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Human violence: understanding it; ending it

By Robert Burrowes - posted Thursday, 10 October 2013

Violence is the most pervasive and destructive human problem of them all.

It has been present for as long as history records. We are mired in it, all over the world, every day of our lives. It now threatens to obliterate us from the historical record within decades, if not sooner.

What is violence? Let me define this phenomenon more precisely so that we might tackle it more effectively.


Violence is social interference in the genetically programmed feelings, thoughts, sensing and/or behavior of another organism. It might be inflicted by an individual or an institution.

All direct violence inflicted by individuals is a dysfunctional attempt to get attention for something they need including, especially, the need for attention itself, although this need remains unconscious to them. Violence includes all forms of controlling behavior such as, for example, that exercised by those in authoritative positions including political leaders, military officers, business/bureaucratic managers, teachers, parents and slavemasters. Violence is simply an extreme form of attention-seeking behavior for those individuals who are no longer able to pay attention to themselves. Controlling or directing a subordinate becomes a perverse way of getting attention for oneself and those adults in subordinate positions themselves will invariably find someone else, especially children, to control.

During childhood, each child is subjected to an endless and terrifying onslaught of violence. Most of this violence is 'invisible' in the sense that it would not normally be considered violent. Examples of invisible violence include not listening to or trusting a child, requiring its obedience, as well as lying to, bribing, insulting and humiliating it. But it gets worse than this. The onslaught of invisible violence is compounded by the 'utterly invisible' violence of terrorizing the child out of having its feelings in response to this violence; for example, by comforting or distracting a child that is crying, reassuring a child that is scared, and frightening a child out of being angry. See Why Violence?  The child ends up frightened to pay attention to itself and trained to pay inappropriate attention to others.

The combined outcome of all of this violence leaves the child with a lifetime legacy of suppressed fear which has a disastrous impact on the intellectual and emotional capacities of the individual and, therefore, the behavior that is driven by these. These outcomes include the fact that the individual is made substantially less intelligent that it would have been otherwise.

Let me illustrate this point with an everyday example. The overwhelming evidence, which is readily available to anyone who seeks it, clearly indicates that ecological sustainability and human health are most effectively nurtured by a diet of organically or biodynamically grown, fresh, whole (unprocessed) vegetarian food that is healthily prepared and consumed in modest quantities. However, most 'industrialized' human beings, including those who are supposedly 'intelligent', eat processed food-like substances that fall well outside these parameters.

Why does fear prevent an 'intelligent' individual acting on sound evidence? There are many reasons. First, fear distorts sensory perception; for example, taste buds become addicted to sweet, salty and/or fatty foods. Second, fear interferes with analytical capacity, skewing the individual's judgment away from 'unpalatable' conclusions. Third, fear generates compulsive behaviors (including addictions and other eating disorders) that are extremely difficult to break and which cannot be broken by intellectual effort alone. And fourth, fear interferes with emotional and physical responses that signal damaging behavior; for example, substances like milk, coffee, cola drinks, alcohol and tobacco have a soothing or stimulating effect which overrides feelings and physical sensations that signal their damaging impact.


More profoundly, this invisible and utterly invisible violence, and the monumental unconscious fear that it generates, interferes with other emotional responses in ways that are devastating for the individual, society and the Earth. For example, anger is the quality, given to the individual by evolution, for communicating to the individual that it is being threatened or attacked in some way (whether by a more 'subtle' abuse or in an explicitly violent manner), while also giving it the power to respond to this threat/attack. The individual who is not afraid to be angry, will respond immediately, powerfully and, in virtually all cases, nonviolently to this threat or attack, warding off the attacking individual, for example, simply by clearly showing their anger (which is a defense in itself).

In contrast, the individual who is afraid to be angry will either retreat inappropriately, use violence to 'counter-attack' (including in situations in which the 'threat' or 'attack' is actually an outcome of their own projection) or subsequently engage in vicarious and powerless acts of rebellion or interference.

What is a powerless act of rebellion? It is an act that is harmful to themselves, others and/or the Earth that is done in a way that allows the individual to either avoid responsibility (as would occur, for example, by dropping an item of rubbish or by starting a wildfire where no one will see them) or to delude themselves that they will not be held accountable (as occurs, for example, when someone pretends there is no connection between their unhealthy diet and their ill-health).

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About the Author

Robert has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach, State University of New York Press, 1996. His email address is and his personal website is at

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