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Vincent C. McDonald | On the beauty of violence

Published:Tuesday | December 20, 2016 | 12:00 AMVincent McDonald

Violence can be a beautiful thing, which is to say that acts of aggression against a person who resists can give pleasure to the senses. If not for this, action movies would lose their flavour, some of dancehall would lose its groove, and murders would lose their drive. Violence is part of the struggle of existence, the struggle to survive, but we aren't doomed to be violent.

"Those who argue through wishful thinking that the human animal is essentially placid and docile are making a dangerous error. To say that man is a hunter is not to say that man must be violent; Far from it, all it says is that he's not docile" (Desmond Morris, The Human Animal). To act violently is not uniquely a human trait; some would even say it's natural. Usually, the argument of nature is used to excuse a behaviour, but most human endeavours aren't deemed 'natural'; we subjugate nature to our own goals all the time. We drive cars, fly in planes, use cell phones, read newspapers - so what would it take us not to be violent? To go against the violent course of nature as we do with many things?

We can acknowledge violence while choosing not to act violently. Cognition (thinking) allows us this task. Because of our physiology, many of our emotional reactions are already in play before our cognition kicks in. Our brains process information in two ways. Complex emotions take the 'high road': your senses (eyes, skin, ears, nose, and mouth) send information to your cortex. The cortex is the seat of cognition. From there, information travels to your limbic system, then sends the signal back to your body, which may make you weak in the knees, have butterflies in the belly, have tears in the eyes, or grinding of the teeth.

Simple emotions take the 'low road', which is to say they need not involve thinking at all. These bypass the cortex and go straight to the limbic system. These are what we often call knee-jerk reactions, products of evolution to ensure survival in the wild. So we can think about our feelings, while the low road allows instant emotional reaction.

Being startled is an instant emotional reaction. Picking up your gun and shooting your wife is most definitely not. Our senses spur emotion, but cognition directs it. This is why watching a violent movie or listening to violent song is different from actually committing violence. Well-adjusted minds without cognitive impairments are able to better manage their emotions. We can redirect our violent urges into other behaviours, like art, rather than act them out.




A sound clash is better than a fist fight. Killing someone lyrically is better than killing him physically. The task, then, is not to deny these artistic manifestations aren't violent; they are. We must acknowledge that they are. In this acknowledgement, we can move to put our cognition to work in learning how to deal with our emotions.

Being able to cope with negative emotions is very important in reducing physical violent outbursts directed at other person(s). We so often want to revel in positive emotions. We discard and deny the reality of negative emotions. Negative emotions are essential to our survival, just as positive ones. We seek escapism from negative emotions, so much so that when we are cornered by harsh realities, we cannot handle them, and lash out violently like wild beasts. We must learn that it is as OK to be sad as it is to be happy.

Life itself does not cease to be happy when we are sad, nor does it cease to be sad when we are happy. The struggle for survival is as real as any in Jamaica, but there is beauty in the struggle. How we choose to direct our emotions is up to each of us.

We can direct our violence symbolically through art or dance in blood on the streets. Either we groove to Wayne Wonder's Saddest Day of My Life or we kill our spouses or ex-lovers. What we choose is ultimately what we value as individuals, as a society. What we promote reflects the values we are willing to uphold.

We must all be as critical of our emotions as we are of others'. May the pleasures we get from aggression against a person be channelled through our art, so we may all live to tell the tale. It is the survival of all that makes it truly beautiful.

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