Hard Questions, Hard Answers


Michael Nagler


All major natural and human systems are in crisis or transition. The signs of this change range from the crash of fisheries around the world, the depletion of rainforests, the declining credibility of government, the growing inequality between rich and poor, and the crisis in meaning and sense of emptiness that comes with an overemphasis on material consumption.
—Positive Futures Network Newsletter

For pain does not spring from the dust or sorrow sprout from the soil: man is the father of sorrow, as surely as sparks fly upward.
—Job 5:6-7


A front-page photo in the Sunday New York Times on August 17, 1997, showed a grieving woman, Linda Reid, putting flowers on the gravestone of her son, who had hanged himself at the age of seventeen. He was the sixth teenager from that community to hang himself or herself that year. Why? The well-written article describing the suicides in this south Boston area talked about community pride putting too much pressure on young people, about racial tensions, lack of economic opportunity—all things we are well aware of but that hardly explain why a young person in a country like ours would take his life. Or hers. The real explanation must lie much deeper than community pride and economic opportunity. In 1998, the surgeon general reported that children between the ages of ten and fourteen are twice as likely to take their own lives as they were fifteen years earlier. What is the explanation? As though sensing that all the talk about community pride and the like was a smoke screen, the writer finally quoted a local priest: “There really aren’t any answers.”

I refuse to accept this.  I refuse to believe that there are no answers to the cheapening of life and the rise of violence against it.  Statesmen and women assassinated for minor differences; two young men murder their own parents to get their money; a murder-suicide leaves a celebrity and his wife, apparently happy for years, dead in their palatial home; women are trafficked as cheap commodities; a teenager is shot dead in the street for his running shoes—why? It may be easy to say that there are no answers, but it’s not acceptable. If we have no answers to such a basic matter as why we can’t live in peace with one another, often can’t go on living at all, maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.

 In one respect, it’s only too clear that we are doing just that.  Violence is “reported” to us every day by the mass media in a wash of meaningless detail. “Joe X, twenty-six, was shot three times with a 9-millimeter handgun purchased the previous Tuesday for twenty-three dollars.” Or, “This month the homicide rate in Dayton was 1.8 percent lower than last month.” Frequently, we are solemnly told the trivial “reasons” offered by flustered survivors who hardly understand what is happening to them, and there is no limit to how absurd, how downright insulting to human nature these can be. In what would be called today a frivolous lawsuit, the wife of James Oliver Huberty, who killed twenty-one people in the McDonald’s San Ysidro massacre of 1984, said that her husband’s murderous rampage was caused by the excessive MSG [MonoSodium Glutamate] in McDonald’s hamburgers. The way violent events are reported (and this is a large part of what we read and think about today) is virtually always trivializing. It comes to us as a barrage of incidental details, often of cold statistics. Engrossed in one sensational detail or another, one particular violent episode or another, we never think about violence itself.

The right questions, then, are not, Why are very young students turning their schools into battlefields? Or, Why is there an increase in hate crimes right now against gays in Florida or how can we close the borders to prevent human trafficking? They are:

 What is violence?

 Why is it getting worse? and

 How do we make it stop?

Stirrings of Change

The tendency to deny violence has been with us for a long time, to be sure, but there are signs that it is weakening. Considering the enormous role played by violence throughout history, Hannah Arendt wrote in her classic study On Violence in 1969, “It is . . . rather surprising that violence has been singled out so seldom for special consideration.”[1] She was reflecting the fact that a new awareness is dawning, that many feel the time to get past denial and face the issue head-on is right now. It has been half a century since Gandhi observed that the world was “sick unto death with blood-spilling,”[2] and at about that same time, French philosopher Jacques Ellul made the shrewd observation that our era “is not at all the age of violence; it’s the age of the awareness of violence.”[3]

In other words, what really characterizes our time is not so much that there is so much violence—there have been such times before—but that we are challenged, possibly as never before, to deal with it. This being true, the mass media could not have chosen a worse time to make violence appear trivial and incomprehensible. They are doing a singular disservice to human civilization.

Confronting violence is a little like turning around to face a bright light that’s been projecting all kinds of fascinating images and shadows out in front of us (yes, I’ve been influenced by Plato). It’s hard to peer into that glare, but when we succeed we find ourselves going through a kind of Alice’s looking glass. Suddenly we feel like the character from that popular sixties poster, with his head stuck into a whole other universe—or that convict in a cartoon staring wistfully through the bars at a little patch of sky while all along the door to his cell stands wide open behind him.

It is a much wider world out there; the light is harsh at first, but when we face it, problems that seemed impossible to cope with now seem to come teamed with all kinds of solutions—solutions with unexpected good side effects, instead of bad ones.

The prevailing method of dealing with violence has a dreadful tendency to create more problems than it solves. For example, in the US we try to stop young people from bringing guns to school by installing metal detectors. It does cut down on the number of guns they bring in, of course—and it demoralizes the students because it implies they cannot be trusted. It intensifies the excitement of the “game” of sneaking guns into school. And most of all it normalizes the violence. It blunts the shock. How could we have allowed a situation like this to happen, where young people have guns at all, much less carry them in school? And without that shock, where do we get the motivation to act? Where’s the impetus to confront the real problem, of which guns in school is only one form: the problem of violence?

Moving toward the Truth

I have been identifying the mass media as a major source of our problem, and I’m going to continue, for one simple reason: that is where it would be most effective to make a change. In all honesty, however, we cannot put all the blame on them. When Hannah Arendt said it is “rather surprising” that violence has not been given special attention before now, she was giving us a scholarly hint that we have a natural inclination to avoid thinking directly about violence, which is understandable: we would be thinking about the most negative side of human nature, which means the most negative side of ourselves. I don’t like this any more than you do. But although it must be done, it doesn’t have to be done destructively. That is, we can peer into the depths of human nature—of ourselves—in a balanced way, seeing what is good as well as what is discouraging about us. Today, by emphasizing the shadow side of humanity—and “emphasizing” may be too mild for our obsession with the ugly and violent today—our culture seems to be making us more and more ignorant of our human stature. Let me throw that claim into relief by quoting a brief passage from an era, namely, the fourteenth century, when that was not yet true:

Beneath you and external to you lies the entire created universe. Yes, even the sun, the moon and the stars. They are fixed above you, splendid in the firmament, yet they cannot compare to your exalted dignity as a human being[4]

It seems almost fantastic to us that a writer could matter-of-factly describe humanity in these glowing terms; but it would have seemed just as fantastic to him that we matter-of-factly bill ourselves as “natural born killers[5]”—just as fantastic and much more dangerous.

The obsession with negativity we take for granted paradoxically makes it nearly impossible to understand our negative side; it has blocked us from getting down to the causes of violence, those that lie within us, by creating a sense that only causes of violence lie within us. As we shine our light into the murk, therefore, it is essential to be watching for the seeds of change and regeneration that surely lie hidden there along with the drives, the impulses, and blindness that make us violent. Opposites can strangely be the same.

The other day as I was walking across Sproul Plaza, made famous in the sixties as the scene of the free speech movement, I saw a cluster of students handing out leaflets around a hastily knocked-together kiosk. Nothing unusual, for UC Berkeley. They were clearly agitated (also not too unusual), and I went over to read their large, hand-lettered sign: Anti-Asian Hate Crimes on the Rise. I was shocked and hurt. At Berkeley, so many of my students and friends and colleagues are Asian that this hit me personally, quite apart from the fact that this kind of thing should not be happening in Berkeley or anywhere in this century. But I’ve learned something over the years: if I wanted to do something about this, something effective, something that would last, I would have to get my initial reactions under control; I would have to take a step back and try to see the bigger picture.

To be more precise, in this case, I would have to take three steps back. Like letting myself down a chain into murky waters, hand over hand, I would have to back down in my thinking, from

anti-Asian hate crimes

to hate crimes

to hate.

Hate is the real problem. The more hate there is, the more it will express itself in whatever form. Some of those forms will be illegal—crimes, in other words—and some of those will be directed against Asians. But the underlying reason anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise—in Berkeley or anywhere—has nothing to do with Asians or even racism: it is that hate is on the rise. Today it might be Asians, tomorrow it could be Jews, it could be blacks, homeless people, gays and lesbians; yesterday it was Communists—but since these are all only the targets for some people’s hatred, trying to cope with each victimized group individually is like trying to fix one leak at a time in a rusted-out plumbing system. Wouldn’t it be more effective to shut off the water? Or to modify that image, hatred is a tide that raises all boats: we won’t get far trying to rescue the boats—or even groups of boats—one at a time.  We need some way to lower the tide.

As John Burton, former secretary of Australia’s Department of External Affairs and now a well-known scholar of conflict, wrote, “In so far as specific problems are being tackled by authorities as though they were separate problems, there can be no lasting cures for any of them.” We are not just going through clashes of one group and another, but a huge clash between the systems we’ve built and the actual human needs they were supposed to address.5

 The trouble with trying to stop one leak at a time is, first of all, that it does nothing about the others. Have a teach-in, raise consciousness, or, if you really want to be unimaginative, provide Asians with more “security” measures. You may see some reduction of anti-Asian hate crimes (I will be arguing later that even this isn’t guaranteed), but what about anti-black, anti-lesbian, anti-Caucasian hate crimes? What about road rage? What about war?

On the other hand, if you could somehow do something to control hate, all the manifestations of hate would subside to that degree. The effect on specific hate crimes might be less obvious at first because it would be indirect, but in the long run it would be much, much more reliable. You simply cannot have anti-Asian hate crimes if you don’t have hate. On the whole, this is so obvious that the only reason to repeat it is that as soon as we are confronted by some particular form of violence—witness my first reaction at the kiosk—it draws all our attention to the details. Emergencies are great motivators, but they create a terrible atmosphere for really solving problems. To solve problems you need to have a little self-control, a little distance, a lot of patience. You need to see, for example, that the problem is not hate against group A or B: it’s hate.

Incidentally, as I headed back to my office, whom should I run across but a well-known Berkeley personality haranguing the passersby in a voice I recognized all too well. It’s the kind of voice that makes you wince before you even hear what it’s saying. I’m not sure what his problem is or why he chooses to bring it on campus, but he’s extremely angry and attacks people for hours in a voice raucous with bitterness. He’s popularly called the Hate Man. I had the odd feeling that I might be the only one on campus noticing the connection.

Science and Serendipity

It sounds simple, but no sooner have we worked our way down the chain from anti-Asian hate crimes to hate crimes to hate—which is not easy to do when we’re caught up in a hateful situation—than we have not only an answer to the question, why this kind of crime? but the beginnings of a way to solve it. Once we’ve gotten down to the emotional cause, we start seeing a pragmatic measure that we’ll be able to apply, mutatis mutandis, to just about every form of violence: since the underlying cause of the violence is hate, we could fix the problem if we had a way to turn hate into something else. And there is evidence that this trick may not be as impossible as it seems.

In a remarkable experiment first reported in the Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology some time ago, schoolchildren of the same age were divided into two groups: one group was encouraged to be aggressive and the other to be cooperative. Within a few weeks they were behaving quite differently. Both groups were then brought together and subjected to an acute frustration: They were sat down in a nice big room with a projector that was flanked by several cans of film. For good measure, each child was given a candy bar but told not to start in on it just yet. The room was darkened and the first film started—suddenly, without a word of explanation, the experimenters snapped on the lights, shut off the projector, confiscated the candy bars, and packed the children off to their respective classrooms. Science is rough! But the issue was important—to see if the cooperative training would hold up under such unmerited mistreatment—and the results, duly filmed through the classrooms’ one-way glass, were extremely suggestive. The children with pro-aggression training were hellish; their frustration boiled over in fights, arguments, and general mayhem more than ever. That was not very surprising. But the rest was a surprise indeed: the children who had been systematically encouraged to cooperate with each other were more cooperative than ever. Apparently their cooperation training not only protected them from frustration, it allowed them to thrive on it. They were able, that is, to divert the negativity it released within them into constructive channels. Psychic tension, it seems, is neither good nor bad in itself; it can be thought of as raw energy that becomes destructive or helpful when it is made to flow through aggressive or cooperative channels. Peace could be a simple matter of training.

As you have guessed from the cans of film and the projector, this study by Joel Davitz was published over fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War [6]. Many political commentators were saying back then that if we made it through that year, 1952, we could survive anything. It might be thought that at such a time the question of what human beings can and cannot be trained to do with their aggressive drives would be of first importance. But Davitz’s study was by and large ignored. This was the heyday of the “innate aggression” theory; at that time the idea that human aggression is biologically programmed and there is nothing anyone can do about it, an idea now largely discredited (but still uncritically believed by the mass media and the general public), was about to break over the public in a series of pseudoscientific publications by Robert Ardrey (The Territorial Imperative would come out in 1966), Raymond Dart, and several others. The heyday of that sensationalistic “science” is now behind us, however, and we are free to imagine that there may indeed be ways to turn hate and other negative energies into something else, that, as this experiment suggests, human nature may contain the cure as well as the cause of the violent trend that’s engulfing us.

Science has not stood still since 1952, and we know a good bit more about cooperation. Mediation training in schools has become a growth industry, for example; but the implications of the Davitz study are still far from fully realized. The study itself is known among peace-oriented psychologists, but its implications have not been systematically explored despite their potential importance.  Pessimism about human nature is the norm in public opinion and, I’m afraid, in mainstream science (though that is starting to change). People study, talk about, and explore the shadow side of our nature. We have to look hard to find the other side, which is the one we really need.

In Search of Prevention

If you really want justice for your own group, or any group you identify with, you have to step back in your vision and your emotions, not for the purpose of caring less, but to give yourself the space for a better-aimed passion. This is what all of us have to do if we are ever to see a life secure from violence, even if we’re non minorities living in a comfortable community. Whether we are activists angered by some form of injustice or we just want to get to the store without being mugged, we are going to have to change our way of thinking. We have to slow down our initial reactions—not by any means the same thing as losing the intensity of our feelings about the problem, but on the contrary, in order to convert those valuable feelings from fear, panic, or resentment into determination.

But there’s an important point I only just began to mention: why wait until we’re being mugged, or people with ugly attitudes have started insulting us? Obviously, it’s tons more effective to be working at the root of the problem instead of the leaves, and to be working steadily instead of being caught by surprise every time there’s a violent incident.  We can start doing this the minute we stop reacting the way the media and (nationalist) politicians condition us to react and do some reflecting about what is going wrong, the minute we step back from the hurt and anger about what’s happening to us personally and start to think about inhumanity itself.

In the summer of 1998, a dedicated teacher and school principal in South Africa, Sister Theodelind Schreck, was shot and killed in an apparent robbery while driving to pick up her niece. Although KwaZuluNatal province has a long history of political violence, this slaying was a shock. “Sister Theodelind Schreck was dedicated to her teaching and religious duties,” said Ben Ngubane, premier of the province. Then he made an observation that rose above the fuss about why her, about this murder being unacceptable, and provided useful insight for all of us. “Violence remains violence, irrespective of motivation.”[7]

This shows exactly how we have to think about violence in order to cure it. This thinking leads us to a powerful insight, that anything we do to reduce violence anywhere will do something toward reducing violence everywhere.

 Premier Ngubane’s insight is borne out by scientific research. One of the papers read before the British Psychological Society in 1994 showed that the anxious and depressed states we get into from watching this news—or various forms of “entertainment,” which paint the same dismal picture of human nature—affect the way we see everything.  Evidently the negativity we take in—from any source, news or fiction—“tend[s] to promote a negative frame of mind in which negative events, thoughts and memories are likely to be dwelled on and positive ones filtered out and ignored.”[8] (my emphasis)

Clearly, that could lead to a vicious circle—and clearly, in fact, it has. There is a lot of bad stuff in the world; by seeing it up close, out of proportion, we come to expect things to be bad, and when we have negative expectations, life obligingly fulfills them.  Negative expectations hide our positive potentials, which are the very ones we need to resolve problems like violence.

Logically, then, to take in positive images must have the opposite effect, namely to make things better as surely as seeing violence makes them worse. But we never think to explore the bright side of the principle. A recent news story on “emotional literacy,” for example (a current term for the kind of cooperative training Davitz was talking about fifty years ago), had the title, “Today’s Lesson: Curbing Kids’ Violent Emotions.”[9] You could put it that way. But what if, just for the argument, we were to title that article, “Today’s Lesson: Unleashing Kids’ Compassionate Emotions”? Unthinkable; but actually more correct.  As we saw in the Davitz experiment, young people’s natural drive to cooperate takes up some of the energy that would otherwise be fueling their aggressions.

I recently showed my students a documentary on the aftermath of colonialism. The film brought out extremely well the contrast between what happened in India and in other colonial areas, primarily Africa. It pointed out how despite India’s many problems she remains the most populous democracy on the planet and enjoys rewarding relationships with the former colonial power—in contrast to names that make us wince today, such as Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, the Congo, Ghana, Algeria. And yet, strangely enough, it didn’t think to mention why.  The filmmakers did not dare to say that nonviolence led to one result while violence led to another. By the end of this book you will see why I dare to say exactly that.

As journalist Daniel Schorr wrote recently, “Television, celebrating violence, promotes violence. . . . By trivializing great issues, it buries great issues. By blurring the line between fantasy and reality, it crowds out reality.”[10] But if television and other media celebrate, promote, and trivialize violence and negativity, we don’t need to follow them. When they are drowning us in details—what caliber was the gun, where was the wound, what was the motive, if any—we can say to ourselves, “This is violence. Forget everything else and figure out what’s going wrong!”

When we can see through the details to the underlying story we will actually see signs of hope.  A few examples follow.

Strength Is Strength

As part of wrapping up the second Christian millennium, Time Magazine ran profiles of one hundred key people who, in the editors’ opinions, had left their marks on that embattled century. It was not inspiring. What they did with Gandhi was shockingly bad, but they did manage to relate an eye-opening story about Nelson Mandela.[11] When the young Mandela stepped onto the quay with a boatload of other prisoners at the infamous Robben Island, where he was to spend so many years of his life, guards shouting “Huck! Huck!” tried to herd the new arrivals like cattle, to force them to trot up to the prison and submit them to other humiliations; but Mandela and a friend refused and kept on walking calmly though the guards threatened, “Do you want me to kill you?” Once inside, the head warder, Captain Gericke, went a little too far, calling Mandela “boy.” “Look here,” Mandela calmly told the startled Gericke, “I must warn you, I’ll take you to the highest authority and you will be poor as a dormouse by the time I finish with you.”[12]

“Incredibly,” Time reported, Gericke backed off.

But is this so incredible? Don’t bullies frequently cave in when they meet with unexpected resistance? We’ve all seen examples of this, and in the next chapters we’ll not only see a few more but will start working out their scientific explanation.

Let’s follow the lead the Time writers missed.  A quarter of a century later, Mandela became the first president of a free South Africa. As most of us remember, during his inauguration speech he paused, turned to his arch enemy, F. W. de Klerk, took his hand, and said, “I am proud to hold your hand—for us to go forward together. . . . Let us work together to end division.”[13]

What is the connection between these two events?  We can never see it if we think of every conflict as having a “winner” and a “loser.” Did de Klerk win or did he lose when Mandela made his gesture of reconciliation? Absurd question. What about Mandela? As an individual, Nelson Mandela may not have liked F. W. de Klerk, but he used his strength of character to overcome his personal dislike; and we can clearly trace the connection from his strength as a prisoner on Robben Island to his strength as president in Johannesburg.  The capacity to stand up to a bully and the capacity to forgive one—the strength of character to rise above anger, even if that anger is perfectly justified—are closely connected. These qualities not only can coexist, they explain each other: strength is strength.

We miss this whole fascinating connection if we think “strength” means only the ability to prevail, to dominate. Mandela’s great role model, Gandhi, would often confess his blunders in public; he seemed to enjoy it, much to the consternation of his coworkers. Once, his sister was alarmed at what seemed to her a particularly damaging confession, and he said, “Tell sister there is no defeat in the confession of one’s error. The confession itself is a victory.”[14]

Now we can go one step further. The fact that real strength means so much more than gaining power over another can explain the strange conversions of angry, violent people that keep cropping up in the annals of peace. When segregationist George Wallace became governor of Alabama, he kept his campaign promise and literally “stood in the schoolhouse door” to block black students from entering the University of Alabama in June of 1963, making himself a national symbol of defiance in the cause of segregation. But in the course of time, something apparently happened to lift the fog of hatred from his mind, and on March 11, 1995, he came to the celebration of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march to apologize to the marchers, black and white, whom his state troopers had clubbed and fire hosed thirty years before. That took guts—but then, so did the way he defied the whole country back when he saw things differently. From an icon of segregation he became, on the front cover of Life, an icon of reconciliation. No wonder Gandhi often said that there’s hope for a violent man to become nonviolent, but not for a coward. In nonviolent logic, this makes perfect sense: what we’re seeing is the same courage and strength, put to better use.

We can also link these two events in Mandela’s life, the defiance and the generosity, with his impressive leadership—his ability to pilot a brand new state that had just emerged from horrendous conditions with still-unresolved tensions of frightening magnitude. Is someone who forgives his or her enemies, in public, a good leader? Of course. He or she will tend to have access to creative resources for order, which we’ll have a chance to explore later (especially in chapters 5 and 6). For now, let’s consider one more nonviolent event that was misunderstood—and this time not just by the press.

In August 1991 a counterrevolutionary coup that would have pushed Russia back to Stalinism was thwarted by a popular uprising. This is how one important liberal magazine characterized the event: “The coup failed. The regime collapsed. For once, the world was lucky.”[15] But the successful popular resistance to the August coup was not “lucky”; it was the result of deliberate acts carried out by courageous nonviolent resisters from the civil society who had been systematically studying nonviolent tactics for months, in part through workshops run by experienced American trainers (one friend of mine had done an average of two such workshops a day all over Russia throughout that summer). All of this was totally unknown to the press. “The August coup was not a surprising event,” wrote conscientious objector Alexander Pronozin shortly after it occurred. “The real surprise was how quickly the coup was brought down and that the ‘weapon’ that won the day was nonviolent social-based defence.”[16]

I will say more later about this remarkable form of defense (chapters 4 and 8), and what it could mean for the majority of us, who are not likely to participate in a “people power” resistance. What I want to emphasize now is that the rapid success of the resistance to the coup, which seemed so inexplicable, so “lucky” to the news media and general public—and, I have little doubt, to the political leadership of the time—was neither lucky nor inexplicable. It was the result of hard work and sacrifice; it followed the rules of the game with perfect predictability. Once you realize that everyone responds to love or hatred when it’s offered to them, you are on your way to understanding this “mystery.”

My colleague and friend Sergei Plekhanov, then deputy director of the Soviet Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, was not in Moscow on the critical day the coup was thwarted. A year later I heard him describe what he had gone through when he saw the starkly juxtaposed television images of the Kremlin, ringed by grim walls and armored vehicles, and the Russian parliament building, in white marble and glass, guarded only by unarmed people, almost a mythic image of civil authority under attack by violence. I still remember the quiet passion in his voice that so gripped the international scholars gathered around him: “And what do you have against them?” he said. What can you wield against those tanks and armored personnel carriers? “Nothing. Nothing but spirit, a sense of legitimacy, and the willingness of some people to risk their lives.” I hope the delicate irony was not lost on my colleagues; for this “nothing” is the classic recipe for successful nonviolence: spirit, a sense of legitimacy (that one’s cause is just), and the willingness to sacrifice—if necessary, to lay down one’s life. Those are precisely the three things that make resistance to an unjust regime successful. Basic Nonviolence 101. To miss this is to be unable to explain what forces were at work in the confrontation of August 1991—and why the people won.

The Open Secret

This side of the Iron Curtain there was a land called Yugoslavia, where people of different cultures and ethnicities lived side by side. They worked together, despite their tensions. They went to schools together. They quarreled; they intermarried. This went on for centuries. Then one day, when the lid of centralized state-socialist control came off, the three major cultural groups (they are not ethnic groups) blew apart. The result was the most appalling violence seen in Europe, and possibly anywhere, since World War II. Many asked, “Why? How could they be putting people in cattle cars all over again?”

As usual, there were those who said there was “no answer.” Others cited “history,” as though memories of the famous battle of 1389 had to be avenged even though the people who fought it had been dead for five hundred years. . . .

But in all this, one banal factor has been overlooked: the poisonous power of propaganda. The Slav populations of the other formerly Communist East European countries just to the north, in Hungary and Romania, developed a hearty skepticism about what they saw on state television or read in government-run newspapers. For some reason, that kind of doubt died in Yugoslavia if it ever existed. People here have always believed, and still believe, what they see and hear on television.[17] And the fear spread through the media by nationalist politicians seeking to remain in power continues to divide them.

In a way, this is nothing new; we all know about the “yellow journalism” that put the United States into conflict with Spain in 1898. Then it was mainly newsprint, now it’s television (or, in the case of Rwanda, radio). But the difference between then and now is not just technological: it’s the difference of half a century’s “background” message of alienation and violence, the cumulative mental poison that makes all of us more edgy, dispirited, and prone to react with violence along whatever fault lines present themselves, be it between races, between cultural subgroups in a formerly viable community, or between two cars on a crowded freeway. The London study I quoted earlier points to this effect; so do the wise words of Daniel Schorr, so do these from a twelve-year-old schoolchild in Santa Rosa, CA:

If there was no violence on the television less people would make violence on the streets. Also I think less people would be shot, murdered, kidnapped and other things.[18]

They sure would. It’s as simple as “violence in, violence out,” a result that is obvious to science, common sense, and our own personal experience, and which we nonetheless like to regard in some circles as controversial. It isn’t. If we play up violence, we’ll have more violence; if we play up money and greed, there will be more robberies; and in the words of another wise twelve-year-old: “People get a lot of ideas from sex [on television] and think it’s okay and then they rape people.” Several writers have recently pointed out that the same video games the military uses, off the shelf, to prepare soldiers for combat are being played by our young people, for example the young people who have left us one of the most painful memories in America—the Columbine high school massacre where two students carried out a shooting rampage, killing 12 fellow students and a teacher as well as wounding 24 others, before committing suicide.[19]

It seems so—well—stupid to do this to ourselves that one can understand the bitterness behind these hard words of the American writer Wendell Berry:

Always the assumption is that we can first set demons at large, and then, somehow, become smart enough to control them. This is not childishness. It is not even “human weakness.” It is a kind of idiocy, but perhaps we will not cope with it and save ourselves until we regain the sense to call it evil.[20]

If it helps, call it evil. But be careful: there is a world of difference between calling something evil and calling someone evil. The first strategy mobilizes resources against the problem, the second only recycles the ultimate cause of the problem, which is ill will, resentment, lack of empathy, and eventually hatred.

When the members of a European contact group sutured together a “peace” for the remains of Yugoslavia in 1998, they made no provision for reeducation; incredibly, no one paid any attention to the government-run television stations that kept right on whipping up the same hatreds that had started the violence.. As one of my colleagues on the scene ruefully told me, “Most people continue to be fed a steady diet of nationalism and propaganda, hatred, half-truths, and prejudice.” The war over Kosovo soon followed.

When we see someone deliberately fanning hatreds in this way, we have to feel the hurt of it so deeply that we cannot rest without doing something about it—but calling it “evil” is tricky. Where there’s evil, there has to be an evildoer—someone alien and dangerous. 

On the whole, I prefer to think that we are unleashing these demons through a kind of tragic mistake, of blinkered vision (what Berry calls “idiocy”). Still not very complementary: but it’s a more practical approach, as we will see.

The Purpose of Life

The media, for reasons of their own, have so obscured the simple dynamic of violence that we have taken to saying there isn’t any answer. But there is. We have seen part of it already. It’s that we, collectively, have created such a climate of violence and negativity that life doesn’t seem terribly worth hanging onto—ours or anyone else’s. At the same time, violence is at least “exciting,” and gives us a false sense of meaning. Suicide fits into this picture as violence directed against oneself—or have some of our young people become so alienated that their own self is “other” to them? In any case, it is the phenomenon of teenage suicides that forces us to step way back and look at the whole picture. Let me put it as simply as possible.

 Life has a purpose. Animals can live without discovering this, but people can’t. In the course of historical time, civilizations can get off on a tangent, get fascinated by some sidetrack, and lose sight of why they are alive. When this happens—and it seems to happen periodically—a whole culture can no longer see where it’s going. That’s when life loses its purpose (or seems to), and individuals, in the grip of a gnawing despair they may not be able to articulate, start to give up on life itself. Then we see teenagers committing suicide as though it were a fad, we see doctors who help people die instead of helping them live, we see the return of the death penalty—all symptoms of what the pope has called a “death-oriented” civilization. It’s not really death oriented per se; it’s death oriented by default. When life doesn’t seem to offer us a goal to live for, death and violence take on a lurid appeal. Yet, as an ancient Indian classic puts it, “Those who get drawn to the shadow side of life go to blinding darkness.”[21] To play with the dark side of human nature is to end up in a crisis of violence—and not understand why.

So the violence we’re seeing today is intimately linked to the “crisis of meaning” cited by the Positive Futures Network in the epigraph heading this chapter. It listed it as a symptom; I would argue that the crisis of meaning belongs center stage. If people don’t know where the journey of life is leading them, why should they be enthusiastic about continuing? Teenagers can be very direct, and here is what one of them said when President Clinton advocated an educational campaign on the dangers of smoking to dissuade teens from doing it.

In my opinion, many young people who smoke and say they don’t know why are subconsciously choosing death. So telling them over and over that smoking will kill them is not the answer. . . . If the President is serious . . . he’s got to find ways to help them imagine a future.[22]

When a young person ends his or her life, or kills someone along a California freeway; when bribes are considered as an alternative to justice; when a father turns on his own family or a nation sets off nuclear explosions, it is not about money or jealousy or traffic. Ultimately it’s because life has lost its meaning for them—they cannot “imagine a future” with any hope or purpose. Money and all those other factors can precipitate violence, but only among people for whom, consciously or otherwise, life has lost its meaning—or more accurately, who have lost sight of life’s priceless value and what a Greek philosopher called its “inexhaustible meaning.”[23]

Not long ago there was an in a campus newsletter about a truly remarkable breakthrough in molecular genetics. My colleagues had been able to “photograph” the very site on the cell where genes are “switched on” or off, where DNA is told to go ahead and produce messenger RNA to begin making part of an organism. While I was reading along, marveling how far we have come since my brief stint in medical school (never mind how long ago that was!), my literary senses were setting off a little alarm. I stopped and counted something: in this brief article, about six hundred words, the word machine occurred thirteen times. This is what’s called in literary circles a “subtext”: even while the writer was telling us about a great human achievement, he was also telling us, in that powerful stream of suggestion that runs underneath the literal meaning of our words, “You’re a machine, you’re a machine, you’re a machine . . .”[24] This is called dehumanization: recognized today in peace studies as the mother of all forms of violence.

 “For our culture as a whole,” Huston Smith recently pointed out, “nothing major is going to happen until we figure out who we are. The truth of the matter is, that today we haven’t a clue as to who we are. There is no consistent view of human nature in the West today.”[25]

“Who we are” is a question that will be hovering in the background of every argument in this book. Are we separate, material creatures—in which case it’s hard to see how we could not be doomed to competition and conflict—or are we invisibly connected through what Mahatma Gandhi called “heart unity” underneath all those real-as-far-as-they-go differences of body, culture, likes and dislikes, ideologies, religions and fashions? In the latter case, life may have a profound hidden meaning after all; and in that case, we’ve got a lot of learning ahead of us.

The dark side of modern science—and unfortunately it has one—does not arise from science itself, still less from any of the facts of nature. It arises from the way we unconsciously select scientific data to support the impression that we are merely biological machines in a meaningless material universe, which reinforces the already disquieting sense many moderns have that life is devoid of purpose. Science has every right to confine its attention to the physical, i.e., the outside world; it has no right to say, when it has done so, that it has given us the whole story.

When scientists, some of them, talk about “the biological basis of violence,” they are out of their depth. Science, at least as they practice it, can study the infinitely vast reaches of outer space, but it cannot very well study the inner dimensions of the human being. As a result, in course of time, those who turn to science for their answers to life come to feel they do not have such dimensions. They feel empty. Human will, nobility, beauty, and life’s overriding purpose are all in the category of things scientists do not study and that some eventually come to believe, quite without justification, do not exist.

This drive toward reductionism within science becomes exaggerated in the minds of nonscientists, especially when it is greatly amplified by the mass media. The media report new “discoveries” in material determinism at the rate of about a gene a day: obesity, sexual preference, intelligence, sex appeal, and whether you like peanut butter—they’ve just found the gene or the hormone or the what-have-you that “causes” it. No responsible scientist would actually claim that we can trace something as complex and subtle as anger or cravings or attitudes to a gene or a hormone, but we in the general public are spared such subtlety. We come to feel we do not have a will, that there is no redemptive drama going on in the human being, that we are without meaning or direction, and so, as Dostoevsky said in The Possessed, we die of despair.

The one essential condition of human existence is that man should always be able to bow down before something infinitely great. If men are deprived of the infinitely great they will not go on living and will die of despair.[26]

The six south Boston teenagers were examples of that, and today there are many, many others.

When a family, and as a result a society, becomes “dysfunctional” (a remote euphemism for the tragedy), the children grow up deficient in security and self-esteem, easy prey to what the Positive Futures Network called “the crisis in meaning and sense of emptiness that comes with an overemphasis on material consumption” through which our civilization is passing. They find it most difficult to discern the meaning of life, or believe that there is one, and begin to “die of despair,” in a thousand ways—even if they never see a television set.

When I think about the new world of mass media, I’m reminded of something a social worker recently pointed out about child care: “We have no idea how destructive a situation we have created. It is a social experiment on a grand scale with virtually no controls.”[27]

But this book is about solutions, not just problems. Some of the stories I told and more that I will tell are really about ordinary people doing in their way what Dostoevsky described in his grand register—people rising toward the “infinitely great” through response to the reasonably good.  We have already glimpsed not one, but two answers to the question, what can be done to keep young people from despairing of their lives? We can find ways to reduce violence and to find a new sense of purpose. And as we’ve begun to see, these two grand projects are closely related.

*** *** ***


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[1] Arendt, Hannah. On Violence. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969, p.6.

[2] CWMG, Vol. 53, p. 354 (Harijan 4/14/46, p. 90).

[3] Ellul, Jacques. Contre Les Violents. Vienna: Le Centurion, 1972, p.7.

[4] Johnston, William, translator. The Cloud of Unknowing. New York: Image, Doubleday, 1973, p. 129.

[5] Burton, John W. Violence Explained: the sources of conflict, violence and crime and their prevention. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1997, p. 10.

[6] Davitz, Joel R. “The Effects of Previous Training on Postfrustration Behavior,” Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology 47 (1952) pp. 309-315.

[7] Ngubane, Ben. AP wire report, July 27, 1998

[8] British Psychological Society: Sobel and Ornstein. “Bad News on TV is Bad News All Around,” Mental Medicine Update, IV.1, (1995), p.1.

[9] Curbing violent emotions: Goleman, Joel. “Today’s Lesson: Curbing Kids’ Violent Emotions,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 5, 1992, pp. D3, D6.

[10] Schorr, Daniel. “TV Violence: What We Know But Ignore.” Christian Science Monitor. September 7, 1993, p.19.

[11] Brink, Andre. “Time Magazine’s 100 Leaders & Revolutionaries of the 20th Century.” Time 151, no. 14 (1998), pp.188-190.

[12] Here I am drawing on Meer, Fatima, Higher than Hope: the authorized biography of Nelson Mandela. New York: Harper & Row. (1990), pp. 218ff.

[13] Daniszewski, John, “Mandela, de Klerk debate,” AP story in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, April 15, 1984, p. A5.

[14] CWMG, Vol. 75, 1999, p. 409.

[15] Remnick, David. “Dumb Luck: Bush’s Cold War,” The New Yorker, Jan 25, 1993, p.105.

[16] E-mail from Peacemedia section of Peacenet conference on September 28, 1991.

[17] British independent TV journalist Gaby Rado on location, quoted in the Washington Spectator, February 1st, 1994, p. 2.

[18] This quote and the next from a Sonoma County school newsletter called Kid Konnection, July, 1994, p. 21.

[19] see Grossman, Lt. Col. Dave, and Gloria Degaetano. Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence . New York: Random House, 1999, and Kara Platoni, “The Pentagon Goes to the Video Arcade,” The Progressive, July, 1999, p. 27.

[20] Berry, Wendell. Standing by Words. San Francisco: North Point, 1983, p. 65.

[21] Isha Upanishad, verse 12 (my translation).

[22] Rich’ard Magee, quoted in Youth Outlook (YO) for September 11-15, 1995, p. 6.

[23] Heraclitus, fragment B 45: “You will never reach the limits of the soul [or, life principle], travel as far as you will by any road: so deep is its meaning” (my translation).

[24] Sanders, Robert, “Berkeley, LBNL Scientists Snap First 3-D Pictures of the ‘Heart’ of the Genetic Transcription Machine,” Berkeleyan, January 19-25, 2000, 3.

[25] Quoted in Glazer, Steven. The Heart of Learning. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, (1999), p. 218.

[26] Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Possessed (a.k.a. The Devils). New York: The Heritage Press, 1959, p. 571. Though this sentiment is put in the mouth of an unlikely character, there is no doubt Dostoevsky himself subscribed to it.

[27] Conniff, Dorothy. “Day care: a grand and troubling social experiment,” Utne Reader (from The Progressive), May/June, 1993, p. 67.



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