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"Why Can't We All Just Get Along?" or "History Is A Bath Of Blood"

Aug 19, 2009

"... the quiet little stranger in the corner seat ... She wonders about him ..."

-- Neil Gaiman

"It's going to work alright Robert, and I'm sure we'll never be sorry for it."

-- Isidor Isaac Rabi, Speaking to J. Robert Oppenheimer

"[W]e know and control physical forces only too well, biological forces tolerably well, and social forces not at all."

-- Ludwig von Bertalanffy

"Death is our business and business is good"

-- Slogan, painted on the United States Army's Ninth Division helicopter headquarters, during the Vietnam War

Domestic life obscures the savage reality of nature, leading some to ponder the question "why can't we all just get along?" when the more brutish tendencies of humanity manifest themselves in our otherwise civil day-to-day lives. The uncivilized and undomesticated reality of day-to-day life is that "Nature is not a charitable institution. She is always inimical to life." Accordingly, "The total amount of suffering in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute ... it takes ... to say these words, thousands of animals are running for their lives whimpering with fear, feeling teeth sink into their throats. Thousands are dying from starvation or disease or feeling a parasite rasping away from within. There is no central authority, no safety net. For most animals the reality of life is struggling, suffering and death."

If we hope to understand this reality, and why it is that we can't all just get along, then one of the first things we must understand is that we -- humans -- are animals. While it's true that the human species is something different than its animal progenitors, it's also true that the full range of human proclivities subsumes many proclivities of our animal ancestors. "Out of the darkness of prehistoric ages man emerges with the marks of his lowly origin strong upon him. He is a brute, only more intelligent than the other brutes; a blind prey to impulses, which as often as not lead him to destruction." Proportionately, the human qua animal "tendency toward slaughter ... is not the product of agriculture, technology, television, or materialism. It is not an invention of either Western or Eastern civilization. It is not a uniquely human proclivity at all. It comes from something both sub- and superhuman, something we share with apes, fish, and ants -- a brutality that speaks to us through the animals in our brain." While any animal can act violently, not every animal can, or even cares to pursue the project of peaceful coexistence. Although humans possess the capacity for extraordinary pacifism, we must understand and accept that we all possess the capacity and even the drive for extreme inhumanity.

In the matter of inhumanity, the human race might be best understood as a species of neoteric and feral beasts, intellectually contemplating that which no beast before them could, and attempting to escape the brutal realities of nature and physiology;

"Passion it is! born of the Darknesses,
Which pusheth him."

"Dark flotsam bobbed upon those tides ... I brought some back with me. The cream of the gallons. The aristocracy of hell. They are returned. They are out there now, celebrating their new skin in the darkness."

Accepting the brutality of the natural world, "[t]here is nothing to make one indignant in the mere fact that life is hard, that men should toil and suffer pain. The planetary conditions once for all are such, and we can stand it." The point is an important one if we hope not merely to "stand it," but overcome it. Any tenable conception of peace must rest on a realistic assessment of nature; thus "Homer was wrong in saying: 'Would that strife might perish from among Gods and men!' He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away."

With this in mind, then in response to our original question -- "why can't we all just get along?" -- I'll ask: given the choice, why don't we opt to sleep alone in the forest or in alleyways? One important reason is because neither the conditions of wilderness or the conditions of human civilization make these safe choices. The question of peaceful coexistence is not merely "why can't we get along?", but rather "how do we?" No organic organism has been observed to co-exist in a permanent condition of peace with a significant number of other members of the same species, let alone other species. Amongst Animalia however, homo sapiens are blessed with the ability to contemplate actions that serve peace and civility, at a more general level than other species. This is unsurprising, considering that life in the wild consists primarily of finding ways to escape death. We may be the only animal that can consciously reflect on our instincts and ideas, regulate our reactions (to some degree at least), and consider undertaking large-scale efforts to work towards goals such as engendering civility and sustaining peace. Of course, even though the human animal "has learned to dream of peace ... he will have to overcome what nature has built into him." Said another way: self-reflection, self-regulation, and self-control are only possibilities, and their realization is contingent on the conditions of human life and society; and here, escapism is just as much of a problem as violence itself.

"Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you got to tease people with stuff like that!"

"Clara, now, Clara," begged Mildred, pulling her arm. "Come on, let's be cheery, you turn the 'family' on now. Go ahead. Let's laugh and be happy now, stop crying, we'll have a party!"

To make clear the connection between sociopolitical conditions and civil progress, or lack thereof, consider the closing years of the Thirty Years' War, during which the "momentum that the violence built up had been so powerful that it took two years after the signing of the peace to bring the serious skirmishing to an end, and another four years to persuade soldiers to return home from their garrisons and to end their state of readiness." Such a momentum is by no means peculiar to, or even most pronounced among soldiers.

"When masses of men have been repressed for a long time by adverse social, political and economic conditions, they seem to accept the open expression -- above all the open demonstration -- of hatred with deep satisfaction. Almost every war is followed by strange manias of persecution which affect the civilian population more than they do the returning soldier ... Thus after 1918 the United States witnessed the spread of the Ku Klux Klan, a crusade against the 'Reds,' and several anti-negro riots in major cities ... In Germany, at all events, one principal reason why the Rightist revolt against the Republic succeeded was the progressive emphasis upon hatred in action ... When the Nazis drove dissenters or imaginary dissenters from their meetings with cudgels, their audiences grew larger. Few people in Germany were at bottom anti-Semitic, but the joy large numbers felt in promises of blood-curdling treatment to be meted out to the helpless minority made them responsive to the suggestion. Smashing windows and street fighting were relied upon to win the crowd."

Moving forward in time, consider the reality of humankind's United Nations 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." Just as the history of life in the wild is one of savagery, the history of life in modern nations remains submersed in a bath of blood. In point of fact, considering the mass suffering and destruction wrought on humanity during the twentieth century amidst our purportedly great social progress, "[c]ouldn't the entire history of humanity be seen as a growing normalisation of injustice, entailing the nameless and faceless suffering of millions?"

A vivid real-world account of the normalisation of injustice entailing the nameless and faceless suffering of millions is presented by Hiltgunt Zassenhaus, in her World War Two memoir Walls. Herein Zassenhaus relates the professional detachment of a medical lecturer and his students, as the lecturer explains the reason why the class has not yet worked with human fat;

"Ladies and gentlemen," the professor started, "today I want to talk about fat ..."

I heard the rattle of paper. Hundreds of copybooks were opened and pens were ready to write.

"Last winter you had your first course in the dissecting room," the professor continued. "You worked on corpses, studied the skin, muscles, and organs. But one thing you missed out on, and for this I want you to accept my apologies ..."

For a fraction of a second he paused.

"You missed out on fat!" he resumed. "We had no way of letting you dissect fatty tissue. Sorry, but those corpses were poor material -- they were prisoners who had either perished or were executed in camps."

Hundreds of students were listening, but their faces stayed blank and their hands did not move. Nothing had been said worth putting on paper.

The professor stepped over to the blackboard and took up the chalk. The audience came to life, and brains and pens went to work.

Considering examples like that of Zassenhaus', and the human susceptibility to normalize injustice generally, William James observed "that so many men, by mere accidents of birth and opportunity, should have a life of nothing else but toil and pain and hardness and inferiority imposed upon them ... while others natively no more deserving never get any taste of this ... at all -- this is capable of arousing indignation in reflective minds." As James suggests, finding the road to peace involves developing and exercising our capacity for reflection, and directing our capacity for reflection toward the arousal of "indignation in reflective minds." Reflective minds have produced pacifistic ideas, and the fact that pacifistic conceptions exist suggests that pacifistic realities are in some degree possible, and accessible to human societies. So why war? Why is it that "[s]ince 1945, 126 out of 189 UN member states have been involved in 291 armed conflicts in which some twenty-two million people have been killed?" Why not the growing normalisation of justice and peace? Wherefore human reflection?

"Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology! -- I know of no reading of another's experience so startling and informing as this would be."

Reflecting, then, on our several constitutions, it's important to observe as above, that "life in the wild consists primarily of finding ways to escape death." This enabled us to understand the motivations and mentality of an animal living in the wilderness, or what we might call animal societies. As applied to humans, this same recognition enables us to understand the motivations and mentality of a human animal living in human societies. Why can't human animals get along? We must not restrict ourselves to asking "why can't we just get along," but must also ask "why would we get along?" and "how could we?" For many, experience has taught them that the life of an animal, human or otherwise, is brutal. Just visit the house of my old neighbour, a highly educated and highly respected court judge, whose meek and gentle wife had to learn karate to defend herself against his physical attacks -- or talk with the defendants in his court, or the people living on the street around the courthouse.

So why can't we all just get along? Because the only conceptual connections a person or society can make are the ones they can conceive of, and the only solutions a person or society can construct are the ones they understand; and neither the conditions and structures of nature, or the conditions and structures of civilization promote the mass conception or promulgation of just getting along. Combining the adverb just with the mode get along implies that getting along might be, or even is, a simple thing, but neither the laws of nature or the laws of humanity support anything so complex as a simple peace. History, prehistoric and civilized, is a bath of blood, and blithely asking "why can't we all just get along?" does nothing to stem the tide.

At a social level, human domestication, political "progress," and all known systems of civilization indicate we can not just get along because we do not believe or understand how widespread peaceful co-existence might be a genuine option, and extant sociopolitical structures are of no definite help in this regard;

"through civilisation mankind becomes softer, and consequently less bloodthirsty and less fitted for warfare. Logically it does seem to follow from his arguments. But man has such a predilection for systems and abstract deductions that he is ready to distort the truth intentionally, he is ready to deny the evidence of his senses only to justify his logic. I take this example because it is the most glaring instance of it. Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne. Take the whole of the nineteenth century in which Buckle lived. Take Napoleon ... Take North America -- the eternal union. Take the farce of Schleswig-Holstein... And what is it that civilisation softens in us? The only gain of civilisation for mankind is the greater capacity for variety of sensations -- and absolutely nothing more. And through the development of this many-sidedness man may come to finding enjoyment in bloodshed. In fact, this has already happened to him. Have you noticed that it is the most civilised gentlemen who have been the subtlest slaughterers, to whom the Attilas and Stenka Razins could not hold a candle, and if they are not so conspicuous as the Attilas and Stenka Razins it is simply because they are so often met with, are so ordinary and have become so familiar to us. In any case civilisation has made mankind if not more blood-thirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely bloodthirsty. In old days he saw justice in bloodshed and with his conscience at peace exterminated those he thought proper. Now we do think bloodshed abominable and yet we engage in this abomination, and with more energy than ever. Which is worse? Decide that for yourselves."