Picking fights is just as human as taking flight

This week’s Horizon programme on violence showed that even pacifists can get a kick out of a punch-up.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

The quandary as to whether human beings are by natural predilection good or bad, peaceful or violent has tormented theologians, philosophers, anthropologists and social scientists for time immemorial. If one were to build an archetypal human being, and attempt to explain the essence of humanity to aliens, would he or she be a benign or a malevolent creature?

According to Christian belief, man is essentially fallen, a creature who has to be redeemed. Likewise, the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that were man to be left in his ‘state of nature’, his existence would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. And just as Hobbes believed the social contract would be a remedy against man’s selfish, carnal instincts, so in the twentieth century Sigmund Freud postulated that the superego was there to guard against our primeval instincts; without it we would happily murder our neighbours.

The likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his subsequent followers disagree, seeing violence as the product of a maladjusted society and environment, rather than the consequence of humanity’s essential predisposition.

I’ve never really bought into the whole ‘are humans essentially good or bad’ debate, because the answer (if we can conceive of these moral terms as concrete absolutes) is that we are clearly both. The urge to take flight is just as universal as the urge to start a fight.

This is plainly obvious when it comes to football hooliganism: everyone remembers seeing examples of football fans going on the attack on those sensationalist ‘documentaries’ on Sky, but what sticks less in the mind is the fact that opposing supporters often retreat. I am by nature one of those who will always take flight in such a situation, but even me – passive as a lamb, or to put it another way, an utter coward – was very close to violence in May 2002 when an uncharacteristic black rage descended on me during Brentford’s play-off final defeat.

On Tuesday night’s Horizon programme, How Violent Are You?, one former football hooligan told presenter Michael Portillo that fighting was his ‘heroin’ (1). The reformed thug then admitted that he had even participated in striking miners’ clashes with the police in 1984-85, even though he had no idea what he was fighting for. He just really got a buzz out of being in a punch-up.

As Portillo went on to elucidate, violence can be literally addictive. When a person is in combat, the brain releases the pleasure-enhancing drug dopamine. So when football hooligans refer to needing their next ‘fix’ of bellicosity (as they often do in those Danny Dyer and Ross Kemp programmes) they are literally telling the truth. I dare say they enjoy a similar adrenaline rush during terrace punch-ups.

Another factor which makes some people more violent than others, we were told during the Horizon programme, is maldevelopment of the pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain serves to control violent or impetuous impulses, and its underdevelopment in babies explains why they act, well, like babies. Adults who have similarly immature pre-frontal cortices are much more likely to be prone to violence – and so are those with certain types of brain injuries. Fascinatingly, and chillingly, we were told the case of a decent, peaceful man who, having been in a car crash in which his pre-frontal cortex was damaged, went home and shot his family.

So it seems that even ‘good’ people can become evil. And Portillo, presenting himself as a ‘staunch pacifist’ (this, ahem, being the man who once employed the Special Air Service motto ‘Who Dares, Wins’) wanted to know if he could be turned into an unpleasant man who was good with his fists. ‘I have never been in a fight in my life. I haven’t a violent bone in my body’, he insisted. It transpired that he could, in fact, be violent as he went on to punch a Bolivian tribesman in a ritual boxing match, an experience Portillo described as ‘quite nice’.

The engaging Horizon programme to my mind proved everything I had previously presumed about this subject: that to talk of humans as fundamentally good or bad is misleading nonsense. My only gripe was that it didn’t really address the role of social conditioning or cultural variance in shaping different societies’ constructed meanings of, and taboos around, violence. But, hey, this was a science programme after all, and it’s good to remind social scientists that who we are is not entirely fashioned by external social forces; ‘the Self’ can instead be determined by such a prosaic yet horrific incident as a car crash.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) The Horizon programme, How violent are you?, is available on BBC iplayer until 19 May.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today