The Many Forms of Human Violence

Moniz Receives Nobel PrizeFor those of you who only follow my blog because of your interest in what I have to say about animals (the vast majority of you), consider for a moment that anything to do with our species is a comment about animals, not just because we too are animals, but because, alas, alas, alas, we, and only we, are the most deadly and most inventively deadly animal on the planet. Until this is widely discussed and researched, it will not be explained, and until it is explained, we cannot expect any kind of solution to present itself. So I am treading here on sacred ground.

Because I am reading (and disagreeing) with Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, I find myself thinking that violence is one of those words that can mean many different things to many different people. You could make a case that violence has declined, if and only if you use a narrow definition of violence. For example, Pinker states that second world war was followed by over 40 years of peace in North America and Europe, and that “Today we take it for granted that war happens in smaller, poorer and more backward countries,” (This tone is, by the way, typical of the whole book, smug, self-congratulating, and faintly racist).

But unlike Pinker, I am more concerned with the essence of violence, and for me, violence is very broad. I am especially concerned with comparing violence in our species to violence in other species, and the results of the discrepancy have appalled me. Especially when you consider hidden violence, that is, things we don’t usually consider under the topic of violence.

I want to say just a few words about two of these that have recently caught my attention. One is what I will call…actually, you know what? Let me not call it anything, and simply describe it as the violence caused to somebody’s mental state by telling them something completely untrue. The book The Secret is an example, and from an earlier time, so is The Fountainhead and all of Ayn Rand’s works and essays, and the ideas in just about any cult, which are then disseminated to members as the truth, also function in this way. I have written about a rather benign version of this (compared to so many others) in my book My Father’s Guru. There are endless examples. For example, the woman who “when I mentioned how I was struggling to come to terms with my mother’s death, she (the Guru figure) asked why I “chose” to come down to a mother who would die. Some of these fraudulent gurus go so far as to claim that everyone who died on 9/11 “called death into their lives.” This form of blaming the murdered for their own deaths is a form of intellectual violence.

I have long been interested in psychiatric violence, which I define probably more broadly than just about anyone else, because in my view, almost everything psychiatrists do is a form of violence, that is, imposing untrue beliefs on people. (I know you think this is a completely outrageous thing to say. I have tried to argue it more academically in a series of books, beginning with The Assault on Truth, Final Analysis, A Dark Science, and Against therapy).

But for the moment, stop to think of the horror that is lobotomy. I still cannot wrap my mind around the fact that Egas Moniz won the Nobel Prize his “discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses, ” to use the exact words of the Nobel Committee when it awarded him the prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1949. Stop to consider how noble it was that a psychiatrist, of all people, wrote the one book categorically opposed to Lobotomies, Peter Breggin, Brain-Disabling Treatments in Psychiatry – you also have to admire Thomas Szasz another psychiatrist who has gone on record over many years documenting his disgust with this and other “somatic” therapies.

Think of the many tragedies of lobotomies: Tennessee Williams’ older sister, Rose, the sensitive, delicate heroine of The Glass Menagerie and Suddenly Last Summer, was destroyed by such an operation in 1943, which left Tennessee Williams guilty for the rest of his life for not stopping it. Rosemary Kennedy, the brother of president J.F. Kennedy, was forced to have a lobotomy by her father Joseph Kennedy when she was 23, in 1941, and lived for the rest of her life in an institution. Her father never visited her. One wonders whether it is possible that he abused her and wanted her out of the way. Speculation, true, but I know this happens with ECT (the very best book ever written against psychiatry, Janet Gotkin’s Too Much Anger Too Many Tears alleges this very thing.

Perhaps the most shocking case of all is Howard Dully who in 1960 when he was 12 years old (!) was brought in for a lobotomy because his stepmother said he was “unbelievably defiant,” engages in a “good deal of daydreaming,” and “objects to going to bed.” In 2005 he published an extraordinary account: My Lobotomy, which should be required reading of every psychiatrist.

These are just a few examples of what must come under the category of human violence if we truly wish to understand its extent and its causes. We must not be afraid to include whatever can destroy another human being, and we must remain open, and sensitive to the myriad ways that sadism manifests itself in our sad species.

Look around: Do we see anything even remotely resembling this kind of violence among other animals? Does this not cry out for explanation?


About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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10 Responses to The Many Forms of Human Violence

  1. I have to add something to my own blog: The violence can be unacknowledged, it can be denied, it can be disguised, it can be disavowed. Is it any less real for the victim? No. Consider slaughterhouses: Most people do not consider what goes on inside them as violence. It is. Soulless, hideous murder, no what how little it is acknowledged. “I don’t even think about it. It is not even on my radar,” people have said to me. Does that make the death of the animal any less real? Each and every one of the millions killed every day around the world die an agonizing horrific death filled with trauma, terror and unimaginable suffering. YOUR knowledge or lack thereof is not important.

    • carole says:

      How can I inspire people to become interested in vegetarianism/veganism is my question.
      Regarding initial blog…while humans may be the most deadly…we can also be killed by natural phenomena and other “animals”. But human cruelty is devastating.
      And the animals that are eaten are mostly herbivores, lambs and calves for example who harm noone.
      And I guess you meant, Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of JFKennedy?

      • Thank you for pointing out the typo: Rosemary Kennedy was of course the sister of JF Kennedy, not his brother! Odd, as you say, that we eat only animals who pose no harm to us! In fact, though, very few animals consider us prey, if any. We are the apex predator on the planet, and not for good! Jeff

  2. Patty Bowers says:

    SO TRUE!
    Everyone, PLEASE do NOT eat animals!
    Patty Bowers

  3. So true that humans are “inventively deadly”–such a dead-on phrase that describes the cruelty and vicious behavior that the human animal is capable of. Other species may kill each other, but not “inventively” so–the carnivores seek out and kill prey in order to feed themselves for survival. No non-human carnivorous animal would devise torture before killing–only the human devises such torture as pulling out fingernails/toenails, drawing & quartering, dousing another with acid–and such tortures as this they inflict on their own species, to say nothing of the horrific cruelty they inflict on the non-human animals.

  4. “There are endless examples.”

    Perhaps the examples are endless because “something completely untrue” is an inanely subjective category that can include anything you don’t like or agree with, and which commits the same deadly sin– arrogation of truth– that makes psychiatry and any ideology deadly. And I say this as a psychiatric survivor, who rejected psychiatry not because it was “completely untrue”, but only because it was not nearly completely true.

  5. wildwoman says:

    Hola Jeff,what a pleasure to read your comment about thr biggest question on human violence,I am reading now the amazing work of Rien Eisler …it seems that once upon the time,there was an peaceful era,when the people lived togheter without violence for more than 15.000 years,so who are we ? It is our nature to be the planet killers or it is a cultural phenomena…I want to know your opinion,by the way yor books about psiquiatrics are in the list of the ones that is necessary to read,,Happy,happy New Years for you and your loves ones.

  6. Curious, I was just now returning to comment that “voluntary human extinction” is another remarkable omission from his list of obsessions posted a while back.

  7. dan says:

    These kinds of crimes against humanity happen all too often in the psychotherapy/ clinical psychology world, as well. It would be wonderful to see a piece on this topic, as well.

    Thank you.

  8. anon says:

    The violence that’s condoned today in the name of mental health is unconscionable.

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