ROOTS OF AGGRESSION AND VIOLENCE by Lloyd Thomas

Lloyd Thomas, Ph.D. is a longstanding member of the Fort Collins Rotary Club, a licensed psychologist and a life coach with a long history of writing regular columns.

“Aggression” is not the same as “violence.”  “Violence” is the label we give to extreme forms of aggression.  Not all aggressive actions are violent in nature.  Not all people with “aggressive personalities” engage in violent acts.  Like Brandt F. Steele, M.D. stated in his 1970 essay, Violence In Our Society,** most behavioral scientists believe that human beings have “an instinctive drive toward aggression.”  Dr. Steele writes, “…the fact [is] that human beings are natively capable of being quite aggressive, and that the problem is very much one of the manner in which such impulses are channeled or directed.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that in the United States alone over “2 million emergency room visits each year are due to violent assaults, and about 16,000 people will be murdered each year.  Young men between the ages of 18 and 24 are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of violence. Over a third of American women and over a quarter of American men have experienced stalking or physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, and nearly half of all American women have experienced psychological aggression from an intimate partner.”

In his book, The New Brain, R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D. writes, “Violence at political rallies, terrorism, and horrifying workplace shootings bewilder us, but they shouldn’t. Traditional approaches to understanding violence seem played out. What we need is an understanding of violence at the level of brain circuitry. Violence, like all human behavior, is controlled by the brain. From the everyday road rage, to domestic violence, to a suicide bombing, the biology of anger and aggression is the root cause of most violent behavior.”

Viewing violence narrowly from the perspective of psychological dysfunction shirks the larger truth that the biological roots of rage exist in all of us. The leading risk of death throughout the prime of life is not disease. It is violence. If you survive into old age you will most likely die from disease, but according to CDC statistics for deaths in the United States for the year 2014, “life ends at the hand of another human so frequently, that from early childhood through middle-age, homicide is the third to fifth most common cause of death in all age brackets between 1-44 years.”

In the July 2019 issue of the magazine, The Rotarian, Alex Kotiowitz writes, “In Chicago, [between] the years 1990 and 2010, 14,033 [people] were killed, [and] another roughly 60,000 wounded by gunfire.  That is more than all those U.S. soldiers killed and wounded in the combined wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  Those wars are ongoing today…2019.  He goes on to write, “…here’s the thing: Chicago is by no means the most dangerous city, not even close.  Its homicide rate doesn’t even put it in the top 10.”

Kotiowitz makes it clear: “Often considered a physical expression of aggression, violence may be predatory, impulsive, reactive, [vengeful] or defensive in nature.  Violence can develop from situational or environmental and may result from a mental condition or from personal or cultural beliefs.” (Italics mine).

In today’s modern world, most people rarely think that violence or war is good.  But they often believe it to be necessary for: defending or gaining territory; economic gain; spreading religious beliefs; strengthening “nationalism”; taking revenge; dismantling an “unjust” government; resolving disputes/conflicts; freeing oneself from fear (creating “security”).  They believe that these goals can be attained only by using weapons in violent aggression.

Human aggression seems to be “channeled or directed” by a single dynamic belief: “If I believe that you believe something different than I believe, that gives me the right to act violently against you.”  History is replete with examples where violence is used to justify one’s belief system.  John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln because he held a deep belief in the rightness of the Southern cause, in the Southern ideals and in the Confederacy.  Booth actually wrote in his diary, “Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of punishment.”

The Christian Crusaders while carrying the banner of God and the Church, killed thousands of infidels.  Believing their actions to be righteous and rewarding, jihads kill non-Muslims by the thousands.  Parents violently abuse their children thinking they are “teaching them life lessons,” or “encouraging better behavior.”  Our “justice system” uses violent actions (killing) believing that “justice” will be served.

Violence invites retaliatory violence.  Killing the enemy creates more enemies.  Fearful domination creates passive resistance or active rebellion.  In like manner, being heard invites understanding.  Cooperation invites teamwork.  Addressing physical and psychological needs invites mutual, peaceful activity.  Look what happened with the Japanese and western Germany after world war two.  Peacekeepers need to attempt these risky behaviors prior to engaging in violence or going to war.

Steele writes, “It seems obvious that individuals as well as various cultural and social groups tend to use aggression and violence that they consider good or right to enforce their good and right standards.”  However, someone once said, “You can only fight ideas [beliefs] with other ideas.”  The threat of violence or violence itself has never been very effective in changing one’s mind (beliefs).  Multiple studies have shown that previous experience with violent punishment has not prevented the occurrence or recurrence of anti-social behavior.

Dr. Steele concludes: “I refer to the concept that our moral convictions, our superegos, not only give us permission to be violent, but give us great approval for violence expressed in certain directions.  These same patterns of violence we then transmit to our children in their earliest, most formative years.  We should pay much more attention to the ideals and categorical imperatives that we teach our infants and children.  …we must recognize that the most potent controls and directions of aggression and of violence are those that we learned at our parents’ knees.

If we are really to understand the mechanisms of violence and how to control it in our culture, we must pay attention much more than we have in the past to those morel forces within us that tell us to direct violence in certain ways, and that enable us all to do evil under the guise of doing good.  …I am almost ready to join with Henry David Thoreau, who said, ‘If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with a conscious design of doing me good, I would run for my life.'”

**The above quotations of Dr. Brandt F. Steele are found in: THE PHAROS OF ALPHA OMEGA ALPHA, printed in April, 1970, Vol. 33. No. 2, Pages 42-48 and were used with permission of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.

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