If there is an election campaign going on where you are, chances are that passions are galloping like unruly horses. Everywhere, it seems, self-command is under threat. The very air is thick with the clang of contention. The airwaves are clogged with clashing adverts and points of view. Supporters of rival political parties and candidates move from despair to euphoria and back again. Nerves are wrought; blood pressure levels rise; panic attacks spread like viruses. Suddenly, everybody is an interpreter of opinion polls, of likely voters, registered voters, swing voters, independents, firm partisans, and all the subtle distinctions foisted on us by political communication experts for whom elections have become seasons to fatten up.
Living in Washington DC, and observing the interminable and furiously intense US presidential elections, my mind went back to a seminal study that I read earlier this year. I refer to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Pinker’s thesis is that over the long arc of human history brutal practices have declined. He amasses impressive historical and scientific evidence to back up his position. But when I read the book, the tussle over whether or not human societies are less violent on the whole is not what impressed me. Rather, I was far more interested in Chapters 8 and 9. Pinker’s argument is that the scientific evidence shows that we have things that drive us to be good to other human beings. These things he calls the better angels of our nature, namely: Empathy, Self-control, Morality and Taboo, and Reason. But we human beings also have our dark side, the things that make us kill, torture and main our fellows with amazing facility. He calls these things our inner demons, namely: Organs of Violence (like the Rage Circuit in our brains), Predation, Dominance, Revenge, Sadism, and Ideology. Notice the role of Ideology? As you can imagine, the chapter on our inner demons is far more interesting than the chapter on the better angels of our nature. Hey, wickedness fascinates.
The inner demon relevant to elections is Dominance. We know, and the evidence amassed by Pinker makes it clear, that human beings – especially, and mainly, men – engage in a variety of contests for dominance. And when we do so violence is just round the corner. Bar room or beer parlor fights are usually contests for dominance: ‘Don’t look at my woman!’ ‘Don’t mess with me or I will bust your face!’ We know what usually follows. Men are violent and the scientists quoted by Pinker suggest that the testosterone in men ‘does not make men more aggressive across the board, but prepares them for a challenge of dominance.’ [Page 518]. Two key quotes:
In men, testosterone levels rise in the presence of an attractive female and in anticipation of competition with other men, such as in sports. Once a match has begun, testosterone rises even more, and when the match has been decided, testosterone continues to rise in the winner but not in the loser. Men who have higher levels of testosterone play more aggressively, have angrier faces during competition, smile less often, and have firmer handshakes. [Page 518].
Loyalty to groups in competition, such as sports teams or political parties encourages us to play out our instinct for dominance vicariously….Men’s testosterone level rises when their team defeats a rival in a game, just as it rises when they personally defeat a rival in a wrestling match or in singles tennis. It also rises or falls when a favored political candidate wins or loses an election…The dark side of our communal feelings is a desire for our own group to dominate another group, no matter how we feel about its members as individuals.’[Page 522].
All this is why in so many parts of the world violence during elections is so common, and so many lives are, sadly, lost. Something dark and ugly bristles within us during elections. We not only want to defeat the other side; we want to smash them. Supporters ask leaders for ‘red meat’: they want their champion to beat up the champion of the other side so much that, figuratively, his face is bloodied after the contest. And in many parts of the world, political parties have to have their muscular ‘youth wings’, mainly thugs. Their job is to do what is necessary to win the election, whatever they can get away with in the particular political context. But make no mistake: even in the advanced democracies elections are contests for dominance, testosterone levels rise in the men around you, and with it the risk of sudden explosions of violence. Arguments with rival partisans are not advisable at this time.
In other words, wherever you are, be careful out there as you get ready to vote.
Photo Credit: NonViolencePeaceforce.org