Some thoughts on power and violence

Some thoughts on power and violence

One should have a clear idea about what power is and more importantly its relationship to violence. There are many books about trying to deal with violence, but I just want to keep a short blurb here so that, basically, we can be oriented the same. So let us start with a few definitions.
The key is here the voluntary nature of power. Power must come from a certain degree of trust and faith that the leader will not abuse this and will use it in a constructive way. This one definition is curiously absent from most public school civics courses, but really is what American politics is about, and why it is dreadfully misunderstood by many outside of the US. Most authoritarian regimes equate control with obedience and their model for this is an all-pervasive police state. They therefore assume that the US, being quite successful, must simply be a larger, more drastic version of this and fail to see that the US functions well without the use of threat. Nobody has to tell us to go to work in the mornings or do a good job (not that we always do these things).

Violence -- and this is the key point here -- occurs in the absence of power, as a tool to gain obedience. In short, it is an attempt to get obedience. This point is well worth pondering and not just an idle philosophical aside, since a strongly ingrained popular notion equates power with violence -- summed up in Mao's famous maxim that "power grows out of the barrel of a gun." It is therefore a very seductive thing for the person seeking to assert control of a situation or over another person.

A small aside. The extreme brutality found in many regimes is directly attributable to the fact that they have no popular backing, i.e., dictatorships actually lack power within their own countries. Certainly, a person can be made obedient at gunpoint, but will fail to comply once such a threat is removed. As such, the level of threat to a general population must be continually reasserted and raised if such a government is to retain power. It is an extremely effective system and almost impossible to popularly overthrow internally. This is why the fate of such states usually ends either in an internal coup, such as when the military declares war on the civilian government (Romania) or in invasion from a foreign power (Cambodia, Germany, Iraq). Russia, to its immense credit, dismantled its system, but only a good 30 years after it ceased to use it; unwilling to restart the Stalinist-era show trials and mass deportations, the system went on auto-pilot for over a generation until its own economic collapse forced a change. This is definitely the exception.

It is worth noting that the 20-th century's most notorious totalitarian state, Nazi Germany, considered that it was fighting a three front war. One in the East, one in the West and one against its own population. In the end, over well-substantiated reports from the army that the war could be brought to a stalemate providing the internal resources were freed from the Gestapo, the Nazis elected to treat their own people as a graver threat than the multi-million man armies bearing down on their cities. Popular mythology paints the Nazis as an inhumanly efficient absolute dictatorship, but in reality, it was catastrophically and ineptly run, being really in the end only able to coerce its own people in terrified submission.

Violence and self-defense

So how does this relate to self-defense? There are people who use violence routinely to get what they want. This is because they've found it works for them. Normally this indicates badly dysfunctional behavior in other areas. Part of self-defense training therefore must address this issue. There are two large issues that we have to deal with here. The first is dealing with people who adopt violence as their chief strategy in dealing with others and those who are incapable of dealing with situations and end up defaulting to violent behavior. Yes, there are violently psychotic individuals who will assault you with virtually no warning. These are the minority in the extreme. A lot of self-defense systems train assuming that this worst case scenario is all that will happen. This just trains people to ignore the much more likely threat. Part of this is because of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. The more press something gets the more likely people believe it is to happen.

Predators know that violence works for them. They have a proven track record and for them the question is not if but when they will spring it on you. It is their trump card and they know that they can always fall back on it. The relationship with power comes in this way; In normal interactions with people we assume there will be give and take. This low-level giving up of control normally keeps society humming along. Such people see this power given by the other as a tactic for the introduction of violence. When they attack they use the sudden shift in the situation and resulting disorientation of the victim as part of the assault. Being attacked is not just the physical act of assault, but the psychological aspect of having someone seriously want to injure you, and that can be much more traumatic than any physical injuries received. One very illuminating study I read on the effectiveness of shooting attackers said that unless a major, vital organ is hit (not all that likely) most shooting victims shut down because of the psychological effect. Someone who is setting you up for an assault probably has a good way of doing this to you and has targeted you precisely because they feel a victory is all but certain. In the case the attacker is actively seeking to assault you, any attempt to control the situation gets you more ensnared in it. The attacker is looking for the first shot and efforts to resolve the situation are just buying time for it. Assaults like this do not just pop out of the woodwork and usually there is a buildup. It can be fairly short, such as the panhandler that won't take no and quickly builds himself up to a rage. It can take place over a longer time stretching through weeks or months, such as the boyfriend who exhibits fits of rage and allows himself to be calmed, only to finally explode. In the latter case the women thinks she is controlling him, but in effect he is manipulating her until some trigger is met. If you know someone who exhibits unstable emotions or has a history of violent behavior, you should count on having them target you at some point. Yes, I'm saying avoid people like that.

People almost never just commit assault, even the among those who most often resort to violence. An interesting topic to investigate, as done by David Grossman in his books on killing, is what militaries have to do in order to overcome this natural tendency.. And so it goes in the civilian world. Almost always people who resort to violence must be in a rage or other heightened emotional state. Spouse abusers, for instance, often get drunk because this allows them to lower their inhibitions to attack. Others are good at working themselves up. People who tend to get themselves excited and show violent tendencies are to be watched.

The other major type of person is one with extremely poor coping or interpersonal skills. S/he might be in cases where there is tension that they cannot really see how to resolve. In this case, a lack of power engenders violence. Consider this: Giving the other person some means to resolve whatever the issue is. He (or she) does not have the skills to do this and might be quite grateful. An example is the case of the co-worker who is quite socially inept and often the butt of jokes. If the victim feels he cannot control the situation at all, he may seek simple vengeance on everyone. This is often the pattern seen in mass workplace shootings. After the fact everybody says that they should have seen it coming and done something differently, but they fail to understand why their taunts are so uniquely cruel. It is interesting that in at least one workplace shooting spree the carnage was briefly halted by the gunman to allow the one person in the factory who had been kind to him to leave. Then the slaughter commenced anew. Think about it for your safety.

Once the violence starts, however, the time for talking is over. I count this a high failure if it gets to this point and self-defense is really about disaster management more than winning the good fight.

Here are some good sources for reading up on violence. Yes, several of these are political in nature. Why? Well, I used to live in Germany and made it a point of tracking down old timers to ask them exactly what did occur under the Nazis. The more I talked to them, the more I understood why such systems are founded on violence and terror. In a real sense the Nazis institutionalized the same sort of violence people try to avoid by taking self-defense courses. The strange thing is that a lot of people still have it in their heads that this is a great way to run a country. Of course all those dead bodies are lamentable, but the assumption is that there was real power there. Nothing is further from the truth. We all know that a spouse abuser is not the model for living a good life, so why don't we think this way about regimes? Marc's site has excellent references for inter-personal violence books, so repeating them here won't do much good. I just wanted to make what I think are under-represented or unknown books available.

On Violence by Hannah Arendt. This was written back during the heyday of the student rebellions in the 1960's, so quite a bit of it is dated. However, Hannah Arendt is a first class philosopher and her discussion of violence and power are very much worth reading. This is a slim book. Her magnum opus entitle The Origins of Totalitarianism are a chilling and disquieting read. One who wishes to understand how a terror state can seize control and function should read this. A lot of historians take issue with her analysis, but on a personal note, I lived in Germany for many years and found it stunningly accurate. She cautions this is specific to Germany, but her detractors seem to have forgotten this.

Marc MacYoung's writings. He discusses violence often in his books and having seen a lot of it has many, many good observations. He also has an additional bibliography on his site that contains lots of useful links. Read it all. Hey, haven't I said that before?

The German Dictatorship by Karl Dietrich Bracher. This is tome about the Nazis and the first half is a bit of a snoozer since it chronicles the rise of just about every political party that existed in Germany from about 1870 on. Once it starts with the Nazis proper, it really sizzles, and he takes pains to show how completely dysfunctional such a state must be in order to have longevity. Again, this is a very unsettling read.