by Ben Cislaghi
“Where is all this violence coming from?” John, one of my spiritual mentors, asked me. It was a sunny afternoon; one of our students had a very stern reaction to our invitation to be self-reflective. A small but fierce pack of wolves had formed around that student, with the others witnessing and not daring to intervene. “Why are we out in the streets for blood, why so much violence: for someone who cuts the road in front of you, for someone who comes asking for help from another country, from someone who is just different?” It was an important question – here’s a possible answer we discussed on that sunny afternoon.
Humans have a fantastic hive mind. In The Righteous Mind, moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt argued that it probably saved us from extinction and can even lead to self-sacrifice for the greater good:
“We have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves. That ability is what I’m calling the hive switch. The hive switch is an adaptation for making groups more cohesive, and therefore more successful in competition with other groups.”
Think about how many people feel great being part of a group that has a code, a language and symbols – and above all, the feeling of a larger purpose: the army, Extinction Rebellion, Apple, a political party (green, blue, or red), Berlin’s underground rave community.
Of course, that hive switch can result in ecstatic forms of violence, just think of the Nazis, for one. The hive switch can create an us/them narrative that is highly dangerous, or, as Tom Gauld observed, even meaningless.
We have seen the power of the us/them narrative frequently activated by politicians and activists in the last few years. Examples include Trump’s travel ban (Executive Order 13769 – what critics called the Muslim ban) or the Brexit debate that divided entire families.
The more people are isolated, closed into their own bounded community, the more they are likely to be afraid of whoever is different, as Stephen Fry popularised in Brexit: Fact vs Fear.
So how does this all relate to John’s question? Let me try to suggest a possible answer. It’s an idea, a conversation starter, a heuristic attempt to kick start a questioning process, a gift from teaching ethics. Here’s how it goes:
First, from birth to vulnerability. Adler suggested that humans feel overwhelmed by the power of nature and their own frailty. From the very moment we’re born, we are confronted with our exposedness: without other humans taking care of us, as babies, we are as good as dead.
From vulnerability to fear. So much weakness is difficult to understand, let alone take care of. Our bodies can feel hungry, cold, and afraid. The noise and constant aggression of urban environments (as Levi-Strauss taught us) don’t help in making us feel protected, if anything they increase the sense of constant threat: what’s that noise, why is everyone running, why is there no night? Under such stress, our bodies demand silencing of the fear and anxieties connected to our frailties.
From anxiety to control. Living in a state of perceived threat generates desire for control. With a massive dataset, the brilliant Michelle Gelfand and her colleagues have given ample evidence of the link between anxiety and desire for control. But total control of this highly interconnected ecosocial environment is impossible to achieve for any single individual, which is why politician’ promises to restore it can be so appealing. But there are too many people who, simply, don’t want to be controlled by another person. How then, do people try to achieve some sense of control to soothe the body?
From control to isolation. The solution that, seems to me, many end up seeking is to try to reduce the size of the environment that requires control. We isolate ourselves and dehumanise the other, we stay at home, or go out but ignore others. We only acknowledge the shared humanity of our family or friends. By remaining inside our closed communities, we make unwritten reciprocal promises not to be different, to comply with the reassuring system of norms that will allow our polyvagal nerve to rest, even if just for a second.
From isolation to aggression. And because isolation leads to not knowing and fearing the other even more, we become aggressive. We don’t want to be awakened to the humanity of the different others. We hate them for trying to remind us that we’re not the only ones feeling and suffering.
Is there a different path? Perhaps. Maybe if we could move from birth to weakness, from weakness to shared loving vulnerability, from shared loving vulnerability to compassion, and from compassion to letting go, maybe we could end up imagining a different way of being. One that unites us under the only true common trait: that we are alive, now, here, and are all feeling.
Dr. Ben Cislaghi, is Associate Professor at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). His research work at the LSHTM has contributed to increasing the understanding of how gender norms affect people’s health and how their effect can be measured. (see this article, for instance). There, he leads a team of researchers and activists working at the intersection between gender equality, child protection, and ethics of international development.
Ben worked for various NGOs and International Organisations, including UNICEF, WHO, and ILO and collaborated with several Universities, including Stanford and Columbia. He was director of research for the NGO Tostan in Senegal for three years.
Ben’s team is passionate about translating research into practice, and collaborates with several NGOs to increase their self-reflective ethical practices and integrate greater understanding of gender and social norms into their work. This commitment results in both translational research to action and accompaniment of small and mid-size NGOs working in low and middle-income countries. Ben is a regular contributor to the Rights Studio, you can read his previous post here.