If immortal aliens observing earth from afar did nothing but study mankind’s evolution, they would identify one specific, recurring problem that the other animal species would appear to have solved — violence. The alien mind would be able to ignore the symbols and cultural differentiation in violence — there would be no romantic or special story to each tragedy. The Holocaust, The Cambodian Killing Fields, The Crusades — humans falling victim to the same trap.
As a species, we’re transfixed by violence — it defines our study of history. The blood spilled over centuries marks checkpoints of evolution or devolution in the classroom, as though it’s some remote problem that more primitive minds had to contend with. Still, it remains the central problem — always available, looming over every situation. All that changes are the tools we have to mitigate it. The problem itself is static.
Much has been written on the topic of violence, especially by René Girard. Summarized crudely, Girard’s theory of violence is this: Human action is reciprocal. Reciprocity is an ancient word that stems from the Latin reciprocus, which translates to “moving back and forward” — or “vis-à-vis.” You do it to me, I do it to you. His theory is that it is very easy to go from good reciprocity to bad reciprocity, but incredibly difficult to go from bad reciprocity to good reciprocity.
This problem is constant, and plagued primitive societies. When the violence begins, it’s contagious, and at times becomes so potent that the only way to escape it is through all individuals directing the violence towards one innocent person — the scapegoat. In other words, the domain in which the seeds of violence were sown (bad reciprocity) is not the domain in which the problem resolves itself. This is the problem of man.
The only way to see the problem clearly is to remove the specialty from each instance — strip away the symbols in violent affairs — and see the same…