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COGSCI 111 deWaal - Peace Lessons from an Unlikely Source

COGSCI 111 deWaal - Peace Lessons from an Unlikely Source -...

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April 2004 | Volume 2 | Issue 4 | Page 0434 PLoS Biology | http://biology.plosjournals.org U pon arrival from Europe, now more than two decades ago, I was taken aback by the level of violence in the American media. I do not just mean the daily news, even though it is hard getting used to multiple murders per day in any large city. No, I mean sitcoms, comedies, drama series, and movies. Staying away from Schwarzenegger and Stallone does not do it; almost any American movie features violence. Inevitably, desensitization sets in. If you say, for example, that Dances with Wolves (the 1990 movie with Kevin Costner) is violent, people look at you as if you are crazy. They see an idyllic, sentimental movie, with beautiful landscapes, showing a rare white man who respects American Indians. The bloody scenes barely register. Comedy is no different. I love, for example, Saturday Night Live for its inside commentary on peculiarly American phenomena, such as cheerleaders, televangelists, and celebrity lawyers. But SNL is incomplete without at least one sketch in which someone’s car explodes or head gets blown off. Characters such as Hans and Franz (“We’re going to pump you up!”) appeal to me for their names alone (and yes, I do have a brother named Hans), but when their free weights are so heavy that their arms get torn off, I am baffled. The spouting blood gets a big laugh from the audience, but I fail to see the humor. Did I grow up in a land of sissies? Perhaps, but I am not mentioning this to decide whether violence in the media and our ability to grow immune to it—as I also have over the years—is desirable, or not. I simply wish to draw attention to the cultural fissures in how violence is portrayed, how we teach conflict resolution, and whether harmony is valued over competitiveness. This is the problem with the human species. Somewhere in all of this resides a human nature, but it is molded and stretched into so many different directions that it is hard to say if we are naturally competitive or naturally community-builders. In fact, we are both, but each society reaches its own balance between the two. In America, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In Japan, the nail that stands out gets pounded into the ground. Does this variability mean, as some have argued, that animal studies cannot possibly shed light on human aggression? “Nature, red in tooth and claw” remains the dominant image of the animal world. Animals just fight, and that is it? It is not that simple. First, each species has its own way of handling conflict, with for example the chimpanzee ( Pan troglodytes ) being far more violent than that equally close relative of ours, the bonobo ( P. paniscus ) (de Waal 1997). But also within each species we find, just as in humans, variation from group to group. There are “cultures” of violence and “cultures” of peace. The latter are made possible by the universal primate ability to settle disputes and iron out differences.
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