This is our truth, tell us yours
So it is one hundred years since one group of young working class men was set against another set of working class young men over fields of mud and blood in defense of a treaty that had been signed by rich old men. Anniversaries are easily co opted and something as distant as World War One has people scrabbling to claim it for their particular cause. Cameron, in one of the most sickening appropriations of slaughter originally wanted street parties, cup cakes shaped as shrapnel perhaps and blood red jellies. In recent days I have seen angry men claim the dead died to protect ungrateful women and angry women claim if they ran the world there would have been no war.
The idea that men are naturally more warlike, or that women are natural pacifists is like all gender essentialism, hokum. The mothers of Sparta or the women in WW1 who gave out white feathers were not aberrations. Women have supported, and engaged in war even when they were not allowed to fight in the front line. It would be wonderful to believe that women were some kinder gentler class who never harmed a fly, but it would be false. The idea of masculinity and aggressive behaviour is intertwined in our consciousness however. Women who are aggressive, or “manly” are described as butch, men who decry those behaviours are described as camp or effeminate. Yet the very fact that men and women exist who do not fit the gender norms, and words exist to describe them shows that these ways of being are not fixed.
Where does state aggression come from then? Currently children die in sixty eight different countries that are split by warfare, men and women die so one country can say it is better, stronger, richer, than another one. Alice Miller argued that it came from the fact we are all abused as children, we all suffer damage at the hands of parents who were themselves damaged in turn. Miller believed that the wars of the twentieth century grew out of this abuse, this perpetual cycle of harming others to hide our own pain. I am not convinced by the extreme nature of some of Miller’s claims however I do think she hit on something when she said;
We don’t yet know, above all, what the world might be like if children were to grow up without being subjected to humiliation, if parents would respect them and take them seriously as people.”
Wars are not created by men, or opposed by women, aggression is not a function of gender, the ability to send men to their deaths was most likely built on a foundation of Victorian parenting, where empathy and considering the pain of others were weaknesses. By the same token perhaps we are so willing to sit and watch the slaughter beamed into our living rooms nightly because the modern values promote protecting your own over anything else. We may no longer find it acceptable to beat our children with belts, but as communitarianism and the belief in promoting community values dies away we are it seems willing to share the pictures of dead children in a way our great grandfathers would never have found acceptable.
Perhaps it is not war, or aggression that is a part of human nature but acting according to the values we are taught as children, in which case the most important question is what are we teaching the next generation, is it to other, or to love?