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.
Thoughts on Monogamy - Evolutionary Psychology & Becoming WEIRD

Thoughts on Monogamy – Evolutionary Psychology & Becoming WEIRD

Monogamy doesn’t seem to be the natural way for humans to live. Very few species mate with a single partner for life, and while humans in most parts of the world do, it is often not done well. Romantic affairs are the driving plot device in more books and movies than any of us can count. In the real world, we know plenty of people who have cheated on spouses or significant others, or been on the other side of the cheating. Numerous TV show hosts have made a living  by revealing the results of paternity tests.
Yuval Noah Harari makes a suggestion in his book Sapiens that monogamy is so hard for humans today because most of human evolution was not focused on monogamous relationships. Nuclear families are a relatively recent invention. For most of human history, we lived in small social tribes, and raising a child wasn’t the responsibility of two parents who who married and stayed together for the rest of their lives. In some instances, tribes actively practiced fatherhood rituals that were the direct opposite of monogamy. Harari writes,
“The proponents of this ancient commune theory argue that frequent infidelities that characterize modern marriages, and the high rates of divorce, not to mention the cornucopia of psychological complexes from which both children and adults suffer, all result from forcing humans to live in nuclear families and monogamous relationships that are incompatible with our biological software.” Harari describes the ancient commune theory mentioned in the quote as a theory that people in small tribes didn’t understand that a single man’s sperm fertilized an egg. It was not clearly understood that only one person sired a child, and in some tribes women would actively haved sex with multiple men, even throughout a pregnancy, so that her child would gain the qualities of all the men.
When I first read this quote from Harari it made me question whether modern monogamous marriages were really the best thing for humans.  If it contradicted our biology so much, I wondered why we kept it around, especially if it caused so many psychological, social, and emotional problems for so many people.
Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World, helped me understand why monogamous institutions have become so useful in our modern world, despite the costs that Harari mentions and the incompatibility of monogamy with our evolutionary psychology. When societies do not have a system of single pair bonding, the highest status men tend to accumulate more females to exclusively marry. Regardless as to whether the women want to have sex with many men and partner with them, they often find that it is best for them to stick with just the one highest status man (possibly the wealthiest, strongest, or most politically connected man) for the best chance to raise their children. Pairing with a high status man who already has two or three other wives can often be more advantageous for a woman than pairing with the fourth most high status man, especially as women are pushed toward men further down the status ladder – as happens in strict monogamous societies.
As high status men accumulate more women who exclusively partner with them, even though the man doesn’t exclusively partner with the women, then lower status men do not find a partner. Single men who cannot get a partner are more likely to take large risks and gambles to try to move up the social ladder. They have more testosterone, because married men have a decrease in  testosterone, and they have less reason to invest in the future. Henrich argues that policies which pushed monogamy and broke up polygamy were a driving factor in what made the West WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Monogamous societies help ensure more men are able to find a partner, decreasing the number of single men without prospects for getting married or having children. This  gave more men a reason to invest in the future and improve their behavior and cooperation with others.
Our monogamous relationships may not be in line with our biology, but they have encouraged a more even distribution of male and female partners, and have helped create more stable societies. The relationships are hard, but at least recently have been a driving force toward WEIRD progress and development. The cost of monogamy that stem from a reproductive and sexual system mismatched to our evolution and biology don’t outweigh the benefits of a more stable, peaceful, and fruitful society.
Injured Veterans, Sex, Divorce, and Suicide

Injured Veterans, Sex, Divorce, and Suicide

I recently published a post about Mary Roach’s book Bonk, where she researched and discussed the researchers and scientists who study sex and sexual physiology. Sex, our sexual desires and urges, and how sex fits into our lives is generally understudied and taboo. This may not seem like a big problem on the surface, but a lack of understanding of human sexual relationships can contribute to divorce, depression, and even suicide.
Roach returns to the idea of our sexual taboo in her book Grunt, specifically asking what happens to wounded soldiers when they get back from war and still have sexual desires, but may be challenged sexually as a result of their injuries? How does an amputee still have a pleasurable sexual relationship with their wife? How does someone with genital injuries engage in sex? Does anyone help these individuals, and what happens to them when they can’t get help or speak with anyone?
In the book, Roach roach asks about the divorce rate for injured veterans. She quotes Christine DesLauriers who founded the Walter Reed Sexual Health and Intimacy Workgroup as saying, “Divorce rate? How about suicide rate. And what a shame to lose them after they’ve made it back. We keep them alive, but we don’t teach them how to live.” This quote shows the seriousness of our society’s sexual taboo when it comes to injured veterans. It is likely that many of the men who go into service fall into the typical macho-man stereotype (though certainly not all!) and it isn’t hard to imagine that many of these men want to have plenty of sex, as would be typical within the stereotype. Failing to help them adapt to injuries, losses of limbs, or reconstructed penises means that we fail to help them adapt to a new life. As DesLauriers was quoted saying, we fail to help them live, and that can lead to depression and a feeling of disappointment that may lead to suicide.
Hopefully our sex taboo doesn’t push most of us to suicide or depression, but it certainly makes it harder for us to have conversations with our sexual partners about what we want in a physical relationship. Without being able to discuss research on sex, we don’t know what is normal, what is abnormal, and how we should handle sexual feelings and urges. At the extreme, this may leave wounded soldiers feeling like they can’t live up to expectations of what it means to be a man, but for many, it may create confusion and dissatisfaction with a sexual lifestyle or a partner. Bonk and Grunt both make a case for being less ashamed to talk about sex, especially within academic, scientific, and medical contexts, so that we can live better lives and better adapt to our sexuality and changes in our physiology throughout our lives.

Bonk

On one of the first few pages of her book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Mary Roach writes the following tribute: “This book is a tribute to the men an women who dared. Who, to this day, endure ignorance, closed minds, righteousness, and prudery. Their lives are not easy. But their cocktail parties are the best.”
Bonk is an exploration of our scientific exploration of sex. For many reasons, sex research has been difficult to carry out and often taboo. Researchers face extra challenges getting funding, are treated with skepticism, have trouble finding subjects, have trouble publishing important findings, and can be publicly ridiculed for their research. Roach writes about the euphemisms that researchers have to employ when describing their studies, switching words related to sex to more physiologically based words. She also writes about the range of topics that become difficult to study because of their relation to sex – topics related to genitals, especially to the female body, even if they are not sex specific topics.
Across the book Roach identifies important themes in global culture. Humans are often driven by sex, surrounded by sex, or confused by something sexual, but we rarely discuss sex or anything related to it in a direct way. Even intimate couples find it difficult to have honest and direct conversations about sex. In some ways it is fair to say that sex is hyper-present in the United States, but this doesn’t mean we are ok with openly discussing our sexual experiences with other people, even neutral and independent researchers.
This has created a challenge where we all have many questions and uncertainties related to our sexual development, our sexual orientation, and physiological sexual responses to stimuli throughout our lives, but few good places to get answers to those questions. Even if we can study these topics, it is not easy to access, share, and discuss that research. People who do such research, or claim to be interested in such research, are often stigmatized and other people who know their research interests may not want to associate with them to avoid the same stigma.
Ultimately, what I think Roach believes is that we should work to be more honest and develop better conversations around the science of sex. I think this is something Roach believes is necessary in many academic and scientific fields, not just those related to sex. Her work has generally made an effort to study and explore topics that are gross, taboo, and overlooked, but are always present and important. Sex is something that has many individual and social factors, and failing to research sex leaves us stuck with ignorance, where strong voices can win out over the reality of many people’s experiences. Better science, study, and discussion will hopefully help us better understand ourselves, our bodies, and our physical relationships with others.
How Men & Women Experience the Threat of Eviction

How Men and Women Experience the Threat of Eviction

The poorest people in our country are often in danger of being taken advantage of or exploited. For low income renters, their need for shelter and limited housing options means that they have to negotiate deals to avoid eviction or try to work out better arrangements with more powerful landlords. In the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows how these negotiations differ for men and women and how these arrangements can be particularly exploitative and dangerous for women.
 
 
“Men often avoided eviction by laying concrete, patching roofs, or painting rooms for landlords. But women almost never approached their landlord with a similar offer. Some women – already taxed by child care, welfare requirements, or work obligations – could not spare the time. … When women did approach their landlords with such an offer, it sometimes involved trading sex for rent.”
 
 
Gender disparities in our nation translate into different experiences of exploitation and danger for men and women in our lowest socioeconomic ranks. Low skill and low wage men are expected to work and produce, and this expectation affords them extra opportunities to find ways to pay their rent and avoid eviction. Landlords, Desmond explains, are more willing to offer men the chance to work off late rent by providing them some form of manual labor that will help benefit the landlord and their tenants or properties. Rarely do women receive the same offers, and Desmond explains that women rarely seek out similar arrangement themselves. Various gendered norms and expectations end up making it harder for women to skate by with odd jobs at the lowest levels than men who are given extra chances, even if those extra chances are physically demanding and potentially dangerous.
 
 
Desmond’s quote also hints at another gendered norm that makes life in the lowest socioeconomic status harder for women than men. Women are expected to take care of children, if they have any, and this means they have less time and flexibility in picking up extra work for their landlord in exchange for rent. Welfare often requires that an individual spend a certain amount of time in school, searching for a job or working, or engaging with certain productive volunteer activities. Women who try to adhere to these requirements, all while caring for kids or men who did not try to meet such requirements, could not possibly take on more gig work to make a little extra cash to avoid eviction.
 
 
Finally, Desmond’s quote highlights the exploitative and dangerous reality that many low socioeconomic status women find themselves in. The gendered disparities and power disparities between these women and their landlords often means they have nothing to negotiate with for rent other than their bodies. Trading sex for rent is dangerous for the women, exploitative, and in many ways degrading. It is not the case that every individual facing eviction experiences these realities exactly as I have described them based on gender, but it is often the case that the threat of eviction manifests differently for men and women, in part due to larger gender biases that exist within our society.

Sex, Society, & Religion

An argument I found very persuasive in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson is that religions establish norms for sexual behavior in an attempt to help create social cohesion partly through systems of shared sexual family beliefs and values that build into family beliefs and values. The norms around sex ensure help establish specific norms around relationships which add to social cohesion. There are many different norms about sex across the planet, and religions, or the lack there of, often have different rules about sexuality which reinforce those norms.

 

In the book the authors write, “As Jason Weeden and colleagues have pointed out, religions can be understood, in part, as community-enforced mating strategies. The religious norms around sex become central to the entire religion which is part of why any social topic surrounding sex sets off such a firestorm. Religious sex approaches are also community based and community enforced, meaning that they need the buy-in and support of the entire community to work.”

 

Simler and Hanson go on to describe the way this looks in the United States with our main political divide between family and sex traditionalists who tend to vote more Republican and be more Christian versus more secular individuals who are more careerist, less family and sex traditional, and more likely to vote for Democrats. Sex and family traditionalists benefit when people avoid pre-marital sex, stick to one partner, and have many children starting at a young age. They create communities to help with child raising and everyone is encouraged to reinforce the view of a successful two-parent family.

 

The authors contrast that view with a more open view of sex and families. Women are more likely to use contraception, allowing for multiple partners and allowing childbirth to be delayed. This gives men and women a chance to have fewer kids starting at a later point in life and allows both to be more focused on their career than on building a family.

 

In both cases, having more people adopt your norms around sex is beneficial. If you are trying to be a traditionalist, it can be challenging and frustrating to work a job you dislike, limit yourself to one sexual partner, and have children early if everyone else is having lots of sex, advancing in interesting careers, and not having to spend time raising children. You will have fewer people to share childbearing with and will receive less social praise for making an effort to start your family in your early twenties. However, if you are more open with your sexual preferences in a traditionalist society, you might be looked down upon, might not have the sexual partners that you would like to have, and be criticized for your promiscuity and for pursuing a career rather than a family. The norms around sex, in both instances, shape how you are viewed and treated by society, and reinforce or hinder the sexual, family, and even career strategy that you might pursue.

 

There are many ways for humans and communities to treat sex. I would imagine that different strategies at different times of human existence have been more advantageous than others. When humans barely lived past 30, when we didn’t have medical technologies for abortion, and didn’t have technology for producing contraceptives, then it made sense for certain strict rules to emerge around sex to help create communal norms that reinforced health behaviors, continued human existence, and community cohesion. On the opposite end, I recently heard someone suggest that early hunter-gatherer societies likely permitted individuals to have lots of sexual partners, and that fathers likely didn’t ever know for sure if a child was there offspring or not. This created a situation in a small tribe where it was best to just take care of every child to ensure that any child you might have was taken care of. This is another norm around sex and family that worked for the time. I may just be a modern career focused individual, but it seems to me that acknowledging that humans can have different sexual and family preferences, and allowing norms to adjust to our economic, technological, and social trends may be more helpful than adhering to strict norms established to fit different societal demands of the past.