Political violence is like a festering wound, in that, without the aid of antibiotics the wound has the potential to depress the immune system and eventually overwhelm the individual, leading to death. In this analogy, antibiotics could represent forces that are always looking for the rogue virus’s bent on the destruction of the whole body (society). I often wonder why people resort to violence, of any kind, to solve a particular problem. Questions can be asked of the individual(s) involved in carrying out the attacks, but the questions never seem to be answered in a way that will show why violence is needed to resolve conflict.
Rather, excuses are rendered in the hopes that by the logic used in explaining why conflict must be resolved, this will justify the actions. This leads, though, to a sort of circular argument. For example, in the case of Saddam Hussein (put aside the fact that he is the president of a nation) is an idiot.
Why exactly he felt it was justifiable to invade a country, who at the time had an OK relationship with the United States, and then think the US and/or other countries would allow him to forcibly occupy that country. Whatever his logic, his actions were not justifiable. I believe his logic was as follows: Something happened to his country (economically, socially, politically etc.) that he did not like or want to happen. Hussein decided to adopt the “eye-for-an-eye” approach to conflict resolution. Except he changed the rules and instead of responding in a like manner consistent with “eye-for-an-eye”, he went over board with his reaction. He forcibly invaded a country.
I use the Persian Gulf War as a recent example of reasons for why people resolve conflict not through peaceful means but through violent actions. Iraq is not the only country in the system to use this type of logic when tackling an issue that is perceived to have only one avenue of approach to resolution: war. It seems that every, or nearly every, state in the world will resort to brute force to make a point. This then begs the question of, why? I will explore some of the popular assumptions for why people act as they do and try to come to some sort of agreement which we may all universally agree upon.
Sederberg explains four of the most popular explanations for violence and revolution and points out some of the flaws in the arguments. The first explanation I will talk about is the “Killer Ape Thesis”, which basically states that humans are biologically programmed toward violence and that because we are programmed in this way, this is an explanation for the cause of violence. Sederberg also points out that certain questions need to be answered before anything else can be argued, such as “what causes discontent?” In the killer ape thesis discontent is a moot point. If we are in fact programmed toward violence than discontent should not be an issue. To say that hereditary genes toward violence are passed from one generation to another is to say we have no choice in the matter of violence. We would, simply, all be vicious killers with no way of not being otherwise. Discontent, however, is something humans can turn on and off, like anger, sadness, or happiness. The killer ape thesis is great in explaining violence but not in explaining “the inclination toward violent expression” (Sederberg 102). Clearly, biological factors do not incline us towards violence, but the “Cherry Pie Thesis” does in some way explain why we are violent.
Sederberg describes the cherry pie thesis as one where biology or heredity may play no part in trying to explain why humans are prone to violence. He says that we are violent because of our culture. That is, we are violent because of, say, where we live or the era in which we grew up or the economic status we hold. This thesis though, like the killer ape thesis, is circular in its logic. Society may cause discontent among citizens but only with respect to history. For example, England and Ireland have been at war with each other for some time now; each fights the other because of some injustice. This injustice occurred in the past so it will occur in the future; again, as in the killer ape thesis, there is circularity of thought in what causes violence. The cherry pie thesis does, however, explain the question of “what inclines the discontented to violent expression?” People are not happy; why, who knows. In the case of the cherry pie thesis one thing is assured; when people are unhappy, usually they will try to make it so they will become happy. Ireland is unhappy because England owns a piece of land the Irish feel belongs to them and in order to assert their point they will resort to violence to gain back what they have lost. England will do the same and the cycle will continue until resolution is met. Societal factors can, in fact, show why violent expression is a necessary component for expressing a point. It was done in the past, so shall it be done in the future. This thesis will, then, contrast sharply with the cherry pie thesis.
Where the cherry pie thesis asserts that humans have a proclivity for violence because of sociological factors, the Insanity Thesis assumes we are violent because we are insane. A popular definition of insane might be ” the absence of normalcy.” This though leads to the question of “When are you insane” or ” What is a sane person?” When someone is termed insane there needs to be a label attached to that insanity. Such as anti-social disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, acute depression, retardation, or autism. This is because, if there is no label attached to a disorder then how can anyone say there is a disorder at all. If there is no label attached to a disorder then clearly there is no disorder. If I totally accept the cherry pie thesis, or any of the other theses, then one could say argue that I am suffering from a psychological disorder. With the exception of anti-social disorder, and possibly bipolar disorder, all the other disorders I have listed will not develop into an individual who will commit acts of political violence. Like the killer ape thesis, the insanity thesis revolves around biology as the determining factor for why people commit acts of political violence, which could then be said, are factors contributing to discontent, but not the cause. The insanity thesis does, however, explain to what extent inclines the discontent to violent expression. More often then not society will place people who fail to meet “normal” requirements of functionality in society into, say, mental health institutions, in order for them to get the proper care they need to be rehabilitated so that they may then be able to function properly in society.
Another popular theory for why revolutionary change and political violence occurs is based on the principle that misery will breed discontent. This, again, like the others previously talked about does not account for why discontent occurs. There is circularity to this logic also. If they were diagnosed as anti-social then this would be the best theory offered, so far. The only problem is, not all revolutionaries are psychopaths. Another drawback to this theory is that it only talks about revolutions or revolutionary change, not why misery is a precursor for political violence. The misery thesis does explain a reason for why violent expression is necessary for political change. As people become more and more miserable they will eventually revolt and demand there be a change in the situation. The misery thesis, though, only works if, in theory, the people are truly miserable. I do not believe that sheer misery will cause revolutionary change; there needs to be a gradual process downword and that revolt will not occur once conditions hit rock bottom.
Finally, the last of the theses put forth by Sederberg is the “Conspiracy Thesis”, which “at least puts ‘politics’ back into political violence and revolution” (Sederberg 108). This though is where any coherence in logic stops. The conspiracy thesis fails to explain both questions of what causes discontent and what inclines the discontented to violent expression. This thesis does explain a type of politic used in revolutions but stops short of everything. Conspiracies are used as a tool for a revolt that is already in progress, not a revolt that wants to be started.
After writing this paper I realized that none of these theses could explain causes for discontent or inclinations for violent expression. One reason for this is because we are not yet advanced enough in our thought process and abilities to understand violence. Violence is phenomenon unique only to humans, as a species, and does not occur in any other species on the planet. Psychology and pathology (with respect to the brain), certainly, are the only determining factors for answering these questions. Once we have truly mastered the mind, then we will understand political violence and revolutionary change. Then we can, with certainty, produce a clear and concise explanation and one that everybody will agree upon.
Sederberg, Peter C. FIRES WITHIN: Political Violence and Revolutionary Change. Harper-Collins College Press. 1994.
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