Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Is Modern Society More or Less Violent?

Before the tragedy at Virginia Tech I was discussing with friends on whether society is more violent now or in the past. I am inclined to think that despite the violence we hear about and the violent movies and video games, we are a much more benign people today.

While our entertainment in movies and games can be violent, it is better than older forms. From the cultured French:

In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, "the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized."

Not to be out done, the British engaged in bear baiting. Bears were chained in a pit, and hunting dogs would be set on it until it was killed. A variation on this was whipping a blinded bear. A Spanish nobleman was taken to a show where an ape was tied to the back of a pony. He commented "to see the animal kicking amongst the dogs, with the screaming of the ape, beholding the curs hanging from the ears and neck of the pony, is very laughable."

More primitive societies today seem to be more violent. If you think football, boxing and cock fighting are violent, you should avoid kok-boru. This game is popular in Central Asia. A goat is decapitated and the legs are cut off at the knee. Eight players ride on horses and try to grab the goat and toss it through a stone ring. Whipping and punching other players are part of the game, and the only protective gear are World War II Soviet tank helmets. China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan all have national teams.

Edward Miguel of Berkeley did a fascinating study on modern witches in Tanzania. Families take care of the older relatives. When extreme rainfall is experienced (drought or flood) it becomes more expensive to feed the family. When these extreme events occur, older women are accused of being witches and killed by family members. In other words, when it gets to expensive to take care of the elderly they are branded as witches so as to justify their murder.

The Economist recently ran an article on honour killings in Turkey. The opening story was of a man who killed his sister because she eloped. He resisted killing her for three months because he loved her, "but then neighbours stopped talking to him, the grocer refused to sell him bread, the local imam said he was disobeying Allah, and his mother threatened to curse the milk she had breast-fed him." And so he put 7 bullets in her. A report that came out last August found that almost 1,100 honor killings happened in the previous five years, over four a week. Fifty-one of the killers were interviewed, and only three expressed regret.

While modern society is far from perfect, I feel that things are getting better. Though some of our entertainment is violent, it is fake. We don’t have social norms to kill family members if they do something disgraceful. If it becomes expensive to take care of someone, we don’t murder them in the name of witchery. While incidents such as Virginia Tech are tragic, the fact that it is so tragic shows how far our society has progressed.

4 comments:

Warren said...

Jared G. told me about bear baiting. And yes I spelt honour with a "u" on purpose since The Economist is a British magazine.

Jenny said...

Warren, this was really interesting (you know, something good to read over lunch, right?). And I think you're right about the way our society sees violence, particularly unexpected, somewhat inexplicable, violence of human origin (as opposed to natural disasters, which, like Katrina, we obviously feel bad about too, but somewhat expiated since we can't control the weather. We tend to think, however, that we might be able to influence others around us) as tragic. The tragedy lies in the thought that it didn't have to happen and yet it wasn't prevented.

That said, I also think we tend to be a bit provincial as a society when it comes to this type of violence. I went to a meeting a couple weeks ago at the SLC library that had a discussion about honor killings and it surprised me how little people A) knew and B) felt like it could be changed. There was a prevailing attitude of "well, that's their culture and they'll have to work things out." Hogwash. The tragedy of the situation is still there. And I know it could have just been the group, but still.

The problem is, when I'm confronted by the magnitude of violence in society as a whole (as in all of earth), I'm not sure where to start, or what I can actually do. Contribute money and time, sure, but that doesn't ease any guilt necessarily ... anyway, I liked this post—made me think.

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