Thursday, July 16, 2009

Modern Trends: Violence vs. Reconciliation

Like the proverbial “bolt from a cloudless blue sky” that strikes and kills with no warning, the incidence of lethal political violence generated around the globe in 2009 is rising in frequency and fury. This is particular true over the last five weeks during which national governments seemed surprised if not stunned by the origin and subsequent development of opposition mass movements.

During the Cold War in Europe, similar events took place in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s. But in these instances the opposition was confronting a foreign power – the Soviet Union – that exercised its military might with little regard for the population or the formality of international relations with “outside” nations.

What is distinctive about the battles being fought today in the streets is the fury and the frequency of what can be termed “spontaneous public violence.” It has been directed against ruling and often unaccountable cliques. It has not revealed any sense of conspiracy or organization ready to replace the current ruling elites. The latter slowly react both with traditional force, common claims of foreign interference, and the full propaganda apparatus of the ruling cabal.

The list of the countries – Iran, western China, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Honduras – whose ruling elites are under siege by their publics may be short, but together they speak volumes about how globalization is altering the use of violence in organizing human society.

Even as battles raged in the streets of the five countries mentioned above, social scientists were examining the role of violence in the formation of primate “cultures” from apes to chimpanzee to humans. The May 2009 issue of Scientific American included an article titled “Taming the Urge to War.” Based on a research paper – “The Evolution of Human Aggression: Lessons for Today’s Conflicts” – authored by 17 anthropologists and other scientists, the study concluded that primates, including humans, are not biologically predestined by their DNA to engage in unending lethal violence.

Early observations of primates (including humans) provided insight into how these different groups (e.g., “troops”) organized themselves structurally to survive attacks by competitors. Lethal attacks generally were avoided unless one side had a clear preponderance in numbers over the competition. Now new research involving chimpanzee “troops” has uncovered a contradictory trend, what the research paper termed “meet and greet” in lieu of “fight and kill.” In other words, the propensity for lethal violence between different primate “families” is no more likely occur than an outbreak of “reconciliation” following instances of violence between troops. The extent of such “peacemaking” commonly includes food sharing, mutual grooming, and hugging after “spats” between the groups.

Which trend – “compulsive violence” or reconciliation – prevails depends on the level of mutual “interdependencies” that exist between a dominant and a dependent troop. While the relationship may in fact be asymmetric, what is crucial is the perception that power is balanced between the different groups regardless of the disparity in the number of chimpanzees in each group.

Among humans, the choice seems to be influenced by the opportunity to deepen the level of interdependency of populations that are becoming larger, more educated, and above all more attuned to the latest trends in “one-on-one” communications that the mouthpieces of “official” news cannot shut down or obliterate. In fact, the spontaneity and the breadth of the opposition to ruling circles worked as well as it did because there were few if any leaders around which the public could gather for direction and to launch a competing political paradigm.

One puzzling aspect that emerges in the study is that humans are “less risk adverse” than other primate groups. This suggests that increased aggression is fostered when the distribution of power among groups becomes unbalanced either for positive (cultural achievement) or negative (climatic distortions) causes.

The sequence of events in Teheran in June is the most vivid example of a country under siege by its public. In fact, the June marches, while initially peaceful, became violent when unofficial “security forces” employed physically harsh measures similar to the tactics used 30 years ago by the shah’s secret police. Religious leaders led the protests in 1979 that forced a major realignment of power in Iranian society. June 2009 presents a new context and a new division of the power balance. The spontaneous nature of the opposition reflected an unconscious resentment of ad hoc “moral police” by large numbers of young, educated, unemployed and communication-savvy voters capable of rapid accumulation and exercise of the preponderance of national power. Their drive to end clerical misgovernment and corruption allowed them to form new interdependencies and to participate in the race to capture new opportunities arising from the globalization of economic and political power.

Violence, according to official sources in Teheran, has abated in Iran. Amazingly, less than two dozen were killed. But the struggle is not over; it has merely moved from the city streets to venues where power is being redistributed in rooms with all the doors are closed to public scrutiny and international review. If consensus emerges on the distribution of power, and if the balance reflects the public’s perception that legitimate governance is possible only in the context of a viable social contract, humans may have finally discovered the gains available when lethal violence is discarded in favor of “reconciliation” between contending rivals.

Iran will choose its own solution, just as other countries will when facing the same challenge to government legitimacy. What is clear in general is that humans are increasing the formative pace of political, economic, and social interdependencies which lower the level of institutional violence around the globe.

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