Dangerous Creatures

I was sitting down with a very good friend of mine the other day for a much-needed catch-up session. He said, “My mother’s behaving better. I’m starting to think I might not have to kill her and bury her in the back yard.”

He looked down, then back up. “The sad thing is that I could.”

I just nodded. That last part wasn’t news. I’ve got a pretty good idea what my friend is capable of. It doesn’t bother me, though, except to the extent that it bothers him, because I also know the resources and creativity he applies to avoiding the violence he could unleash. I’ve seen it over the last several years that he’s been in this ugly situation.

People who understand their own violence rarely scare me. I reserve my fear for the people who think they “could never do anything like that.” That includes both the “good people” and the ones who preen and posture about how tough they are because they aren’t really sure.

People who don’t understand that they’re capable of violence don’t know:

  • Where their own personal landmines are, those triggers that turn us from the relatively sane and rational creatures we are on a day-to-day basis into creatures churning with adrenaline.
  • How to recognize situations that need to be de-escalated before the momentum of the participants makes violence inevitable, to know which arguments are headed for fights and which crowds are ready to turn into mobs.
  • How to disengage, to shut off their own impulses and egos long enough to get away.
  • How to defuse, to know when to divert someone, concede to them or otherwise manipulate a situation to make it less likely to explode.
  • How to keep their head in a violent situation and shut it down quickly with minimal damage to bystanders.

People who “aren’t like that” also don’t understand how much violence they commit on a daily basis. Damaging gossip, pointless insults, condescension, and aggressive posturing–in person or, worse, in a vehicle–all of these are behaviors that have a victim and the potential to leave lasting marks. The people I know who accept that they’re potentially violent rarely perpetrate any of these petty assaults, and never blindly. They can’t pretend, even to themselves, that these behaviors are anything but violent.

No, there are just too many good reasons to accept that we are violent creatures and to get, not comfortable, but familiar with that violence before it can come into play. This is why part of the discussions around Silence Is the Enemy confused and disturbed me greatly. The general unwillingness to consider the possibility that under certain circumstances one could be incited to rape, particularly in the face of evidence that many, many people do rape under those circumstances, feels very much to me like part of the problem.

Yes, it’s an uncomfortable thing to think about. Yes, rape is a greater taboo in our society than other kinds of assault. But refusing to look at this squarely simply means that we’re not as prepared as we should be to stop the problem before others are victimized, and it needs to stop.

Or as I said to a nice young man at the Quiche Moraine launch party (yes, really, I do this sort of thing to people), “It seems only fair. After all, I can guarantee that you don’t know any women who have never thought of themselves as potential rape victims.”

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7 Responses to “Dangerous Creatures”

  1. June 17th, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Dan J says:

    I definitely know the feeling of the very real desire to do serious physical damage to another person. The high pulse rate, the trembling, the clenched jaw… It’s actually kinda scary. I’ve never acted on it, and I know some of the triggers. Most frequently it’s triggered while I’m driving. I really do understand what’s behind “road rage”.

    I have found something that is very therapeutic for me: video games. More specifically, games like Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, and (just out this month) Prototype. It’s nice to be able to go home and turn on one of these games where I am able to act out through a simulacrum in a totally safe way. My wife enjoys the same games immensely.

  2. June 17th, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    becca says:

    It’s not just knowing yourself and your triggers- it’s knowing others. Especially for the whole “when crowds turn into mobs”. Or when groups of people allow groupthink (Us vs. Them) to perpetuate all kinds of evil. Those situations are tricky for me.

    It’s tough, too, when it doesn’t seem to be psychological-trigger-specific so much as physiological state related (i.e. patience plummets with low sleep or no food or crazy-hormones). Because it’s harder to identify patterns there, and it’s very difficult to be aware of your body when something psychologically threatening happens.

  3. June 17th, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Dan J says:

    The “when crowds turn into mobs” thing is interesting. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where there are many people gathered and you get a sort of “I really don’t want to be here” kind of feeling? It’s not easy to explain, but I suppose that’s partly because it’s based on clues that we don’t consciously think about. References to “the smell of fear” make me think about situations like that.

    I’ve gotten similar “creeped out” feelings from a couple individuals too. The situations were such that there was nothing consciously telling me that this was not a person I wanted to be alone with, but something in the back of my head (so to speak) was flashing a warning sign. It was definitely more of a “flight” response rather than a “fight” response. What I found interesting was when a female coworker mentioned the “creeped out” feeling she got from one of the same individuals. She asked me if I would stick around a few times so that she wouldn’t have to be alone with one of these guys at work. I managed to be able to stay close by whenever she needed.

  4. June 17th, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    John Swindle says:

    I felt insulted when I saw your rapist hypothesis, but there are other “not me” situations that I’ve had to admit might apply to me. I’ve seen proof of my own false memories after stating that such things would never happen. I’ve experienced road rage – another unpleasant surprise. Heck, there are parlor games designed to expose people’s ignorance of their own nature. Maybe the most we can really say about this is something like “In my present state, I couldn’t hurt anyone”. If we are forced to admit that we don’t thoroughly know ourselves, all manner of evil must be possible under certain conditions. That doesn’t mean we are okay with surrendering to it.

    I think being called a potential rapist was more offensive than being called a potential murderer because I can imagine situations in which I might kill a person, and in each of them, my hypothetical victim would have deserved it.

    It’s hard to imagine anyone deserving rape.

  5. June 17th, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    khan says:

    I tend to be non-violent. But I must confess there was a time when my mother-in-law was being particularly racist & nasty in general, & it did occur to me that I could pick her up & throw her out of the window,

    I didn’t like the feeling, & of course I didn’t do so; but I can understand the feelings.

  6. June 17th, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    to John:
    None of us “deserve” rape. Few of us “deserve” murder, and to some, no one does. That’s never the point in rape. The mind is a wonderful terrible thing, and will go to great lengths to rationalize one’s own actions and prevent all sorts of psychological discomfort. (I have my personal story to illustrate that, but it’s beside the point right now. Please just accept that I do.) Rape is about power and rage and sickness of the soul. You already understand part of that. The fact that you are unwilling to accept that there may be a yet darker side to you is something I’ll leave to your own internal monologue. I will never live inside your brain. I will never know how true that is, how permanently it may last. I do not claim to judge.

    Please don’t take offense that we females can envision that, generically, you can get to a point where you have a very real “up front and personal” understanding of the rest of it. Halleluia for both of us if you remain in the civilized part of your brain while whatever else is going on provokes you to stray out of it. We do not mean to offend, but that concern is not the important part of the discussion. The important part is self-defense, meaning constant awareness, and we won’t/can’t stop just to save someone’s feelings. Much more is at stake here, for us.

  7. June 17th, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    John Swindle says:

    to a daughter’s mother
    I suppose I could have been more clear. I said I do not like the possibility that I could do something horrible to another human. I will not trivialize anyone’s pain by saying that such a thing is impossible. What I hope to make clearer is this: since we don’t thoroughly know ourselves, we can’t say with certainty “I would never do a thing like that”. We can strive to be civilized.
    You seem to think i disagree with your position. I think you misread my post.

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