Psyche of mob fury

Society and Violence

It was some 15 years ago that I was honoured with an invitation to have a dialogue with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The subject of the dialogue then was Buddhist and Western psychology and I, as a psychoanalyst, was asked to represent the viewpoint of Western psychology.

What I remember most vividly about the dialogue is an exchange when the topic of hatred came up. I gave the orthodox psychoanalytic view. There is something wrong with the person if he cannot hate. There is also something wrong if the person cannot stop hating. A mature person should be able to hate but also capable of transcending hatred. “No, No!” the Dalai Lama exclaimed. “This is not true of Buddhist psychology.” He then proceeded to tell the story about his friend, a spiritually advanced Lama who was incarcerated in a prison in Tibet and tortured by the Chinese. After many years, the Lama managed to escape and reach Dharamshala.

“How was it?” the Dalai Lama asked his old friend about his long years of imprisonment. “Oh, twice it was very bad,” the Lama replied. “Were you in danger of losing your life?” the Dalai Lama expressed his concern. “No. Twice I almost hated the Chinese!”

 Of course, the psychoanalytic gloss on hatred applies to a Tibetan as much as it does to a Westerner. Hatred and violence are as American as apple pie, as Indian as aam ka achar, as Japanese as Sushi rolls.

What the Dalai Lama was trying to do was to reverse the fatalism with which we are accustomed to view hatred by pointing to the possibility of a spiritual transformation of the psyche where hatred will have no place. Yet even spiritual transformation is not a once for ever achievement even in case of an enlightened master or saint. It remains constantly under threat from the darker forces of the psyche. One is never not human — “Twice I almost hated the Chinese.”

Indeed, there are some who will reject the Buddhist vision of transforming the psyche in order to rid it of its violent propensities. In her ‘Reflections on Violence’, the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes “…under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again…In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong to the ‘natural’ emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to humanize or emasculate them.”

Without elaborating on this difference further, I would only suggest that the Dalai Lama would perhaps have compassion for Hannah Arendt’s “hot” violence. It is perhaps only “cold” violence, that is, violence which is imbued with hatred that is considered beyond the pale.

The ubiquity of violence in our world needs no elaboration. A cursory look at just the tip of its iceberg reveals that more than 800 people die every day as a direct result of violent conflict.

Every 40 seconds a person commits suicide somewhere in the world. More than 540 young adults die every day as a result of interpersonal violence. Indeed, there is no sphere of human endeavour that is immune from violence. For instance, we like to believe that religion is about love of God, love of nature, and love of fellow man. Religion, we feel, is essentially about compassion and strives for peace and justice for the oppressed. Indeed, freedom from violence, an enduring wish of mankind, is reflected in various religious versions of heaven. All this is true yet we all know that violence is present in all religions as a positive and even necessary force for the realization of religious goals.

Although most of us are aware of the outer engine of violence, the economic, political, historical and sociological factors that lead to collective violence, the knowledge of its inner engine, the violence in the human psyche, the translation of the outer into the inner, is not widely disseminated. All those dealing with the outer engine implicitly operate on the simple and simplicistic psychological model that the structural factors in society are registered in the psyche as “frustration” which leads to the outbreaks of violence.

The psychological dimensions of hatred and violence, however, are more complex. I do not want to discuss speculations on the violence originating in our animal nature, about the images and theories associated  with the “the naked ape”, “territorial imperative”, “triune brain”, “selfish gene”. Not that I don’t like reading speculations on the role of our biological inheritance in our potential for violence.

In fact, a few months ago I was quite intrigued in reading about the experiment reported in Science in which a group of men and women watch a person who seems to be subject to physical violence and appears to be suffering.  The brain imaging of the experimental group watching the scene shows “mirror neurons” being activated. That is, in watching the suffering of someone who appears to be a victim of violence, activates a similar ‘pain network’ in our brains. But when the group is told that the man who is being beaten is a “bad” man, the mirror neurons in the women’s brain continue to be active, though less so than before. This particular brain activity, however, decreases markedly in men, leading to the hypothesis that men are the “punishers” of a society, who have been selected by evolution to employ violence for keeping order in the social world.

Often enough, violence that begins with a clear purpose acquires a life of its own, fulfilling obscure wishes more than its consciously stated goals. Violence also exercises a dangerous fascination, a “terrible beauty”, from which psychoanalysts cannot avert their eyes. We get a glimpse of this fascination in many kinds of collective violence, especially of the revolutionary kind, such as that of some Naxalite groups in our country. This violence has been described by Franz Fanon, in his The Wretched of the Earth, as one that “binds men together as a whole, since each individual forms a violent link in a great chain, a part of the great organism of violence which has surged upwards.” He might well have been speaking of the orgasm of violence.

The psychological study of violence and hatred, however, is not limited to psychoanalysis. Empirical social psychology has come with some interesting work on the subject. This work is not in opposition but complementary to the psychodynamic perspective and, in fact, draws liberally from the latter. Thus, for instance, in a study published under the title, ‘Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Aggression’, Roy Baumeister has identified four main causes of human violence. The first is greed/ambition, that is violence for direct personal gain, and second, sadism, that is, the pleasure in hurting other people.

He found that greed/ambition explains only a small portion of violence and sadism almost none. The two biggest causes of violence are the two we think are good and encourage in our children: High self esteem and moral idealism. When someone’s high self esteem is unrealistic, it is easily threatened and in reaction to those threats people, especially young men, lash out violently. In other, psychoanalytic words, narcissistic injury is one of the main causes of individual violence.

We in India give this narcissistic vulnerability the high sounding name of izzat, honour, and justify any numbers of acts of cruelty and murderous violence, individual and collective, in its name.

On the collective level, to get a cycle of violence going, you need idealism — the belief that your violence is means to a moral end. We know that all major atrocities of the last century — and I have no doubt the trend will continue in the present one — were carried out by men believing they were creating utopias or defending their homeland or way of life, from attack. Idealism is dangerous because it is inevitably accompanied by the belief that the end justifies the means. If you are fighting for God, for the oppressed or your moral community, then what matters is the outcome, not the path. Once you feel you have a moral mandate, you care much less for rules and legalities; the quest for “justice” tends to be contemptuous of the notion of fairness.

When Gandhiji, in contrast to revolutionaries of the left and right, insisted on the priority of means over ends, he was intuitively aware of the malignant violence inherent in the other position. He had, in other words, turned his own idealism on its head, thus avoiding the biggest pitfall of the moral idealist.

I think there is no better way to end my remarks than by a quote from Gandhiji (one almost always quotes with approval): “I believe it impossible for one living in this body to observe non-violence to perfection. While this body endures, some degree of egotism is inescapable. We retain the body only so long as egotism persists. Bodily life, therefore, necessarily involves violence…The further we travel towards an ideal the further it recedes. As we advance in its search, we realize that we have one step after another to climb. No one can climb all the steps in one leap. This view does not imply cravenness of spirit or pessimism but certainly there is humility in it.” His is a position between that of Dalai Lama’s friend and the one advanced by Hannah Arendt which I would like to adopt as my own and recommend to others.
(The writer is a psychoanalyst and author)

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