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Bards, male violence, and a broken femur

John Michael Greer has an open thread post up on his blog this week. One of the topics, driven by recent tragic events, is violence – and, specifically, male violence. This overlaps with some of the themes of this blog, which spurs me to write something quickly – both to capture my thought processes, and to be able to put a link in a comment over there before his blog rolls over to a new week’s discussion. Since I’m writing quickly, I won’t be putting in as many links to supporting material as usual, and I want to emphasise that this is me thinking aloud and trying to form some understanding of the topic: it should not be read as my definitive views on the topic. My thinking begins with a famous broken femur.

There’s a well-known meme discussing the earliest traces of culture and civilisation. The anthropologist Margaret Mead, asked what she thought this was, is supposed to have replied that in her view it was an ancient human femur bone that had been excavated, showing that it had healed after being broken. Her comment was that this would have been impossible if the injured person had not been cared for by others, thus indicating the existence of a supportive human culture; animals do not care for their injured until they are well again.

There’s some dispute over whether Mead really did say this: only second-hand reports are available, but it doesn’t really matter. The idea is mythically true even if it isn’t historically true. They concept is valid: early humans were social creatures. They cared for their sick and injured, their young and – perhaps – their old. Caring takes time, so the carers could not fully participate in gathering food – and so they, in turn, depended on those who could.

Hunting requires strength, stamina, and the ability to rapidly apply violence. Gatherers might still be surprised by predators, and need to escape, or defend themselves and/or those in their care who could not escape. This seems to lead naturally to the concept of men developing through evolutionary pressures to specialise the physical and mental characteristics needed for hunting; women tend to have less physical strength, are less able to sprint, etc. Since the future of any community depends on its ability to produce the next generation, it also seems rational that the group’s women would be kept protected, while young men, in particular, were far more expendable.

Within each group, individuals would compete for status. We can’t know, at this distance in time, how this would have worked for them: but it seems quite natural to assume that the more an individual could contribute to the survival and prosperity of the group, and the more they exemplified the group’s values, the more status they would win. And that brings us back to the topic of violence, since the archaeological evidence seems indisputable that, for much of human history, obtaining what the group needed (and this includes young women) involved taking it forcibly from other groups. This also demands, of course, the ability to protect what the group has against other groups who want to take it.

Contemporary academic literature in human behaviour – as I’ve previously discussed here – is concluding that individual identity is to a very large extent a social construct. A child understands who they are, and how the world works, only because the community around them explains it to them. It is only later in life, with experience and acquired knowledge, that an individual can question what they have been told about the world; some people never do, either because they have no need, or because they have no opportunity – of which, more below.

The way the group views the world and acts in response – its social organisation and culture – depends on the environment in which it exists. Here, I use “environment” in its broadest possible meaning: the natural world, the economic context, social pressures – everything which impacts on the group’s ability to prosper. A group which lives in a secure and abundant environment will have different practices, and will attribute social status to different behaviours, than will a group living in a harsh, resource-poor environment. This will, of course, include views regarding men’s ability to apply their evolutionary bias towards violence. The first may have little need for it; the second, a strong need.

I’ve used the word ‘group’ a lot for a reason. Humans are social creatures; generally speaking, we need to exist within groups of other people, with whom we have ongoing relationships, if we are to be psychologically healthy. Each group, since it exists within a particular environment (again, this might mean natural, social, financial, etc), has its own particular culture, values, and approved behaviours. Being a member of a group means that the other members are our in-group. Those who do not belong, are out-groups.

Again, current scholarly literature has paid quite a lot of attention to this. In an environment of material abundance, an individual can be a member of many in-groups at the same time. Joining and leaving groups is relatively easy, and has relatively few consequences, since abundance means that security and sustenance are not connected to group membership. Transgressing the group’s values may have little real consequence, since the other members know that the transgressor can easily leave and join another group. Members of out-groups are no big deal; these other groups don’t represent any threat. The ability to be a member of many groups at a time leads the individual to reflect upon the different behaviours required within each group, and on what it is about the self that remains constant; material affluence thus tends to foster a culture of individualism.

In an environment of scarcity, however, the opposite is true. Obtaining security and sustenance is dependent on being a member of the group; being expelled from the group is a disaster, and may be fatal. In this context, the penalties for transgressing group values are very high, making conformity essential, and prioritising collective values over individual identity. Joining any other group is often impossible, and out-groups competing for the same resources may pose, or appear to pose, a real threat to the in-group’s well-being, or even survival.

This brings us back to anthropology and the archaeological record. Even in historical times, it has been noted that tribal groups around the world identify their members as “human”, and non-members as “non-human”. The sense seems to be “they look like us but they are not us, and they are not real people”. If members of out-groups cannot be considered to be real people, then no moral protections apply to them. This explains behaviours from ancient times – where human remains showing massacres and torture are quite common – to the hideous ways in which many indigenous tribes of the Americas treated captives, and up to the nightmares of the twentieth century in Europe and Asia.

The difference in behaviours between affluent and resource-poor groups also makes sense of more recent events in the twenty-first century. The educated, affluent professional managerial class, for whom group membership has weak requirements, cannot understand the attitudes of the (former) working class and lower middle classes, for whom insecurity drives a need for strong group membership, more conformity, and higher penalties for breaking group norms; they have a tendency to interpret it as moral failure, rather than being a natural and innate human response to the prevailing environment.

So why do we see  violence? We might be able to hypothesise that it is often members of groups with a need for strong in-group conformity seeking internal status by demonstrating prowess over out-groups. It may be, perhaps, that some individuals have relative affluence but, for whatever reason, have failed to gain membership of any in-groups at all. Rather than discuss outbreaks of violence as being a problem of “male violence” – as a number of comments on John Michael’s blog have done – we might do better to consider the environment, in-group memberships, and social pressures that form the context to each case.

It does seem that case can be made for saying that the greater the degree of shared values and behaviours, and thus the perception of others as in-group members, and the lower the connection between personal security and group membership, the lower the likelihood of violence against perceived outsiders.

And this brings me to one of the themes of this blog: it appears to me that the sources of affluence in western societies, including the one in which I live, are running out. Jobs, incomes, food, energy, access to public resources, all seem to becoming more difficult or more expensive to obtain. Insecurity is increasing dramatically, and is expanding to social groups for whom it is a new and frightening experience. It will be harder and harder to maintain individualism, since – given the experiences of other societies and other times – security will depend more and more on who you know, and which group you belong to. How do we manage this to avoid a descent into violent inter-group conflict? How do we establish coherent, stable groups from formerly affluent (in historical terms) individuals who have always lived in weak groups, and for whom individualism is a prime value?

This is, for me, one of the major virtues of Iolo Morganwg’s Bardism. Eighteenth-century Wales was also a time of great change and great uncertainty; for large numbers of people, of rapidly increasing insecurity. It was a time of social fragmentation: travel was extremely difficult, and had been so for centuries; even in Wales, with its shared language, people regarded different communities with suspicion. Iolo, as a scholar and antiquarian, was aware of how the ancient Druids had tried to manage inter-tribal conflict through feasting: he integrated this into his system by specifically making diplomacy and inter-group peacemaking a part of the Bard’s responsibilities.

In short, violence appears when the difference between in-group and out-group has meaningful consequences in terms of personal and group security – or when individuals lack any group membership at all. In an affluent society, the former is not significant; the latter, perhaps, when group memberships are too weak, and the human need for social relationships cannot be satisfied. In a social context where the sources of affluence are running out, there is a risk that violence will increase – either from established groups increasingly perceiving other groups as threats, or individuals, unable to join a group, perceiving everybody else as a threat.

If this is likely, then we need to find a value system, and a social structure which can satisfactorily explain the new environment and give dependable guidance on how to navigate it; which acknowledges that different groups will emerge in response to different local circumstances, having different values – but which is able to maintain sufficient interactions and shared values which maintain the view that out-groups members are “like us”, and consequently should be dealt with peacefully. I suspect that this fear is justified: one need only look back, for instance, at how the formerly prosperous Yugoslavia disintegrated into internecine savagery.

This may reflect the differing views of Hobbes and Rousseau – each of whom, of course, was correct in the context of his times and environment. In any case, it seems to be that as a system of positive values and beliefs around which to form a cohesive social group, and as a suggestion of social structures, roles, and behaviours through which to maintain inter-group peace, if not harmony, Iolo Morganwg’s Bardism has much to recommend it.

And, if you’ve got this far, I’ll just point out again that I’m writing this quickly; I’m sure that there’s much I’ve forgotten, overlooked, or not known about!

4 replies on “Bards, male violence, and a broken femur”

It reexamines and challenges a lot of our assumptions about the trade-offs in societies moving to agriculture and forming large, complex societies in light of indigenous perspectives and newer archaeological discoveries.

Liked by 1 person

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