Violence
Robert Jackall
Class of 1956 Professor of Sociology and Social Thought, Williams College; HFG grantee
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This course introduces undergraduate students to the study of violence and aggression from a liberal-arts perspective. It offers a historically grounded, multidisciplinary curriculum, one that fully integrates perspectives from the humanities and the natural and social sciences. Its principal aim is to provide future men and women of affairs with broad historical and comparative frameworks within which they can begin to understand violence and its many meanings.

The phenomenon of violence deserves such a broad-based, sustained scrutiny because of its central place in human social life and culture. But for a variety of reasons, the approach to the study of violence has generally been more limited. Despite the fascination with violence evinced in humankind's ages-long representation of violent themes in art and literature, it is a phenomenon that men and women often find so disturbing that they ignore it until it bursts human relationships and social order itself. Then violence pleads for immediate solutions. But the press for practical policy remedies to curb or contain violence, freighted inevitably with moral appeals and legal sanctions, blurs a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon on its own terms. Moreover, the types, origins, and meanings of violence are extraordinarily diverse. Yet policy studies typically focus attention on narrow areas, almost always the most pressing concerns of the moment, to the neglect of other, equally important areas and often to the detriment of the accumulation of knowledge or the careful evaluation of historical experience that alone can provide deep understanding. In brief, violence itself so shocks human sensibilities that it induces, first, a kind of forgetfulness and, second, a blindered focus on problems at hand.

The liberal-arts perspective of this curriculum attempts to address these limitations. It seeks to teach students the habits of mind necessary to locate types of violence historically and to enter into alien subjective worlds to discern the meanings of violence to those who commit it and to those who suffer its consequences. Thus, the course is principally rooted in the social sciences, particularly sociology, anthropology, politics, and social psychology. But from its start, the course also exposes students to scientific inquiries in ethology, biology, and sociobiology about the primal roots of human violence, to philosophical perspectives on violence, and to reflections on humankind's fascination with violence.

The core of the course covers some key types and meanings of violence. It examines, first, institutionalized and ideological violence. It explores the meaning of war to warriors in different epochs and types of conflicts, including the catastrophic Roman loss to the Carthaginians at Cannae, the heroism of the self-immolating Japanese kamikaze, the terror and excitement of trench warfare as seen by German soldiers in the First World War, the meaning of bravery and cowardice among Americans in the Second World War, and the sexually charged imagery of front-line soldiers' reports of different conflicts. It examines the twentieth-century phenomenon of industrialized violence, focusing in particular on Nazi genocide during the Second World War and the American use of nuclear weapons against Japan. It analyzes ethnic and racial savagery from Rwanda to Sri Lanka to the United States. It looks at religiously grounded violence from the crusades and inquisitions of the middle ages to totalistic cults today. And it surveys political violence both by rulers and by subjects in revolt, from ancient Rome, to the French Revolution, to the contemporary United States, as well as the works of classical social thinkers who extol violence, such as Marx and Sorel.

Second, the course looks at some types of interpersonal violence. It explores notions of honor and the violence that emerges from the intricate meanings that human beings attach to the notion, from the world of the Iliad to the American southland. It focuses on antagonisms between the sexes, such as those in the Agamemnon, where the bitter disagreement between a man and woman about whether public duty or kin ties hold sway leads to horrifying domestic violence. The course also pays particular attention to males' violent fantasies and the role that women play in them. And it assesses different types of self-destruction, the inverse of externally directed violence.

Third, the course examines the world of criminal violence, from violence that emerges out of profound psychological disturbance, such as that described by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, to calculated occupational violence such as that endemic to the drug trade in the United States, to criminal violence in wartime. It also examines the extraordinarily rationalized punishment of such violence.

Finally, the course looks at the forces of order and peace. It explores the social structure and culture of traditionally peaceful societies. It examines the heroic actions of individuals and groups who resist oppressive social orders. It analyzes the efficacy of moral exhortation and nonviolent civil disobedience to protest and change perceived injustice. It probes the use of force and the threat of force to curtail violence. And it concludes with an appraisal of the importance of the key institutions of law and bureaucracy in underpinning the search for tolerable compromises.

Such a liberal-arts framework arms students for participation in the world of affairs. A deep understanding of the repeated patterns of human violence across epochs and societies tempers easy optimism about the efficacy of policies to remedy violence in general or even particular forms of violence. At the same time, liberal-arts attention to history, biography, social structure, and culture provides insights into human motivations for violence and its facilitating institutions that can spark the right questions, push inquiry in fruitful directions, and suggest ameliorative actions.

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