A history of violence
Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza

We are living in terribly violent times. But was the past better? This is the first part of a two-part long form

  • Murder and mayhem is not a recent phenomenon  
    Photo- Bigstock

No doubt, the grim shadow of the terrorist attack at Dhaka still has all of us reeling.

Many will see this event as the latest chapter of a much grander narrative of moral decadence which so far chronicled the harrowing tale of 9/11, the brutal story of armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, and lately Syria, and the terror attack episodes that recently scarred Istanbul, Ankara, Beirut, and Brussels. Not to forget the Orlando mass shooting, the Ataturk airport attack, the truck incident in Nice, France, and many others.

In addition, the violent saga of the last century is still not quite forgotten, and the bloodshed over two devastating world wars has forever stained the pages of history.

Even at the exclusion of real world cases of violence, many have to confront it in its graphic depictions, and at times what seems like celebrations in books, TV shows, video games, and other media products.

In the face of all these, many have expressed the sentiment that we live in violent times, and things must have been better off in the past.

This is by no means an unsubstantiated statement -- a survey conducted by Bennett Haselton and the esteemed Steven Pinker presented 265 Internet users with five pairs of historical periods and asked them which they thought had higher rates of violent death.

In each case, the respondents identified the latest period present -- 20th century England rather than 14th century England, warfare in the 2000s rather than the 1950s, homicide in the US

in the 2000s rather than the 1970s, and modern Western societies instead of the days of hunter-gatherer groups as the more violent epochs, whereas

the reverse turned out to be


I am here to say that this is nothing but a fallacy, and when one gets rid of the rose-tinted lenses, one can see that there is very little to idealise about the distant past.

Prior to the sprinkling of numbers and stats, perhaps it is for the best if a cursory analysis of cultural products -- both of past and present -- are presented.

These cultural products can provide some insights into society’s mindset as they often serve as mirrors in which cultural values and ideals are reflected. Take Game of Thrones for instance.

The work of epic high fantasy penned by the now-fabled George RR Martin, along with its HBO adaption, has proven to be controversial at times, with its overdose of gore and explicit content.

Yet, people fail to realise that its unsavoury plot elements do not solely owe their origin to modern societal norms of freedom of expression, or Martin’s creative prowess.

Rather they can be attributed to the inspiration Martin took right of the pages of history (fun fact: Martin is a history buff).

Let us juxtapose two similar literary or fictional figures from the past and the present. One can argue that Hercules was to the Greeks what Superman is to us.

Both are men of extraordinary strength and have been conferred the status of a hero.

Yet, with our modern day sensibilities and attitudes, it is hard to justify the status of hero in the former’s case.

A man who happens to be so short-tempered that he clubbed his music teacher, Linus, dead for reprimanding him -- can he really be a hero?

More disturbing yet is that this act was only mentioned in passing, and has no moral significance whatsoever. Even the most celebrated acts of Hercules -- the twelve labours -- are not heroic in nature.

They were nigh impossible tasks thought up by the divinely inspired and sadistic king Eurystheus that Hercules had to complete in order to repent for killing his own family in a fit of induced rage. The jealous Hera was behind it.

If the completion of the task brought any benefit to the innocents and advocated justice, it was purely out of happenstance.

Hercules’s ordeals mostly showcased his prodigious strength.

His modern counterpoint though, the last son of Krypton, not only possesses greater strength, but adheres to a strict code of honour founded on the sanctity of life, evident in his refusal to kill even his arch-enemies, and in the fact that he lives a life of unwavering dedication to people.

Indeed, in Snyder’s darker film adaptation Man of Steel, Superman is visibly traumatised in being forced to kill General Zod, and the large-scale destruction he wrought presented a moral drama, not to mention a backlash from the fans.

Interestingly, Siegel and Shuster’s original take on this cultural icon depicted him as overly aggressive, and in the 1930s comics, he had no qualms over the harm caused by his unparalleled strength, being illustrated in throwing villainous characters in such a rough manner that it was only natural to presume that fatalities occurred.

It was only in the later versions that Superman shows consideration and care in the use of his powers.

Our preliminary analysis -- a generous term, I am aware -- in the light of all these imply that far from being more tolerant to violence, we have grown averse to it, and when we do incorporate it into works of fiction, it is in a nuanced and complex manner, done mostly to frame ethical questions rather than to glorify it.

Sometimes, violence is used for the sake of historical realism. That’s quite telling.

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