Violence and identity

“I wouldn’t have it any other way”

The Wild Bunch is a 1969 film directed by Sam Peckinpah (written by Peckinpah and Walon Green) [1]. Nominally a Western, it tells the story of a gang of aging outlaws in the days leading up to their last gun battle.

After a failed payroll robbery, in which more innocents are killed than combatants, five surviving outlaws make their way into Mexico, broke and dispirited. The lead outlaw, Pike Bishop, remarks to his colleague Dutch that he wants to make one last big haul and then “back off.” “Back off to what?” Dutch asks, for which there is no answer. Finally Dutch reminds Bishop “they’ll be waiting for us,” and Bishop, the eternal adventurer, replies “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

In Mexico, the Bunch, including the two Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector, and Sykes, an old man who rides with them, visit the home town of their youngest member, Angel, which has recently suffered a visit by Federal troops under General Mapache, during which anti-Huerta rebel sympathizers were rooted out and murdered. The Bunch forms an odd bond with the townsfolk, but they’re outlaws and they’re broke. Eventually they make a deal with Mapache (who is advised by Germans, eager to see Mexico allied with them in the impending war in Europe) to rob a US arms train across the border. This robbery is successful, and they return to Mexico with the stolen arms (including a machine gun) pursued, however, by a group of bounty hunters led by Deke Thorton, a former outlaw that Bishop once abandoned during a police raid on a bordello. Later ,the bounty hunters will wound Sykes, whom the Bunch will abandon to his fate.

Along the trail, Angel, a rebel sympathizer himself, has some Indian friends carry away a case of guns and another of ammunition. Angel, however, has been betrayed by the mother of a young woman he killed in a fit of anger for having run off to join Mapache’s camp followers. The outlaws complete their deal with Mapache, but surrender Angel over to Mapache.  Deciding to let Mapache deal with the bounty hunters, they return to the Army headquarters in the ruins of an old winery. However, their betrayal of Angel haunts them. After a brief period of whoring and drinking, they decide to confront Mapache and demand the return of their colleague. Mapache cuts Angel’s throat, and without hesitation Pike and Dutch shoot him down. At this point, the Bunch probably could take hostages and back off, but to what? Instead they throw themselves gleefully into a gun battle with some 200 Federales, and by taking control of the machine gun do quite a bit of damage. Eventually, however, the inevitable happens, and they end up dead, Pike shot by a young boy with a rifle.

As the surviving Federales limp out from the Army HQ, Thorton shows up. From there, he sends the bounty hunters home with the outlaws’ bodies, but remains to mourn the loss of his former friends. Sykes rides up with the rebel Indians who have saved him, and suggests Thorton join them. “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” Laughing in the face of fate, they ride off to join the revolution.

The thematic power of the film hinges on two apposite recognitions. The first is that the outlaws are bad men. They rob, they cheat, they lie, they kill without compunction. They seem to hold nothing sacred and have no respect for any ethical code.

The second recognition is that this judgment is not entirely complete or correct. They have a sense of humor and an undeniable intelligence. They are able to sympathize with the oppressed villagers in Mexico. They have a sense of being bound together, and this is what leads them to their final gun battle.

The Bunch have lived largely wretched lives. As professional outlaws, they are dedicated to acquiring wealth by criminal means, but throughout the film, it is clear that wealth offered only two things for them: prostitutes and liquor. Although Pike was once in love and thinking of settling down, and (the asexual) Dutch speaks wistfully of buying a small ranch, they are just as committed to the outlaw lifestyle as the unrepentant Gorches; they just would rather believe otherwise.

This is because they are committed to a life of violence, to the thrills of dangerous heists, of chases across the landscape of the Southwest, and of gun fights. They rob largely to support that lifestyle, not the other way around.

The finale of the film has two major points of decision, the first determining the second. The first is when Pike, dressing after sex with a prostitute, sits on the bed finishing off a bottle of tequila.  That’s his life; and with the wealth gotten from the Mapache deal, he could continue it indefinitely. In the next room, the Gorch brothers, also drunk, argue with another prostitute over the price of her services. That’s their life, too. Meanwhile, Angel is getting tortured to death for being an outlaw with a conscience. Pike slams the empty bottle to the floor, and the march into battle begins.

The second point of decision has already been remarked on.  The moment after shooting Mapache, when they might have escaped, the Bunch choose to fight instead. Why do they do it? It’s not for the money, the drinking or the prostitutes.  Is it for revenge?  No, it’s because they live for the violence, and they do so as a team, and they have reached the moment at which they can live it to its logical conclusion.

Peckinpah remarked that, for that moment to carry any weight, the outlaws needed to be humanized to the extent that the audience could sympathize with them. He was, I think largely successful. But the film has been controversial, not only because of its portrayal of violence, but because in the climactic battle Peckinpah pushes our sympathies for the Bunch beyond mere recognition of their humanity.  They become heroic, larger than life, almost epic figures, challenging fate itself, in order to realize themselves, like Achilles on the field before Troy. And oddly, while not really acting heroically, they become heroes nonetheless, remembered by the revolutionaries who benefit from their sacrifice.

As a side remark, let’s note that Peckinpah was raised in a conservative Calvinist, Presbyterian household. But, like Herman Melville a century before, he was a Calvinist who could not believe in God.  In such a universe, some are damned, but no one is saved. We only realize our destiny by not having any. The Bunch destroy any future for themselves and thus, paradoxically, achieve their destiny. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

A Soldier’s Story

The Wild Bunch is set in the last months of the Huerte dictatorship (Spring of 1914), a phase of the series of rebellions, coups d’état, and civil wars known collectively as the Mexican Revolution. [2] Officially, this revolution began with the fall of the Diaz regime and ended with the success of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but rebellions and bloodshed had already permeated the Diaz regime and continued a few years after the PRI came to power. In the official period of the revolution, casualties numbered approximately 1,000,000. When one discovers that the Federal Army only had about 200,000 men at any time, and that rebel armies counted their soldiers in the hundreds, one realizes that the majority of these casualties had to be non-combatants. Not surprisingly; the Federal Army, and some of the rebels, pursued a policy (advocated by our current US president) of family reprisal – once a rebel or a terrorist is identified, but cannot be captured or killed, his family is wiped out instead. Whole villages were massacred. Dozens of bodies would be tossed into a ditch and left to rot.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve nothing against thought-experiments that raise ethical questions, only those that limit the possible answers unjustifiably. So let us now imagine ourselves in the mind of a young Federal soldier, whose commandant has ordered him to shoot a family composed of a grandmother, a sister, a brother – the latter having atrophied legs due to polio – and the sister’s six-year-old daughter. The relevant question here is not whether or not he will do this. He will. The question is why.

This is a kind of question that rarely, if ever, appears in ethical philosophy in the Analytic tradition. It is, however, taken quite seriously in Continental philosophy. There’s a good, if uncomfortable, reason for this. Continental thinkers write in a Europe that survived the devastation of World War II and live among both the survivors of the Holocaust and the perpetrators of it. Analytic philosophers decided not to bother raising too many questions concerning Nazism or the Holocaust. Indeed, in the US, the general academic approach to events in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s has been that they constituted an aberration. Thus, even in studies of social psychology, the Nazi participants in the Holocaust are treated as examples of some sort of abnormality or test cases in extremities of assumed psychological, social, or moral norms.  This is utter nonsense. If it was true, then such slaughters would have been confined to Europe. And yet, very similar things went on in the Pacific Theater: during the Japanese invasion of China, the number of causalities is estimated as being into the tens of millions.

There were a million casualties resulting from the Turkish mass killing of the Armenians, long before the Holocaust.  There were several million victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, decades after the Holocaust.  Far from being some pscyho-social aberration, human beings  have a facility for organized cruelty and mass slaughter.

At any rate, assuming that our young Mexican soldier is not suffering from some abnormal psychology, what normative thoughts might be going through his mind as he is about to pull the trigger on the family lined up before him?

For the sake of argument, we’ll allow that he has moral intuitions, however he got them, that tell him that killing innocent people is simply wrong. But some process of thought leads him to judge otherwise; to act despite his intuition. Note that we are not engaging in psychology here and need not reflect on motivations beyond the ethical explanations he gives for his own behavior.

While not a complete listing, here are some probable thoughts he might be able to relay to us in such an explanation:

For the good of the country I joined the Army, and must obey the orders of my commanding officer.

I would be broke without the Army, and they pay me to obey such orders.

These people are Yaqui Indians, and as such are sub-human, so strictures against killing innocents do not apply.

I enjoy killing, and the current insurrection gives me a chance to do so legally.

So far, all that is explained is why the soldier either thinks personal circumstances impel him to commit the massacre or believes doing so is allowable within the context. But here are some judgments that make the matter a bit more complicated:

This is the family of a rebel, who must be taught a lesson.

Anyone contemplating rebellion must be shown where it will lead.

This family could become rebels later on. They must be stopped before that can happen.

All enemies of General Huerta/ the State/ Mexico (etc.) must be killed.

Must, must, must. One of the ethical problems of violence is that there exist a great many reasons for it, within certain circumstances, although precisely which circumstances differ considerably from culture to culture, social group to social group, and generation to generation. In fact, there has never been a politically developed society for which this has not been the case. Most obviously, we find discussions among Christians and the inheritors of Christian culture, concerning what would constitute a “just war” (which translates into “jihad” in Islamic cultures). But we need not get into the specifics of that. All states, regardless of religion, hold to two basic principles concerning the use of violence in the interests of the State: First, obviously, the right to maintain the State against external opposition; but also, secondly, the right of the State to use lethal force against perceived internal threats to the peace and stability of the community. We would like to believe that our liberal heritage has reduced our eliminated adherence to the latter principle, but we are lying to ourselves. Capital punishment is legal in the United States, and 31 states still employ it. The basic theory underlying it is quite clear: Forget revenge or protection of the community or questions of the convicted person’s responsibility – the State reserves the right to end a life deemed too troublesome to continue.

But any conception of necessary violence seriously complicates ethical consideration of violence per se. Because such conceptions are found in every culture and permeate every society – by way of teaching, the arts, laws, political debates, propaganda during wartime, etc. – it is likely that each of us has, somewhere in the back of our minds, some idea, some species of reasoning, some set of acceptable responses, cued to the notion that some circumstance somewhere, at some time, justify the use of force, even lethal force. Indeed, even committed pacifists have to undertake a great deal of soul-searching and study to recognize these reasons and uproot them, but they are unlikely ever to get them all.

Many more simply will never bother to make the effort. They are either persuaded by the arguments for necessary force, or they have been so indoctrinated into such an idea that they simply take it for granted.

Because there are several and diverse conceptions and principles of necessary violence floating around in different cultures, one can expect that this indoctrination occurs to various degrees and by various means. One problem this creates is that regardless of its origin, a given conception or principle can be extended by any given individual. So today I might believe violence is only necessary when someone attempts to rape my spouse, but tomorrow I might think it necessary if someone looks at my spouse the wrong way.

The wide variance in possible indoctrination also means a wide variety in the way such a principle can be recognized or articulated. This is especially problematic given differences in education among those of differing social classes. So among some, the indoctrination occurs largely through friends and families, and may be articulated only in the crude assertion of right – “I just had to beat her!” “I couldn’t let him disrespect me!” – while those who go through schools may express this indoctrination through well thought-out, one might say philosophical, reasoning: “Of a just war, Aquinas says…” or “Nietzsche remarks of the Ubermensch…” and so on. But we need to avoid letting such expressions, either crude or sophisticated, distract us from what is really going on here. The idea that some violence is necessary has become part of the thought process of the individual. Consequently, when the relevant presumed – and prepared-for – circumstances arise, not only will violence be enacted, but the perpetrator will have no sense of transgression in doing so. As far as he is concerned, he is not doing anything wrong, even should the violent act appear to contradict some other moral interdiction. The necessary violence has become a moral intuition and overrides other concerns. “I shouldn’t kill an innocent, but in this case, I must.”

Again, this is not psychology. After more than a century of pacifist rhetoric and institutionalized efforts to find non-violent means of “conflict resolution,” we want to say that we can take this soldier and “cure” of his violent instincts.  But, what general wants us to do that? What prosecutor, seeking the death penalty, wishes that of a juror?

The rhetoric of pacifism and the institutionalization of reasoning for non-violence is a good thing, don’t misunderstand me. But don’t let it lead us to misunderstand ourselves. There is nothing psychologically aberrant in the reasoning that leads people to justify violence, and in all societies such reasoning is inevitable. It’s part of our cultural identity.  Strangely enough, it actually strengthens our social ties, as yet another deep point of agreement between us.

Being Violent

I’m certain that, given the present intellectual climate, some readers will insist that what we have been discussing is psychology; that Evolutionary Psychology or genetics can explain this; that neuroscience can pin-point the exact location in the brain for it; that some form of psychiatry can cure us. All of which may be true (assuming that our current culture holds values closer to “the truth” than other cultures, which I doubt), but is nonetheless irrelevant. It should be clear that I’m trying to engage in a form of social ontology or what might be called historically-contingent ontology. And ethics really begins in ontology, as Aristotle understood.  We are social animals, not simply by some ethnological observation, but in the very core of our being. We just have a difficult time getting along with each other.

It’s possible to change. Beating other people up is just another way to bang our own heads against the wall; this can be recognized, and changed, so the situation isn’t hopeless. As a Buddhist, I accept the violence of my nature, but have certain means of reducing it, limiting it, and letting it go. There are other paths to that. But they can only be followed by individuals. And only individuals can effect change in their communities.

This means we have to accept the possibility that human ontology is not an a-temporal absolute, and I know there is a long bias against that, but if we are stuck with what we have always been, we are doomed.

Nonetheless, the struggle to change a society takes many years, even generations, and it is never complete. Humans are an indefinitely diverse species, with a remarkable capacity to find excuses for the most execrable and self-destructive behavior. There may come a time that humans no longer have or seek justifications for killing each other; but historically, the only universal claim we can make about violence is that we are violent by virtue of being human, and because we live in human society.



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One thought on “Violence and identity

  1. 2017 Personality 13: Existentialism via Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag – Dr. Jordan Peterson

    Published on Mar 11, 2017

    “In this lecture, I explore the dreadful socio-political consequences of the individual inauthentic life: the degeneration of society into nihilism or totalitarianism, often of the most murderous sort, employing as an example the work/death camps of the Soviet Union.”


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