Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Keeping an eye on an-eye-for-an-eye

Jared Diamond's recent New Yorker article on the revenge culture of New Guinea clans ('Vengeance is Ours') is--like most things he writes--well worth your time. Diamond takes a particularly close look at the story of Daniel Wemp, who had responsibility for avenging the killing of his uncle by a rival clansman.

The specific details of Daniel's story and the winding course of his quest for revenge (involving, ultimately, 'three years, twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs') are fascinating, and Diamond considers them at finely observed length.

The general dynamics within which that story unfolded are also worth noting:

The war between the Handa clan and the Ombal clan began many years ago; how many, Daniel didn’t say, and perhaps didn’t know. It could easily have been several decades ago, or even in an earlier generation. Among Highland clans, each killing demands a revenge killing, so that a war goes on and on, unless political considerations cause it to be settled, or unless one clan is wiped out or flees. When I asked Daniel how the war that claimed his uncle’s life began, he answered, “The original cause of the wars between the Handa and Ombal clans was a pig that ruined a garden.”

This is the kind of comment that often provokes a laugh; however, in a society in which pigs (and gardens for that matter) are serious resources, it is hardly surprising that such an event could lead to an escalating conflict that might--at some point--turn deadly, thus setting in motion the reciprocal vengeance obligations that Diamond describes.

He continues:

Surprisingly to outsiders, most Highland wars start ostensibly as a dispute over either pigs or women. Anthropologists debate whether the wars really arise from some deeperlying ultimate cause, such as land or population pressure, but the participants, when they are asked to name a cause, usually point to a woman or a pig.

I'm not, actually, surprised. (Were you ?)

And there is little need to separate the 'ultimate' causes from the more direct (or 'proximate') ones that clansmen mention. They are most likely connected: seemingly excessive male touchiness about their public status and honour is apparent in all societies, as is their tendency to use violence to defend them. It seems likely (to me anyway) that there is some underlying, 'ultimate' connection to the way that evolution has shaped their brains.

(This is, of course, not my idea, but I do cite and discuss some relevant work in my article 'The Limits of Culture?', which is freely available.)

At stake in such conflicts are not simply resources, but creating and maintaining a reputation that will ensure access to those resources and help dissuade others from taking advantage of oneself or one's group. Behaving in what is apparently a crazy manner has an underlying logic that--while unpleasant and prone to sometimes going off the rails--makes sense.

Having a reputation for being someone not to fuck with means you will be fucked with less often. It's an obvious point, but it's an important one.

In his excellent book War Before Civilization, Lawrence Keeley has emphasised how serious an issue maintaining a credible deterrent was likely to have been in tribal societies: groups ran serious risks--and might have faced being wiped out--if they let their guard down. Total war was probably not an invention of the twentieth century.

In a more general way, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have described a close relationship between justice and vengeance:

Everyone's notion of 'justice' seems to entail penalty scaled to the gravity of the offense. As we suggested earlier, deterrence and retribution are not simply alternative objectives: Effective deterrence is the ultimate function behind the human passion for measured retributive justice--it is the reason why that passion evolved. But our passion for evening the score has thus become an entity in its own right, an evolved aspect of the human mind. Our desire for justice fundamentally entails a desire for revenge. (Homicide, 1988, p. 251)

Now, this apparently inherent tendency toward using violence both as a deterrent and as a means of revenge is not just simply fixed by genes.

As some researchers have pointed out (and as I have discussed here before) violence rates are quite widely variable. What is perhaps the most interesting question about violence is not where it comes from. This is, actually, not all that complicated a question. (Daniel's story suggests one simple recipe: take several young men, divide them into clans, add pigs and women, simmer and stir, adding spice according to taste.)

It is more interesting to consider what role violence plays in different societies (and at different times) and even more interesting to see how--in many societies--that role has been significantly reduced in a relatively short span of time.

At one point in his essay, Diamond observes:

Before there were states, Daniel’s method of resolving major disputes—either violently or by payment of compensation—was the worldwide norm. Papua New Guinea is not the only place where those traditional methods of dispute resolution still coexist uneasily with the methods of state government. For example, Daniel’s methods might seem quite familiar to members of urban gangs in America, and also to Somalis, Afghans, Kenyans, and peoples of other countries where tribal ties remain strong and state control weak. As I eventually came to realize, Daniel’s thirst for vengeance and his hostility to rival clans are really not so far from our own habits of mind as we might like to think.

This comment was very much on my mind when I read Alex Kotlowitz's absorbing article on modern urban feuding. Far more vivid than its somewhat functional title ('Blocking the Transmission of Violence') would suggest, the piece looks at the work of a Chicago-based group called CeaseFire which employs former gang members as 'violence interrupters' to intervene when it seems a cycle of vengeance is about to be triggered off.

Now, the people involved are far from starry eyed do-gooders. All understand the violence of the streets, most have participated in it in some way and a few have done some time for it. And, the article makes clear, there are plenty of opportunities for the 'interrupters' to do their thing. And what they do is quite remarkable.

The opening vignette introduces us to Martin Torres, whose nephew was shot and killed on a Chicago street. Although separated by vast cultural differences, I think Daniel Wemp (from Diamond's essay) would have little difficulty understanding Torres's reaction:

Torres, who was especially close to his nephew, got on the first Greyhound bus to Chicago. He was grieving and plotting retribution. “I thought, Man, I’m going to take care of business,” he told me recently. “That’s how I live. I was going hunting. This is my own blood, my nephew.”

One of the interrupters (who knew Torres from shared time in prison) seems to successfully have dissuaded Torres from taking revenge.

The contexts are, clearly, different: in Daniel's society such a reaction would be seen as the normal one and there are elaborate social conventions for organising vengeance; the modern US, however, has a police force and legal system that is supposed to pre-empt and make such acts unnecessary. Most people in most places might think about personal vengeance (and even enjoy thinking about it, hence the popularity of this motif in literature and film), but it has become relatively rare for people to act upon it, particularly in such a deadly way.

But even that is a fairly 'recent' phenomenon, as Diamond points out. Indeed, my own work on nineteenth-century England highlighted the vitality of a 'customary mentality' that put high value on retribution and autonomy. (A selective Google preview of the book seems to now be available.)

This was far from a unique finding. One of the books that I found very helpful--Martin Greenshields's An Economy of Violence in Early-Modern France--examined this issue in an earlier period and different country. Thomas Gallant has looked at how this worked in nineteenth-century Ionian Islands--in an excellent, highly recommended book called Experiencing Dominion.

You'll find similar patterns, essentially, wherever you look, and there are far too many such works on this topic to note here. (You'll find them in my footnotes, and the reviews I've written of some works are available freely online. A relatively brief summary of such work in the English context is also available at History Compass.)

Suffice to say that over the last few decades, historians have increasingly been focusing on this topic, looking at violence rates and 'cultures of violence' and trying to grasp how they change.

Despite many differences in approach, the development of institutionalised forms for working out disputes and helping to 'settle scores' in less violent ways while also suppressing their traditional alternatives--so, the expansion of court systems and policing--seems, no matter where you look, to be key.

As sociologists Elijah Anderson and Loic Wacant have noted, however, the weakening of social resources and the absence of institutional alternatives to violent score-settling help to ensure that even within relatively pacified societies, patterns of personal deterrence and vengeance re-emerge.

The results can clearly be seen in Kotlowitz's article. Referring to the presence of two of CeaseFire's 'violence interrupters' at a Chicago hospital, he observes:

Advocate Christ [Hospital] has come to see the presence of interrupters in the trauma unit as essential and is, in fact, looking to expand their numbers. “It has just given me so much hope,” Cathy Arsenault, one of the chaplains there, told me. “The families would come in, huddle in the corner and I could see them assigning people to take care of business.” Mack and Stone try to cool off family members and friends, and if the victim survives, try to keep them from seeking vengeance.

Considering such episodes both cross-culturally (e.g. by comparing modern Chicago with modern New Guinea) and historically (e.g. the works mentioned above) helps to reveal both how much can change with regard to violence but also how much work (and how many different circumstances and resources) that change involves. It brings out the particularity not only of cultural contexts but also of individual psychology and action (retribution is an extremely personal matter) while at the same time pointing to those things that universally make us human.

The relentless calculus of vengeance--and the emotions that it provokes--might be one of these deeply built-in parts of our psychologies.

Given reasonable assurances of security and confidence that violations will be dealt with by other means, it seems that people are relatively willing to adopt higher levels of self-restraint. I have referred to this as the 'civilizing bargain', and given the high costs of personal revenge it is a very good deal (as Daniel Wemp's story shows, carrying on a feud is not only dangerous but can also be a logistical nightmare.)

But as Diamond and Kotlowitz, in different ways, show, it is difficult to create and maintain the circumstances that make that bargain seem attractive to everyone.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for expanding my one-line pointer to Diamond's essay into a thought-provoking post. I do fear that the wiring of Homo sapiens version 1.0 is increasingly more of a hindrance than a virtue. It's served us well, but may be reaching the limits of breakdown.

I'm reminded of John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar" in which the salvation of humanity came through a mutation in the Shinka tribe. Alas, I see little evidence of such a circumstance in the real world - more's the pity.

Unknown said...

I would like to know more about the lawsuit against Diamond by the New Guinean he wrote about.

After reading the news story I immediately formed a mental picture of a greedy lawyer who upon reading Diamond's article thought; "Hey, I could really make some money on this", then traveling to New Guinea to talk the protagonist into suing.

I hope I'm wrong. In any case, such a lawsuit has a chilling effect.