Does Violence Have to Be Taught?


By: Selwyn Duke

It seems that the more we come to believe that “Violence has to be taught,” the more our children learn to be violent. It’s a strange, Jean-Jacques Rousseau-like fantasy, this fancy that a child sports a halo until some neanderthal adult knocks it off with a five-finger attention-getter. “Don’t you dare spank your kids!” say those schooled in the fictions of sickology, “It’ll teach them to be violent.” I wonder, does crying in their presence teach them how to bawl, too?

I would ask if the people who espouse this belief have ever had any experience with babies, since the latter get angry quite often and, when they do, will sometimes instinctively slap the object of their displeasure. Oh, their strikes aren’t delivered with the accuracy and power of a George Foreman right hand, but in the baby world they embody true violent intent.

The idea that violence has to be taught appeals to many and is parroted by them mainly because it serves to demonize corporal punishment, something you only eschew if you’re taught to do so. It’s not something they think deeply about; rather, it’s a knee jerk reaction, an idea that can make those whose lips it passes feel like desert mystics rendering a sage pronouncement. It’s nothing more than philoso-babble.

It’s also interesting that those who embrace this fiction most fervently usually subscribe to the theory of evolution with the same formulaic devotion. Now, I’m not presently chiming in on the origin-of-life debate, but it occurs to me that, when viewed through the prism of evolutionary principles, nothing seems more preposterous than asserting that violence has to be taught. After all, the principle of survival of the fittest dictates that traits within certain individuals that maximize chances of survival will become prevalent in their species over time. And being able to use violence effectively allows you to defend against and subdue foes, both human and beast, thereby increasing survivability.

Speaking of beasts, hewing to evolutionary doctrine, many of the same people would say that man is merely another animal, a highly evolved one, of course, but an animal nonetheless. Yet, although the natural world is rampant with natural violence, they seem to believe that somehow, some way it’s unnatural for the human animal to follow this natural course. And natural it is, as most every creature – be it an insect, fish, bird or land mammal – will resort to violence when feeling angry or threatened. Why, even if we just look at the path beaten by man, we’ll see that it has been trod far more by the warrior than the wordsmith. Violence has ever punctuated human affairs, and genes were always more likely to be passed on by the militaristic than the monastic.

Thus, an intelligent secular analysis of the matter would inform that a propensity toward violence is most likely woven into our genes. (As an aside, it’s ironic that the set claiming that violence must be learned will also strenuously insist that homosexuality is innate. Ever think that maybe, just perhaps, their pronouncements are based more on rhetoric than research?)

Of course, although a Christian analysis would first and foremost frame the issue in a religious light, the conclusion would essentially be the same. To wit: We are born bearing the stain of Original Sin and thus struggle against all manner and form of sinful inclinations, not the least of which is, you guessed it, that propensity toward violence.

So, as far as the problem of violence goes, secularists and Christians should agree that it’s part of our nature; the only argument should be whether that nature is basic or fallen.

Speaking of Original Sin, another problem is that of first cause. If man is peaceful by nature, how is it that violence first entered his world? No one could have first learned it without someone to first teach it, but no one could first teach it without having first learned it. So it follows that, in the least, it certainly wasn’t contrary to some people’s nature.

The truth is that once you dispense with the tie-dyed tee-shirt, flowers-in-the-hair mentality and ponder how our ancestors stained battlefields red with ritualistic frequency, you realize one needn’t be a cynic to believe that man doesn’t have to be taught to be a barbarian.

He must be taught how not to be one.

Don’t misunderstand me, I realize that a poor upbringing can cultivate vice just as a good one can virtue, and the mean streets can breed the most violent of men. But a thing can only be cultivated if it’s already present, and we’re all born with both dark and light angels residing in the recesses of our hearts. The only difference is that the dark one is far more seductive.

Then there is the fact that many of us view punitive or aggressive physical contact in a very simplistic fashion. This is the handiwork of those who, in the name of an obsession (again, eliminating corporal punishment), would blind others to nuance as they lump good in with bad in the same damnable category. The idea that all such physical contact is “violence” – a term bearing a decidedly negative connotation – is no different from branding all commentary about group differences “racism,” “sexism” or bigotry. Those who do this are the epitome of provincialism, individuals who wear ideological blinders and preclude a deepening of our understanding by stifling debate.

As to the definition of violence, here’s one from Dictionary.com:

“1. Physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing: crimes of violence.”

Thus, if physical contact is not directed toward the purpose of violating, damaging or abusing, it’s not violence.

Without a doubt, not all aggressive physical contact is created equal, and this fact must be understood when evaluating it. A failure to do so leads to many misconceptions, such as the painting of all spanking as violence – and, therefore, abuse – and of all violence in movies as equal. But this is no different from labeling all yelling “emotional abuse”; you can also yell to warn someone away from a hot pan or against taking another step lest he fall into some hidden danger.

What is usually overlooked is the morality behind the physical contact. In a movie, for instance, a truly noble hero using measured violent action to defend the innocent is far different from a morally ambiguous portrayal wherein ignoble characters are exalted as they use violence to enrich themselves or achieve perverse pleasure. Two very different messages are sent, the former of virtue, the latter of vice.

With corporal punishment, too, different approaches transmit different messages. I’m not the first to point out that it should never be administered in a spirit of anger, as this sends a message to the effect of: I have more power and authority than you, so I can take out my frustrations on you. If, however, the punishment is delivered in a cool, sober fashion, the message is quite different. After all, the child has to think (on some level), “Wow, my parents aren’t angry, so they must be doing this for some other reason.” The message then is simply: You’ve done something wrong, and this is the consequence.

And this brings to mind a common misconception; what is relevant is the attitude serving as the impetus behind the punishment, not the nature of the punishment. Why, any punishment, corporal or otherwise, administered in a spirit of anger and frustration sends the same message. After all, if governmental authorities persecuted you merely because they despised you, would their actions somehow be sanitized if they decided to imprison you instead of administering a flogging? Abuse can take many forms, and so can justice.

Unfortunately, so too can false doctrine. Lust can lead to sexual indiscretions, greed to theft, gluttony to over-eating, envy to uncharitableness, sloth to irresponsibility, pride to repeated error, and wrath can lead to violence. None of these faults nor any of their corresponding manifestations have to be taught, as they’re painfully common among men. No, with people believing blather such as “violence has to be taught,” it seems as if the only common thing that needs to be learned is common sense.

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