Violence has sides. Obviously, violence used by one person on another establishes an aggressor and a recipient. However, this is the most simplistic, and least frequent type of violence. In most violent situations the initiator and the performer of a violent act are separate. One person expresses offence or provides some motivation, and somebody else commits violence in response, or on the first person’s behalf. This happens everywhere from interpersonal relationships to world war.
There is a relationship between the initiation of violence, and it’s cost in hazard, injury and mortality to those who practice it. But this is a cost borne by the actuators of violence, and setting aside precept of a golden rule, it is the cost of violence which informs ethical repugnance to it. There is an argument to be made that only those who directly experience it’s cost can be consciously moral human beings.
One of the great shames of human culture has been the proxy utilization of human beings to murder and brutalize one another by bankers, politicians and other elites in war, including women. As the First World War ground onward, young men were increasingly unwilling to die in the freezing mud of foreign trenches. To overcome their reluctance to get killed in benefit of hereditary elites and royals, The British high command under Admiral Charles Fitzgerald organized groups of women to help “convince” the men of Britain to enlist. That is, to kill and to die on behalf of their social betters.
Using public humiliation, the objective of these groups was to shame civilian men into joining the armed services. Women handed out white feathers to any man not in uniform. “The feathers were intended as a badge of disgrace, branding the men who received them as cowards” The Order of the White Feather and their recruiting methods quickly spread across Britain. Women of all backgrounds contributed their influence to the war effort.” (Gullace, “White Feathers” 178)
These women saw no hypocrisy in using their social power to compel men’s participation in a distant foreign war between obsolete monarchies. Of course, those women were held exempt from participation in the brutal business of trench warfare, death from dysentery, malnourishment, freezing to death, or dying on the business end of a bayonet.
The cost of joining up to do your manly duty wasn’t to be carried by the women compelling those men, so there was precious little aversion to enthusiastic support for a squabble between royals. This demonstrated the conceptual disconnection between initiation of the use of violence and it’s direct consequence to the actuators of that violence. To women shaming men by awarding them white feathers, the prospect of death in a foreign, mud filled ditch was an abstract consequence without any personal reality.
The connection between initiation and performance of violence – which in the case of a war is deadly violence – was missing for the women of the white feather campaigns of the first world war. Consequently, there was no moral repugnance towards their proxy initiation of deadly, murderous, and ultimately futile violence. This is what happens in human beings when initiation of violence is distanced from actuation of violence, when the hazard is carried by somebody else. Human ethics do not exist in a vacuum, they are directly connected to the economy of consequence and hazard.
We might like to convince ourselves we are ethical humans based on some pure, logical formulation of reason. But this is a conceit, because while some individuals are capable of the adult cognitive/emotive skill we call empathy, that is, fully modeling the experiences of others, a great many adults demonstrate no capacity for adult empathy. Whether this failure is socialized or innate is beyond the scope of this discussion. The conceit, for most people, is evidenced by the minimal public outrage over the routine killing of foreign civilians by military contractors employed by the US State department in overseas military adventure.
Rather than American military personnel, the use of contractors is a further displacement between force’s initiation and its execution. Taken a step further, the United States now regularly uses remote control drones to kill foreigners, whether they’re soldiers or civilians, turning the experience of killing into something reminiscent of a video game. The Obama administration, satisfied that sufficient distance between initiation and effect exists in the public eye, re-classified foreign male civilians as combatants, rendering their deaths through proxy of the American public inconsequential.
In the once removed murder of modern technological warfare, female civilian deaths still matter, of course. However, now that male civilians are officially designated as combatants, and thus, their murders rendered palatable – how difficult is the re-classification of females – as the only humans whose deaths matter – when killed to be counted as male. After all, it all just accountancy. They weren’t women and children, they were insurgents. Just as men who die in coal mines are not men, but miners, their humanity hidden behind a job title.
And the great separation between the initiation of violence, and it’s cost in corpses – means that as a society we increasingly see it as palatable. That is, when we see it in our mind’s eye at all.
Of course, 5 decades ago, science fiction writers dreamed of modern computer and robot reliant societies, and speculated that advances in human technology would provide great benefit by removing the need for murders of millions we call war. Stanislaw Lem wrote about a society in which modern robotics and computers had advanced to such a degree that wars were fought robotically on uninhabited planets – and the attendant human misery, mutilation and killing we now hide from ourselves now was unnecessary and obsolete.
We are in that future now, and rather than having done away with the large scale use of violence in domestic as well as foreign policy, we use our technology to put that violence at arms length, out of sight – distancing initiation from effect and hiding the cost from ourselves.
If you kill a person by remote control, far from where you can see him die, or hear his family mourning, or hear the explosion as your elected representatives uses a drone to kill his friends and family at his funeral, are you still killing that person? Yes, but it’s very easy to hide that from yourself. However, stepping away from the business of killing, lesser violence may be an even greater problem, simply because it is less obvious and gets a pass from those who it benefits.
In May of 2012, members of National Nurses Union demonstrated in public, demanding that theft be used against people other than themselves, and the proceeds of that organized theft be used to satisfy the nurses’ demands for pay increases and other benefits. Of course the rhetoric used by the demonstrating nurses used an imperative to tax ( as opposed to steal from ) people other than themselves on financial transactions over $ 100, and then pay that money to the nurses. Some people might complain at this characterization, that taxation is not the same as theft. However, those people wouldn’t be members of the nurses union, whose recognition is evident by naming their preferred plan for theft a “Robin Hood Tax”.
That’s right, Robin Hood, the thief and bandit from British folk literature. You with the guns, jails, police and ability to write laws, go steal from other people and give it to us. And the guys with guns, jails and legislators will be only too happy to steal that money on behalf of others, because that’s the business they’re in, taking a cut from every act of theft before handing that stolen money over to whoever it’s supposedly for. But those nurses who are a hair’s breadth from coming right out and saying “we want organized criminals to steal from other people and give us the proceeds” still cling to an illusion that they aren’t actually advocating armed robbery, because by having the proxy of a huge bureaucracy to conduct that thievery and violence on their behalf, they’re able to operate in pseudo-denial.
However, that denial is only partial, as they’ve chosen to call the plan they’re pushing after the name of a fictional thief. Also, it’s not the starving poor of folk tales the proceeds of that theft are to be given to, it’s the job-secure fat and pampered employees of a national union.
But this is proxy violence – right out in the open, self identified in the rhetoric of those pushing it. And by the remove between the initiators of it and the actuators of it, this time in the form of a huge sprawling bureaucracy, that distance is what facilitates a pathological public ethic of violence and theft. All the rationalization in the world can’t change that the nurses union is campaigning in favour of armed theft to benefit themselves.
So what is the difference between this, and the proxy use of lethal force in places like Pakistan. Where, rather than armed robbery by bureaucratic proxy, is remote control murder used with such facility? At first this is only used against the most dangerous boogiemen – such as the “leaders of terrorist cells”. Then it is used to murder the friends and associates of those boogiemen. Then those remote control drones used to murder their brothers, in-laws, wives, and children at their funerals.
Now those drones are deployed in the United States, to enforce the law; law, of course, being nothing but an opinion with a gun behind it. But don’t worry, because they’re being run by the very good, very ethical very moral people you elected to represent you. And those people are good, and the easy, remote control, proxy separation between the initiation of force, and it’s enactment by a construction of servos and software – that will never be used to hurt you. Or at least, if it’s used, you can be sure the report will note that you were a very dangerous menace, perhaps an unlawful combatant, or whatever new euphemism is dreamed up to hide the fact that you or your loves ones might be murdered by remote control.
And the increasing distance of proxy between the initiation of violence and it’s execution is not now and never will be the practical facilitation, enabling of a truly malevolent psychosis, or of practical evil.
Human ethics don’t grow out of a vacuum. They are now and always have been tied directly to the practical motivation to limit risk to ourselves. We did not evolve in a world where software enabled our choices to kill to be expressed hundreds of miles away by other people whose names we don’t know, or by robots.
If we don’t keep an awareness of this, we find ourselves in a public ethic where human life is disposable, based on how well designed the software interface for killing us is. And the word for this ethic is straight out of our oldest, most atavistic religions.