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Main | The Art of Experiencing »

Our Tragic Flaw

Here are the opening paragraphs of my book, published last year, Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World.

This book begins with an alarm: We live in a time of unprecedented peril, on the brink of our ruin as a civilization and perhaps as a species. Climate change is only the most prominent of a growing array of threats to our collective survival, part of a convergent trend that makes ecological and social collapse increasingly likely over time. If we should fail to avert this outcome, our generation will have played a leading role in the greatest tragedy ever to befall humankind. Like the tragedies of literature, a deep flaw lies near the heart of our prospective doom. An attribute that once seemed a source of strength would now emerge as the cause of our demise. That flaw is the subject of this book.

But our ruin is far from certain. A sustainable way of life, one that is not only lasting but also deeply ethical and joyful, remains possible. A tragic flaw only becomes fatal when its ruinous aspect remains too long concealed behind its heroic glow. Once we can see the flaw plainly and clarify its tragic implications, we open the possibility of acting differently in the world to different results. This book purports to look our tragic flaw full in the face—literally, to confront it—not only so that we may understand what has driven us to this perilous point, but how to avert its worst consequences while there is still time.

This book proposes that our tragic flaw is violence—not only violent acts in themselves, but the logic that motivates and justifies those acts. This logic entails certain structural properties that, especially over the long term, have truly catastrophic effects. The logic of violence is cyclical—one act of violence tends to provoke another; as the well-worn phrase has it, violence begets violence. Moreover, the logic of violence is escalatory—the cycle of violence tends toward greater brutality and injury over time. But worst of all, and most important for the argument of this book, the logic of violence is ultimately self-destructive. I argue that, so long as the logic of violence predominates in a given society, that society will move relentlessly toward its own self-destruction and, in the fullness of time, achieve it.

This lends deeper meaning to the injunction, “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”[i] No longer do we understand merely that I am more likely to die a violent death if I am out in the streets skewering my neighbors left and right. The deeper meaning suggests that anyone who depends on violence to survive will surely one day commit suicide. It is not my enemy’s sword that will kill me, but my own—he who lives by the sword dies by his own sword. This understanding captures the defining dynamic of tragic flaws mentioned earlier: the means by which I have secured my success becomes the very cause of my downfall. Humankind’s relationship to violence follows this trajectory over the broadest sweep of history.

This book further proposes that violence, as embedded as it may be in our genes and culture, admits of transformation. And not only this, our moment in history may offer the most auspicious conditions ever to occur under which our tragic flaw might be so transformed. In short, we live in a moment of unprecedented endangerment and possibility. To realize this possibility, however, will require profound change at both the global and personal scales. This book argues that these changes, while extremely challenging, lie within reach, and it sketches out some key features of the process of transformation. I will consider this book successful to the extent that I persuade you to take seriously two basic assertions: 1) violence is always prohibitively expensive; and 2) each of us alone and all of us collectively are capable not only of surviving but thriving without violence. The first assertion runs against the grain of mainstream thought, and much else, in our culture. As long as we continue to condone the use of violence we have no hope of averting our own self-destruction. We must confront the seductions of violence, see the implications of its logic, and reject it once and for all. Our future depends on it.

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