The Dense Complexity of Violence

(The comment below is not intended to cover all the possible non-violent approaches or causes of violence. It is just to focus on some important issues related to violence. Someone stated that there are 198 different methods of nonviolence- e.g. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Non-violent Action)

There is a dense complexity to consider when trying to solve the problem of violence in human existence, and when trying to apply principles of non-violence, or unconditional treatment of others, to the messy reality of life.  People note, for instance, that Gandhi’s particular non-violent approach worked because he was dealing with the British who maintained some sense of “decency” when dealing with insurgencies such as Gandhi’s.  There was a background “conscience” or sense of humanity/morality that could be appealed to.  So also, with Mandela in South Africa. There was still some white sensitivity to world opinion and the impact of sanctions. Even the US, when dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, could count on some element of rationality from the Russian side during that era of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction).

But when dealing with religious extremists (or other extremist ideologues), who glory in killing and death and embrace martyrdom, you are not dealing with rational people.  They may strike some deal with you at times to gain an advantage, but then, when opportunity arises, they will gleefully hack your head off, screaming praise to their God while doing so.  You cannot reason, negotiate, or bargain with such people. You are forced to take defensive action, however you may.  And so it has been throughout history.  One young jihadist (recently on CNN) said he would consider it a great blessing from God to be able to cut off someone’s head, just like the US journalists.

This is all part of the dense complexity to explore when applying ideals like unconditional, or nonviolence, to our contemporary world situations.  But a different approach may be taken with the larger populations that support extremist movements.  These people may still be reasoned with.  And this is where a long term solution is critical.  While also extremist in outlook, this population may refuse to actually engage the violence that they support for others.  This population will be sensitive to any retaliation and will maintain perceived offenses in long term historical memory that will fester and fuel violent activists among them.  But a non-violent approach may still resonate with this larger population, and appeal to their still present sense of humanity.  This is where it is critical to focus on changing minds over the long term (i.e. challenging and changing the religious beliefs and attitudes that affect human mood and action).

Note also that to cultivate support for nonviolent solutions, many peaceful people in the general human population need the reassurance that embracing unconditional treatment of all does not leave them vulnerable to unrestrained violence, such as from psychopaths, or jihadists, or other. These people need assurance that action will be taken to protect them.  Nonviolent approaches, if adhered to dogmatically (i.e. strict pacifism), often do not properly deal with the need to protect innocent victims from violence.

Trying to apply nonviolence, or the unconditional treatment of all, is not about a demand to feel fuzzy or warm toward a violent offender, toward someone who acts like a monster.  But it is about maintaining one’s own humanity in the worst of situations.  It is about avoiding the tendency to express the same base motivations of violent offenders that are governed by hate, rage, vengeance, and the drive to destroy.  It is about maintaining mercy and restraint towards the very worst, believing that they too share a human spirit and consciousness no matter how deformed they appear to be in the present.  Maintaining our humanity will keep us oriented to long term solutions to violence.  What may also help here is the realization that violent offenders are ruining their own lives more than that of their victims.  The offender is missing the very point of human existence- to learn something of love while on Earth.  The deformity of spirit or consciousness that occurs in a violent person is far worse than any deformity of body that they may cause to others through violence.

Some of the more critical issues to resolving violence for the long-term include the effort to get people beyond things like primitive tribalism, the “us versus them” mindset, us versus our “enemies”.  This requires moving beyond the dividing, excluding boundaries of nationalism, ethnicity/race, social status, politics/ideology, religion, and anything else that is used to divide people from one another. We need a fresh appreciation and expression of the unity of humanity in one common family. We are all in this life experience together on this planet.

Critical to resolving violence for the long term is to change how people think.  We can win military battles but lose wars if we do not deal with the underlying ideas, beliefs, or perspectives of the parties on all sides of various conflicts.  The real battle is in the mind and spirits of the combatants.  If people still harbor beliefs that validate exclusion, domination, separation, and vengeful action toward others, then winning a battle here or there will not ultimately deter further violent action in the future. When people continue to hold the foundational beliefs that validate violence, those ideas will continue to fester and negatively impact mood and action in the future.

Further, keep in mind that statistics reveal that extremely violent people are only a small minority of the overall human population, though they cause damage far out of proportion to their actual numbers.  Even in the larger sections of the population that may support violent extremists, we have to believe that there is still a human consciousness and spirit among those people.  Any appeal to the humanity of such people (i.e. reasoning with them according to commonly accepted humane ideals) will resonate with their human consciousness.  Humanity may be almost entirely quashed in the most committed religious zealots and ideologues, but not so in the larger populations that are apparent supporters of fanaticism.

Acts of violence enrage us and they should. but we must be careful that our anger does not lead to abandoning our humanity and falling back into the same old, same old endless cycles of retaliation.  We do not progress over the long term if we continue to respond like that.  We need to channel our rage at committed acts of violence toward finding long term solutions.

Preventing personal violence- NCI

The Non-Violent Crisis Intervention (NCI) approach offers some interesting insights similar to those of the Chinese sage (The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong). NCI illustrates how things like attitude expressed while helping prevent violence is important to long term resolution of violence (i.e. not humiliating offenders but seeking to rehabilitate).  Defensive action is not about a brute force display to cower an enemy and teach a lesson.  It is not about humiliating and crushing someone.  It is more about keeping in mind the need to restore after restraining an outburst of violence.  This is critical to long term solutions to violence.

The NCI approach focuses on initial communication to de-escalate situations before moving to last resort physical restraints. It notes that such things as one’s tone of voice can help defuse anger. One’s body posture and language can also communicate non-threat.

Here are some details of the NCI stages of de-escalation and, and if necessary, restraint:

Expressed anxiety (initial escalation) is met with supportive response (empathic, non-judgmental), and questioning to find out what is wrong.  A defensive stance by someone ready to act out (loss of rationality) is met with someone taking control of the escalating situation and setting limits.

Acting out (total loss of rational control, physical acting out) is met with safe, non-harmful restraint to control the acting out person till they can regain control of their own behavior. This is a last resort measure.

Tension reduction after an outburst (decrease in physical and emotional energy in the acting out person) is met with therapeutic rapport, re-establishing communication and rebuilding trust.

Regarding the supportive action at the beginning of escalation toward violent acting out, importance is given to physical communication such as facial expression, eye contact, body stance (non-threatening), posture, gestures, movement. Verbal communication is critical to de-escalation- i.e. tone of voice, volume, cadence (rate and rhythm of speech).

While this approach is employed at a personal level, common sense can see potential useful application to larger scales of human violence. NCI speaks to such issues as exercising the utmost caution before using force.  It encourages people to try to de-escalate tension and only resort to force as a last ditch protective measure. And it urges that we take care not to humiliate the violent person, but take steps after an outburst to restore the acting out person (i.e. rehabilitate).

Once again, here is the advice of the Chinese sage which also focuses on the critically important attitude of the people that are trying to stop violence: “He (the sage) uses weapons only when he cannot do otherwise…If he was forced to fight, the sage must always take up his weapons with regret. There must be no egotistic triumphalism, no cruel chauvinism, no facile patriotism.  The sage must not intimidate the world with a show of arms, because this belligerence would almost certainly recoil on him.  The sage must always try to bring a military expedition to an end.  ‘Bring it to a conclusion, but do not boast; bring it to a conclusion but do not brag; bring it to a conclusion but do not be arrogant;… bring it to a conclusion but do not intimidate’…(non-violence) did not mean a total abstinence from action, but an unaggressive, unassertive attitude that prevented the escalation of hatred…’the good leader is not warlike….the man who gets the most out of men is the one who treats them with humility’…It was our attitude, not our action, that determined the outcome of what we did.  People were always able to sense the feeling and motivation that lay behind our words and deeds…The sage must learn to absorb hostility; if he retaliated to an atrocity there would certainly be a fresh attack. Challenges must be ignored…the sage must ask whether hatred was breeding more hatred, or whether it was weakening in response to compassion”.

The sage has argued well that when we take defensive action to stop violence (i.e. using force) the attitude that we express is critically important. Our non-violent attitude will temper our defensive action (moderating the manner in which we employ force) and communicate to a violent offender that we are acting with utmost restraint (carefully limiting our force to a minimum required to restore peace), and also that we are acting in the best interests of all involved. There should be no over-the-top force (excess), or humiliation of our opponents, or gloating in victory. Triumphalist gloating only causes resentment which will lead to future episodes of back and forth retaliation.

What drives violence?

Many drivers of violence have been suggested- such as the excitement of engaging violence (due to psychopathic tendencies?), the drive to belong to a cause (seeking some form of justice), the zealotry or loyalty to something above humanity (a god, an ideology, a mythology, a principle, a law that takes precedence over real people). So much violence toward people has come from loyalty to some other “good” than people. Loyalty to gods above humanity, or holy books, systems of supposedly divine law, and other ideals or authorities. If such ideals and authorities embody themes of violence (i.e. divine wrath, vengeance, punishment and destruction) then they will stir and validate similar violent action among the people devoted to such themes. They will re-enforce base human impulses to act inhumanely toward others.

Another driver of violence: The sense of being special insiders, the chosen people of God with some special mission to accomplish. The belief that one is a member of a group that is specially favored by God has also led to devaluing other people that are outside of one’s group. This has even led to devaluing others as less than human, less than equal members of the human family. We saw this devaluing of others in situations like Nazi Germany where Jews were labelled as vermin, or in Rwanda where opposing tribes were labelled as cockroaches, pests that needed to be destroyed or exterminated. It is critical to counter this primitive thinking with a clear affirmation that we are all equal members of the same human family, all fully human and deserving of the same respect.

Also, the felt need to appease or please some threat can incite people to act violently toward others (i.e. the felt need to obey an angry deity, or the desire to gain salvation from the threatening deity by fulfilling the deity’s will to destroy others). This is the motivation of fear (e.g. evident in the terror at threats of things like hell). Psychology notes this relationship between fear and violence.  Think, for example, of the threatened animal snarling in terror at some threat and ready to attack.

And there is the sense of victimhood.  People feel that their group has been abused by some other group and believe that group threatens to harm them so they must fight back, they must fight for their survival before they are destroyed by the others. This sense of victimhood was engaged by Serbian leaders and used to incite their populations to murderous destruction of former friends and neighbors. Landes notes this sense of victimhood in Islam’s felt humiliation at the hands of tiny Israel (the army of a nation of a few million defeated the armies of nations of hundreds of millions), and also Islamic embarrassment before the success of the West. This has to do with the primitive belief in offended honor and the right to retaliate (the sense of obligatory revenge in order to restore one’s honor).

And there is, of course, the use of brutal deity/theology (noted above) to validate residual animal drives to dominate, exclude, and to destroy outsiders. People project base features onto God and then use that self-created God as their highest ideal or authority to validate their own expression of the same harsh features.

Another drive behind violence is the personal identity issue. People place their identity in some object like an occupation (i.e. soldier, businessperson), race/ethnicity, ideology, or religion. If someone challenges that object where people have located their identity, the challenge is then viewed as a threat to their very existence (their very self) and that evokes an animal-like survival response of violent attack toward the challenger. It becomes a survival issue similar to the victimhood perspective. The proposed solution to this is to remain a person in process- open to change and growth, not tying one’s identity to any object (see Louis Zurcher’s The Mutable Self).

Related to the above is the reaction of primitive people to the modern world as immoral and evil because it violates traditional life. Again, this has to do with people (their identity, lifestyle) feeling threatened by the new thing. So they react by trying to stop or destroy the perceived threat to their traditional identity and way of life.

Richard Landes (Heaven on Earth) also notes how the apocalyptic millennialism belief incites people to violence. When the hoped for and prophesied apocalypse or millennium does not materialize then true believers will sometimes try to force its arrival by engaging violence toward others (see if they can incite God to start the apocalypse).

Note: It must be remembered that media tend to distort the rate and amount of violence occurring over history. The long term trend in humanity has been movement toward decreasing violence (see James Payne’s History of Force, or Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature). This ought to inspire hope that the future will be better and all our efforts at promoting non-violence will bear fruit. But recent media trends are toward reporting more on violence. David Althiede noted this in Creating Fear: News and the Manufacture of Crisis. He noted, for example, that during the 1990s, homicide in the US declined by 20%, but reporting on homicide by news media increased by 600%. That leaves people with the wrong impression that violence is getting worse.  The sense of decline can be debilitating and cause resignation and passivity among people.  Or the sense that all is sliding toward chaos can incite the urge in some toward nihilistic destruction. So it is vital to present the larger picture that life is actually improving.

And consequent to the fact that life is getting better, violence then has no long term future.  It is simply against the entire trajectory of human history and our overall movement away from violence and toward a more humane future. Violence is becoming more and more aberrational as time passes.

Also, on the issue of countering tribalism (us versus them thinking) there is a lot of good research on racial issues that shows that race is a social construct with a weak biological basis. Modern humanity descended from an East African “Eve” some 100,000 years ago. The features that we focus on to distinguish race are so peripheral on the genome (human DNA), according to one scientist, that they amount to nothing of any more importance than a sunburn. We are all descendants of a black African Eve. Why then do some of us look so pale? Some of our ancestors migrated out of Africa to the northern regions of Europe where less sunlight led to an altering of expressed melanin distribution in the skin (not required for protection from the sun). This is natural local variation in response to differing environmental pressures. But we are all still the descendants of black Africans.

(Note: Wikipedia and other science sources state that people generally possess the same concentrates of melanocytes in their skin. These produce melanin which gives skin its color. But these melanocytes express differently in varied ethnic groups due to environmental pressures, such as sunlight. Population distribution maps show that over long term history darker skin has developed in people living in high sunlight areas such as the tropics, while lighter skin has developed in people living in low sunlight areas such as the extreme northern latitudes)

Most critical to resolving violence over the long term is to re-enforce our oneness as human beings (one human family) with the same human consciousness. We need to downplay all the peripheral things that people latch onto in order to set themselves apart from the rest of humanity- political identities, religious identities, racial/ethnic identities, and so on. We share a common creating Source that is unconditional love and that Source has created us all to learn something of unconditional treatment of one another. We are the one human family.

Finally, once again, ultimate solutions to violence must get at the primitive thinking/beliefs and practices that have long supported the expression of violence toward others. Most importantly, we must change perceptions like the idea of offended honor and the obligation to take revenge on some offender. Also, the ultimate ideals and authorities that we hold too often validate these primitive ideas and practices of revenge (i.e. gods that exact revenge and punish/destroy offenders). We need to get a hold of the truth that ultimate reality is unconditional love (there is no offense and retaliation in God) and that unconditional love defines our reason for existing on this planet- to learn something of that same love and to express it in our own personal life story. What a tragedy then to miss this central purpose for our existence and lives.

This was the discovery of the historical Jesus (unconditional love defines God) that has so entirely overturned all past understanding of ultimate reality or authority (gods).

Note: the offense and retaliate response is still widespread today in less severe expressions than killing others. You see it in the contemporary practice of people who take offense at all sorts of perceived slights and then go into full-blown social media rage, demanding apologies or firing, or some other form of punishment. And the issues causing such explosions of outrage are often the most minor of misperceived slights (some statement taken out of context or given an extremely negative interpretation). These waves of social media outrage reflect a petty touchiness and sense of victimhood that is at times embarrassing to watch.