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Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World (c) Parke Burgess, 2018




Few would contest that violence is horrible and that it may sooner or later bring us to the brink of doom. But, alas, I think fewer would readily accept that we can live in a world without violence. We tend to believe that some violence is necessary or even just, and that to make a policy of strict peacefulness would be foolish, perhaps suicidal. And yet, this prejudice against the possibility of systemic peace and nonviolence must be overcome—as I have argued, it would be suicidal not to. Our circumstances call us to envision a culture of peace and to consider how we might transcend the barriers, mostly internal, that we are likely to encounter along the way. Such is the work of this and the remaining chapters.

A peaceful society would look radically different from the one we see around us today. We would need to re-invent our relationship to power and decision-making, and change our psychological and sociological orientation to the limits of resources. We would have to deconstruct privilege of all kinds, and level our social hierarchies. These are not new ideas. They have been proposed in various ways under the names of socialism, communism, anarchism, even libertarianism. These are big ideas that threaten the current arrangement of power directly. To the extent that any one of us draws any advantage from the current arrangement of power, the kind of social change we must consider ought to make us quite uncomfortable. If it doesn’t, we may not be thinking clearly enough.

When radical social change comes under discussion, someone usually brings up Churchill’s words, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”[i] In my experience, the rhetorical function of this quotation is twofold. First, the speaker calls upon the authority of Churchill to condemn all other forms of government ever tried, especially communism and socialism (the actual targets of Churchill’s remarks).[ii] Usually, other forms get thrown into the same soup, like anarchism and libertarianism, even though they have not really ever been tried.[iii] Second, the speaker leans heavily on Churchill’s smug implication that, whatever its faults, nothing better than what we already have could ever come to pass. Look around. This is as good as it gets. I find this sentiment entirely self-serving—of course, this is as good as it gets if you’re Churchill.

Such thinking betrays a terrible failure of imagination. It says that all the good thoughts have already been thought, and everything worth trying has already been tried. Consider if someone had told young Albert Einstein, “Newtonian mechanics is the worst form of physics except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I think he might have rightly replied, “Until now.” Thomas Jefferson and John Adams might have said the same if King George had used Churchill’s ploy, substituting monarchy for democracy. In short, however true this sentiment may be about the past, it says nothing meaningful about the future.

Given the grim alternative, we are compelled to use our imaginations to envision a truly peaceful world, one in which the logic of violence no longer predominates the affairs of women and men. We are called to imagine the world we want to live in and the pathway that gets us from where we are now to where we need to go. We are challenged to imagine what it might take actually to travel that path and actually to arrive at its destination.

All of this requires courage. In the first place, it takes courage to declare first within ourselves, and then to our families and communities and the world, that we can no longer comply or collude with violence, corruption, and oppression. In the second place, it takes courage to imagine publically: to make commitments to our ideals, to articulate our visions, hopes, dreams, and strategies. Third, it takes courage to run the risks of trying new things, getting it wrong before we can get it right, and maybe failing altogether. Finally, it takes courage to give up what we would lose should we succeed. A new world, even a much more peaceful world, would entail great loss—we would lose the only way of life we have ever known. So, let us screw our courage to the sticking place, not in the name of ambition and murder (as Lady Macbeth would have her husband do), but to the diametrically opposite purpose. Let us open the floodgates of our imagination. Let us give vent to our yearnings for a peaceful world. Let us roll up our sleeves and bring the best of ourselves to the most worthy project of our time, or any time.

Evolutionary psychologists might be among the first to snicker at such a resolve. They would say we can imagine all we want, but human nature is only so pliable. In the end, all our dreams are doomed to fall back to ground under the imperturbable force of evolutionary gravity; we cannot sustain a way of being divergent from that which we evolved to be. Steven Pinker argues, for instance, that the forces of cooperation and violence have evolved to regulate social life in a finely tuned balance:

People congregate in groups not because they are robots who are magnetically attracted to one another but because they have social and moral emotions. They feel warmth and sympathy, gratitude and trust, loneliness and guilt, jealousy and anger. The emotions are internal regulators that ensure that people reap the benefits of social life—reciprocal exchange and cooperative action—without suffering the costs, namely exploitation by cheaters and social parasites. We sympathize with, trust, and feel grateful to those who are likely to cooperate with us, rewarding them with our own cooperation. And we get angry at or ostracize those who are likely to cheat, withdrawing cooperation or meting out punishment. A person’s own level of virtue is a tradeoff between the esteem that comes from cultivating a reputation as a cooperator and the ill-gotten gains of stealthy cheating. A social group is a marketplace of cooperators of differing degrees of generosity and trustworthiness, and people advertise themselves as being as generous and trustworthy as they can get away with, which may be a bit more generous and trustworthy than they are.[iv]

This is an evolutionary argument. Pinker does not mean to suggest that anyone necessarily thinks of themselves or their social group in this way. He means to suggest, rather, that our social-emotional systems evolved in just such a way in order to enhance our individual advantage in the context of social life. The thrust of Pinker’s argument, however, is not only that this is how we got to the present point, but that this is now embedded in our cognitive equipment and runs us, without regard for what we might have the courage to imagine.

The evolutionary argument is, essentially, a statistical one. When we look over the long arc of history, the evolutionist expects it to bend toward the exact tipping point between generosity and cheating suggested by Pinker’s description of the “marketplace of cooperators.” Pinker allows that this tipping point can move as a result of cultural factors. Indeed, he devotes much of his book to demonstrating that the human race has already substantially moved the goalposts far in the direction of peace compared to the whole previous trajectory of our evolutionary history.[v] But this long arc, as the evolutionist sees it, only bends so far toward justice. There is no such thing as actual altruism in this view. As possessors of “selfish genes,” our motives are always selfish first and, if we’re lucky, altruistic second. Trust isn’t real, but merely an expedient means to lubricate the social machinery. There may be truly altruistic and trusting people, but they are outliers who do not much influence the arc of history and probably get edited out of the gene pool before long.

I would like to entertain the idea that the evolutionists can be correct about the mechanisms of biological evolution but wrong about the limits of cooperation in modern life. In the first place, nothing about the past tells us what the limits of altruism might be in the future. As Pinker’s own argument shows, cultural factors can have dramatic and unforeseeable effects on human behavior and society. Second, for better and for worse the human race has embarked on a completely unprecedented social experiment: a constant, around-the-clock bombardment of culture in the form of electronic media. Finally, this experiment is unfolding on a global scale that has never before been seen. There is increasingly one global culture—again, for better and for worse. Put to the service of peace and nonviolence, modern life affords a completely novel opportunity to the human race to transcend the old “marketplace of cooperators” and build a new infrastructure altogether—not a marketplace at all, but a gathering place of equals where cooperation, more than a social lubricant, is mostly authentic and fathoms deep, not just for some of us but for most of us—in short, a collective of ends.

But is this actually possible, given the social-emotional equipment that has evolved within us? My mind goes to the infant, only months old. Is the trust of an infant conditional, a mere ploy to get the care she needs? The evolutionist would say so. But the phenomenology of the infant has no calculation. The infant has an intimacy with her actual existential situation that we as adults have typically lost. The infant trusts her caregiver because she must; there is no existential alternative. Calculation does come in the course of human development, but it comes later. At her age, trust is total and pure. From this purity of trust is the human capacity for love born. If we are lucky, we experience this at a critical time in our development. In that moment, we germinate the seed of peace. This is the moment to which we all long to return.

Our existential situation has not changed since those tender days. This is the deep point of Part One of this book. We ought to trust one another because we must; there is no existential alternative. When our trust falters, when it becomes inauthentic, when it is reduced to a mere calculus, violence is born—and this leads directly to our collective doom. We long to return to that sweet, soft, and true trust that, if we were lucky, we experienced in the heady days of our first year of life. I work most of every day with couples to achieve this state in their partnership, and sometimes—surprisingly often—they do achieve it. With this, they arrive back at the basic human condition of vulnerability that is held and cared for in mutuality. There is no inherent reason that this cannot be achieved on a larger scale.

We evolved for this, too; we all experience it (if we get the parenting we need); and we all intuitively know that this is the ideal state of the human being. Calculations arise as an adaptation to trauma and disappointment. To be sure, our existential situation includes trauma and disappointment, and so requires some degree of calculation. The evolutionists are right about this. But they are wrong, I submit, to dismiss the idea that calculation is additional, and that pure trust is existentially—not to mention, developmentally—primary.[vi]

If we accept the possibility of a peaceful world and allow ourselves to imagine how such a world would work we soon confront the vexing problem of how we might get there from the strife-torn world we now inhabit. If we start our inquiry from the conviction that a true and authentic peace is possible and is our explicit goal, we instantly leave behind most of what passes for social change work today. It is one thing to try to build more affordable housing; it is another to create true social equity so that everyone has equal and sustained access to quality housing. It is one thing to train police officers to be more multiculturally competent; it is another to strive to eliminate racial inequities across all domains of life, including the erasure of accrued historic disadvantage. It is one thing to tell bullying nation-states to play more nicely; it is another to dismantle an international system that maintains continual us-versus-them conflict around the globe. In each of these cases, the former involves managing a broken world; the latter, making that world whole.

In sum, when we allow ourselves the courage to imagine the world we really want, one that can only occur so long as we believe that it can, we find ourselves imagining a radically different world that would require correspondingly radical social change. This, of course, has been imagined before. But if we are to imagine a world radically different especially with respect to violence, which I have argued lies at the heart of what needs to change, then we must be very careful to avoid inadvertently baking violence right into our visions and strategies. This danger lurks in the deep structure of much radical thought.

Nonviolent Change

Traditional radical politics tends to be systems-based. It suggests that human misery is caused by systems of power that become corrupted because of some flaw in their design. Radicals generally advocate a system that they regard as free from such flaws, one in which corruptions of power have been designed out of the system. From this shared assumption, radicals then may be divided into ‘realists’ and ‘utopians.’ Realists believe that human nature is basically craven and corruptible, regardless of the system in which they live; utopians believe that in a just world humans would reveal themselves to be good and beautiful. In either case, a good society depends on a well-designed system. For the realist, a good design is one that constrains our basic flaws and prevents those flaws from corrupting the system itself. For the utopian, a good design is one that dissolves malice and corruption altogether because the system allows people to be as they really wish to be—that is, good.

With the realist, I agree that no system will change human nature; and with the utopian, I agree that all of us (or nearly so) want to be good and would be good under the right circumstances. But I disagree with both that any system design will, by itself, accomplish the desired outcome of a free, equal, and diverse society. I believe this logic to be far too simple: in fact, we all shape the systems in which we participate just as the systems shape us—we mutually interaffect and are interaffected by all with which we interact. Thus, none of us is a separate and bounded agent who carries around a fixed repertoire of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; nor is society a fixed set of practices and institutions that persist unwaveringly across time. This image is not only too simple, it also contains the seeds of violence. The fixity of human nature and society, were it true, would leave us no alternative but to force change upon the rigid and unyielding structures presumed to underlie personality and society.

A more accurate and nuanced view of human nature and culture offers a pathway to individual and social change that does not require violence. Indeed, such a view provides a mechanism for nonviolent social change that works, in part, because it exposes the impotence of violence. By this much more promising view of human nature and society, we recognize that, in the most radical possible sense, we are formed in our interactions with one another.[vii] What I think, feel, and do has very much to do with how you present yourself to me—the thoughts you articulate, the emotions you show, and especially the behaviors you exhibit. I will be different with you than with someone who presents differently.

This is especially clear when we consider our relationship with our primary caregiver in the first months of life. Our mother’s gaze, we now know, literally wires our right prefrontal cortex for social and emotional intelligence.[viii] But this kind of interaffecting never stops being true, indeed it intensifies as we mature, in the sense of becoming more mutual. We are always in some measure formed and shaped in each interaction. Exactly who we show up to be in relation to another person depends on who the other person shows up to be, which in turn depends on who we show up to be. In this extraordinarily complex and intricate way, we determine and are determined by each interaction in which we participate.

In this sense, the world—that is, the total human social environment on a global scale—both forms us and is formed by us in a ceaseless interaffecting dynamic. For this reason, some kind of abstracted social engineer cannot impose peace or, for that matter, law and order from above. (This is the trap into which many radical social change agents have fallen in the past; consider Robespierre, Lenin, Mao, or Pol Pot.) In this understanding, there is no above from which to impose such a thing. Nor is it possible to establish a broad peace by unilateral action, which essentially requires the individual or group to go on as if violence were not all around. The principle that we are formed by our interactions and already interaffected by everyone with whom we interact directly or indirectly both sharply limits our capacity to make change and, more importantly, it clarifies the kind of pathway that might actually lead to a more peaceful world.

It may seem, on this view, that the social change agent is caught in an intractable Catch-22. If the world is a violent place, and this in turn inflames our own tendencies toward violence, how can we possibly transform it into a peaceful place? This would indeed pose an impossible conundrum were it not for one crucial fact: We humans ardently desire peace and fairness. I showed in Chapter 3 how this was expressed in the prehistory of our species. And anyone who looks upon the face of an infant at rest in her mother’s arms can see it plainly in our young. Moreover, as a couple therapist I have observed repeatedly in my adult clients how a powerful, underlying yearning for connection works in even the most angry and exhausted spouses, enabling them to rediscover loving ways of reaching out for, and being touched by, one another.

If I am right that humans are (more or less) universally wired for peace and fairness, that this already operates in all of us, then we do not have to manufacture it. We are not required to create something (peace) from nothing (violence). All we need is to create space for the deep part of us that yearns for authentic human connection to invite the same deep yearning of our counterpart to show itself, just as I watch my couples do for and with one another every day. To them, I describe it as a kind of bootstrapping process where each partner leans toward the other as if into the scary abyss, but just a little—perhaps engaging a little more, softening a little more. With practice and persistence a positive feedback loop emerges to make it easier and easier to lean in, and eventually the sense of risk or uncertainty about how our overtures will get met becomes replaced with confidence and security.

What I have been describing in preliminary terms here is exactly nonviolence. If we refer back to the equation proposed earlier, V + (-V) à E (“violence plus nonviolence produces our actual existential situation”), we can see the underlying idea at work. Humans are wired for peace precisely because we evolved to flourish in our actual existential condition, one in which violence is never actually necessary.[ix] As a result, radical social change requires a subtraction of what has been spuriously added. But this subtraction is active, not passive. We do not merely withdraw from violent encounters but confront violence with its own negation. Nonviolence is not an act of omission, but very much one of whole-hearted commission.

I have begun to describe the change process as unfolding in an intricate context of mutual interaffecting, where we do not need to—indeed, cannot—impose change forcefully as if from above, or below, for that matter. We can now begin to conceive of social change as a kind of opening up to what is already deeply true (i.e., our longing for peacefulness and social equity) and an organic emergence of that into our forms of life. I have also suggested, however, that this is not a passive process. We don’t simply wait for radical change to bubble up from nowhere. We must actively tend to our deep longing, live out its implications in our interactions, and confront brokenness and violence wherever we find it.


[i] Churchill, 1974, p. 7566.

[ii] The irony here is that most proponents of radical politics want to make our politics more democratic, not less; so in this sense perhaps there is no disagreement. Of course, Churchill meant liberalism, in which democracy is married to capitalism. Today Churchill’s words resonate with neoliberalism, in which democracy is not only married, but subservient, to capitalism.

[iii] Actual Marxian communism has never been tried, either, a point lost on almost everyone. When people speak of communism, they usually mean Soviet or Chinese communism, or some variant thereof, none of which bear much resemblance to communism as an ideal such as Marx described.

[iv] Pinker, 2011, 490-491.

[v] Pinker, 2011. He devotes five massive chapters to showing that violence has declined substantially in every area of violence he can think of (which may or may not be true) due to “exogenous factors”—that is, not intrinsic evolutionary processes.

[vi] This is why I describe nonviolence as subtractive: V + (-V) à E.

[vii] This idea is rigorously worked out in Gendlin’s (1996/2018) philosophical masterpiece, A Process Model.

[viii] Schore, 1994.

[ix] Or, to put it in the negative, where violence always introduces unnecessary suffering.