For Better or For Worse

A survey of our attitude to violence, and the far-reaching changes in the way in which its legitimacy is understood.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: April 25, 2015 12:00:20 am
book review, violence book review, violence a modern obsession book review, indian express book review, richard bessell book review, richard bessell Fighters of the Islamic State in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armoured vehicle in Mosul, Iraq. (Source: AP)

Book: Violence: A Modern Obsession
Author: Richard Bessell
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Pages: 365
Price: Rs 1,500

In 1939, Norbert Elias, published The Civilizing Process. He argued that modernity was characterised by increasing civility and self-restraint. As Richard Bessel’s book Violence reminds us, Elias had to preface his book by saying that, nevertheless, “the civilisation of which I speak is never completed and always endangered.” A century of genocide, total war, mass rape, violent crime, state torture, seemed to make the whole idea of a “civilising process” a sick joke. Yet, curiously, there has been a return of the argument that most forms of violence have not increased, but steadily declined over time. People lead safer lives than ever in human history. The most expansive case was made in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which combined formidable empirical data with historical analysis. Pinker’s thesis was questioned. Many were uncomfortable with the measure of violence in terms of the ratio of victims to the population at the time. Can we project forward from the relatively peaceful history of the last 75 years? And what about our potential for causing infinitely more harm?

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Bessel’s book is a contribution to this debate. A historian of Nazi Germany, Bessel’s study is not an empirical account of the incidence of violence. It is, rather, a breezy, readable survey of changing attitudes to violence. The central thesis is that if moral consciousness is measured by the delegitimisation of forms of violence, humanity has indeed progressed. The Western world, which this book covers, is more obsessed with the wrongs of violence, and this is manifested in intimate spheres of life as well as politics.

We no longer condone violence as public spectacle. The decapitation of bodies so brilliantly described in the opening pages of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, is no longer acceptable. Indeed, ISIS jars our moral imagination not because of the fact of killings, but because they revive a practice of public spectacle of violence. But there is also a revolt against corporal punishment, parental violence, and domestic violence. Practices in almost all institutions, from schools, families, hospitals, have become less penal, as it were. There is more memorialisation of victims of violence and more abhorrence about memorialising perpetrators. War is still a reality in many parts of the world. But it is hard to think that total war, extermination can be publicly glorified in the way it was during the two World Wars. Civilian casualties are still a fact, but they are now more suspect, morally and ideologically, whereas, till recently, maximum damage on civilian population was openly legitimised.

Bessel points out that it was always recognised that “social order is a necessary condition for containing violence.” But the paradox was that “violence was always recognised as a necessary condition for maintaining social order as well.” What has changed is the normative recognition that violence by the state needs to constrained. Revolutionary violence is delegitimised in ways that makers of the French and Russian revolution would not have even understood. Bessel is agnostic on the question of whether there is actual decrease in violence. But he is emphatic in the claim that there have been far-reaching changes in the way in which the legitimacy of violence is understood. Yes, we watch more violent shows. As Burke had heretically suggested, “terror is a passion which always delights when it does not press too close.” But the spectatorship of virtual violence can go hand in hand with the evolution of modern consciousness. Legitimation of violence was the norm, now it is done under more exceptional circumstances. The default of humanity has changed.

There is something to Bessel’s thesis, even if this wide-ranging book is ultimately unsatisfying. The shameless avowal of violence is now more difficult. But the relationship between these changing attitudes and actual violence remain an open question. There is also the thorny question that critics of modernity have raised: while acts of power inscribed on our bodies may have diminished, modernity’s coercive power to normalise and produce selves has increased. We don’t see the violence because the social control happens behind our consciousness as it were. Or, as Calasso suggested in a different context, ancient society constantly kept in view the fact that a sacrifice was taking place, with blood and victims and all. Modern sacrifices, in all the political forms they take, deny their own sacrificial and violent character. Modernity’s bloody history is not something modernity can acknowledge or fathom in its own terms. On this view, the change in attitude is a more elaborate form of self denial. For humanity’s sake, we hope history is on the side of Pinker and Bessel, and this time the joke will be on those sceptical that genuine moral progress is possible.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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