Friday 2 November 2012

The Efficacy Of Violence

Make It Stop: Contrary to popular belief the most common response to the experience of violence is not retaliation, but shock, fear and appeasement. That's how violence works - both at the individual and the societal level. A nation, too, can be taught to cower in terror.

VIOLENCE WORKS. No matter what form it takes: physical, psychological, institutional; violence almost always gets its way. That’s because violence, and the pain it inflicts, almost always takes its victims by surprise and overwhelms their capacity to process and make sense of what is happening to them.
The overpowering personal priority, when subjected to violence, is simply to make it stop. We flee from violence, or, when that is impossible, we cower before it – doing everything we can to appease the person or institution responsible.
Even when the violence is not directed at us, but at others, our first reaction is to freeze; to back away; to make ourselves invisible to the perpetrator.
Now, many of you will object that alongside the “flight” instinct stands the “fight” instinct. If someone hits us, then we will hit back.
This may be true of those situations in which aggression is clearly signalled in advance: “What are you looking at?”
Such challenges enable us to assess the level of threat and to prepare ourselves both mentally and physically to meet it.
But violence is almost never unleashed in this manner. The seasoned street-fighter knows that victory belongs to the person who gets his (or her) retaliation in first. And it takes a highly skilled and experienced fighter to recover from and respond to an unannounced and unprovoked attack. The ability to meet violence with violence is not instinctive – it is learned.
The perpetrators of violence are well aware of these reactions and responses. Almost invariably, the physical or mental trauma they inflict throws their victims into shock – transforming them into docile, obedient automatons. Which is precisely the effect they intend.
The long-term effects of violence are even more useful to those who use it to exert power and control over others. People become extremely fearful – not only of the person or institution directly responsible – but of the whole world. Their trust in the essential rationality of human interactions is shattered. Very often they withdraw from society altogether. A terrible fatalism takes possession of them and not only the ability, but even the desire, to act independently is lost.
There was a man I knew many years ago in Dunedin. He was a wonderfully humane person, artistically gifted, outgoing and witty. A citizen held in high esteem. He was savagely beaten one night by a group of youths. His injuries were severe, but not immediately life-threatening. Nevertheless, they destroyed him. Terrified and disoriented, he barricaded himself against the perpetrators and never again ventured beyond his front door. His trust in the sanity and order of the world was shattered beyond hope of repair. He died soon after.
Why am I telling you all this? Simply, because New Zealand society is coming more and more to resemble the victim of a violent attack.
Like the Dunedin man I’ve just described, New Zealand used to be a wonderfully humane society. Around the world her progressive social reforms were held in high esteem and cited as proof that New Zealand was (to quote Richards Topical Encyclopaedia) “the Best-Governed Nation in the World”.
A Government So Sound And Humane: How the rest of the world viewed New Zealand in the late 1940s.
But in 1951 that country was brutally assaulted by its government. Twenty thousand of its most independent citizens were subjected to months of sustained institutional violence. Their compatriots froze in horror. For the next three decades fear and appeasement of the government was ingrained in a whole generation of New Zealanders.
And when their children reached adulthood the state attacked again. Between 1981 and 1991 a series of savage blows against the progressive legacy of the 1930s and 40s sent New Zealanders reeling. Parties and politicians they had trusted and supported their whole lives suddenly turned on them. Stripped of their jobs; robbed of their security; a significant fraction of the nation went into political shock.
Like their parents before them, a new generation of traumatised New Zealanders were encouraged to regard the state as something to be feared and distrusted. Like so many battered wives, they learned to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. They learned the importance of reading the moods of their violent masters; of anticipating their violent rages; of keeping clear of their fists.
And when others were attacked: beneficiaries, trade unionists, teachers? Well, they were just glad it was someone else on the receiving end.
That’s how violence works.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 November 2012.


Anonymous said...

Yes. It seems to me that, like Heisenburg's uncertainty principle, the more you try to zero in on the thing which you percieve is lacking, "happiness" for example, or "family values", the less likely you are to get near it. However the only thing to do is what you feel most deep inside.

But this just a tiresome homily, as per contributor Brendan.

Follow the link to see some singing, like Johnny Cash said, "singing seems to help a troubled soul". This might as equally apply to countries as individual New Zealanders.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Chris

Seems 'anonymous' believes we share something in common, albeit 'tiresome homily'. *chuckle*.

That said, I do think it's time you traveled more widely. If you think New Zealand society is characterised by Governmental institutional violence, then it is time you cast a comparative eye overseas.

We are living in a (fools) socialist paradise where we spend more than we earn, and the Government borrows from our children's future to sustain us in our lifestyle.

You could say that is a form of institutional violence, but it's not perpetrated against us, rather it's against our children.

We may not be directly perpetrating it ourselves, but we stand complicit with the politicians cloaks at our feet while they cast the stones.

Victor said...

Anecdotage is, of course, an unreliable basis for generalisation.

However, conversations with my New Zealand born contemporaries (including some very near and dear to me) suggest that this was anything but a non-violent society in the halcyon days of early mid- century.

It's just that the violence was kept behind closed doors. And, again on the basis only of anecdote, the violence seems to have been considerably more endemic and approved of here than in some other countries of which I have knowledge.

As to the violence of the New Zealand state, I suspect that Maori would have tended towards a different perspective to Pakeha on this issue, as would the peoples of the Pacific islands ceded to New Zealand in the post World War One settlement.

And, you know, it never was hard to convince the rest of the world that New Zealand was a utopia of peace, freedom and social justice.

Most people I know in Europe still believe it. Why? Because we all want to believe Shangri La exists. And it's so much easier to believe in a place that's too far away to visit for the weekend.

That doesn't mean that NZ is uniquely bad. It's just not uniquely good and never was.

Moreover, we'll never repair our social fabric if we keep telling fairy stories about ourselves.
That's true of both the fairy stories of Left ("The Lost Utopia") or of Right("Freewheeling Kiwi Ingenuity Unleashed").

And that doesn't mean that things weren't better for a great many people in the mid-century than they are now. It's a fate New Zealanders share with the inhabitants of most of the rest of the developed world.

Anonymous said...

We are certainly suffering from an epidemic of servility and I think you have identified part of the cause Chris.

There are other reasons as well.

The woman bus driver in Wellington who recently won compensation after she was sacked for telling her bullying boss to fuck off is a rarity nowdays because people like her simply shoot through to Australia rather than face a life of relentless bullying from their bosses, their political masters, and the state institutions that are supposed to serve them.

We don't have to look beyond some of our Pacific neighbours to find nations that have been weakened because their best and brightest have left.

Its not just a skills shortage we are left with - we are also faced with a 'fuck off bully' deficit.

The ruling class are also using language to frighten, diminish and control people.

Those who would speak out in plain unambiguous language are mainly silenced through being ridiculed by the media and condemned as being too radical by the political elite of MPs and commentators.

This tactic is so successful that most opposition politicans self censor and are reduced to euphemism and blandness characterised by the likes of Shearer and Norman.

This in turm reinforces the fears, insecurity and sense of helplessness of those they pretend to represent.

The bullies of the right face no such constraints and are encouraged to spew their poison in ever more repulsive terms.

They wage a vicious class war while our supposedly left representatives won't even say the word class for fear of losing their respectability.

If we are to become a nation of courageous people we need brave and principled leaders that are able to replace peoples fears with hope.

Anonymous said...

I am very sad at your holding fast to your solitary talking point on such a poignant issue as this. If you don't understand the repressive domination of government and capital that is inherent in a capitalist society; the violence that makes people think 'screw it, I can't fight this, I'm just going to pretend to like it'; you are living in conservative fantasy land.
It borders on autism for someone to live in this society without noticing this. And then to bring up your solvency rant in connection to it.
Surely you can do better.

Chris Trotter said...

To whom are you speaking, Andrew?

Me? Victor? Brendan? Our anonymous brethren?

You need to make it clearer.

Victor said...


Anonymous said...

To our friend Brendan. Sorry all. And I got a bit carried away. However the institutional violence of capitalism (and especially the neoliberal vaiety which demobilises democratic participation more) is a separate and important topic. Brendan is right to value solvency but there are other issues, and personally I think sovency can be resolved much more easily than the structural oppression of capitalism.