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The need to understand human violence...

Posted Jun 09 2011 12:00am

It has occurred to me in recent weeks that I know very little about the nature of violence. What makes a person attack another? What are the trigger factors? What is the order of events in a fight? Is there an order of events, i.e. is there a ritualistic nature to the way a person attacks another? What factors may escalate a fight? What are the main differences between the way a man attacks another man and the way a man attacks a woman?

I’ve come to realise that if we don’t understand the nature of violence then how can we realistically prepare ourselves to defend against it?

I found an interesting article on the SIRC (Social Issues Research Centre) website called ‘The Human Nature of Violence’, written by Prof. Robin Fox (Professor of Social Theory at Rutgers University). In this article Prof. Fox suggests that violence is a natural human state rather than a ‘disease’ or something for which we need to find causes of.  He says:

Whether we like violence or not is not the question here. We are not concerned with evaluating it but with explaining or understanding it. And the causal explanation may simply not be the appropriate one, driven as we are by dislike to look for the cause to remedy the supposed disease.

He likens the behaviour of young men to that of young males in the animal kingdom and equates the violent outbursts of some young men to Darwin’s theory of sexual selection:

At puberty, our males, for example, increase their testosterone levels as much as ten to thirty times. Given sexual competition, the dominance of older males, and the rise in testosterone, it is entirely predictable that violence will occur. Thus, we find in all cultures young, post pubescent males acting aggressively, and older males acting to restrain and divert them. The females, in their wisdom, pick off the winners. This is what Darwin called sexual selection.

It seems that young males fighting together are just the product of their biology – firing off hormones in a predictable manner: first adrenaline as they become aroused by the sighting of a rival, this puts them into a state of readiness and a display of aggressive posturing will ensue. Testosterone levels rise at this point. They will then show menacing behaviour (moving towards each other, circling each other, squaring up etc) as serotonin levels rise. Finally they may attack and a ritualistic fight may ensue. If they ‘win’ the fight a flood of endorphins are released.  Escalation points in a fight may include the ‘taking off of the coat or watch’. De-escalation may occur with the ‘hold me back or I’ll kill him phenomenon”.  Apparently this is an invitation to spectators to intervene and stop the fight occurring.  Many of these altercations don’t get past the ritual/posturing stage.

Human behaviour really can be amazingly predictable and a fight may be more ritualistic than we realise. Understanding this behaviour can help us to better plan our self-defence strategies, particularly in response to avoidance and de-escalation tactics.

However, the above scenario is pitting like against like – people who understand each other’s motives and know the ‘rules’ (even if they don’t realise it). The more scary violence for most of us is the ‘predator/prey’ variety.

The predator/prey situation arises when the attacker sees their intended victim as being different to them i.e different gender, different race, different religion, different gang or even just different nationality.  In this situation the ‘stalk/attack/kill (rape)’ sequence is in operation. The attack may be quick and decisive with no ritualistic behaviour or escalation/de-escalation points. There are no rules in this behaviour. Your only option is to try and flee or fight back. A different self-defence strategy is needed to deal with the predator/ prey situation.

I am just touching the surface of understanding human violent behaviour but already I’m starting to see how important it is to self-defence training – you need to understand your enemy so that you can work out how to deal with them effectively.

I think that women have a particular problem here. It is much harder to study violence against women because it is more clandestine in nature. There is a lot of mobile phone footage or CCTV footage of men attacking other men on the internet –even of the predator/prey variety because men will openly attack each other in daylight in a public place.

Men rarely attack women in a public place in daylight. So shameful is the act that even hardened, violent criminals do it secretively, away from the public gaze. There is no video footage of men attacking women that can be studied. I’m not passing judgement on this – it is just a fact. It would seem very distasteful to watch such a video. However, this means that women have to rely on victim testimonials, witness statements, criminal statistics or ‘experts’ knowledge to find out the nature of the threat to them – how exactly are they likely to be attacked and what, therefore, is the best way to learn to defend yourself?

Many people have recommended the book by Rory Miller. I have ordered my copy and will read it with interest. I don’t particularly want to focus on violence in this way but it does seem to be an integral part of understanding self-defence training.

Do you study the nature of violence as part of your self-defence training?



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