shootings that were happening in rural areas rather than urban settings) slowly changed to “I can’t believe that happened here. I mean, it’s not like we live in Chicago/New York/Detroit.” In other words, it was starting to happen in urban environments, so we were starting to expect stories like that, but it shouldn’t happen in a place like Wheatfield, Wyoming (if that was a real place). But now, it’s happening all over the United States, so that every new story that happens is treated as a one-off case of an almost expectant event, even if where that event took place might have been speculation before it happened. It’s happened so much in the United States that we’re now starting to be surprised by these stories happening in other countries, rather than by ones that happen in the United States.
So, because of the way these trends work, we’re going to be seeing more and more of this violence happening around the world in places where we’d last expect to see it. And then we’ll have to be surprised by something worse, like the level of violence, the perpetrators of the violence, or some other factor we haven’t considered yet.
Which leaves one important question:
Why are we seeing this sort of thing becoming a norm for our communities? Are we desensitized to violence so we now accept it as a part of our natural order? Is the human species evolving into a much more violent, chaotic creature that holds little regard for fellow humans? Is that creature devolving into the types of people we used to be before we took the Hobbesian path and developed government around us to protect us from each other? Is it because our means of hurting each other have become much more convenient and useable? Or are there other factors that cause us to do the sorts of things we do to each other these days?
There’s a lot of theory that addresses this possibility, mainly making the point that as people are exposed to more and more sensations of a certain type, they no longer find themselves affected by it and either no longer seek such sensations or have to increase the type of exposure to reach that level of influence again. We see this all of the time with the drugs we take, from cigarettes to alcohol to both legal and illegal substances. Most of the time, the first exposure to the item causes an initial positive reaction which is then transferred into a loss that needs that input again. Continuous exposure acts as a certain punctuated equilibrium, which means we get used to a higher level of usage and continue to have to increase the dosage to provide the same “high” that we had before.
For violence, there’s no reason this wouldn’t work the same way as well. We become comfortable with the amount of violence we’re exposed to and then seek out higher levels of violence. As exposure theory goes, it makes sense.
Or does it? The problem with exposure theory is that the influence might increase for an individual, and it would take more and more violence to affect that person, but why would this somehow translate to people in other areas now experiencing violence where they didn’t have it before? The theory doesn’t explain that, unless the idea of violence is that it’s more of a virus that spreads rather than something that occurs in pockets and then spreads out, affecting those previously exposed to it.
Another possibility involving that theory is the types of violence inherent in the system. An argument is often made about video games, television and movies that might be desensitizing people, and unlike the virus affects of spreading violence, these would feed on subsequent communities just by the appearance to where people would consume these types of media. Again, that’s assuming these activities to be a causal factor rather than as a recognition of the violence (meaning no causal effect at all, or very little at least).
But I don’t want to just ignore the possibility because from first hand experience, I remember being a fan of horror movies when I was growing up. I remember watching the very first Nightmare on Elm Street with a bunch of military coworkers, and I was shocked at the violence in that movie, and it was extremely scary (at that time). Having watched many horror movies during that period of time, I remember watching that original movie again years later and thinking how tame it was in comparison to “real” horror movies. I certainly didn’t feel that way the first time I watched it. So, there’s a bit of desensitization going on there, or it may just be a stimuli adjustment. Or it may have no connection at all to violence because if one sees it as “reaction to being scared” rather than “reaction to violence” there may be absolutely no ties whatsoever. Again, something to keep in mind when analyzing such phenomena.
Evolution of the Species
This is one of those possibilities that truly scares me because with evolution, you have the whole survival of the fittest thing going on, and if the fittest is the most violent, then we’re in for some really bad problems. But what if our dilemma is that the human condition is now one that is favored through violence rather than through cooperation? There’s a strong believe that through our evolution, we have reached a point where social communities are what propel us forward beyond the previous adaptations and around other species that didn’t achieve this level of evolutionary maturity. Okay, if that’s the case, why is violence becoming more and more a response to how we handle these social encounters instead of community and broad cooperation? If our evolutionary process made sense, there would be a strong possibility that people would find ways to get along in diverse circumstances (instead of taking a gun to work and killing the boss during an altercation) and on an even higher level, we should probably see fewer wars and regional conflicts.
But we don’t. Instead, after several wars to end all wars, we’re still as violent towards each other as we’ve ever been. Right now, our Congress is meeting to figure out how to give our president more authority to attack people we don’t get along with. For some reason, no money is being discussed for allocation that will be spent to foster peace with the people we don’t get along with. The response to this criticism is “it would be a waste of money because they don’t want peace”. And we know this why? Because we’re currently trying to kill them while they’re trying to kill us (or at least allies of us). In our present sense, we see what we’re doing as justified, yet we’re still doing the same violent things we were doing in the past, and now we just have more efficient ways of doing it.
So, the question is asked, are continuing to become a more violent people? And I don’t mean just the United States, or the west, or anything like that. I mean humans as a whole. Are we just becoming more violent?
Or were we always this violent? Except we had governments that were capable of keeping us from killing each other (except during national campaigns where they got to send people out to kill in their names)? If you’ve ever been to war, it’s a pretty brutal experience. Oh, we like to fluff it up with 21st century technology and act like we’re doing something much different than how our forefathers fought, but when it comes down to it, you still have people out in the middle of some place they don’t want to be trying to kill a bunch of other people who don’t really want to be out there doing that either. And we pin medals on the ones that come back alive (and sometimes those who didn’t), and then create celebrations for the sacrifices they made. But in the end, we’re rewarding a bunch of people who are doing things that civilized people probably shouldn’t be doing any way.
But of course, someone will say that the others guys MADE us do it, that they were out there doing atrocities. And I’m sure the other guys will say that those of us attacking them were doing all sorts of affronts to humankind, like sleeping with each other on the wrong days of religious texts, eating something that someone’s interpretation of God says people shouldn’t be eating for arbitrary reasons that someone else will defend to the death, and all such other reasons (some good, some ridiculous, and some just straight out confusing, even to the people following them).
Which kind of pushes the whole Hobbesian argument that maybe we’ve been comfortable and safe from the mannerisms of our fellow humans by a simple agreement to follow some arbitrarily chosen noble whose real purpose is to make sure that people don’t go around killing each other all in return for a promise to make sure that those who DO kill each other will be held responsible for such actions (so that might keep them from doing so). If our only reason for avoiding violent tendencies is because of some agreement our ancestors made with each other, then it might not be surprising why a civilization that tends to teeter closer to anarchy might not feel the need to follow preordained orders of a monarchical society that leads for the simple reason that those in charge just feel they should be in charge.
Think of it this way. If you’re a citizen of an order that you don’t believe in any more, because few in that society do, and lump that in with a belief that there’s no reason to live the life that your ancestors did because that’s only going to provide a lifetime of hardship and destitution, there are people in your life (or on the edge of it) you don’t like, and you see violence as an option rather than something to avoid, I wonder if that would explain why a lot of these events are becoming a norm rather than the anomaly they used to be.
I mean, let’s be honest. I don’t have the answers. But I do have a lot of questions, and I’m starting to suspect that people aren’t really asking questions any more but are just pontificating about what they think are the answers to a whole lot of questions that people stopped asking.