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"Why Can't We All Just Get Along?" -- Addendum

Nov 08, 2009

Yesterday a friend of mine emailed me an article entitled "Winning the ultimate battle: How humans could end war." In response to some of the points in the article, I emailed my friend with a link to some of my ideas on war and peace, as encapsulated in the blog "Why Can't We All Just Get Along?" or "History Is A Bath Of Blood."

One of the main points I took issue with in "Winning the ultimate battle" was democratic peace theory, which, as described in the article, is the notion that "democracies rarely, if ever, vote to wage war against each other." There are many obvious problems with such a notion. At the most basic level, how are 'democracy' and 'peace' defined? Exponents of the democratic peace theory must be careful to note that between 1945 and 2004, "126 out of 189 UN member states have been involved in 291 armed conflicts in which some twenty-two million people have been killed." Many of those 126 nations were 'democratic,' and this statistic is therefore hardly a reflection of democratic peace in the modern world. The democratic label also obscures the role of democratic nations in secret 'operations' that aren't considered wars, and ignores wars between 'democratic' and 'non-democratic' nations.

My friend had a number of good comments and questions regarding the claims in my blog, and I thought I would post our email transaction here, with some additions, as an addendum to the original "Why Can't We All Just Get Along?" post, in order to clarify my position. My friend's questions and comments are numbered and italicized.

[1] - We know for a fact that the social organizations of man (and the past conditions in which we have lived) have thus far led man to be violent and warring.

I don't believe we can say "the social organizations of man ... have ... led man to be violent," without any further qualification. Certainly some modes of social organization have internalized and promoted violence, but we have to be careful not to claim that social organizations of any sort necessarily entail violence.

If we consider basic variations on the two social aspects of population size and technological capacity, then we find examples of small, subsistence-based villages and village syndicates that have been violent, such as early meso-American communities, and others that have been pacifistic, such as the Timorese. Conversely, there are examples of large, high-technology urban centres that are unsafe to walk around, such as Detroit, and others that are safer, as is the case with Tokyo.

Both violence and pacifism can, and have at different times been institutionalized, and impacted the shape of social organizations as they've grown. The question here is what engendered pacifism and violence in the first place.

[2] - What we do not know for a fact is whether or not violence and war is innate in man.

I do not say that violence is simply innate to man, but rather that violence is inherent to nature, and that a desire for survival is innate to all animals, and therefore to humans. This desire leads humans in to complex webs of power seeking activities. The shape that these activities will take depends on our operational environment, and our personalities will in turn shape and be shaped by our experiences.

Looking back to your first point, it is certainly true that "the past conditions in which we have lived ... have ... led man to be violent and warring," for we are animals, and our animal progenitors existed not otherwise than by violence.

Some human animals believe survival means they must violently assault those who call them names. Others believe survival means dropping an atomic bomb on a country that has been seeking peace for months. You and I believe otherwise; but what would we have believed if we were born into the life of Curtis R. LeMay, or if we were born into an early medieval barbarian tribe?

Answering your statement more directly: yes, we do know for a fact that violence is innate in man. Per E.O. Wilson;

"Theoreticians who wish to exonerate the genes and blame human aggressiveness wholly on perversities of the environment ... forget that innateness refers to the measurable probability that a trait will develop in a specified set of environments, not to the certainty that the trait will develop in all environments. By this criterion human beings have a marked hereditary predisposition to aggressive behavior."

[3] - We can speculate that [violence is innate to man], however, the fact that I am one example among millions of an individuals who is not violent (I've never killed anyone) seems to point to the possibility that man is not inherently violent.

The fact that violence, pacifism, and everything in between exists shows only that animals are malleable. There are domesticated lions just as there are domesticated humans. The crucial point here is that life in the wild is inherently violent for humans and other animals alike. That much is undeniable.

To borrow a phrase from the political philosopher John Rawls; humanity began from an "original position" of violence. This fact would have spurred early and malleable humans in violent directions, and influenced subsequent social organizations and institutions.

[4] - My point is that the broad past examples we have of the social organizations of man do not necessarily represent the way that man is. Society is not man. As for the "we are animals" answer -- certainly we are. But that does not mean that just because we share a great number of traits with wild animals (our progenitors) that we share them all.

Precisely; and neither have I claimed that we possess all the traits of our animal progenitors.

We are animals, and share a significant number of traits with other species, however we are the one species that might collectively be able to work to end war because of that one trait that separates humanity from all other animals: rational consciousness. Being animals however, we remain susceptible and prone to emotional and illogical outbursts.

Humans have had the same physiology for some 200,000 years, so what changes has the human species undergone? Ideas, and mentality. That's it. Nothing else. Our bodies are (largely) the same as the bodies of humans 200,000 years ago. Humans 200,000 years ago possessed the same functional range as we did, but not the same ideas. Modern technology, society, culture are defined by the progress of human mentality. Survival now means something very different than it did to early hunter-gatherers.

Still today however, a pacifistically oriented rationality is only a possibility, and it is by no means a certainty that any human will develop or act on their capacities for rational reflection and pacifism in a substantial degree.

A common red herring that pops up around these points of discussion is the attempt to connect pacifism with weakness or apathy, but such a charge betrays only a lack of creativity and standards on the part of the suppliant. Violence is easy, and takes no human effort at all; any brute can rage, yell, and do harm. With respect to international human sociability then, the question of achievement is properly asked as: can we not test our limits physically and mentally while also refraining from violence? -- which, as the title of the article we opened this discussion with suggests ("Winning the ultimate battle: How humans could end war."), may be the most challenging test of all.

[5] - Certainly there are things of which we are capable that wild animals are not. And to the assertion that we don't get along because we're animals, and the conditions of nature preclude the possibility of just getting along, the fact that there are instances in which this is not the case, "domestic life" as an example, belies the fact that nature precludes the possibility. What do you think?

The key here is in the phrasing. I haven't claimed that nature precludes the possibility of getting along entirely; instead I've claimed that nature precludes the possibility of just getting along. It seems a minor distinction, but that exact question has come up in conversation many times; "why can't we all just get along?" Some people have genuinely been curious about this topic, however often the people who have asked this question were not asking a question at all, and were instead making bigoted claims -- albeit paraphrased in question format -- against outside groups or cultures, thus positioning themselves as superior, and never stopping to wonder how and why it is that anyone can or does get along. As though some people get along simply because they're just better, and the circumstances they were born into played no role in shaping their beliefs and ideas.

One of the motivations of my original blog was to explicate the fact that asking "why can't we all just get along?" can easily obscure or exacerbate the problem. If the question isn't asked in a spirit of inquiry and with humble intentions, then it's little different than an antebellum American slaveowner pronouncing "why are slaves such fools while masters are so smart?"

To this end, one of the most potentially dangerous claims a person can make is that "human nature is inherently good." Left unexamined, this claim easily lends itself to suffering. It is beyond doubt that humans can be incredibly "good," but to claim that human nature is inherently good can be tantamount to claiming that "bad" people are willfully malevolent. Here "good" people may find justification for ostracizing, controlling, and even going to war against the "bad." The reality is that human characteristics are malleable, and that human nature permits every human to be "good" and "bad" in degrees. Hitler wasn't a sub-human from Hell, he was a man from Austria.

As I claimed in my initial post, "the fact that pacifistic people exist proves that pacifistic realities are at the very least possible, and are at least in some degree accessible to humankind," which is similar to what you've claimed. What's different is that I've said nature precludes the possibility of just getting along; and again, I have not claimed that nature precludes the possibility of getting along entirely, but quite the opposite, as per my claim in the original article, as quoted in the first sentence of this paragraph, stating "pacifistic realities ... are at least in some degree accessible to humankind." The reason we don't just get along is that we can't just decide to get along, and we can't simply tell others "it's okay, there's no reason for violence," because people need to have experiences through which they come to believe and understand how peace can be a real possibility. Reworking the adage, and suiting it to our case: you can lead an animal to ideas, but you can't make them think. For these reasons, engendering and maintaining peace requires persistent effort, constant inquiry, and infinite humility. As Confucius observed; "There is nothing I can do with a man who is not constantly saying, 'What am I to do? What am I to do?'"

With all of this in mind, and in response to your statement that "domestic life ... belies the fact that nature precludes the possibility" of just getting along, it's important to understand that the internal peace and stability of domestic life, as you and I have discussed and experienced it, being middle class inhabitants living and working in relatively prosperous sectors of a first world nation, exists not independently of national and international sociopolitical and socioeconomic processes, and therefore not independently of living and working conditions in other parts of our country and the world. Our lifestyle promotes violence in subtle and not-so-subtle ways across the planet, at best indirectly. You and I may not slap our neighbours, but we give money to a government and corporations who do far worse than that. Here I'll turn to a passage from Rudolf Rocker, which considers working conditions specifically, while also speaking more generally to the connection between international features of stability and instability;

"Small gains arising for increased opportunity of employment and higher wages may accrue to the worker in a successful state from the carving out of new markets at the cost of others; but at the same time their brothers on the other side of the border have to pay for them by unemployment and the lowering of their standard of living. The result is an ever widening rift in the international labour movement, which not even the loveliest resolutions by international congresses can put out of existence. By this rift the liberation of the workers from the yoke of wage-slavery is pushed further and further into the distance."

(Note also that the claim made in your first point, "the social organizations of man ... have ... led man to be violent," is inconsistent with your claim here, that "domestic life ... belies the fact that nature precludes the possibility" of just getting along, unless, as suggested above, further qualifications are made.)

For my part I believe pacifistic tendencies can be engendered by things as simple as sharing, cooperation, undertaking to experience as much as possible, and constantly re-evaluating how we categorize the basic necessities of life. This comes from my own observations of humans and other animals, and recognizes that the capacity for rational consciousness as manifest in humans is not enough on its own to make peace an obvious goal and/or choice, but quite the opposite.