Could Our Deepest Fears Hold the Key to Ending Violence?
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In his book Violence, psychologist James Gilligan asked a Massachusetts prison inmate, “What do you want so badly that you would sacrifice everything in order to get it?”
The inmate declared, “Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem … And I’ll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it.”
Or, as another inmate said, “I’ve got to have my self-respect, and I’ve declared war on the whole world till I get it.”
Pride, dignity, respect, agency—a sense that we matter—these are feelings largely shaped interpersonally. We depend upon the social fabric to get them. But for many, these things are in tatters. Fewer and fewer of us feel a sense of belonging, and we're more and more preoccupied with the desperate scramble for belongings.
We see fear’s face everywhere, whether in a Congress debating assault weapons or in schools introducing lock-down drills. French philosopher Patrick Viveret has called fear the “emotional plague of our planet.”
For most species fear is key to survival. Sensing danger, a healthy animal experiences instantaneous physical changes that enable it to escape; then, once the threat has passed, the impala literally shakes off its fear and runs back to join its group.
But could it be that for human animals fear itself has become a danger? To explore the possibility, a place to start is asking what humans fear most.
It is the loss of standing with others, the fear of being cast out by the tribe. Rather than being hyper-individualists, Homo sapiens are profoundly social creatures—the most social of all species. This sense of standing is inseparable from trust. To thrive, we need to trust that we count in the eyes of others and will, therefore, be treated with respect. In a word, our fear is loss of dignity.
Almost equal is our fear of powerlessness. Human beings need to feel that we make a difference. Social psychologist Erich Fromm argued in The Heart of Man that what characterizes man is that “he is driven to make his imprint on the world.” And later he dismissed Descartes’ axiom about a human essence centered in thought, declaring instead: “I am, because I effect.”
When these essential needs for connection and agency are unmet, we go nuts. We try to get respect by whatever means possible. If peaceful means seem closed off, violence it is.
Inequality has soared to historic levels. In 2010, the top 1 percent garnered 93 percent of all income gains. And in countries and states, “high levels of trust are linked to low levels of inequality,” report British scholars Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level.
Trapped in a giant game of musical chairs, we run faster and faster to edge out the guy ahead. With economic rules that increasingly concentrate wealth, we know we could be the next one kicked out, no matter how quick our pace. So we take on debt, juggle three jobs, cheat in school—whatever it takes to stay “in.”
And our children are most sensitive to this fear of exclusion. Those who’ve felt bullied, unable to fit in, misunderstood, without a voice in those most social of places—schools—are more likely to become psychotic and violent, including against themselves.
In a culture of fear of disconnection, those at the bottom feel most dismissed and discounted. Adam Smith, the supposed (but misunderstood) champion of the market more than two centuries ago grasped the devastating power of exclusion: Poverty, he wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, “places … [a person] out of the sight of mankind … [T]o feel that we are taken no notice of, necessarily damps the most agreeable hope … of human nature.”