What Drives Some People to Do Horrific Things and Others to Be Good?
Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily.
Seriously, don’t you wonder if anything can be written about good and evil that hasn’t already been said many times over? I did, too, until I encountered Nonviolent Communication while I was in graduate school pursuing a doctoral degree in sociology. I wasn’t studying good and evil, at least I didn’t think I was. I had no idea, at the time, that my interest in the relationship between reason and emotion was intertwined with the deepest and most perennial questions of human nature, hence with matters of good and evil which I had set aside for years.
I never liked the Medieval belief that human beings are innately evil, bad, or sinful, because I intuitively couldn’t fathom why and how nature would give rise to sinful creatures. I also didn’t ever find more satisfaction in the modern notions of “evil” such as the “selfish gene” evolutionary theory or the Freudian notions of an innate aggressive drive. Proponents of all such theories are hard-pressed to explain acts of true kindness, especially in the face of potential consequences, such as those who saved Jews during the Holocaust at risk to their own lives.
Like most people who balk at theories of sin, the only alternative I could come up with was to imagine human beings as being innately good. That, too, didn’t fit the reality I saw. As a Jew growing up in Israel, the Holocaust was simply too vivid a memory, presenting too much evidence to the contrary to dismiss. I was left with too many unanswered questions whichever way I looked at the issues.
When I first encountered Nonviolent Communication (NVC), I had no idea that a notion as simple and basic as human needs could finally address, at least to my satisfaction, the fundamental questions of human nature. Because of the name, I thought I was learning a communication process. I now know that placing human needs at the center of all theory is a simple act that radically questions our notions of human nature.
Like David Brooks, in his recent NYT article When the Good Do Bad, I am not comfortable with the notion of there being some specific evil people who stand apart from the rest of us who are fundamentally good, allowing us to feel pure. I agree with Brooks that if mass murderers like Robert Bales are often remembered by their previous neighbors or friends as kind, normal, nice people, then the picture ought to be more complex. I don’t, however, see him as offering a complex solution. Reversing the assumption of goodness into the assumption of evil by suggesting that “we’re natural born killers” leaves the big question equally challenging. Even if “the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so,” the question still needs to be answered — why do some people kill and others don’t. His answers, if I understand them correctly, fall into the very approach to evil that he deplores. To say that people who commit massacres often live with “forward panic,” or that serial killers “are often charming, but have a high opinion of themselves that is not shared by the wider world,” amounts, once again, to defining unique character traits or flaws that set them apart from those who don’t kill in some fundamental way that cannot be explained. I find his prescription, inviting Robert Bales and the rest of us to a process of “struggling daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, [by] policing the small transgressions to prevent larger ones,” even more problematic.
I now believe that the idea of evil, and especially the perception that some form of evil, or sin, is intrinsic to human nature and that we therefore must be controlled and tamed, is a mirror image of the fundamental thrust of the agricultural revolution, namely that nature, the source of all life, must be controlled rather than trusted. Over time, in Western civilization, we accepted this idea so completely, that even when we balk at these notions, we continue, by and large, to raise our children with that same fundamental suspiciousness toward their natural inclinations. This is how I understand Brooks’ prescription: control the “sinful” parts and all will be well.
Why am I concerned about this approach? In part, because I want a much deeper understanding, for all of us, of what leads any of us to take actions that are so harmful to others, especially when we also act, at other times, in caring ways. More importantly, I have not seen, ever, that controlling anything works over time. Like Charles Eisenstein, in his review of the movie Thrive, I am painfully aware that attempting to control anything rather than engaging with it results in an ever spiraling and unsustainable effort over time; it’s guaranteed to fail. This is true about controlling pests in agriculture, germs in medicine (the two examples Eisenstein cites), our children (who eventually are big and strong enough to rebel against us), or any destructive impulses within us. I like the way Eisenstein says it: “the War against Evil never ends, because it generates a limitless supply of new enemies.”
Just as much as I am concerned about the sin theory of violence, I am also concerned about approaches that minimize the issue in the first place, or place responsibility entirely on the “system.” I want an approach to understanding violence that honors human dignity by acknowledging our agency and our capacity to make choices even in difficult situations at the same time as we recognize the context within which violence is born. In this, I feel aligned with Brooks in intention and value despite our great difference in method and philosophy.
What I find in the needs-based approach to human nature and violence that NVC offers is a way to acknowledge that human beings have been and continue to engage in harmful behavior and a way to make sense of that persistence without portraying us as bad, sinful, or powerless victims of systems or others. It’s also an approach to reducing and possibly eliminating harmful behavior without having to control anything by taking full responsibility for our needs and finding productive and meaningful ways of addressing them.
Here’s how friend and fellow NVC trainer in Sri Lanka, Jeyanthy Siva, expressed the fundamental departure from traditional notions of human nature that a needs-based approach makes possible:
I believe it’s a useful philosophy to hold that people are neither good nor bad innately but are beings who try to meet their needs with the tools they have at hand. And those needs include wanting to take care of themselves, connect with and contribute to others. And if they see that they can get their needs met without harming others, they will only be happy to do so. In fact, my hope is that when they have this consciousness, they will see that their own needs won’t get fully met until everyone’s needs are met as well.
What this simple insight means is that we are born not with a propensity for good or for evil. Rather, we are born with a bundle of needs we want to fulfill, from infancy to death, and with a profound sensitivity to having our efforts to meet our needs, or even our needs themselves, thwarted or shamed. In this framing I join the ranks of Alice Miller and James Gilligan who, in their different and complementary ways, give us loving and painful accounts of the psychological and societal context within which human beings resort to extreme acts of destruction. When we are born into a world ruled by separation, scarcity, and powerlessness, we are not likely to receive essential outside support for our human vulnerability as we emerge from infancy into childhood and adulthood. Monstrous human acts are born from brutalizing and shaming someone’s body and soul, to such an extreme degree that the core capacity for empathy – towards self and others – shuts down. Not knowing or honoring our own and others’ needs is a key part of what makes it possible to desperately engage in destructive strategies as a path to meeting needs we are unable to recognize let alone own. Here’s where the quest for control can turn on its head. The greatest paradox I know about destructive human behavior is that the more we attempt to control our needs out of shame about them, the more likely we are to be reactive when our needs are endangered. Conversely, the more we befriend our needs and inhabit the emotional world that surrounds them, the less likely we are to lose our capacity to choose how we respond to life. Both personally and systemically, the path to reducing violence passes through attending to everyone’s needs.
Alice Miller – For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child Rearing and the Roots of Violence
James Gilligan – Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes