When Congressman Greg Gianforte body-slammed reporter Ben Jacobs his choice was clear. Does it come as a huge surprise that Gianforte continues to refuse to speak? What came first: violence or the refusal to speak?
“We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it. Conversation and violence.”
– Sam Harris, neuroscientist and philosopher
Today, I responded to journalist Ben Jacobs’ tweet that “Greg Gianforte is refusing to sit down with me” by saying, “I’m not sure that people realize that refusal to communicate is antecedent to violence. Obviously it’s a habit in Gianforte’s case.”
If you don’t remember, Greg Gianforte is the congressman who body-slammed reporter Jacobs on the day before the U.S. House special election in 2016. Jacobs’ tweet today was accompanied by an attachment that read:
While Gianforte’s people have since claimed no responsibility and have affirmed their promise to meet, it seems that Jacobs has made a good-faith effort to sit down with his attacker, and that effort has been denied.
Everyday, I am further convinced that violence is most likely to come from people who lack either the words or the grit to express their frustration through language. If it’s the former, I can sympathize—we aren’t all raised to be masters of speech, some of us are inhibited for other reasons (such as a learning disability), and those of us who excel have a clear advantage. In the case of the latter, I feel less charity. If you have the words, but can’t bring yourself to use them for fear of social consequences, conflict, or any other reason, please, as they say, “grow a pair”—thank you.
Whatever the case may be, even though simians like Gianforte would likely punch me for saying so (careful—I punch back), “alpha maleness” is not all about brawn. Primatologist Franz De Waal put it this way when asked about President Trump-as-alpha:
I’m not sure Trump is doing so great—I mean in [terms of] making friends and getting them on his side so that they’re willing to take risks for him, I’m not sure.
But in the sense of blustering and bluffing, which is a very big part of it also, he’s excellent. In that sense, he acts like an alpha male. There’s a lot of intimidation going on between males, usually, in chimpanzees. Who’s the most daring, who’s the most willing to take risks and all of that.”
Also from the Washington Post DeWaal interview:
But some primatologists also describe the role of the alpha male as being more complicated than mere bluster. To maintain power, the alpha male often must build coalitions of other apes, both male and female.
By de Waal’s logic, Gianforte’s body-slam, as convincing as it may be to our primate brains as an unabashed show of strength, can also be accurately read as a sign of weakness. A guy like Gianforte seems to be, at best, underdeveloped in other core aspects of being an alpha, with the capacity for forthright speech perhaps foremost amongst them.
But the reason this story caught my eye and has held my attention is that it seems to me that the groups and individuals most allergic to the idea of using thoughts and words to resolve conflict are precisely those proposing violence as the solution. My personal experience has been that, the more I practice and refine my communication skills, the less victimized I feel, and the less likely I am to lash out at my enemies. Yes, I practice jiu-jitsu and train my body to stay strong, but mostly I rely on words to get what I want and to set the boundaries I need.
Violence should only be a last resort—when all else fails, our creative resources have truly been exhausted, and we have asked ourselves time and again, “Have I done everything in my power to move this conversation forward?” Language, it would seem, is all we have lest we fall backwards into ape-to-ape barbarity. I don’t think that this means that we all have to agree, but I do think it means we need to keep talking about it.