New Worlds: Interpersonal Violence

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Watching the news, it’s easy to get the impression that we live in extremely violent times.

Certainly some kinds of violence are all too characteristic of our modern society. In the United States, mass shootings are appallingly common, thanks to a confluence of factors: widespread ownership of powerful firearms, aggrieved ideologies, and so forth. You didn’t see those as much fifty years ago in part because fewer people owned the means to kill lots of victims very rapidly; you didn’t see them five hundred years ago because those means didn’t exist. (Cannons are not the kind of thing one can easily haul down to the village green to express one’s grievances in the blood of one’s neighbors.)

But that isn’t the same as saying that people didn’t murder each other as often in the past. Or assault each other, or rape each other, or abuse each other in various ways. Overall, the world has actually become a much less violent place.

Mind you, there’s a bit of guesswork involved in that. We don’t exactly have rigorous statistics for the rates of violent crime going back hundreds or thousands of years. When we look at the evidence we have, though, the picture is pretty clear: we don’t hurt each other on a daily basis as much as we used to. Especially once you factor in the things that wouldn’t have been considered “crime” in the past, like torture, physical punishment, or drunken brawls that are just a normal Friday night.

Though it depends on what you think of when I say “the past.” If you go all the way back to the early days of agriculture, you’ll see an interesting picture: when people begin settling down to farm, the evidence for interpersonal violence goes up, compared to the hunter-gatherer societies before them. (We see this in certain kinds of injuries, like the very characteristic forearm fracture that happens when you’re trying to ward off a blow.) Nomadic peoples can get into conflicts, of course — I’m not trying to sell the idea that this lifestyle is idyllic and harmonious. Groups absolutely can and do fight each other over access to resources; individuals absolutely can and do have it out with the people around them. But they also have the ability to deal with conflict by just . . . leaving. Going to join another group, or if it’s the whole group in conflict, splitting in two. Sedentary people have much more to lose if they abandon their place. So they stick around, and they fight.

How much they fight gets affected by other circumstances. In a large population like a city, the people around you may be strangers, which cuts both ways; you have less interaction to make you angry with them, but also less fellow-feeling to stay your hand when you do get angry. In a small village of a few hundred people, you probably know or at least recognize everybody there, which means you share lots of social connections. Which again cuts both ways: those connections can increase feelings of mutuality and obligation, or at least create a pool of people with incentive to step in and help the two of you work out alternate resolutions. On the other hand, anybody who’s experienced domestic violence of some kind knows that connections are no guarantee of safety.

Domestic violence points toward a second relevant circumstance. Whether the one abused is a child, a wife, or an elder in need of care, there is almost always a power imbalance that favors the abuser, legitimizing their actions as simply the proper order of things. If ideology gives the paterfamilias strong authority over his household, then who can intervene when he beats those under his rule? Who will even think to, given that he’s only exercising his natural rights as the one in charge? Meanwhile, his victims lack the resources and support necessary to escape their situation.

And that brings us to a third aspect here, which is the question of who has the right to exercise violent power.

This, I think, is really the crux of the change over time. While violence is not the only kind of power in human society, it’s certainly a significant one. States have a vested interest in controlling who has the capacity to wage war, i.e. commit violence on a mass scale; that’s something we’ll look at more in the future. Right now, my focus is on interpersonal violence, the harm individuals inflict on each other. (Physical, bloody harm in particular — not the metaphorical sort.) Over time, there have been some changes in our capacity to hurt each other, like the availability and effectiveness of weapons, or the training in how to use them. But the much bigger shift has been in our attitude toward the proper use of violence.

Basically, the trend has been — not always, and not everywhere at once, but in general — away from violence as a tool that everybody has the right to use, and away from the notion that it’s the right tool for the situation. In the absence of a strong legal system, then often your only recourse when somebody trespasses on your land or steals your property or otherwise commits an offense is to go after them physically. But if you’ve got that legal system, whether it’s formal and national (courts as we think of them now) or informal and local (a council of village elders who adjudicate disputes), then other options become possible. Public apologies, fines, incarceration — all the punishments we discussed in Year Four, that can’t easily be arranged by an individual acting off their own bat.

We like having those options because, frankly, violence is scary and dangerous. Some types of people enjoy it and have confidence in their ability to win, but most of us? We’d rather not risk getting our heads bashed in. Cats are highly territorial, but they’ll shape their territories to avoid having to fight a neighbor, because getting into a fight is a perilous proposition. Humans have, over the millennia, shown a general trend toward creating systems that let us resolve problems without bloodshed, toward saying that violence is not a god-given right for an individual to use at their discretion, but something to be exercised only by duly licensed personnel in its proper situation.

From a worldbuilding perspective, then, how common interpersonal violence will be depends hugely on the society it takes place in. How easily can people walk away from problems? How unequal are members of that society, such that some of them hold violent authority and the others can’t escape it? How strong are the institutions that give them alternatives to violence? Certain types of speculative fiction, especially those influenced by games, take for granted the notion that main characters can, will, and even should be fighting on a regular basis, solving their problems with blood. But if you’re going to write one of those, don’t just do it reflexively: think about what that means for the society, and what effects it’s going to have.

We haven’t perfected our non-violent answers to problems, not by a long shot. The duly licensed personnel may abuse their power; the punishments levied may have no meaningful effect. Most of the world’s population now lives in cities, where close quarters and a lack of strong community bonds give us lots of opportunities to get angry at each other and not much reason to hold that anger back, and we still have a lot of inequality. We are very far away from the kind of science-fictional utopia where violence is a truly shocking anomaly.

But to somebody five hundred years ago, or five thousand, we might very well pass for that science-fictional utopia.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Interpersonal Violence — 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Interpersonal Violence - Swan Tower

  2. I recently re-learned that US cities were safer than US suburbs, if you combine murder and traffic deaths… in 1996, near the peak of murder rates; even more so now.

    • But our perception is that cities are scarier and more dangerous, and our hindbrains respond very badly to stats in the face of gut feeling.

      • Some of the worst violence happens in small towns and the rural areas. I remember a case in my father’s parish — about 200 people in the town, more scattered around the farms and that — where the 14-year-old daughter of one of his parishioners was raped and murdered — she’d been missing for several days before they found her body. Of course my dad, being her minister, counseled and consoled her.

        The murderer turned out to be the son of another parishioner. His mother said to my father, about the girl’s mother, “She was my best friend. She’ll never speak to me again.” And she was right. They both sat in church, went to church events, served on different church committees.

        Of course my dad visited the boy in jail. I asked him if he’d ever asked the young man whether or not he’d done it, and Dad said no, of course not. If the young man wanted to tell him, he would. But the young man — he really wasn’t a boy, he was 20 or 21, I think — deserved the same counseling as any other parishioner.

        People have such rosy views of small towns, for the most part. But there’s just as much violence, as you said. Its causes are just hidden a little deeper.

  3. Thanks, Marie. Good historical perspective, as usual. Despite recent outrages and mass violence, we do seem to be evolving away from “might makes right.”