Are we violent by nature?  

Humans and conflicts

11th April, 2021

By: Juliane Zeyen

On a daily basis we see news about violence: wars, homicides, massacres, etc. A look at the past, shows that human history is marked by wars between nations, religions, and ideologies. In countries like Colombia, for many people violence is part of everyday life. The majority of the population has never lived in real peace conditions, and this is not an isolated case. Violence and war have always been part of the relationships between humans and between communities. Even today, living in the modern era and in a globalized world, physical and structural violence often appears as a way of dealing with conflicts, whether political, economic, or social. With this in mind, it is simple and obvious to ask: Are we violent living beings? Moreover, in 2016 half of the Colombians decided to go against a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC.1 Taking the question of our violent nature a step further, the idea that human beings do not want to live in a state of constant peace either becomes relevant. Therefore, are violence and aggressiveness part of our human characteristics?

With this fundamental question about ourselves and our perception of violence around us, this article presents a perspective to deconstruct the thesis about violence as an inherent characteristic of human beings. Reflecting on the individual and its behavior in society, we address the issue through a multicultural and multidisciplinary approach, including knowledge from biology and the social sciences.


First of all, it is essential to highlight the media's role concerning the way we perceive the world. For example, by showing scenes of brutality and presenting feuds as an everyday occurrence, movies make violence appear to us as the normal way of resolving conflicts and war as a regular phenomenon, when, in fact the opposite is true. Peace is the norm. Humanity could not exist if it were not for solidarity, cooperation, and empathy that form the basis of our coexistence on this planet. We are social beings and seek contact with each other. In human history, we have learned to share, to compromise, and to help each other. However, no society is without conflict.


Obviously, physical violence is the most visible expression of conflict or disagreement. However, there are different ways to solve a problem without resorting to aggression: negotiation, separation, or introducing a third party are effective and common methods of dealing with conflicts. They simply do not attract as much media attention and are therefore less present in our perception of the world.


Apart from the media, perpetuating violence in our lives, the scientific field also tends to focus on the supposed aggressiveness and combative spirit. Some scientific theories of biology, for example, can be interpreted as natural laws and make us falsely believe in statements such as "the strongest wins" or "the struggle for existence".  These concepts strengthen the idea of the violent and combative human being. However, what characterizes nature is, above all, reciprocity, symbiosis, and coexistence. The best proof of this statement is the diversity we find all around us.


Therefore, aggressiveness, understood as the willingness of every human being to use violence to resolve a conflict is not determined by biological aspects. Instead, according to the RAE, violence is defined as "action against the natural way of proceeding".2 If biology is not the cause of our violent behavior, then would it be social aspects?

 

Comparing different societies, one cannot generally speak of "violent cultures" or "peaceful cultures." However, there are cultural differences in the handling and valuation of violence.


Returning to the armed conflict in Colombia, it can be noted that the country is in an unstable political and economic situation, perpetrated in chaos since the independence in 1810. Broadly speaking, it can be said that for more than 200 years, military and political violence has been the way to manage, for example, the division of land, a central theme of the armed conflict until today. As a consequence, violence has been "normalized" and is not rejected as in other societies.


It is important to mention that such "acceptance of violence" is not a deterministic and tolerable state. The history of countries like Germany shows that the transformation from an ideology merely disposed to violence to a peaceful society is possible. It is war, as a social construct, that produces violence and not the other way around. Soldiers fight because the head of state told them they are at war, not because they are fundamentally violent beings.



Image by Mert Kahveci

This allows us to understand violence as an expression of power and, at the same time, the search to exercise it. In the Colombian armed conflict, both structural and physical violence represent a tool to reproduce and maintain unequal conditions of power. Likewise, the circle of violence begins to develop, turning the person who suffers violence into the person who exercises it. The supposed dichotomy of being either a victim or a perpetrator prevents a state of equality.

Overcoming violence and breaking the cycle requires a focus on the values shared by different people and communities. This means promoting an unique value system and a culture of peace that rejects violence as a way of resolving conflicts and promotes reciprocity and equality as a win-win structure.


Finally, this article does not attempt to paint a rosy or naïve picture of the world. Rather, it proposes an optimistic and comprehensive perspective of violence and peace in this world, according to the logic of the self-fulfilling prophecy: the prophecy is itself the cause of its coming true. Likewise, our imagination and perception of the world and society significantly impact how we construct the future.


Notes:

 1 - Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia

 2 -The original definición is in spanish taken from the Royal Spanish Academy and traduced by the author


Resources:


Comins Mingol, Irene (2008), Antropología filosófica para la Paz: una revisión crítica de la disciplina. Revista de Paz y Conflictos, Vol.1 páginas 61-80. Online Available here.

 

Ronald Esteban Restrepo Restrepo & Ricardo Esteban Vargas Angel (2018), La tierra como eje central del conflicto armado en Colombia, una mirada a la Ley 1448 de 2011 o Ley de Víctimas y Restitución de Tierras, sus antecedentes, implementación y problemáticas. Universidad EAFIT Escuela de Derecho, Medellín. Online Available here.