Taming The Beast: Are violent urges part of men's nature?

And if they are, what do we do about it? How does a just society reconcile the desire for peace, with the desire, felt more often by men, to commit acts of violence? How much does nature stir boys, and men, to fight? And to what extent can they control that urge? Author Daemon Fairless takes IDEAS producer Mary Lynk on a road trip to try and unlock why some men are drawn to violence. They meet up with a science teacher, an MMA fighter, and a serial killer, who are profiled in his new book "Mad Blood Stirring: The Inner Lives of Violent Men. "
UFC fighters. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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And if they are, what do we do about it? How does a just society reconcile the desire for peace, with the desire, felt more often by men, to commit acts of violence? How much does nature stir boys, and men, to fight? And to what extent can they control that urge? Author Daemon Fairless takes IDEAS producer Mary Lynk on a road trip to try and unlock why some men are drawn to violence. They meet up with a science teacher, an MMA fighter, and a serial killer, who are profiled in his new book Mad Blood Stirring: The Inner Lives of Violent Men.   

**This episode originally aired May 2, 2018.

The author of Mad Blood Stirring: The Inner Lives of Violent men spins a yarn about the time got into a fight on the subway and the lines between "good guy" and "bad guy" got uncomfortably blurry. 4:11

A few years ago, Daemon Fairless and I met to discuss possible topics for an IDEAS documentary we could make together. After he tossed a few topics around, I asked Daemon about the the big, purple shiner around his eye. Daemon is a born storyteller. I was riveted to hear about his struggle with a desire to inflict violence — something I found surprising because, despite his large stature, Daemon is essentially a teddy bear. He calls his affliction "The White Hat Syndrome" — a hero with fists, always ready to jump in and save others. This particular White Hat intervention — a.k.a. a fight — had occurred after he told a lippy guy on the subway to zip it. So I suggested that he do a piece for IDEAS. In the end, he went further and spent the last few years researching and writing a book on the topic. But he also accepted my suggestion to do a piece for IDEAS. He took me to meet some of the men profiled in his book — including a serial killer — all of whom have struggled with violent desires. Making this documentary was exhausting, gripping, horrifying and, for me at least, revelatory about the inner beast that lurks within us all. – Mary Lynk, IDEAS Producer

Excerpts from: Mad Blood Strirring: The Inner Lives of Violent Men by Daemon Fairless  

This is a book primarily, although not exclusively, about men. This is because men are responsible for the vast majority of violent acts. They — we — commit nearly all of the assaults and beatings and the lion's share of homicides. We're specialists in rape, gang killings, torture, serial predation, acts of terror and warfare...

There's nothing more empowering in my life... Part of the thrill of a fight is ... controlling fear. It's an amazing feeling...- Daemon Fairless

One of the central arguments of this book is that the emotions that motivate us to act violently — the emotions I'm so familiar with — are inherent. They're part of who we are as a species. Now, before you start freaking out about biological determinism, let me clarify something. What I'm saying is that we have an inherent emotional capacity for violence, which makes it extraordinarily easy for us to resort to violence in particular circumstances. The better we control those circumstances, the better we control the emotions that lead to violence. That's the inherent part — the emotions, the urge, not the behaviour. Evolution doesn't determine our behaviour, but it has shaped our emotions….

This might not sound like good news, but it is. The word biological is often confused with fixed, unchangeable and automatic. But these emotions are modifiable. We can learn to control them, just as we can learn to amplify them. But because they're part of our evolutionary inheritance, we cannot choose to get rid of them; they're here to stay. And we need to deal with that.

Author Daemon Fairless. "Mad Blood Stirring" is published by Penguin Random House.

The other point I want to make here is that a biological understanding of human behaviour doesn't condone gender essentialism — the idea that certain behaviours are exclusively male while others are female. Biology is, among other things, the study of diversity within a population. And humans are, if nothing else, profoundly diverse creatures; our physiology, behaviour and predispositions span countless continuums. You can be fairly certain that anyone who uses biology to argue that humans ought to behave in a particular way has a pretty weak grasp of Biology 101. There are a lot of women out there who feel — and act on — the emotions I'm discussing in this book — just as there a lot of men out there who aren't especially given to them. But I suspect there are more men than women, especially young men, who find themselves carrying an explosive charge they're not entirely willing or sure how to defuse. And so, because of this and because men clearly do most of the harmful and truly terrible things, I've focused here, at the risk of seeming exclusive, on the inner lives of violent men….

Daemon Fairless is the author of "Mad Blood Strirring: The Inner Lives of Violent Men". 1:33

If you aren't especially prone to these urges, you might find it tough to sympathize. Try articulating these emotions to someone who's especially phlegmatic and the reaction you get ranges from the recommendation of a good therapist to outright denial — an insistence that these emotions are somehow not your own, that you're a patsy who thoughtlessly helps perpetuate a culture of male violence. There might be something to that, the perpetuating part at least, but why —and how —  do cultures of violence get started in the first place? Part of it is that violence can be compelling and exciting. The emotions that lead to violence have the pull of a riptide and, far from being a sign of a personality disorder or mental illness, they are normal.

Daemon Fairless is a writer and journalist with a master's degree in neuroscience. He has worked as a producer for CBC's As It Happens and as a print journalist for the science journal Nature.

Further reading:


**This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.

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