Why are people violent?
Years ago, during a visualization meditation on physical violence (I wanted to try and get at the root of it, to understand where it came from), I found myself on a path edged with tall, tangled bushes. Their branches were bowed with huge blossoms and masses of matted leaves. The air was hot and heavy with humidity, and the sun was high and blistering. Up ahead, around a corner, I could hear voices shouting in anger.
People say that humans are violent because it’s just in our nature to be so, but for me that isn’t a satisfying answer (and there is recent evidence against it). Even if it’s true, it doesn’t explain why it’s in our nature; and it offers no solutions for preventing or mitigating violence.
Something that also puzzled me was the high incidence of violence in European culture. Europeans and European-derived cultures have become much more peaceful in the last couple of hundred years, but for a long time we were among the most violent on earth. The histories of China, Japan, Africa, and the Americas are not bloodless by a long shot, but compared to the history of Europe, they’re like pacifistic fairy-tales. Of course there were wars in these areas, but they tended to be either brief periods of intense violence followed by long years of peace, or else millennia of small-scale, ritualistic tribal struggles. But from the end of Pax Romana to the World Wars, Europe has almost always been at war. You can get a visual, visceral view of this at this site, which maps all the wars and battles of human history on a single Google map.
It’s particularly odd because the religion of Europe during those two thousand years was Christianity, which preaches peace and love quite insistently. What’s going on here?
I came round the corner and saw a grassy clearing. In it, two men, both completely naked, were screaming at each other. They were oblivious to me; they were arguing, shouting, incensed. What were they shouting? I tried to make it out…
Obviously anger has a lot to do with violence. Not all violent action is caused by anger, but when a normally non-violent person lashes out, anger is usually the reason. Personally I dislike anger, partly because of this dangerous association with violence, but also partly because I think (and Yoda and the Buddhists agree) that anger arises in an unhealthy manner from fear. It is fear that is externalized, and transformed into blame.
But not all violence comes from anger and fear, at least not in an obvious way. Criminals can be violent in a cold, calculating way, as a means toward other ends. Serial killers and rapists act out of powerful pathological desires. Soldiers are violent not out of anger (usually) but out of desire to serve country, community, and their fellow soldiers.
There is a common underlying cause here, but it’s not fear: it’s desire. Now, desire obviously does not lead inevitably to violence. But I think a case could be made that violence arises from good desires that are blocked or expressed poorly. Rape, for example, is horrible, but arises from the desire to be physically joined with another — which by itself is a good impulse. The problem is when that good impulse is taken to such an extreme that it overpowers another’s inherent physical sanctity and self-possession.
After a moment, I could work out what they were shouting: I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU. Screaming louder and louder, in each other’s faces. But they couldn’t hear each other…
I think love is the deepest and most basic feeling of desire, and it is the root of all other desires. Love of body, love of others, love of life, love of creation and beauty, love of experience — all of these are healthy. But when an individual does not know how to consummate their love — if they do not know how to reach the beloved, do not feel loved, do not recognize the capacity for love in the other, cannot reach beyond the boundaries of the self — then they can become desperate.
If I am right about this, then there may be a hint here of the reason for the high incidence of violence in European culture. Christianity speaks incessantly of love, and extols it as the highest and best way to reach consummation with God. Sometimes God is called love, and love called God, as if it were the only thing that matters. And God’s love, which impels him to action in the New Testament, is crucial to Christian theology. Even outside of explicitly Christian contexts, European art and writing is full of the praises romantic love, love of country, brotherly love, and so on.
Of course, love is also important to the Buddhists, the Taoists, the Hindus, etc., but nowhere near as central as it is to Christianity. In these other traditions, love is one of many paths to the top of the mountain; it is never confused with the mountain itself. Love is only one of many virtuous impulses of the human heart. And if it is tied too tightly to desire, but not given a healthy means of expression, what happens then?
Suddenly one of the naked men has a sword in his hand. He swings it round, straight at the other man’s defenseless midsection. I couldn’t watch; I looked away, and heard a scream of pain.
I forced myself to look up. The man wielding the sword was lying on the ground, his own weapon impaling him. The other man was kneeling beside him, crying.
- How to Choose a Religion V: Common Pitfalls: Community, Fear
- On Physical Violence
- My Favorite Meditation: Part II
- Finding Purpose and Direction Through Compassion
- On Grief and Connection: A Response to the Fort Hood Deaths
- On Emotional Violence
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