As part of the BBC’s Violence Season, in last night’s Horizon, How Violent Are You? Michael Portillo investigated what makes ordinary people commit extreme acts of violence and explored the fine line between control and aggression.
I’m not sure Portillo was the best person for the job, given he’s not ‘ordinary’ – he’s a pillock, and an upper class pillock at that – but nonetheless, Horizon sent him off to Bolivia to take part in Tinku, an annual “violence ritual” where men, women and children beat seven colours out of each other.
This seems to be a ritual that’s replicated on the streets of the UK at about 3am on most weekends, so maybe he’d have been better going off to the middle of Camden on a Saturday night and saved us license payers the cost of shipping him off to the Bolivian Andes…
Anywho, during the course of this documentary to find out if violence is ‘addictive’, he met with an ex-football hooligan – who “lived for” his Saturday fights – and a former child soldier from war-torn Sudan, who told a harrowing story of brainwashing, torture and regret…
However, back to Bolivia; “I haven’t got an aggressive bone in my body. Why people would want to knock the blazes out of each other I can’t imagine!” Portillo proclaimed before squaring up against a pretty elderly and wizened old man who he had permission to punch senseless.
Said old man hit out wildly, really going to town on Portillo, so I envied him that; it’s something I wouldn’t mind having had a go at, but hey ho, nobody asked me…
The plan was to test a psychologist’s theory that if Michael was in a situation where violence was socially sanctioned he would “relish” it. It didn’t seem to have worked against the old man, however, when somebody behind the camera asked him if he’d enjoyed it, Portillo answered “NO! F**k off!”… oooooooo get her!
Michael said of the punch-fest, “They were hoping that I would get a chemical rush and enjoy the violence.
“I can’t say that I did enjoy it much because I was suffering from altitude sickness and Bolivian tummy. I was more nervous about making a fool of myself and possibly getting hurt.
“But the point we were trying to get at was that a lot of people do use violence and, possibly, if I did it often enough, things would change.”
Jeez, what a girl!
The Tinku, Michael explained, is a formalised way of “resolving grievances” but the violence can in fact be deadly.
“What we saw in a village where there were tourists was not wholly representative of what may happen…
“We spoke to a doctor who explained that, in places where we don’t go, they sometimes take it to the death.Those who die are regarded as heroes – their blood nourishes the Earth and satisfies the Pachamama, the Earth goddess.”
Yikes… think I’ll pass on a trip to Bolivia to take out my aggression on elderly men then.
In another experiment that could’ve been called, How Far Can I Be Pushed, Michael went for 36 hours without sleep and the show’s makers, just for good measure, chucked in some fake-babies who cried their heads off.
Then they sent him off to work in highly pressurised working kitchen while throughout, Professor Jane Ireland observed to see where – and if – Michael’s breaking point would come. He didn’t get aggressive per se but he did get paranoid and thought the crew were making the fake babies louder by the second and doing other jolly ghastly things to annoy him. The cads.
Well Michael, welcome to the life of a working mother who has young children! Women with babies and young kids who work experience sleep-deprivation often but we too manage to not go berserk and start beating people up… well, most of the time anyway.
Speaking of young kids, with Professor Peter Smith at his side to observe – or to protect him, I’m not sure which – Portillo watched a group of three year olds who apparently don’t have the ability to control their “aggressive instincts.”
This, it seems, was to show Portillo how socialisation and learned experiences can change the framework of the brain and help us to control our behaviour as we get older. However, that clearly isn’t the case for everyone, which Portillo found out when he talked to Danny who used to love nothing more than a good punch-up at or after a football match.
“Danny talks of the adrenaline rush as being addictive” said Michael, adding, “We know that the release of dopamine is similar to the process that takes place during sex so, for those of us who’ve never enjoyed violence, maybe we can understand the sort of addictive quality Danny is talking about.”
Erm… what?? If he’s talking about normal sex, and not the dressing up as a schoolboy and being spanked in an airing cupboard type of sex that some members of the Tory party seem wont to enjoy, then I can’t really see the connection, but there, maybe women don’t experience a “dopamine rush” during sex… I’m normally trying to discreetly read my book at the same time, but maybe that’s just me.
On a more serious note, the programme replicated the notorious Milgram experiment where people are basically invited to give other people increasingly nasty electric shocks. The point of this being to find out if there’s a ‘dark side’ within all of us just waiting for the right catalyst to release it. Milgram’s experiment originally revealed the shocking fact that people will obey orders from ‘authority’ figures – or in the belief they’re helping to further the cause of science – and commit an act of violence that they wouldn’t otherwise have considered doing.
With the help of scientists and medical experts, Michael heard how violence is a natural instinct and can – and for some, does – lead to anything from chucking a plate against a wall to torture and genocide.
Portillo said of the programme, “The film shows that we have these tendencies and we control them partly because of the development of our brains and partly because we’re socialised….
“A road or sporting accident can damage the brain’s delicate pre-frontal cortex and cause people to undergo a complete personality change.”
One such case quoted to demonstrate what a brain injury can do to previously ‘normal’ people was that of a man who had no history of violence but who, after a road accident, murdered his wife in an uncontrolled fit of rage.
The most serious part of the programme for me was hearing the harrowing tale of Emmanuel who was a former child soldier in war-torn Sudan. His experiences were horrific, both those inflicted upon him and those he inflicted on others. They included “brainwashing” and his participation in the torture and slaughter of the “enemies” who killed his parents.
It was explained that because of the brainwashing Emmanuel was subjected to at a formative stage in his childhood, he believed he was justified in his subsequent actions, but now, having undergone rehabilitation, he’s filled with guilt and regret.
Overall – with the exception of Emmanuel’s story and tales of genuine acts of violence – this was something of a jokey, pseudo-scientific experiment that wasn’t really worthy of Horizon which ordinarily does invoke real science in their programmes.
Was it really likely that Michael Portillo, a public figure and politician was going to go totally schizo and freak out for the sake of a TV documentary, thereby risking his entire career? Nah, I don’t think so, so the experiment lost credibility due the high profile of its human lab rat. It would’ve been much better to have an ordinary Joe from Nowhereinparticulars Ville; then we might have truly seen how far ordinary people can be pushed and again, the whole thing would’ve had more credibility.
Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed seeing Michael Portillo getting beaten up by an old man… in fact, it’ll keep me smiling for most of the week.