Is Violence a Necessary Component of Social Change?

Is Violence a Necessary Component of Social Change?

I just finished William C. Kashatus’s biography of William Still, an African American abolitionist from Philadelphia who was a key figure as part of the Underground Rail Road. Something very surprising from the book was that Philadelphia had segregated streetcars in the 1860s that the city’s black population fought against. A full century before blacks fought to desegregate busses in the American South, Philadelphia was experiencing a fight for equality on public/private transit systems. In both cases, in the 1860’s and 1960’s, the social movements for racial equality focused on transit lead to violent protests. Couple the violence from those movements with the violence from recent Black Lives Matter protests and it seems fair to ask, can social change be achieved without violence?
 
 
I don’t want to focus only on black protests turning violent. An irrational mob of primarily white people attacked the National Capital on January 6th, 2020 after Donald Trump lost his re-election bid. The group was fighting for social change (not a social change that I would support – they wanted to reinstate a racist, moronic, demagogue as president against the principals of our democracy). Had the group succeeded we would have experienced a tectonic shift in our social and political system. This is in line with a theory that Yuval Noah Harari presents in his book Sapiens. He writes, “just as geologists expect that tectonic movements will result in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so might we expect that drastic social movements will result in bloody outbursts of violence.” The idea is that any major social change will involve violence. Whether it is an attempt to overthrow the American electoral system or to desegregate public transit, violence seems to be part of the system.
 
 
But is this accurate or just a misleading perception? I would argue, and despite the quote above I think Harari would support this argument, that violence is not actually a necessary component of major social change. Our perception of increasing violence is likely just due to biases in our thinking. We don’t consider the changes that have occurred without violence because they are not memorable and don’t receive the same media attention. Social changes attached to violence are much more memorable and much more likely to get news coverage and attention than social changes that are not accompanied by violence. 
 
 
In the last decade in the United States there have been three major social changes that I can think of that haven’t involved any violence but could dramatically change our culture. I can even imagine a world where violence was employed in an attempt to reach the outcomes we have reached without violence. These three issues are gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and reductions in teen pregnancies and sex.
 
 
In a decade, the United States went from violence and vitriol around gay marriage to celebrating or passively accepting gay marriage. There has been violence against many individuals, but no major explosions of violence by pro- or anti-gay marriage advocates. Views simply shifted very quickly among the population in a short period of time.
 
 
The same has happened for marijuana legalization. A drug that has been unreasonably attacked and tied to racial fear and discrimination is gaining popularity and becoming decriminalized across the country. In a short span, the drug has gone from being a pure evil to something Snoop Dogg and Martha Stuart can discuss live on TV (I don’t know if they have discussed marijuana live on TV, but they do have a business partnership).
 
 
Teen pregnancies are also decreasing, as are rates of  teen sex. It isn’t obvious that these changes in teenage sexual behavior are taking place, and it isn’t clear why. In the past, teen sex has been harshly regulated and fought against, with young teen girls in particular facing sharp penalties which could include violence against their minds and bodies. Today, teen sex and pregnancy rates are declining while violence employed against young people is also declining (I know some young boys and girls experience sexual violence and physical violence related to sex, but there is no nationwide campaign of violence against teen sex) and many schools are being legally prevented from using violence as a punishment for children.
 
 
As Harari also writes in Sapiens, “the tectonic plates of history are moving at a frantic pace, but the volcanoes are mostly silent. The new elastic order seems to be able to contain and even initiate radical structural changes without collapsing into violent conflict.” Certainly violence has not disappeared, but it is striking to note that less violence has been employed for some major social changes in the United States in the last few years. This is a positive trend, and one we can all hope continues into the future. The riots of January 6th and the violence that erupted around protests against racial injustice in 2020 may be more of an outlier moving forward than the rule.
A Link Between Consumerism & Nationalism

A Link Between Consumerism & Nationalism

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that consumerism and nationalism are linked through their shared status as imagined communities. Harari defines an imagined community as “a community of people who don’t really know each other, but imagine that they do.” In a market, we don’t know every producer or every other consumer. The actions of all the other producers and consumers impact us, and we may have niche markets that we are intimately tied to, but we don’t really know many other people in the market. In a nation, we may know a handful of people very closely, another handful of people well, and have a handful of acquaintances, but we certainly don’t know everyone. Nevertheless, we can act as though we know everyone in a community of gym enthusiasts, sneakerheads, or real estate investors. We can feel a unity and connection with all 330 million Americans, all citizens in the Deep South, or everyone living in our city. But these communities are imagined, we don’t really know everyone and don’t actually live in community with them.
 
 
Regarding consumerism and nationalism Harari continues, “both are imagined communities because it is impossible for all customers in a market or for all members of a nation to really know one another the way villagers knew one another in the past.” Even if they are not really real, these imagined communities exist for a reason. They help us cooperate and coordinate among huge numbers of humans. “consumerism and nationalism work extra hours to make us imagine that millions of strangers belong to the same community as ourselves, that we all have a common past, common interests, and a common future. This isn’t a lie. It’s imagination.”
 
 
This imagination helps us connect with people we otherwise wouldn’t have a reason to connect with. It helps us trust people we otherwise wouldn’t have a reason to trust. It can go too far and lead us to purchase shoes for thousands of dollars or to die in wars started by the megalomania of a charismatic leader. But in general, consumerism and nationalism have become a foundation for large scale human cooperation in the modern era. We hide the fact that these communities are imagined and the better we do the better we can participate with the other members of our imagined community. It can give us a sense of purpose and meaning in interacting and living among other people, even if it is all based on shared myth.
Community Evolution & Individual Liberation

Community Evolution & Individual Liberation

I read an article the other day about the death of the office friendship. As we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic many employees don’t plan to return to working full time in an office. Some employees will stay in the office, but a lot of employees are considering working flex schedules and some companies have found that they can go fully remote. One consequence is that we may lose our close office friendships.
 
 
The article reflected the inherent tension that is referenced in the title of this post. Humans are evolved to live and operate in communities and groups. But increasingly in many parts of the world we are becoming more and more focused on the individual. Our current work situation reflects that. We can now work from home with greater ease and have more freedom and flexibility in our daily individual lives. But we lose the close interactions with other people that the office provides. The hallway run-ins, the break room chat, the pre-meeting banter while we wait for the person running late. These things can all semi-happen through messaging platforms and video calls, but not to the same extent.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, written in 2015, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals.” Humans evolved in tribes and for millions of years humans experienced the world as part of a small pack. Our reliance and dependence on one another was obvious. Today, however, we may live in huge cities but we don’t always feel that same reliance on others. We can sit inside by ourselves for an entire week, have food delivered to us, and spend our time without others in a way that wasn’t possible before. We can forget our reliance on others and turn inward entirely on ourselves. We can let our office (and other) friendships die.
 
 
“The liberation of the individual comes at a cost,” writes Harari, “many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened  by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives.” While we could work from home, go a whole week without seeing others in person, and live self-contained lives away from other people, we might not be happy. We evolved to have close relationships with a small group of people. We evolved to be part of a community, not isolated individuals. We have our individual desires and our current world validates our individual differences and experiences, but it doesn’t always do a good job of helping us build and maintain social relationships. We have failed to build the institutions we need to truly connect and be part of a community while we simultaneously liberate and celebrate the individual. This is a new challenge for human beings, and will require new inventions, new social norms, and new institutions to enable us to be individuals within a community.
Evolutionary Psychology & Needs Shaped in the Wild

Evolutionary Psychology & Needs Shaped in the Wild

“This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.”
 
 
Harari wrote that passage while discussing industrial farms and milk production in his book. He argues that industrial agriculture does a good job of providing for the objective needs of animals, but a poor job of providing for their subjective needs. It isn’t too terribly hard to ensure that a dairy cow has sufficient food and water, sufficiently sanitary living space, and is inseminated so as to have a calf and begin producing milk. It is difficult, however, to successfully operate an industrial scale milk production facility that allows cows to just be cows and experience the typical subjective experiences that make a cow life worth living.
 
 
Animals in industrial agricultural settings today have been separated from the worlds that their brains and bodies were evolved to live within. “Evolutionary psychology,” Harari writes, “maintains that the emotional and social needs of farm animals evolved in the wild, when they were essential for survival and reproduction.” We can provide a life for animals that meets their objective needs for survival, but that may not meet the needs their brains and bodies were adapted to before they were brought into a human centric industrial setting.
 
 
This evolutionary psychology framing for the needs of animals as shaped in the wild is also helpful for viewing humans. We are still animals, and our needs and psychologies were shaped over millions of years as human beings evolved in harsh, wild conditions. We can explain our late night ice cream binges partly on our evolutionary psychology. We can explain sexual promiscuity (possibly to some extent) on evolutionary psychology. We can also explain our tribalism in terms of evolutionary psychology. Even though we live in a different world today where I can safely sit inside at my computer for hours, I still have fears around social status, threats, and not being able to find a mate. Like a dairy cow, much of my objective needs can be met fairly easy, but that doesn’t mean that my subjective needs, the ones seemingly built into my brain through evolution before humans lived in our current setting, can just as easily be fulfilled. In some ways humans have turned ourselves into factory farmed animals, making it easy to meet our objective needs but creating a world that does little to help us address our subjective needs developed through evolution in the wild. The lesson of evolutionary psychology that Harari applies to farm animals can also be applied to us.
 
Fueled by Indifference

Fueled by Indifference

In December of 2021 I was in Las Vegas and on my way back to the airport the GPS took me through a tough part of town. There were numerous homeless people along one stretch and tons of trash strewn across the streets.
 
 
Today I retweeted a picture from Los Angeles with a caption, “Not a third world country, your country.” The picture featured a train pulling shipping containers along a stretch of track completely littered with garbage, boxes, and junk.
 
 
The stretch of Las Vegas I drove through and the picture from LA reflect the indifference in the United States that fuels really awful realities for so many places and lives. Our country is so focused on the individuals that we fail to see our collective responsibilities. We are so prone to thinking about improving the world through our own hard work and efforts to be a good person that we see larger problems that demand collective action and feel helpless. I couldn’t help every homeless person I drove past in Las Vegas, and I can’t clean up the train tracks in LA by myself. The problem is beyond what I could do, so why should I even think about it. It is easier to just blame others for their laziness, lack of morals, or to simply be indifferent.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fueled by indifference.” Harari is writing about human animal consumption, and about the way industrial agriculture operates. He is also critiquing the idea of using animals as a technology for food sources and human nutrition in general. Animals by all means appear to be conscious and have experiences, but we don’t think about it. We are indifferent to their suffering, we ignore the issue, and we go about our lives fueling great harm to animal lives that we consider lesser than human lives.
 
 
Harari’s thoughts on indifference are reflected in the two recent experiences that I shared. In LA, shipping containers on trains are being raided for the goods they contain. Amazon boxes, goods shipped from oversees, and whatever else happens to be in shipping containers are being stolen and the packaging is being tossed about. Our focus on ourselves, our own goods and experiences, and on what we have has put us in a position where we are indifferent to the damage that our personal desires have on the rest of the world. In Las Vegas we enjoy the nightlife of the strip, the shopping and entertainment of the hotels and casinos, and the renowned restaurants. We don’t think about the people who have had tough luck, made bad decisions, or just not been given extra help when they are down. Unless our GPS takes us an unconventional route, we ignore the problems of poverty around such a glitzy city. I am certainly no better than anyone else in these regards.
 
 
 
Somehow we have to find a way to be less indifferent. Somehow we have to find a way to value collective organizations and efforts. Somehow we have to empower institutions that will help us care more about other lives (human and animal) and other places. As I note, it is too hard for any one of us to help the homeless or clean the environment on our own. It is easy to be indifferent, and there are too many bad things and important causes for us to focus on anything in particular. We need to have institutions that further collective action and overcome our individual indifferences. 
Muscle Power - Joe Abittan - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens

Muscle Power

I have zero sense of agricultural timelines. I really couldn’t tell you when the peak growing season for crops is, couldn’t tell you roughly when the best harvest time is (besides “fall”), and couldn’t tell you what grows best at what different times of the year. Besides being annoyed by less daylight and colder weather, the winter is little more than a season where we have a few extra holidays, travel during inclement weather, and drink warm beverages. For me, winter is not a threat to my livelihood while plants and many animals go dormant.
 
 
The reason why I don’t know anything about agricultural seasons and timelines is because the energy and power that I use has been separated from seasonal cycles. My home in Reno, NV is powered primarily by natural gas internal combustion engines that generate electricity. We have a couple of solar panel electricity generating fields in the area to supply some energy, and soon I’ll have solar panels on my house as well. There are also a couple of small power plants along the Truckee River which our local water company claims generate enough energy to power about 4,000 homes per year. These energy sources are relatively continuous and free from the fluctuations of the sun and seasons.
 
 
Most of human history, however, did not have the luxury of energy systems separated from the Earth’s seasons.  Regarding pre-industrial energy, Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, writes, “since human and animal bodies were the only energy conversion device available, muscle power was the key to almost all human activities.” Muscles needed to be built by living bodies. Whether those living bodies were consuming other animal bodies for energy or consuming plants for energy, they were ultimately relying on solar power and agricultural cycles. This meant that the summer and fall, when plant energy was most available, was the time when muscle power was the most abundant.
 
 
During the winter, and when crops and plants were not growing, there was not as much muscle power available. Humans would have noticed the differences between when plants were and were not growing, when crops were most productive, when crops were the best to harvest, and when they had surpluses of food or faced food scarcity. When muscle power was the dominant form of productive energy, seasons and agricultural cycles were dramatically more important. Divorcing our energy dependence from muscle power has allowed humans to completely forget about the importance of agricultural and solar cycles.
Free Market Fueled Evils

Free Market Fueled Evils

The free market is praised as the best way to organize human activities and the best way to ensure that progress is made in important fields. If we want to solve climate change, then we need the free market to fuel new technological innovations for clean energy. If we want to reduce poverty, then we need the free market to run at full power to ensure everyone can find employment. If we want better justice around the globe, then we need the free market to operate without borders so that everyone everywhere is competing in the same economic system which values good governance.
 
 
But the reality is that the free market doesn’t really care about all these good outcomes. The free market is indifferent. It is happy to exist and fuel great advances as well as great evils. Yuval Noah Harari uses the slave trade in his book Sapiens as an example of the indifference of the free market to human morals and values. He writes, “the slave trade was not controlled by any state or government. It was a purely economic enterprise, organized and financed by the free market according to the laws of supply and demand.”
 
 
A free market is great, and we can benefit from the efficiencies and effectiveness of the free market, but we have to realize that it doesn’t come with a pre-defined set of values, except for maybe supply and demand plus efficiency. The free market doesn’t care about biodiversity. It doesn’t care about climate change. It doesn’t care about slave labor and exploitation. It simply cares about supplying product to meet the demand in the most efficient way possible. This means that free markets can be subject to abuse, inequality, fraud, and worse. Harari continues, “this is the fly in the ointment of free market capitalism. It cannot ensure that profits are gained in a fair way, or distributed in a fair manner.”
 
 
For human societies, morals, equity, fairness, and other ideas and concepts are very important. We certainly could have a world with subjugated humans dominated by a few who are able to wrangle free market capitalism for their own benefit, but few would say that our species would truly be flourishing in that system. We could have a planet where all resources were available to the engine of free market capitalism, but when we have killed off almost all plant and animal species besides the select few we have decided are valuable to us, then we might not like the climate consequences or the consequences of not having new plants and animals to study for medicines and science. “Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed,” writes Harari. This has been our reality, and could continue to be our reality.
 
 
However, human societies have decided there are things that are more important than pure free market capitalism. For humans to survive and flourish, it is important that we continue to recognize concepts like liberty, equality, and global security in the face of free market capitalism. We can strive for efficiency, but we have to recognize that is not the only thing that matters for us. We cannot allow the world to be burned by free market capitalism, or we won’t like where we end up. The free market has fueled many evils, and it is up to humans as a collective to decide how we will continue to have a functioning market economy and prevent such evils from continuing in our lifetimes.
Markets & Political Bias

Markets & Political Bias

The United States loves free market capitalism. Almost any political action that would raise taxes, introduce tariffs on foreign goods, or regulate an industry is met with incredible pushback and extreme rhetoric. Most people don’t have a great sense of what communism or socialism really are, but those terms are used extensively whenever the government proposes a new regulation or program that might interfere with a market. Free market capitalism is the heart of the United States, at least in rhetoric.
 
 
However, as Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens, “there is simply no such thing as a market free of all political bias.” Markets on their own are not perfect. Clickbait headlines and designed obsolescence of smartphones are two frustrating examples of imperfect markets. In both instances, unequal information and misaligned financial incentives provide motivation for the producer to provide sub-par products. These examples are relatively harmless, but they do contribute to a larger problem within markets – a lack of trust between consumers and producers.
 
 
Harari continues, “the most important economic resource is trust in the future, and this resource is constantly threatened by thieves and charlatans. Markets by themselves offer no protection against fraud, theft, and violence.” Clickbait headlines have made me distrust internet links and headlines that sound juicy. I make it a point to never click on a Yahoo! article after being burned too many times by clickbait headlines when I was younger. I simply don’t trust what appears to be valuable information on the internet – a problem that has larger spillover effects as our population comes to distrust any information. In terms of smartphones, government regulation actually did play a role in changing the problem of designed obsolescence. Apple was deliberately slowing down older devices in an attempt to force users to buy newer devices – Apple claimed they had to slow phones down to prevent battery degradation and damage to the devices (eye roll). The result has been better performance of older smartphones for a longer lifetime.
 
 
“It is the job of political systems to ensure trust by legislating sanctions against cheats and to establish and support … the law.” We make investments and purchase goods when we can trust the market actors and that our investment will payoff in the future. I continue to purchase Apple products because I have seen an improvement in the problems of designed obsolescence and devices failing to function after just a year. Market intervention from the government helped stabilize the market and ensure that consumers had access to better products. However, I still don’t click on many articles, especially if the headline sounds like clickbait. I still don’t have trust in internet information, a space that the government has done little to regulate. The market on its own hasn’t established that trust, and as a result I make deliberate attempts to avoid the market. Free market capitalism, in these two examples, actually seems to work a bit better when there is some regulation and intervention, something that seems to contradict the general idea surrounding markets in the United States.
Capital Flows

Capital Flows

There is a lot of fear in the United States that China will upend US economic systems and that we will find ourselves in a global order defined by the Chinese Communist State. A portion of this fear has to do with the fact that the Chinese government doesn’t protect the same rights that our Constitution upholds, and Americans have a very sensitive view toward their constitutional rights and freedoms. While I often do think the rhetoric is overblown and xenophobic, I think it is fair to be concerned about the Chinese surveillance state, whether China adheres to Western ideas of human rights, and whether China is willing to uphold the rule of law.
 
 
But Yuval Noah Harari might argue that we don’t have to be too worried about the Chinese state. Harari may look back in history and suggest that we really don’t need to fear states like Russia and China that don’t uphold the rule of law or protect private property in a fair and equitable way. In his book Sapiens, Harari presents historical examples of global capital flows to argue that dictatorial states are less trustworthy in global economic systems and ultimately lose economic respect and credibility, hurting the governments and making them weaker. Harari writes, “capital trickles away from dictatorial states that fail to defend private individuals and their property. Instead, it flows into states upholding the rule of law and private property.”
 
 
Capital flows are important because they can shape a country’s political influence, living standards, political stability, and population wide prosperity. A country that fails to uphold the rule of law, fails to protect private property, and is a threat to the lives and liberties of its people is a country that will not attract investment, Harari’s argument would suggest.
 
 
China is a big and scary country, but if China cannot demonstrate to companies and corporations that it will protect intellectual property, that it will protect individual liberties, and that it will uphold international rules of law, then capital flows will ultimately be reduced and directed elsewhere. This was seen recently when the Women’s Tennis Association severed tied with China after a female tennis player accused a high ranking male member of the Chines Communist Party with sexual assault and then disappeared. Capital flows away from demagoguery and dictatorships to more safe and secure locations, where risk is reduced and where there is a greater guarantee of liberty and freedom of person and property. Personally, I hope that Harari’s theory holds true, and that any countries on the rise adopt better governance systems to improve rule of law, personal liberties for their people, and and to adhere to human rights.
A Quick Historical Glance at Physical Dominance in Cultural Evolution

A Historical Glance at Physical Dominance In Cultural Evolution

How do you defeat an empire? What is necessary for one culture to outcompete another? How does one group of people come to dominate another? I think it is fair to say that throughout history, the important factors for empires and cultures in their quest for domination and influence has changed. At different times through the course of human existence, different traits and characteristics have been more or less advantageous, and it is hard to predict exactly what traits and characteristics of empires and cultures are the most important for success at a given time.
 
 
It is likely that in the earliest possible days of Homo sapiens, physical strength and group cohesion were the most important factors for survival. At least, it can look that way as we look back in human history and try to understand where modern impulses for tribalism and paternalism originated in our species. If we all lived in groups of 12 to 25 individuals, the groups with the strongest males who could fight off other apes and other human bands for protection, and steal their resources while they were at it, likely had better chances of survival. If your group couldn’t survive a raid or a few rabid animals, then your chances of continuing on were slim. As a result more aggressive tribes organized around a single powerful figure probably had an advantage.
 
 
But the world that Homo sapiens inhabited changed, and the social structures and organizations of the species changed as well. The environment favored larger groups of human beings living and cooperating together. With more humans in a collective society, new traits became more important than pure physical dominance. As technologies changed, such as agriculture, fencing, and other innovates that made living in a set place safer and more secure, being the most aggressive and toughest human group was less advantageous for survival.
 
 
This process was slow and took place over a very long time. Physical dominance continued to play a crucial role, but slowly faded. By the time Christopher Columbus was ready to sail, merchants and bankers were beginning to be more important than physically impressive armies and rulers. Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the empires built by bankers and merchants in frock coats and top hats defeated the empires built by kings and noblemen in gold clothes and shining armor.” The incentives had changed. Using financial resources wisely, making investments that could pay off in greater returns, and developing economies became more important than conquest and war through physical dominance. Economic competition displaced physical competition.
 
 
Today we are in a world that is being characterized as feminine. Often, when this framing is applied to changes in the world it seems to have an implicit negative quality to it. But in truth, we are simply responding to continued changes in technology and civilization. Physical dominance is continuing to fall in its importance to how we live and cooperate together. Many bemoan this decline in the importance of physical dominance and character traits traditionally characterized as masculine. But the reality is that cooperation, services, working in cross-functional groups and teams, is becoming more important than in the past. This means there are different incentives which don’t always align well with traditional masculinity. I don’t think it is something to bemoan, and I don’t think we need to mourn the loss of the manly-man in human cultures. Empires were once displaced by businessmen in frock coats, and today we are seeing a similar process play out.