Monday, 17 November 2008

On the Perversity of Human Violence

By Dr Mark Featherstone

In response to Professor Stenning’s commentary on the natural origins of human violence, I think we must consider the history of theories on the subject and differentiate between human and animal aggression. On the subject of the parental killing of offspring, we must recognise that no animal kills its own, since it is not possible to talk about murder in the natural world because the idea of murder is a human construct, without natural purpose related to scarcity of food, territorial disputes and so on. On the other hand, as various writers from Freud onwards have shown, humans murder and torture each other for no natural, or rational purpose for that matter, because of psychological perversions caused when nature meets culture in human form.

On that basis, I would suggest that there is very little that is natural about human violence, which is entirely different to similar behaviours found in the natural world, because human aggression is filtered through culture and civilization. For Freud, especially, this combination of nature and culture made humans the most savage creatures on the planet. Given that they are capable of reason, and have lifted themselves above the natural world, human violence always entails some kind of fall, hence the legal category of murder. This propensity to fall from the heights of civilization, which makes people comparable to Gods, is precisely what makes them behave like Devils, in ways that no other animal ever could, simply because no other animal could ever conceive of the kinds of prolonged, sustained, forms of violence and torture that characterise properly human forms of violence.

There is, of course, another form of human violence which is entirely related to explosions of unconscious, pre-rational, aggression, but I do not think that the form of violence suffered by Baby P could be placed in that category. I think that what makes the case of Baby P truly unbearable is that he was the victim of the kind of perverse human violence, which led people to invent ideas of demons and devils in the first place, rather than the kind of natural violence, which is part of the metabolism of nature, which is defined by laws such as ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘eat or be eaten’, and so on.

We now know that one of the main perpetrators of the horrendous violence against Baby P was obsessed with Nazi symbolism. This confirmed my view of the case, which was that Baby P was the victim of terrible, human, violence, since it perfectly coincided with Zygmunt Bauman’s view that Nazism represents the embodiment of human savagery, which combines nature and culture in a new perverse form. Given this position, I doubt it is simply coincidental that one of the men who caused the death of Baby P was interested in Nazism, but more likely that his own psychopathological condition was somehow reflected in the monstrous evil represented by Nazi political iconography and that he was attracted to such symbolism for this reason. For these reasons, I would reject the realist claim that there is something natural about child killings, such as that of Baby P, because I think that the danger of such a position is that it explains such events too easily and makes them seem somehow inevitable, in the way that one would recognise the natural inevitability of a male lion killing a group of cubs in order to become the alpha male of a pride for instance.

Instead, I would argue that we need to enculture instances of horrendous human violence, such as the case of Baby P, regarding them as products of socially constructed individual perversions, in order that we can think them through and try to resolve them. From this point of view, then, I would resist the claim that is not completely natural, or pre-rational, to nurture and care for one’s own children, even though this biological imperative may be strained in the natural world, but instead say that it is human culture, and human civilization, which has introduced the kinds of inconceivable violence that are unknown in the natural world, by simultaneously transforming people into Gods and Devils. It is against the perverse potential of this world, the human-built world, that I think we must oppose the natural ethic to nurture children, rather than say that in order to prevent more cases like Baby P we must further rationalise, or humanise, the base savagery of the nature in people. This latter view suggests that the death of Baby P was an example of primitive, regressive, behaviour on the part of those who caused his death. I do not think there is anything primitive or regressive about torture because animals tend not to torture each other.

Despite all of this theoretical explanation, what escapes me about the Baby P case is how anybody could torture and torment a 17 month old child. In the natural world the imperative to nurture one’s child, which is essential to ensure the survival of the species, may well be hampered by natural conditions that cause the parent to kill its offspring, but this is not a problem most people living in rich western nations must confront. Given that one cannot really explain such violence on the basis of natural, environmental, pressures, is it then possible to explain such horrendous episodes through human rationality? I doubt this is feasible because nobody could consider the prolonged torture of a young child rational. If this is, in fact the case, and both nature and reason fail to explain such episodes, what are we left with apart from the unholy fusion of nature and culture in the kinds of violent perversions psychoanalysts explore? Even though I think that this is the case, and that examples of horrendous crimes, such as the killing of Baby P, are the result of perversions of the human condition caught somewhere between nature and culture, this does not mean that I, or anybody else, can understand such events. We may well be able to conceptualise such violence, through psychoanalytic, psycho-sexual, ideas such as sadism and necrophilia, and sociological notions, such as socialisation and the cycle of abuse, but it is not easy to understand them from the outside, precisely because I think that they run counter to the normal, natural, tendency of parents to nurture their own children.

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