Monday, 26 February 2007

9:6 Are we free of magic today?

Our modern lives, however apparently ‘rational’ and free of superstition, contain much magical thinking. We curse our politicians, half hoping the curse will strike them down. We pray for delivery when we are frightened, we engage in a thousand minor protective rituals through our day. Just observe yourself and you will see how many magical acts there are, particularly when you are afraid or out of control. The world of witchcraft and magic is never far away.

One reason Harry Potter, the hobbits, even Alice in Wonderland strike so many resonances is that because even as adults we are reluctant to relinquish magic. There are those who argue that the greatest art derives its power from enchantment, or magical beliefs. Certainly many great artists seem like magicians.

We may think that we now live in a ‘disenchanted’ world, that we have banished the witches, vampires, goblins. Yet five minutes in the ‘real world’, in a bookshop, watching television or in a school playground will show us how wrong such a presumption is. Magic is alive and well. Its capital is Disneyland.

9:5 What do we learn from witchcraft?

We learn to distinguish between types of power. There is power to do good, which we approve of, and power to do harm which, if directed at us, we dislike. So people, using the association of black with night and evil, call these ‘black’ and ‘white’ witchcraft.

We distinguish power which is internal, a matter of thought and emotion, which leads to prayers and curses, and we call this witchcraft or religion. Such power usually comes from requesting, addressing words of an imploring kind, to a larger power, Satan or God. We ask for diabolical or divine power.

On the other hand there are externalized actions, making of images and sticking pins in them, burning of hair or fingernails, making a potion and uttering a commanding spell aloud. Here by the manipulation of objects, often accompanied by words, we force or conjure nature to act. This is magic.

This famous distinction, first developed in the study of the Azande tribe, is somewhat similar to that between religion and science. Witchcraft is internal and invisible, like religion. Magic is external and visible, like science. Magic like science aims to control nature. Its goals are also very similar to those of science.

Friday, 23 February 2007

9:4 Why did witchcraft beliefs decline in Europe?

Up to the later seventeenth century in Europe almost everybody believed in the reality of witchcraft and the courts tried many suspected witches. A hundred years later most intellectuals had rejected such a belief and the courts no longer accepted this as a subject for trial.

If the beliefs in witchcraft were circular and irrefutable, how were they undermined? If it is so logical, why give it up for the less emotionally satisfying world which we now inhabit where we constantly ask ‘why’ questions and are given such answers as ‘I don’t know’, ‘it is all random’, ‘there is no meaning or pattern’? If witchcraft beliefs help us to overcome feelings of anger and ambivalence (which we continue to feel to this day) by projecting the guilt onto others, why abandon them and leave us alone with both our suffering and our guilt? We seem to have chosen a dry and rather unsatisfactory option, even if in doing so we have saved many poor old people from torture and death.

Some say that the rise of experimental science in seventeenth century western Europe undermined the world of magic and witchcraft. This is part of the story, but we need to remember that many of the early scientists were believers in witchcraft. When I asked my ‘adopted’ niece, who had done biology and other sciences at school in a town in Nepal, whether she believed in witchcraft she said that of course she did. Whenever a mysterious or incurable disease occurred, she would suspect witches.

This suggests that to a certain extent ‘scientific’ explanations in terms of atoms and germs only answer the ‘how’ questions and so the need for a ‘why’ cause is still present. Indeed this blend of science and religion is what a number of distinguished modern scientists who argue for the need for religion often affirm. Albert Einstein caught this beautifully. ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’

Another argument is that the levels of risk and suffering which were behind many of the accusations began to diminish in the later seventeenth century. It is suggested that magical and witchcraft beliefs bridge gaps in our control of the material world. When we lack technical, organizational or social solutions, we turn to magic.

Faced with rough seas in a fragile wooden boat, we use magical protections. Faced with the hazards of the road, we hang little charms and talismen in our cars. When we do not know why hundreds are dying of a mysterious disease, we use amulets and magical protections. When financial insecurity, crime, disastrous fires are widespread, the beliefs in a magical universe, so the argument goes, tend to rise.

If, on the other hand, the risks from fire, flood, old age poverty, crime or disease are diminished, confidence will rise. The ‘swamps’ of insecurity where witchcraft ‘breeds’, will be drained, so such beliefs will decline, or so it is argued.

There are many difficulties with this argument, although again there is probably something in it. Most of the insecurities continued largely unabated until several centuries after witchcraft accusations and beliefs had died away. People would have had to anticipate a more secure world some generations before it happened. It was not until the later nineteenth century that the causes of disease began to be properly understood, or that public sanitation and financial security for the old and sick improved significantly.

We can see that witchcraft beliefs fluctuate. My visits to a Nepalese village over thirty years gave me the experience of a place which was full of witches and counter-witchcraft rituals in 1970. Twenty years later the shamans were gone and open beliefs and accusations of witchcraft had greatly declined. There was far less interest in magical explanations. For even though the risks remained and the western scientific and technological solutions, medicine, electricity, artificial fertilizer, were largely unobtainable at the village level, people believed in the new technologies as potentially more powerful than spirits or witches.

Certainly one reason for this was largely accidental. Just as some have argued that doctors ‘manufacture’ disease, lawyers encourage disputes, teachers generate ignorance, missionaries imbue a sin complex, so it is clear that having a resident diviner who earns his living by finding witches generates, or at least re-enforces, the belief in witches. Once the shaman had left the village for more lucrative work in the town, witchcraft beliefs, or at least accusations, dried up.

Yet there are other parts of the world where the fear of witchcraft is increasing. It is reported that in many of the cities and shanty towns of Africa the consciousness of witchcraft and the desire to try to protect oneself from it is growing. There are new witch-finding cults and diviners are doing a good trade.

Furthermore, the emotions and fears that lay behind the great witch purges of the past are still with us today. We still engage in ‘witch hunts’, though the subjects may be suspected communists or terrorists. So we refuse to accept the blame. We feel less consumed by guilt when we turn from the hungry and hopeless and blame them for their own condition, whether on the streets of our town or in the developing world. We still surround our risky endeavours with magic, whether setting out on a journey, taking an exam or going to hospital for an operation. We still read the stars and peer into the future with mixed hope and scepticism.

9:3 Does witchcraft help us feel less guilty?

All of us have ambivalent feelings to those around us, even towards our nearest and most loved friends and families. Sometimes we even want to hurt our parents or siblings in a burst of rage. Witchcraft helps to explain and even justify many of these feelings. It helps to shift the blame for them onto the witch. It helps us to feel less guilty.

Many of us have experienced confusion when stopped by a hungry, poorly dressed beggar in the streets, particularly if it is a girl or woman with a baby. They ask for money. Sometimes we give, often we turn away. In our mind we justify our lack of charity: ‘the money would only go on alcohol, it will only encourage further begging’. ‘Anyway’, we tell ourselves, ‘we are not going to give in to menacing or threatening behaviour’. Yet we still feel guilt, which often leads to a sense of impotence or even anger.

In many parts of the world, including England three centuries ago, this was the typical witchcraft situation. A poor old woman comes to the door and asks for help. She is a neighbour or distant relative. We have helped her before, but this time we refuse. Our religion tells us that we ought to give, but our fear of encouraging dependency or the demands of our family leads us to say no. We feel guilt.

As we turn her away we think we hear her muttering or see a scowl on her face. She looks a bit frightening, witch-like. We are apprehensive. A few days later our child is sick or an animal dies. We suspect that her malevolent anger has caused this. We go to a diviner or take a case to court and the inner suspicions are made external. Others support us and report similar incidents. She is shortly imprisoned and tried as a witch. This is a situation I have read about in English court records many times and seen in action in a Nepalese village.

So witchcraft beliefs can be seen to be both intellectually and socially attractive. It should not surprise us that they are so deep-rooted and almost universal. Rather, the surprise is the exception, the societies where witchcraft has, apparently, never been believed in (for example Japan for a thousand years). Even more curious are the places where witchcraft, having been an important belief system then died away, as in England in the later seventeenth century or most of Europe from the middle of the eighteenth century.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

9:2 Why not believe in witches?

People in the majority of human societies both today and in the past believe that much of the pain and trouble in the world is caused by witchcraft. The effects of the stars, of random chance or of God’s punishment, are less appealing as explanations largely because there is less we can do as a result of such beliefs. The stars are mindless and unapproachable, chance is uncontrollable and random, God is inscrutable and acts on a plan which often runs counter to our wishes. Yet witches are detectable and can be fought. They think like us, but with evil intentions. To find them we can turn to diviners.

Divination, using various kinds of oracle or shamanic ritual, is a technique to discover the cause for a misfortune. A sign in a mirror or glass ball, throwing of dice, bones or stones, footprints in ash or sand or the voice of a summoned spirit, points us to the offending witch. We can then take action and eradicate him or her. We can set up anti-witchcraft devices such as special substances or sacrifices to ward off the evil or treat the afflicted. All such divination uses devices which prevent it from being shown to be false. If a cure fails, it is because the witch was too strong or the counter-magic used against her was wrongly performed. If the wrong person is accused of witchcraft it is because the real witch has laid a false trail.

Witchcraft is a closed world. It is impossible to challenge its basic premises from within. In the past, almost everyone believed in the power of witchcraft. A sceptic, if such existed, would be accused of being a witch or in the power of one. It is very like many other closed systems which you will have heard about, for example communism. It explains much of the suffering in the world. Every new event adds to its strength. It is very attractive to human beings who live a pain-filled existence.

9:1 Witchcraft as an explanation of why things happen.

Almost every day we are faced with problems of explaining why unpleasant things happen. Friends are injured, children are ill, we suffer accidents and pain or, despite our best plans, we fail to achieve what we set out to do. It is natural to search for causes of these misfortunes, both in order to help deal with the suffering and to avoid future difficulties. Why did the car skid and crash on this particular day? Why do I and not someone else contract a painful disease?

Usually we know the obvious cause. The road was slippery, the light was poor. Yet we have driven down this road many times and there has previously been no problem. We drank untreated water, or went to a new restaurant, or were bitten by an insect. Yet at other times we took the same risks and this did not lead to illness. So, very early on in life, we learn to distinguish between the ‘how’ questions, how something happened, and the ‘why’ questions.

There is a story of an African who got malaria and went to the doctor, claiming he had been bewitched. The doctor said that malaria was spread by mosquitoes, to which the sick man replied that he knew that, but who had sent the mosquito?

There are two levels of cause, the material one and another which we like to relate to human purpose. When a granary falls and crushes someone among the Azande of North Africa everyone knows that the immediate cause is white ants which have eaten away the wooden pillars. But why was this person walking under it and not another? Who was the witch who turned chance into design.?

Since most things that have happened to us from when we were very young seem to be the result of decisions made by others, it is quite natural that we should believe that the suffering which constantly afflicts us is caused by a human-like force, someone who consciously hurts us in some way. Once we have decided on such a cause we have various choices depending on the culture we live in. They may be evil spirits, ancestors, God or witches.

To choose witchcraft as the explanation, that is the bad intentions of another human being, has a number of advantages. Evil spirits are largely uncontrollable. We are uncomfortable (if we believe in them) to think our ancestors are plotting against us. God is supposed to love and care for us, not kill or maim us. On the other hand, we know many people who are ambivalent towards us. They blow hot and cold. They may secretly be wishing us harm and be able to carry out their intentions because they are witches.

Monday, 19 February 2007

8:8 The war on terrory and liberty.

This anti-democratic tendency applies most strongly in continental Empires and States where a constant fear of invasion by one’s neighbours is ever present. The fact that England, Japan, and for several centuries the U.S.A., could be conceived of as separate ‘islands’, not threatened by neighbours, gave them a respite from this fear.

In the case of England, the country was very often at war. Yet much of the fighting was an optional activity, taking place on other people’s territory (for a long time in France). When extra taxes were needed for such activity, it gave the moderately powerful subjects a chance to bargain for more rights and freedom from their rulers (who had no standing army). Hence wars tended to increase liberty. This is part of a wider pressure; warfare from the time of Napoleon onwards has been a powerful instrument in widening the franchise because of the state’s dependence on mass armies and conscription.

The U.S.A. in the nineteenth century did not need to be afraid, so its inhabitants could not be blackmailed into suspending their liberties. September 11th 2001 symbolized the start of an era when the United States became virtually joined to the continent of Eur-Asia. Or so it feels to many Americans. So America, used to peace, is now perpetually at war, even if that war is against a nebulous enemy.

In this new war, democracy is felt to be constantly under threat. America now has a huge and expanding standing army and navy. It feels it must make pre-emptive strikes against threatening neighbours, even if they are thousands of miles away. There is a temptation to dismantle the sets of checks and balances, the rights to freedom of speech and thought, the jury system and other processes that protect the rights of individuals. We are almost all the losers in this new perpetual war.

8:7 Does war enslave us?

Nowadays those who start wars are even more remote and isolated from its horrors than they were in the past. So they may feel that they do not share in the personal cost. Yet this is not true. For war has invisible costs, hidden injuries, less manifest than the rapes, mutilations, deaths, sickness and starvation, yet as deadly to the civilizations which engage in war as the physical scars.

The feuding wars of tribal societies tend to create equality by keeping groups in balance. If one group gains a temporary advantage, it attracts predatory attacks from neighbours, and is returned to the average position. On the other hand, the wars of civilization have a strong tendency towards creating inequality, both between the contending groups, and within them. The immediate effect of war is to make the conquered into slaves, prisoners, permanently in thrall to the conquering power.

Another effect was that after the emergence of states, a caste of warriors, often armed knights who could afford expensive weapons, arose and dominated the rest. As a result a weak, unarmed, mass of the population was crushed by the warriors with their superior weapons and castles. War both justifies their privilege and made any questioning of their right to bear arms into an act of treason.

Furthermore the movement towards a centralized state is made much more likely by war. War against outsiders justifies higher taxes and the maintenance of a standing army. It encourages the development of a large bureaucracy to administer the state’s taxation, the suspension or elimination of civil liberties and the destruction of all those who criticize the government.

The effects of war in turning Rome from a vibrant Republic into an autocratic Empire has often been noted. Victory was as disastrous as defeat. All opposition or questioning of the State and its motives was banned. What was demanded was unquestioning loyalty, unthinking patriotism, ‘my country right or wrong’. Thus the core of liberty and equality are quickly undermined by war.

Friday, 16 February 2007

8:6 What are the disasters of war?

War is the first of the three great checks to population. It was not mainly the slaughter on the battlefield that inhibited growth, but the almost inevitable side effects. As foreign armies marched to and fro across northern Europe during the Thirty Years War, about a third of the population died, mainly from starvation and disease. Armies needed to live off the land and soldiers seized the stored grain and seed-corn, destroyed the ripening crops, killed the livestock, burned the tools.

It is also in such times that disease multiplied. With body resistance reduced by under-nourishment, and with large hordes of soldiers and camp followers coming in from outside carrying new germs, the peasants died in their thousands or sometimes millions. Epidemic diseases, in particular typhoid, cholera, plague and typhus, spread. Endemic diseases such as dysentery and malaria increased hugely. The most vulnerable, the old, women, children, will usually be the first to die, but almost everyone is vulnerable.

Tribal groups that have previously had no contact with the outside world are most at risk. Nineteen out of twenty million of the native population died when the Spanish conquered what is now Mexico. Most did not die at the end of a sword, but through famine and disease. Likewise hundreds of thousands died in North and South America and the Pacific of smallpox, influenza, measles and other diseases against which they had no immunity.

It is very doubtful whether the wars of ‘civilization’ have done anything to improve either human intelligence or physique in a selective way over the last five thousand years. They have caused horror piled on horror, a catalogue of atrocities and inhumanities which make any sensitive and informed person despair.

8:5 Can war be good?

War has been almost universal in human history over the last fifty thousand years. The constant feuding wars probably inhibited the growth of civilizations in various ways. Minor gains were destroyed, populations remained relatively sparse and spread out, the ecology was protected but few major innovations could occur. As soon as a group became prosperous and relaxed its war-like discipline it was destroyed by the warriors from poorer but more war-like neighbouring groups.

For many thousands of years the world saw the warlike, feuding, societies on the margins fight the settled, agrarian, civilizations at the centre. The greatest contest of all was between the pastoral nomads of central Asia, the Mongols, and the settled agrarian peoples whom they overran in China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

In this vast, thousand-year, clash of two forms of human organization, the Mongols destroyed vast civilizations and ruled three quarters of the Asian land mass up to the eighteenth century. Their technologies of destruction, principally the horse and Mongolian bow, were superior to the war technologies of settled States until about 1700. It was only the development of more sophisticated gunpowder weapons which gave the west the final advantage.

So, for a very long period, apart from honing male physique, encouraging heroic poetry, adding some footnotes to the art of war, improving horse breeding, and giving certain peoples a sense of purpose and heroic glory, war probably did little for human development. In the balance, the losses far outweighed the gains.

In one area of the world, however, war led to technical progress. The small kingdoms of western Europe were constantly at war from the middle ages on, and a rapid form of political ‘survival of the fittest’ developed. Very rapid developments in architecture, boat construction, navigation, metal working and some branches of physics and geometry emerged out of this desperate competition.

If Europe between about 1400 and 1800 had been as peaceful as China or Japan it is likely that much of the rapid increase in reliable knowledge and technical efficiency would not have occurred.

Without the advances in cannon boring made through these centuries, the steam engine cylinder could not have been made and no industrial revolution based on steam could have occurred. If we measure human progress by man’s capacity to control the physical world, then war of the west European kind did lead to a sort of progress. Yet this has to be placed against the horrors and miseries.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

8:4 How do weapons change warfare?

Another difference between ‘unlimited’ or feuding warfare and limited but total war is technological and organizational. Feuding wars are fought seasonally, part time, by an amateur sub-set of the male population. Civilizational wars tend to be fought all the year round (except when the climate prevents this), often by professional (conscript or mercenary) armies. The amount of training, the nature of the discipline and the internal hierarchies differ.

Furthermore, over time the weapons began to change. Most wars in history have been fought with simple weapons, bows spears, swords. Yet in due course the evolution of state systems led to the development of a new order of weapons. Then the scene changed.

Gunpowder weapons transformed warfare in western Europe from the fourteenth century. Through a strange quirk, in the country which had invented them many centuries earlier, namely China, they were in effect soon banned or not used. Indeed, four-fifths of the great civilizations on the earth up to the eighteenth century, the Islamic States, China and Japan, all banned the use of gunpowder weapons. Only in western Europe did cannon and small-arms using gunpowder develop. It was partly this divergence which finally gave Europe the destructive advantage with which it colonized almost all of the planet between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.

8:3 Why do countries fight?

Another major type of war is the pitched battle, winners and losers, a beginning, a middle, an end. While they are limited in time, they are often far less limited in the destruction they cause. These are the wars of what we half-ironically call ‘civilized’ societies. That is to say they emerged some five thousand or so years ago with the rise of territorial states.

These are the wars of the Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Mongols, French, British, Americans and so on. They have starting and ending dates such as 1914-1918, 1939-1945. They begin on one day and end on another. Within the war period the fighting is often far more ‘total’ than in the tribal wars. They are fought to defeat or conquer another bounded state, and this often involves huge-scale slaughter and destruction. It is not uncommon for millions to die in such a war, both from the fighting and from the famine and disease which they bring with them.

These wars are fought for rather different reasons than the feuding ones. There may be symbolic reasons of hurt pride, jealousy, revenge as in feuds. Yet the two main reasons are fear and greed.

Fear is indeed a powerful force. The enemy is a threat, so one should attack before they do. This was a widespread motive and justification for almost all ‘civilizational’ wars until recently. During the second half of the twentieth century, a new principle of international law was established which banned pre-emptive strikes on sovereign nations. Recently some powerful western leaders have revised the oldest justification for war by declaring that if it is in a country’s self-interest to attack another which it feels might one day become a threat, this is justified. It is a move which takes us back to a world based on fear, arms races and pre-emptive strikes.

The second main motive is greed, that is to say the almost universal fact that while there are many losers, there are always some winners. These are the arms manufacturers, some bankers, the successful warriors, some politicians. There is greed for power; a good war bolsters political power and deflects one’s critics. There is greed for land and other resources through conquest.

The constant wars of aggression of Empires, from the ancient Babylonians or Chinese, through the Romans and Habsburgs, British, up to the current Americans, are well known. This tendency of States to engage in almost constant warfare is strengthened by what one might call the ‘reverse domino’ effect.

In the normal ‘domino effect’, as in the ‘war against communism’, it was argued that to lose one country, for example Vietnam, could cause all the dominoes standing in a row nearby (e.g. Cambodia, Laos, Thailand), to ‘collapse’ into communism. In the reverse effect, as soon as one territory has been annexed, it puts great pressure on the successful conqueror to consider taking over the next.

One example comes from the history of the Roman Empire which, in order to protect its ever widening territories, was drawn into annexing ever more. The British Empire was the same. In order to ‘protect’ India, the British felt they had to take control directly or indirectly of its borders, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Nepal, Assam, Burma. Soon British eyes were upon China and even Japan.

There is no standing still with Empires. Either they push outwards or sink beneath the onset of the ‘barbarians’ on the frontiers. America has increasingly been caught in this trap. Past failures can be overlooked, as in the case of Vietnam, and the people aroused again to further attempts to wipe out the threatening hordes.

Monday, 12 February 2007

8:2 What is war?

We need to distinguish between active and passive war. Active war is a period of armed conflict, with acts of direct physical violence, ‘hot war’ as we might call it. Passive, or as we call it ‘cold’ war is the use of threat and counter-threat, with little actual fighting. This is a period of constant anxiety, fear, threat, something the world witnessed between 1945 and 1989 and which it has re-invented for itself with the ‘War against Terrorism’.

A second major distinction is between permanent and limited war. Another name for permanent war is ‘feud’. In feuds, every act of violence automatically generates the conditions for counter-violence, an ‘eye for an eye’ as the Bible puts it. It is like a see-saw. Every killing alters the balance, which has to be re-dressed, but when violence is answered with violence, the situation is again unbalanced. This kind of unceasing warfare or feud is the characteristic form in tribal societies. It is from one such society, the Highland Scots, that the word ‘feud’ or ‘deadly feud’ was taken.

Such feuding is to be found among the Bedouin, the tribes of Afghanistan and central Asia, or famously in Albania and the Balkans. Mountains, deserts, rough country where people keep animals and there is little central political control are the classic areas for feud.

The other form is that found among forest-dwelling tribesmen, whether the head-hunters of the Assam-Burma border, of the Philippines, of Amazonia or elsewhere. Here there is a pattern of constant raiding and inter-village war, often accompanied by head-hunting. ‘Blood for blood’ and the taking of human heads as powerful trophies are the signs of this perpetual warfare.

Why is there this ceaseless fighting? In trying to understand it, it is important to distinguish between the ‘functions’ of such warfare on the one hand, for example that it may keep the population density down to an appropriate level for the resources, and the reasons given for the warfare by the people themselves.

These reasons nearly always involve concepts of honour and shame, the lust for glory, manliness, the need to defend one’s own group and its status, the need to avenge insults. This is a world of constant, intermittent but irresolvable feuds because there is no mechanism for concluding the quarrels, no central authority accepted by all, just a shifting world of alliances and distrust.

People engaged in most of these feuds have limited aims. Usually they are not concerned to conquer territory or eliminate the enemy, but rather are content to burn down some houses, steal some food or heads or women or whatever is valuable. It is an elaborate, violent, game, often with its own intricate rules and forms of honour. Many see analogies with the kind of activity in places like Israel and Palestine today.

8:1 Are humans naturally aggressive?

Many people have wondered whether human beings are naturally aggressive. If they are, does this explain why warfare has played such a large part in human history? For anyone looking at the whole history of human beings would conclude that after eating, sex and playing games, killing or maiming other humans is the most common of our pastimes.

Like other animals, humans have an instinct to survive. If this suggests to them that fighting and killing will help, then they will usually do so. Many also fight for pleasure, a rough game of excitement and competition which appeals to most of us. You know this, well enough, Lily, if you remember the fighting games we played when you were young, and pretended to be a tiger, raptor or other sharp toothed beast.

Some very peaceful hunter-gatherer societies have been found in south America, Malaysia and elsewhere. They do not know of war and are peaceful within the group. Periodically mighty civilizations such as China and Japan have experienced several hundred years of almost complete peace.

Yet, if we survey the whole of human history, we find that the use of physical force against other animals (including other humans) is a practically universal feature. Now that women have begun to be recruited into the front-line of armies, you might find that you yourself are killing people in a war.

Yet simple aggression, or love of fighting, or desire to survive, cannot be seen as the main reason why most individuals have been caught up in warfare in the past. Most wars for many centuries have involved unwilling combatants. The politicians and generals decide, the troops, through fear, need, loyalty or hope for booty, apply themselves to capturing or killing the enemy.

Individual aggression has little to do with it. The pilot who released the atom bomb over Hiroshima was not, in all probability, feeling aggressive. He was just doing his job, no more ‘aggressive’ than the driver of a car changing gear or a farmer planting seed. Clearly wars would not happen if humans were actively programmed against the use of all physical violence. On the other hand, no animal would survive for long in this competitive world if they were so programmed.

Friday, 9 February 2007

7:6 What is state violence?

A State is the organization which has the monopoly of the use of violence. There are two major forms of this. One is against other states, which we call war. The other is the organized violence against its citizens practiced by almost all States. There is the symbolic kind, the fascist architecture, thought control through propaganda, giant parades and nationalist music. There is also the development of penal and legal institutions which often divides up the population into the free and the imprisoned.

In relation to imprisonment by the State, it is worth remembering that this punishment has varied over time. In most traditional civilizations it was too expensive to keep people locked up for 23 hours a day in a cell. So they were punished in other ways; mutilated, sent to the galleys, put in tread-mills, sent to plantations and labour camps. Some were enslaved. Only affluent civilizations have been able to imprison large numbers of their citizens or to keep hundreds waiting on death row. That the Americans can afford to keep one in every 200 of their citizens in prison suggests a very rich and, some would say, unimaginative and cruel society.

Given the wealth and attitudes in many modern States, there is a tendency for prison populations to grow rapidly as time passes. It is less bother to lock people away than to try to deal with either the roots of crime or to rehabilitate. So the British prison population inexorably creeps upwards and the profits of the increasingly privatized prison service grow. The reputation of politicians who are ‘tough on crime’ is enhanced.

The waste of human potential and the basic unfairness of creating an environment of hopeless degradation and then blaming the criminals, is ignored. The State tends to become a prison machine. It can easily become a surveillance State, its public places filled with closed-circuit cameras, its wealthy private citizens living in guarded and walled estates, its police increasingly heavily armed. To fight violence, violence of a slightly different kind is used.

So we end up with the grim fact that like all species on earth, humans are necessarily violent. They cannot survive without predating on nature and on each other. Some religions such as Buddhism and some sects such as the Quakers exhort their followers to renounce all violence and live in peace. This is a worthy ideal. Yet the moment we breath or walk we destroy other creatures.

It is all a matter of degree and of intentions. Quakers, or members of the Jain religion (who wish to avoid causing all suffering, even to small insects), try to avoid inflicting pain. They are clearly different from those who deliberately practice violence. Next time you eat some meat or kill a slug, it is worth considering what you are doing and whether it can be called violence.

7:5 Why do communities attack each other?

Of course ethnic and religious violence has been present in humans societies for thousands of years. When we hear about the terrible Hutu-Tutsi massacres in Africa, the Muslim-Hindu violence which periodically erupts in India, the awful events in Kosovo and the Balkans, we seem to be living in a world where the tide of inter-communal violence is rising. Yet when we remember the massacre of up to a million Armenians in the early twentieth century, or the millions of Jews in the genocide of the middle of the century, it seems likely that we could go back through history to find endless examples of this violence.

It appears that whenever people are held together by a sense of ‘we’, through notions of religion or race, then these concepts can suddenly become a dividing line. ‘We’ are humans, ‘they’ are sub-humans, no different from the animals which we torture and slaughter at our will.

What is perhaps most distressing and perplexing is that people who previously seemed to get on very well and be tolerant of each other’s difference can so quickly become deep enemies and commit terrible atrocities on each other. One week there is chat and coffee with a neighbouring family, the next they are demonized, so that to rape their daughter or chop off their son’s hand seems a reasonable thing to do.

Humans are clearly very malleable and suggestible. There does not seem to be an innate and ever present enmity which suddenly ‘erupts’. There are differences which normally do not matter or cause strong feeling. Yet when the feelings are manipulated by a Hitler, Stalin or Milosevic, or through a wider changing political context, fear is whipped up and sane, tolerant, people, become fanatical. The instincts to protect the family and community, of vengeance at perceived wrongs, become mobilized, and in a few hours your friends become your foes.

It is not unlike the psychology of witchcraft, where someone’s smile can very easily change from friendly to seemingly sinister if you suspect them of being a witch or an outsider. It would be a great service if someone could design an ‘ethnic and religious hatred defusing kit’ which could be applied as these terrible situations begin to catch fire.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

7:4 Why do people join criminal gangs?

Criminal organizations exist because they serve a purpose. In the case of many of the mafia-like organizations, the criminal gangs run an informal or ‘black’ economy which enables the formal or ‘white’ economy to work. The normal market, in Russia, India or traditionally in southern Italy, does not operate properly. There is little trust in the legal institutions which are supposed to underpin the market. The police, bureaucracy and politicians are widely believed to be corrupt. There is often inefficiency and over-regulation. Nothing gets done without huge efforts and bribes.

In this situation the mafia, through the bonds of loyalty and fear, through the concepts of omerta (honour, keeping one’s word), and the punishment of deviation, provide the assurances and the security which the state cannot provide.

If one loses a valuable object it is no good going to the police who are inefficient and corrupt. Far better to engage the ‘brotherhood’ of the mafia who will put out the word and very soon the stolen object will be hastily returned and the thief punished. Or again, to do a deal, make a contract with another unrelated person, whether it is just to buy or sell a cow, or to build a new road or airport, it is essential that the other party be under some pressure to honour the deal. So the mafia is used as a general guarantee.

To avoid time-wasting and money-wasting obstacles, licenses, customs obstructions and regulations of various kinds, the mafia will smooth the way. The national and international reach of cosa nostra, ‘our people’, will overcome all difficulties.

The mafia ensure this by a blend of physical and symbolic violence. Occasionally the mafiosi are sent out to use the bullet, the knife or the fire-bomb, but most of the time the threat is enough. The dark glasses which stop the human contact through the eyes, the large, dark, bullet-proof car, the prickly pear leaf left as a calling card, the head of a favourite animal on the pillow, certain menacing tones and gestures, make offers of protection difficult to refuse.

The mafia tends to operate in the grey area between the legal and illegal. The inhabit the land of debased human desires, in gambling, drink, sex, illegal sports and drugs, which the State both tolerates and tries to eliminate at the same time.

7:3 Why are we cruel to other animals?

Humans are just one species of animal. They share over 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees. Yet they often imagine themselves to be a different sort of creature, in some way superior, a view upheld by Christian theology. There is thus an ambivalence in human’s treatment of other animals.

It is difficult to see a single developing pattern in the attitude of humans towards other animals. In many early societies there seems to have been a belief in a good deal of overlap. Humans could turn into animals and vice versa, myths told of these changes and animals had human spirits. Then, with the domestication of animals some thousands of years ago, other species became both closer and further from humans. As they brought in the cats and dogs, penned the sheep and cows and goats and buffaloes, so animals paradoxically became separated off from humans. Often a three-fold classification developed.

Pets, that is companions of humans such as cats and dogs, as well as those they rode such as horses, were the inner circle. They were like children or very close relatives, dependent and submissive. Physical incorporation of pets through eating was forbidden. A second ring was formed by domesticated animals; sheep, cows, yaks, buffaloes and pigs. They were like cousins, close, but not family. They could, and usually were, brought close into one’s life by eating them. Finally there were wild animals, who were like enemies or non-kin. These were again divided into the edible, deer, wild game of various kinds, and the normally inedible meat eaters like leopards, tigers, bears and wolves.

So for thousands of years humans and animals were both inter-dependent, but also separate. In particular, certain religions assumed that a human-like God had created different species. In the Christian myth, God had created the animals on one day and humans on another. He had made Eden and filled it with animals and placed a man as its ruler. Animals were at the disposal of humans and they were created as formed and separate species.

The whole idea of a vast gulf between humans and animals collapsed in the middle of the nineteenth century when Charles Darwin outlined the long-term evolution of species and showed that humans were but one late, and minor, branch of a tree which included all the others. Ever since then we have become increasingly aware of how much we overlap. Almost all the things which were supposed to divide humans from animals have vanished. Some animals use tools, have a sense of humour, use simple forms of language, have self-awareness and perhaps even a sense of their own mortality. They feel, think, hope and fear.

As it becomes daily more obvious that animals suffer and think much like us, it might have been expected that there would be a growing sensitivity and care towards them. There are signs of this in organizations to promote vegetarianism or to prevent cruelty. Yet they just touch the edge of the problem. For it would not be difficult to argue that, as we witness the extinction of many species and the factory farming of animals and fish, there is more exploitation and systematic cruelty in the world now than there has ever been. We still manage to suppress our affinities to whales, pigs, cows, chickens and continue to torture, slaughter and eat them.

As we consume our steaks, sausages, hamburgers and fried chickens, millions of us have little idea (or interest) in the conditions of our fellow creatures. Perhaps it will not be until some new and superior species emerges on earth, some computerized android, which breeds humans in tiny cages, force feeds them, drains their bile, eats them, that we will seriously begin to crusade for the abolition of animal to animal cannibalism. Meanwhile the greatest predators on earth munch their way through the animal kingdom. For we are caught in the dilemma that we are a meat eating species, which gains much of its protein from consuming other animals. It is impossible to imagine that we will change, but we may, with sufficient will, find ways to minimize the pain we inflict on our fellow species.

Monday, 5 February 2007

7:2 Do we have to hurt one another?

There are very few human relationships in which there is no violence. Even if they do not control their children with physical force, parents almost always use symbolic violence to discipline them. They tell them to shut up, to obey what they say or else. They exercise control by using presents and gifts and even by the indirect violence of excessive love or guilt inducement. There are threats and encouragements; force is below the surface all the time. It is part of the inequality built into parent-child relations and it can easily move from what is considered justified control to ‘abuse’, that is the over-use or inappropriate use of power. It is a delicate balance.

In many societies the relations between parents and children are so unequal that the use of both symbolic and physical violence is often not considered ‘abuse’. In traditional Roman or Chinese society, the power of the father was such that he could kill his children if they were disobedient, or torture his wife if she was insubordinate. In some societies a brother may be duty bound to kill his sister if she threatens the family honour by having an affair. The levels of what we consider to be abuse are often very high indeed. In some places violence is almost an obligatory form of male behaviour, showing that you are a ‘true man’.

Yet it would be wrong to think that there has been a steady movement from the early stages of society where violence in the family was common to modern societies where it is frowned on. A number of hunting gathering societies have almost no inter-personal violence, while levels in many places in the so-called ‘civilized’ world are extremely high. In the three years I spent in a Nepalese village, I have seen physical violence in only one family over a short period of time. Otherwise I have not seen a single person hit a child, or a wife beat a husband, or the reverse. There is very little symbolic violence; little threatening, shouting, bribing. People, from infancy onwards, are nudged into certain actions or thoughts by gentle, if consistent, pressures and suggestions.

In England a fairly radical change has been occurring over the last two generations. The inequalities within the family are being challenged. There is talk of laws being introduced to ban all corporal punishment whether in school or the home.

Yet elsewhere the amount of inter-personal violence seems to grow. Crimes of violence, robbery, murder and rape, appear to be on the increase. The media is full of violent images, both in fiction and in the news. So people have a sense of anxiety about the threats of attack, even if these fears often bear little relationship to actual trends or crime statistics. In Japan or England the hundreds of thousands of people who are killed or maimed in road accidents are hardly noticed, but if one little boy kills another, or two schoolgirls are murdered, the whole nation is traumatized.

7:1 What does 'violence' mean?

In English, violence has a relatively narrow meaning, referring mainly to violent physical actions. It means using an unnecessary and unwanted amount of physical force against another. The ‘unwanted’ is important since much of life consists of the use of force. When a child is lifted off the ground, when a doctor or dentist do their work, when we play many games, force is involved. Yet we do not call this violence. If we punch a face, knock out the tooth or embrace a person against their will, then we call it a violent act. Always physical force is involved.

The French word violence includes a much wider set of meanings. Here both physical, social and what is called symbolic violence is included. For example we can talk of the symbolic violence contained in language, architecture, gestures, painting, government directives, class or gender. The very grand building I inhabit next to King’s College Chapel is designed in a way which instills awe into visitors, just as the lofty Chapel itself compels some feeling of reverence onto all those who enter. Many of these instances do not directly involve the use of physical force, yet they exert pressures on an individual which may go against her will and interests. In this Letter I will use the broader, French, meaning of the word.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

6:5 Why are games so fascinating?

People enjoy playing games because they are animals who like to compete and dominate; to play, strive, outwit, win, are all important survival tools. But there is more to games than this, particularly team games. Members of a cricket, football or bowls team play together, often socialize together and either create or express their friendship in this way. Friendly rivalry over a game of chess or in the squash court may also cement friendship. Matching minds and bodies or depending and sharing with other members of the team, both give great satisfaction.

Friends play together and the stress on learning games at school is also meant to be a lesson in friendship. Like friendship, play is not directed to a practical goal. It is ‘just a game’, but to refuse to play is a rejection.

Equally intriguing is why people watch games and sport. The extraordinary growth of spectator sports, undoubtedly deeply influenced by television and by the way in which sport, alongside sex, is the main way of selling goods, is one of the marks of our world.

The historian of technology Lewis Mumford suggests that modern sports may be defined as ‘those forms of organized play in which the spectator is more important than the player’. It is a spectacle, in many ways closer to drama or ritual than to playing a game.

The crowd become part of a chorus, emotionally and psychologically bending together, taken for a moment out of their ordinary lives and worries. Like spectators at the contests of gladiators and wild animals in Rome, or its modern equivalent, the bull fight, or even the circus, the crowd cheers and boos. Even in the privacy of their home, people dress up in their team’s colours, drink lager and pretend that they are part of the crowd, as they watch the television.

Being in a crowd makes us brave. We can shout and say things we would normally be too timid to express. It is often the time when we can make our prejudices and passions known, whether for our country, our political opinions, or our hatreds, in a way which as single individuals we find impossible. It is not surprising that all dictatorships love assembling partisan crowds and setting them marching and singing and shouting.

Mass sport and private play are forms of conspicuous consumption. Many modern societies have a great deal of leisure and people fill up their spare time, and often demonstrate their new found affluence, through games. Often they do this publicly. But equally often privately, in the world of computer games and internet rivalries.

The increasing leisure time often created by machines must be filled. Playing in various ways is what humans like to do in their spare time. So if anything is the new ‘religion’ of the world, it is football. More money, emotion and activity is now generated by sport, games and hobbies than anything else on earth, except war. Indeed war, to some of its proponents, is the sublimest form of game. It adds the spice of the risk of death to the usual thrills of other contests. On the other hand, for many people it is better to fight in the world cup than in the trenches.

6:4 Why do children play games?

Playing games is usually strongly encouraged in schools. This is partly to strengthen the muscles and to use up surplus physical energy. Yet team games are also believed to improve social skills. The essence of a team game is to balance selfishness, the desire to shine and triumph, with sociality, the desire to make one’s team win. This balance is also one of the most difficult things to achieve in much of social life. When to keep the ball and when to pass it to another is an art which stretches out into many of our activities. The balance between co-operation and self-assertiveness is well taught within the structured environment of the rules of a game.

It is also believed that games enable people to learn how to demarcate their lives. While the game is on we abide by certain rules. Then the whistle blows and we no longer have to. Learning how to handle defeat (it took me some years not to weep bitterly after losing a game) and feel relaxed with someone who has outwitted or outplayed you is an important art.

Likewise the subtle art of playing within the rules, but using as much scope and skill within them as possible, is one which is handy in almost every branch of later life. You have to learn the rules of your trade or occupation, but if you just stick to these without creative thought then you will end up as nothing special. If you break them and are caught the result is even worse. How can you keep to the rules yet excel? Skill, personal tricks, long training and perceptive observation of others are among the things needed. The concept of ‘spin’, which makes the ball behave in odd ways in cricket and disguises the real motives of politicians when they deal with the public, is one example of this.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

6:3 Is science like a game?

Playfulness often consists of trying out moves, making wild guesses, following intuition and hunches, leaving the logical path, taking risks, not becoming too solemn or wedded to a particular idea or strategy, innovating and experimenting. Successful science often requires a good deal of playful, exaggerated, humorous, outrageous, speculation and testing. By definition, the major advance will occur in unexpected areas and these are often reached by leaps of the mind. The overly-serious, logical, thorough, highly disciplined mind often misses the significant, strange, clue that gives a new insight.

A trained Confucian scholar or Buddhist monk may be less likely to make the break-through than an overgrown undergraduate full of fun, games and pranks. Francis Crick’s book about the discovery of DNA is significantly called What Mad Pursuit. The ideas were so far-fetched and incredible that most people would have dismissed them as a joke.

One of the great problems in the pursuit of knowledge in most societies is that it threatens too many vested interests. Probing the mysteries of nature may bring power, a threat to the rulers; it may undermine previous knowledge, a threat to priests; it will alter status positions, a threat to the elders and higher social groups. When Galileo pointed out that the earth revolved round the sun rather than the other way round, he was forced to publicly retract his statements under threat of torture.

The boundedness which we find as a central aspect of games, and which we also find essential in law, politics and the economy, is equally important for science. Very often those engaged in strange pursuits are hounded out as magicians or sorcerers. But, particularly in the less controlled areas of Protestant Europe and America, scientists could engage in their particular part-hobbies, part-games, without fear of angry mobs. They could pursue them in the hope that their skill and ingenuity in this particular 'game' against the greatest opponent (a cunning Creator who had concealed the clues in Nature) would be recognized by others for its virtuosity.

6:2 Who are the great games players and inventors?

From at least the sixteenth century, the English became the leading inventors of competitive team games. If we think of the present games of the world, almost all were invented or modified in England; cricket, football, rugby are the most famous.

As well as games, England became a great country for sports, horse-racing, dog-racing, mountaineering, hunting, fishing and shooting. Likewise the English were and still are great hobby-mongers. George Orwell noted that ‘we are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, cross-word puzzle fans.’ Yet the English were only part of a European pattern, for the French, Italians, Dutch also form part of a 'playful' civilization.

We might assume that this kind of enthusiasm for games is universal. Yet my first impression is that until a few years ago it was limited. I have been told that there were until recently no competitive team games in Japan. There were instead a number of activities which it is very difficult to classify. They are not exactly games, for they seem to have a solemn and ritual component. Hence they are often described with a term such as ‘martial art’. Even the famous tea ceremony is neither a game, a hobby, an entertainment nor a ritual, but a little of each.

These activities lie at an intersection between art, ritual and game in a way which makes them feel strange. They include a number which have the ending ‘do’ (ken-do, ju-do) which means ‘the path’ or ‘way’ and implies a semi-religious aspect, and others such as su-mo wrestling or pachin-ko (a kind of bagatelle) which do not feel quite like a game. There were no ball games in which teams ‘fought’ each other.

It is only in the last hundred years or so that the competitive team games of the west have bounced, kicked and batted their way round the world, creating an universal addiction. So everyone is mad about football and many other people are crazy about cricket. The recentness of this change suggests that games only work under certain political, economic and social conditions. A degree of political and social equality are both a cause and consequence of the development of team games. They can be suppressed as leading to disorder and they can soon become a form of political activity. The Indians took up cricket with added zest when they realized that they could beat their white masters at it, and also legitimately stand around in a field for hours without being told they were being lazy.

When they spread they can also be radically altered. When the Trobriand islanders of the Pacific took up cricket, they changed almost all the rules so that each side had dozens of players, dressed in war dress, and hurled objects at each other. In another part of New Guinea they have learnt to play football, but they go on playing as many matches as are necessary for both sides to reach the same score.