Sunday, October 01, 2006

Modern man: the ignoble savage

(Disclaimer: The following is a statement of opinion, based on nothing more than my own pompous assumptions. Take it as seriously as you like.)

Fact: Human nature involves inherent violent tendencies. Just try and deny it… go on, I’ll wait.

You can’t. You could try. But you’d be lying.

Our ancestors evolved into killing machines: vicious hunters that were able and willing to use their precocious hunting talents either on food or their enemies as they waged the war for survival.

The best hunters and warriors were more likely to survive. And it wasn’t enough to only have hunters and warriors that were good at their arts, they had to enjoy these pursuits as well… what use is a good marksman who doesn’t like throwing a pointed stick? Thus we reach the 21st century with a population descended from bloody-minded brutes.

Knowing that, it’s no surprise whatsoever that war and violent crime are as prevalent in modern society as they are… we have a penchant for it written into our genetic code. It’s part of who we are. Denying that is, well, denial.

With that said, I don’t think there’s any excuse for anyone to want to be involved in war or violent crime. We may be bloody-minded brutes, but we’re bloody-minded brutes with brains! With a minimum of effort, we can easily outthink our violent tendencies.

Indeed, we have created within many of our civilisations a variety of means through which to express these urges in positive and socially acceptable ways. Of those means, I believe that the absolute best is sport.

“What?” I hear you say.
”I thought 01 hated sport!” I hear you carry on.

But it’s true. Sport is an ideal expression of our violent natures for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it involves a lot of things like running around, jumping, kicking, punching and hitting things with sticks. These are all activities our Palaeolithic ancestors associated with killing things… doing them for fun tricks the primitive parts of our brains into thinking that we really are killing things. The exercise also stimulates the production of endorphins, which help us calm down and feel lovely afterwards… thus relieving tension.

Secondly, there’s the competitive aspect. Within the context of competitive sport, defeating your opponent equates to killing him, on a subconscious level. And it’s not just in sports like boxing or martial arts. Even in sports where you’re not doing direct harm to your opponent, your brain is able to convince its very clever self that you are, indeed, killing him. All competitive sport is therefore simulated warfare.

But sport isn’t for everyone. This could be for a number of reasons. Some people have a physical disability that makes taking part in sport difficult or impossible. Others have an odd genetic mutation that makes them not enjoy all the running around and hitting of things with sticks. That’s where I fit in.

I was diagnosed with asthma as a young child (I was hospitalised with it for the first time when I was five). Although I tried some sports early in primary school, I wasn’t able to exert myself too much, so I wasn’t able to participate as fully as the other kids. So I lost interest and I became something of a mental athlete.

And that’s the key: mental athletics. A mental athlete can find it just as fulfilling to demolish an opponent in a game of monopoly as a boxer does to deliver that knockout punch. It’s just a different expression of the same built-in urge.

I’m all for the sport development programs that our government squanders our tax money on… it’s good to teach under-privileged youngsters peaceful and constructive ways of expressing their innate violence. Rather clobber other guys on the rugby field than in gang wars.

However I think it should be equally important to teach them mental athletics, and by that I don’t mean just sending them to school. Studying doesn’t really help you express the competitive urge (unless you’re competing with other students in terms of results, which seems to be discouraged in schools nowadays).

They need to be taught competitive intellectual pursuits. Chess is a good start. Chess sets are cheap and the game is easy to learn: ideal for low-income areas. You don’t even need to be literate or numerate to be able to play it. For families who have more substantial financial means, things like collectible card games, computer games and gaming consoles should be included in their education.

Gaming isn’t just a distraction, it’s an essential requirement. Despite paranoid theories propagted by the media, I firmly believe that if you encourage a child (preferably an older child) to play Quake or Counter-Strike, he’ll be less likely to go out and actually shoot anyone…. he can do all his killing in virtual reality (with simulated blood and gore rendered in exquisite detail) without ever harming another person.

Of course there are other issues at stake: are you really doing an obese child a favour by telling him to sit on his fat ass playing video-games instead of running around outside? Perhaps not. But that’s someone else’s battle.