Does Violence Emerge from our Beastly Selves or from a Lack of Love?

Do you remember when you first experienced real harm at the hands of someone?  Most of us do remember the painful experiences of our childhood, when ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ was a common method of raising the young. 

In contrast, how well do you remember when you first hit or screamed abuse at someone, perhaps a sibling or a spouse, with a force that you later regretted?  Maybe it was someone you barely knew. 

Do we choose to ‘forget’ the instances we have caused harm, because it violates our self-image?

Whether you are a victim or a perpetrator, or both, may be a fairly insignificant question in your life, because your experiences fall within ‘the norm’.  But extreme violence is a big part of our world, our society, and sometimes ourselves.   Without understanding how it originates and grows, we may be condemned to live with ever escalating violence.

Paul Valent, a psychiatrist and a specialist in trauma, has spent a good deal of his professional life treating people who have suffered some kind of traumatic violence. It all stems from being a child survivor of the Holocaust.  Not only was he overwhelmed by the sheer irrationality of Europe’s murder of 6 million of its Jewish civilians, but he has also been deeply disturbed by the more recent state-directed genocides, such as in Rwanda and Cambodia.


Lethal violence on such a catastrophic scale is a long way from bullying kids in the playground, but since Paul Valent was subject to both, it was inevitable that he would see a relationship between the two.  And as a psychiatrist he is bound to look into the make up of the perpetrators, the biological and psychological factors that can compel a person to a life of violence.

Valent has written many books in the field of trauma but in the Heart of Violence : Why People Harm Each Other, he sets himself a more far reaching task of uncovering every possible cause of the human compulsion to make others suffer.

Evolutionary theories of human behaviour which have been popular recently – think Sapiens by Yuval Harari or The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – would have us believe that we are determined by our animal inheritance, “red in tooth and claw.”  And the psychiatrist in Valent certainly takes the theory of our beastly inheritance seriously, including its primitive vestige at the base of our brain, the amygdala, as the biological seat of aggression. 

Then there is the mysterious relationship between the left and right hemispheres of the brain which process emotional and rational responses to stimulus. Normally, the left brain and the right brain work together in a balanced fashion, but when one side is overly dominant, extreme behaviours, including violence, can result.

What does all this biology have to do with humans, who are primarily cultural beings that rely on a long period of nurture?  Isn’t it culture, including the moral and religious teachings that violence and murder is wrong and charity and forgiveness are good, that steer us away from violence?  Are we not formed in some measure by the righteous modelling of people in our lives? 

Don’t we become better human beings when we are surrounded by people who wisely eschew violence and demonstrate loving kindness?  Valent’s description of a number of mass murderers, from Port Arthur’s Martin Bryant to Hitler, leaves little doubt that their pitiable early lives left large residues of resentment, misanthropy, alienation and paranoia, all of which grew into an obsession with violence. 

Does this mean that had they been recipients of healthy and loving relationships, experiences that bred positive attitudes towards others, towards themselves, and life in general, they would never have become perpetrators of mass violence? 

Paul Valent explores many aspects of violence, including war and the culture of war, where going into battle can be a euphoric experience.  In fact, it is his view that war is irrational which motivated him to explore this issue in the first place.  Join Paul Valent in conversation with me on Sept 8 at 8:00pm.

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