Rough Men

“We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”

That statement is often misattributed as a quote by George Orwell. (I’ve done it myself.) The origin, however, appears to originate in a 1993 essay (43 years after Orwell’s death) as a distillation of things Orwell said, not an actual quote.  And, indeed, it is a fair expression of things Orwell did say.

It doesn’t really matter who said it.  It remains an essential truth of the human condition.

It is popular among some people to try to wish away the problem of violence.  “If only we ‘understand’ we can avoid violence.” “If we just ‘redistribute’ wealth, there will be no need for violence.” “Just make things ‘fair’, then violence will go away.”

Nice dreams, but nothing more than a maiden aunt’s fancy.

The problem isn’t “fairness”, “inequality”, or a lack of “understanding”.  The problems are deeper and more fundamental.  Some people, no matter what you do, are just fundamentally broken.  They may tell themselves they “deserve” something they don’t have, that they have been “unfairly” deprived, and so use force and violence to take it. (And thus convincing some that “fairness” will prevent it, except the “unfairness is purely imaginary–or certainly no greater than the “unfairness” experienced by people who do not turn to violence.) They may claim, even to themselves, that they have been “wronged” and thus have the “right” to harm others as some kind of displaced justice.  And, people will see that claim and decide “understanding” will allow that wrong to be corrected.

Oh, sure, there can be some truth to it.  Upbringing, situations, and, yes, culture can lead to more or fewer people being prone to violence against others but despite thousands of years of the effort of human civilization to teach folk not to do wrong to their fellows no one has been able to completely eradicate it.  Some examples have done better than others, but none has completely managed to eradicate the impulse in some people to do harm to others for their own perceived benefit (which can extend, in extreme cases, to simple pleasure in hurting someone else).

You cannot make violence go away completely.  Philosophers of all stripes, religious and otherwise, have tried to discover some means of doing it.  All have failed.  Despite the efforts of some of the brightest, most knowledgeable people over the centuries there still remain some who would prey on their fellow human beings.  It can’t be stopped, not completely.

And so long as that remains true, then someone has to step up to the plate to protect people from those predators.  The “rough men” of quote.

But it doesn’t stop there.  A handful of “rough men (and women)” cannot be everywhere.  And the predators have the choice of time and place.  They can act where the protectors are not.  And so, it behooves each of us to, at least to an extent, to be our own “rough man” ready to stand up against the predators in our society.

And yet, strangely enough, the tendency in most of the world is to put more and more of people’s protection into the hands of fewer “rough men” while removing from the individual the expectation of standing in their own defense.  And along with the expectation, they also tend to strip from them the ability, in the hopes that will somehow make the predators less predatory.  And when it fails, it fails big.

What many people don’t even consider is that a major way in which that approach is that all too often the predators find ways to take control of the “rough men” who are set up to protect the rest of society.  Indeed, this taking over of the “protectors” and turning them into the predators has shed nearly an order of magnitude more blood in the last century than all the criminal activity combined.

History has shown that you cannot make violence go away.  The predators you will always have with you.  Creating a separate class of people to handle the violence for you, allowing you to not deal with it and pretend it doesn’t affect you, has all too often backfired, creating worse problems.

Therefore, one has to accept that whatever we do there will be violence.  We can reduce it, to an extent, but not eliminate it.  We have to own that truth.  We also have to own that “outsourcing” the dealing with that violence only works to a point.  In the end the responsibility lies with each one of us.  We can, and certainly should, choose not to initiate violence.  But we need to be prepared to deal with other people choosing otherwise.

We need to be our own “rough men.”




One thought on “Rough Men”

  1. Interesting post. I, too, thought Orwell said the quote directly. Having read quite a bit of Orwell recently as part of my daily essay reading, I can vouch for that fitting well within his thinking, at least in the last decade or so of his life.

    What is interesting is he also understood the limits of that group of rough men. In “Shooting an Elephant” he describes a sense of being trapped and forced to act violently even when it wasn’t necessary because he had prepared to do so. While it isn’t a direct version of predators taking over the rough men, I think it is an example of how over reliance on such men moves some of their efforts at protection to violence against the protected.

    I think this is as important a danger to recognize as the larger scale co-option you point out. It lies beyond the use of the criminal justice system as a revenue force via petty fines and imposing “fees” on defendants (no, a prisoner should not pay for his own imprisonment or monitoring…justice is a function of society for the benefit of society and thus society needs to pay the freight) and asset forfeiture laws.

    The solution, as you note, is to outsource only that amount of roughness that is absolutely necessary and kept the rest to ourselves.

    As a final note, it is interesting to see you writing in this vein yesterday. My own blog post yesterday, Is the State Inevitable? stems from similar thinking about the need for rough men.


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