Aggression and Violence Are Possible, Not Inevitable

Humans are not “bad to the bone”

Posted Sep 14, 2016

 Humans can be amazingly violent and cruel. A quick look at the daily headlines, and the world of politics, makes that abundantly clear.  But we are more often caring and compassionate. It’s easy to overlook this latter aspect in our contemporary world. Every now and then we should stop and consider what we know about aggression and violence, otherwise the blaring 24 hour news cycle can overwhelm us. There are folks out there trying to sell you a false story about humanity, using fear to do it. We know that most of the time humans are getting along in cooperative and creative ways, keep that in mind when many are trying to tell you otherwise.

We all experience aggression now and again. But, in spite of what we see on the news and believe about the “nature” of the world, most of the more than 7 billion humans on the planet rarely experience severe violence.  Violence and homicide do occur. They occur more in places where the social, environmental and historical contexts of inequality and stress facilitate the expression of aggression. Knowing that we are not inherently aggressive but capable of great aggression places us in an interesting position; how do we explain aggression when it occurs and what do we do about it?

Take for example the recent attention given to bullying at school, especially amongst females. We know that both males and females can be aggressive but that males who are especially aggressive as children are more likely to be aggressive as adults than are females who are especially aggressive as children. This is not due to males’ flood of testosterone at puberty, so something must be going on that enables males to maintain higher aggression levels into adulthood than females.  Could it be that social expectations and structures restrict expression of aggression in females as they mature but exert less pressure on males’ aggression? Maybe we even encourage aggressive behavior in males?  If this is the case, why are we seeing more female aggression today?  Given what we know about aggression, our first hypothesis must be the social structures are changing enabling more females to exhibit their potential for aggression than previously, and/or that the specific contexts facing teenagers might be more heavily impacted by elements of inequality and social stress.

What about the dramatically higher likelihood for young men to be the victims of homicide?  Isn’t that due to their “naturally” more aggressive nature? No. But it might be due to the conflux of multiple elements such as males being more likely to spend time outside the home and the local community, young men engaging in more risk-taking behavior, higher access to firearms and weapons, and increased pressure on display of social success especially in situations of extreme income inequality. We do know that on average males exhibit more aggression, and that males and females suffer from about the same rates of violent victimization, but men are more likely to die from it. It is a combination of male physical size/strength, societal expectations, access to weapons and other social, developmental and historical aspects that combine to produce these patterns.  Knowing it is not a “given” that men will be hyper-aggressive and that context is core to understanding the expression of aggression allows us to see more ways to approach these situations and make attempts to modify them.

Collaboration, cooperation and creativity are part of the answer in dealing with aggression, but they are not the opposites of, or antidotes to, violence and cruelty. In fact, they underlie the most horrific events.  Think of the 20th century with the German Holocaust, the mass atrocities in Rwanda, the Congo, Cambodia, and wars across the continents. All of these events could not have happened without intensive collaboration and coordination among the perpetrators.  In warfare it is not the most violent army that wins, it is the most cooperative, coordinated and caring to their comrades that does.  In many of the worst cases of violence we still see the indelible mark of that basic human pattern: cooperation and creativity. That should give us hope for options and alternatives.  For every violent situation there are usually many creative alternatives.  We cannot give up and buy into the media onslaught, and the philosophical trap, of believing that we are doomed to violent outcomes. We have a two million year history of working things out together more often than bashing each other’s heads in.  We can’t forget that.

When we encounter aggression in our daily lives, and we all will in one form or another, it makes a difference if we think it is inevitable or if we understand that it is a complex part of being human.  Knowing that we are not “bad to the bone” but rather just really complicated, potentially dangerous, and generally kind, opens new vistas for moving forward as communities and societies. If the amazing ability to cooperate and create is at our core, we can try to choose how we use this ability and, working together, maybe we can affect the contexts and patterns in which aggression and violence play out.

About the Author

Agustín Fuentes, Ph.D, is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

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