Ritualistic sacrifice, wife-beating and torture-porn were among the topics canvassed by Philip Dwyer, founding director of the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle, at the Festival’s final Curiosity lecture on Friday night.
“The central question is not what is violence, but what makes violence in any given society?” Professor Dwyer told the packed room.
The historian and acclaimed author, who has devoted much of his academic life to asking the big questions about human behaviour and our attitudes towards violence, was equipped with a PowerPoint presentation and decades of experience.
But his questions were often answered by further questions. And he quickly admitted that he did not know all the answers: “I’ve only just started tracing this global history of violence, so I might be a little ill-formed.”
This warning was unwarranted as he drew upon the historical record to challenge typical understandings of violence. “Violence is almost never senseless and irrational, most often there is a meaning or value in it,” he said.
Looking at the West’s current position on violence, Professor Dwyer noted that “our relationship with it is quite odd at the moment; there are a number of contradictory trends”.
On one hand, he was optimistic about the decreasing prevalence of violence in modern society: “Murder rates have generally speaking been in steady decline, at least since the Middle Ages.”
This has led some scholars to refer to modern times as the “peaceful” era. But Professor Dwyer notes that while social tolerance and recorded acts of violence may be declining, our fascination with it is on the rise.
“Our screens and much of our literature deals with stories about war, crime, serial killers and endless variations,” he said. “By the time a child in the US reaches 18, he or she would have witnessed more than 16,000 murders and 100,000 violent acts on television.”
Likewise, the news media is similarly “immersed in a soup” of violent imagery. “Headlines constantly report on child sexual abuse, domestic violence, alcohol-fuelled violence, war, terrorism, murder, riots.”
He asserts that such coverage heightens the view that we are living in “an unsafe and perhaps even chaotic world”.
With an illustration of a human sacrifice projected on the wall, he then took us back to 16th century Central Mexico: “The Aztecs. One of my favourite peoples of all time, because they are so fundamentally violent.”
Professor Dwyer explored the roles of perception and context as he discussed the clash of cultures between the Spanish and the Aztecs in 1519. “These were two entirely different cultures with two entirely different world views, and two entirely different attitudes towards violence,” he said.
Comparing the Aztecs’ cannibalism with Spain’s witch-burning rituals, he pointed to the subjectivity of violence – “where one considered it savage and barbaric, the other considered it an integral part of their culture and religion”.
This example was also useful in reminding us of the evolving nature of violent rituals and how they are deeply rooted in specific contexts, he said.
Whilst most people shy away from such horrors, Professor Dwyer laughs as he admits his profession requires him to embrace certain traits of a sociopath in tackling these issues head-on.
“I am able to distance myself completely from the suffering of others and I don’t take it personally,” he said. “But when it comes to animals, I just can’t do it.”
His studies are also focused on adopting a non-judgemental approach to violence, in order to conceptualise the necessary foundations for peace. “What counts is how we make sense of this violence, and figuring out why and when a shift in attitude takes place.”
Professor Dwyer is hopeful for change in violent societies, but warns that “it can only really come from within”, and that will no doubt take many generations.
“We have seen an evolution in the way we act towards violence through humanist revolutions that have taken place in the Western world,” he said. “Most of us have never experienced a violent act.”