Monday, April 13, 2009


"Good people sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." - attributed to George Orwell

Dr. Joy Bliss at Maggie's Farm wondered a while back what it is that causes people to become passive in the face of a threat to one's way of life:
Is it a psychological issue (eg masochism, which implies a sexual excitement in being dominated - or an enacted suicidal impulse), is it plain cowardice, is it a kind of hatred for one's own culture or nation? Or is it really just a unicorn and rainbow dreaminess about life (which I tend to view as a psychological defence based in denial of the hard and often cruel reality that people pursue their interests)? I have seem much of the latter, especially in women and in young men who haven't really worked yet.

This is an issue about which I have given a great deal of thought; and it is especially concerning today, when it appears that once again the scales have been tipped in the direction of passivity and appeasement when faced with a threat to American and Western values- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In this post I discuss a hypothesis that addresses Dr. Bliss's question to some degree. I also believe that it explains what Wretchard referred to as "The Persistence of Evil" :
Even today it is common to hear that there was never a bad peace or a good war. Better Red than Dead. The West’s aversion to fighting, even against evil, stems from the certainty that resistance will bring punishment. And that punishment will be visited, as at Lidice, on the innocent and the children. It is the inescapability of reprisal that makes the public willing to take a chance on “getting along” rather than endure the inevitable response even to justified resistance.

Diplomacy, cowardice, appeasement, aggression and even heroism are all survival strategies that have continued to exist into the present age because they are effective in preserving human life. In other words, they work in the real world. Some of them work in the long term, and some do better in the short term; but either way, they have stood the test of time for both the individual of the species, and the species as a whole.

While an aversion to fighting may be considered from a societal standpoint to be a good thing--even noble if it preserves human life--it actually derives from the same physiological source as cowardice, which has a much more negative connotation. And, while heroic behavior in battle which saves lives is also considered noble, it derives from the same physiological origin as naked and vicious aggression.

It turns out, that from a biological standpoint, you cannot have one set of behavioral options without the other.

The "Fight" or "Flight" Response

Our discussion begins with the fact that our brains and bodies are genetically, biologically and physiologically 'hardwired' to produce certain physical/behavioral responses when we are threatened or attacked. Humans are not unique in this regard. Most animals react to a threat with a general discharge of the Sympathetic Nervous System, which prepares them equally well to either flee the oncoming threat, or to stand and fight it.

Human physiology is fairly straightforward also; and when we perceive a threat to life or survival, we physiologically respond with a burst of adrenalin (a hormone more formally known as epinephrine, a catcholamine); and that compound initiates a series of biological reactions (e.g., increasing heart rate and sending more blood to the muscles) that prepare us to do one or both of the two behavioral options: run away from the danger or 'gird our loins' and fight. These two strategies covered pretty much everything our ancient ancestors had to deal with to survive, and they lived or died depending on how effectively these strategies were utilized.

For many animals, including humans, it is not a matter of 'either-or.' Rats, for example, will almost always run away from a threat, but when cornered, they will turn and fight quite viciously.

From this biological standpoint, our bodies, have not changed much since the days of the caveman; nor have the essential behavioral strategies that derive from that hardwired biology; though our perceptions of danger and the psychological factors involved in that perception have become more complex with the rise of civilization; as have the behavioral options.

"Fight" or "Flight" Equivalents in the Modern World

In our modern world, it is no longer appropriate or even civilized--most of the time anyway--to use either hardwired behavioral strategy in it's "pristine" form on a daily basis. Imagine if you will, the office worker called on the carpet by his boss, who then reacts to this threat to his livelihood by punching the boss; or by running screaming from the boss's office. Neither response would be considered very stable--or effective.

Nevertheless, we hear on the news fairly frequently of such occurrences; e.g., the postal worker who comes in and shoots his superior, and--as long as he's at it and fully aroused by his sense of victimization and oppression--a few coworkers he holds grudges against.

The point is, that our body's biological hardware is designed to respond to perceived danger in this way, whether we like it or not. Of course, the boss yelling at us or losing our job is not the same degree of danger our ancestors used to deal with, but our bodies aren't able to tell the difference and our physiological repertoire is limited.

Hence, as homo sapiens became civilized and our interactions with each other and with our environment became more complex, the normal physiological responses of our bodies to danger have remained the same, but the behavioral expectations of civilization, culture and society -- in other words, how we act on the physiological imperative -- have changed greatly.

The modern concept of "stress" arose from the limitations placed by civilization on our biology. We can't often fight; and we can't often run away--not in the direct ways that our caveman ancestors did anyway; and when we do, significant problems often arise both for us and for our society. But our bodies still physiologically respond in the same way even if the usual behaviors that could discharge the built-up biological toxins and return us to physiological normality are gone.

Psychologically and physiologically, this tends to take a toll on our bodies; either as physical or emotional problems. Most people are aware when they are experiencing stress and the physical and emotional discomfort can be a powerful reason to change whatever behavior is causing the sensation.

Stress can also be a source of extra energy (for example in sports; or exercise of any kind, which are socially acceptable ways to manage stress) if the physical and emotional aspects of it can be converted to a less destructive form. This is where the concept of psychological defense mechanisms comes in, and the various psychological strategies our minds have created to cope with threats to the self.

Most discusssion of the Fight or Flight Response today revolves around ways to limit the development of stress, and to counteract the long-term physiological consequences of its activation. Just check out any supermarket tabloid and you will find an article promoting some new technique to "Eliminate Stress From Your Life!"

The emphasis of such stories is never placed on the value of the response in most modern situations, but on how primitive the response is, and all the lifestyle options available to minimize or even eliminate it through stress management techniques; various drugs; and culturally sanctioned policies. Most of those policies have been aimed at controlling the "Fight" side of things-- for good reasons obviously since "Fight" can lead to significant societal disruption if individuals were allowed to operate in that mode without restriction.

In fact, culture and civilization have primarily worked to suppress the Fight manifestations of our biological system; and in a peaceful, perfect utopian world--if one existed--aggression would be a serious problem.

But let's consider for a moment what would happen if the capacity for aggression were entirely eliminated from the human species.

Popular culture offers us some insight in this area. For example, in a Star Trek episode from the original series titled "The Enemy Within", a transporter malfunction results in Captain Kirk being divided into two versions of himself. One side is grandiose, aggressive, capable, clever, ambitious, paranoid and brutal; the other is kind, sensitive, empathic, passive, and depressed. The personality mix that makes Kirk an effective and capable leader--and a balanced man--has been completely disrupted by the malfunction. The so-called "good" Kirk realizes that without his so-called "bad" side, he is unable to muster any enthusiasm for life, and cannot make decisions or function with any degree of effectiveness. The "bad" Kirk is only bad without the "good" side; and the "good" side cannot live without the "bad". To be fully functional, balanced and psychologically stable, Kirk must have both both versions of himself united.

We see the same theme in the more recent movie Serenity, where the plot revolves around a interplanetary government that attempts to totally eliminate aggression from new worlds that it populates, with catastrophic effects.

Both of these science fiction stories thoughtfully -explore the personal, psychological and societal consequences of eliminating the aggressive and occasionally brutal aspects of our human nature. Without that side of human nature, human beings indeed become less aggressive, but they also become weak, ineffective, depressed, and unable to find reasons to live or act to deal with the challenges of life.

With this in mind, we can begin to appreciate the numerous benefits of our capacity for aggression, or the "fight" side of our nature when it comes to survival: without it, we are ill-equiped to live life and face its challenges or dangers, be they large or small. And that is why this mechanism has been hardwired into each individual's biology.

Fortunately for the survival of the human species, while we can have some consious control to override or dampen the instinctive behaviors arising from the cascade of physiological responses to danger; we cannot stop the physiological response itself (except through the use of drugs or extensive training in meditation). Physical aggressiveness can be altered or controlled by conscious choice; and, our psychological self has developed, under the constraints of civilization, a creatie repetoire of defensive mechanisms to either ward off or channel the aggression through various psychological strategies. Those strategies, as discussed previously, can either be positive or negative; healthy or unhealthy to the individual or the society. However, they siginifcantly have expanded modern man's ability to cope with life in ways that our remote ancestors probably never contemplated.

If we are fortunate to live in societies and cultures that help us to channel those aggressive instincts effectively we can creatively sublimate the aggression and use the instinctual energy thus obtained for any number of positive outcomes for ourselves and our society. Psychological defenses such as humor, anticipation, sublimation, or suppression , referred to as the "mature defenses", generally allow people to channel negative or destructive feelings and/or behaviors into more socially appropriate types of behavior that bring pleasure to both the user and to the world at large.

Art can be a perfect example of the mature sublimation of negative emotions to create something that is beautiful, pleasurable, and/or compelling to experience. Art may also be used to manifest destructive emotions--in which case it may bring some temporary relief of those emotions, but rarely brings pleasure either to the artist or his audience. In the latter case, it is a less mature defense called acting-out rather than sublimation. Here is an example of art used as sublimation; and here is one of art as acting-out. Competition--either in the athletic or business world--can also be a healthy channeling.

Soldiers who are trained in controlled aggression to protect and serve the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--and to possibly die in that service-- have also found an effective transmution of what might otherwise be brutal violence for the sake of brutal violence. Indeed, as George Orwell observed, "Those who 'abjure' violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf." A well-known variation on Orwell's quote is, "Good people sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

There are, in fact, any number of professions which rely on aggressive and risk-taking skills in order to be successful.

Nevertheless, even in the best of societies where freedom reigns; there will be brutes and thugs, murderers and rapists, etc.; but when there is the rule of law then such behavior is deemed criminal and prosecuted and is clearly not societally sanctioned.

There are also societies that encourage and enable the use of the more "primitive" or "immature" psychological defensive structures; ones that thrive on denial, projection and paranoia, for example; where there is demonization of the 'other; and societally sanctioned hatred, bigotry, and persecution.

In these societies and cultures, the Fight mechanism is harnessed by the collective and used to force submission and gain power--not only over their own members, but to gain power over other human beings. Such societies are brutal and thuggish as a general rule, and they encourage their members to be that way toward each other. They encourage the worse of human traits, such as envy, greed, and jealousy--without offering any positive chanelling of those traits. Consequently, such societies destroy rather than create; tear down other societies, rather than build up their own. They may claim to be "just" or "peaceful" or even "religious", but in truth their laws are primitive and unjust; and the lives of those who live in them are often poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Let us turn now from a consideration of Fight to examining Flight.

A parallel analysis of the "Flight" mechanism also reveals that it can offer benefits for survival in the modern world. Sometimes, for example, you must run away and avoid a terrible danger you have no hope of defeating, in order to survive to fight another day. All the nobility of your compassion, caring, and a desire for peace in the world are for naught if you wind up dead.

Thus the use of man's intellectual, rhetorical and diplomatic skills have been honed over the years to deal with danger; and indeed, such skills can be very effective in negotiating the survival of individuals and societies, cultures and nations. Such skills fall short when, by their use alone, and without being willing to use the capacity for aggression effectively, the nation, society or culture and its values are subsumed by a conquering force who is not willing to listen or negotiate.

Obviously, since the dawn of civilization there has been a broadening of both the concepts of "Fight" and "Flight" to include the adoption of a wide variety of strategies and behaviors more complex than the simple alternatives which were available to our caveman ancestors.

For example (and this is not an exhaustive list), some modern "Fight" behaviors may include:

  • frankly aggressive, combative or violent behavior either in self-defense or proactively

  • argumentative, angry or hostile behavior

  • wars between nations or groups or gangs

  • the use of immature and neurotic psychological defense mechanisms such as displacement (which redirects the anger and combative behavior toward less threatening objects) or projection (which takes one's aggression and places it into others so that one can hide from it and disown it--a sort of indirect fight behavior)

  • use of mature psychological defense mechanisms such as humor and anticipation to prepare to defend one's self or others and to effectively mask anxiety

  • physical exercise; sports; competitions; art and other creative endeavors

  • "Flight" behaviors might include:

  • moving to a new location or abandoning a territory where the threat is too great
  • -e.g., leaving a stressful job that is taking a toll on your health for a new one
    - e.g., leaving a neighborhood where crime is high and moving to a better one
    -e.g., leaving a state or country where there is oppression and emigrating to a free country, or, "voting with your feet"

  • evading capture or submission to those who would oppress you (either physically by hiding) or mentally (by retreating into one's self)

  • the use of diplomatic and rhetorical skills to negotiate with enemies and opponents in order to compromise with them for one's survival; or to appease them; or to submit to them

  • social or psychological withdrawal to avoid dealing with the real world
  • -e.g., this option may include the use of substances to "run away" mentally from the real world

  • the use of immature psychological defense mechanisms such as denial or fantasy or wishful thinking to distort or minimize or eliminate the threat from consciousness

  • the use of neurotic psychological defense mechanisms such as hypochondriasis, reaction formation, passive aggression, displacement and intellectualization to distort or minimize or eliminate the threat from consciousness or to disguise it.

  • the use of mature psychological defense mechansims such as suppression and sublimation or others (for a full discussion of psychological defense mechanisms, see here) to transform the threatening situation into something that is able to be effectively dealt with.

  • "Flight" or any variation of running away can be a successful strategy particularly when you are able to run out of range of the available weapons of the enemy or out of the territory of the predator who wants to eat you. Such a strategy was extremely effective in the days of the caveman, whose weapons only included rocks, stones and spears. It's easy to outrun a spear; or to move out of the lands claimed by your enemy--do that and they will leave you alone.

    It's a bit harder to outrun or dodge a bullet; even more difficult to avoid a conventional bomb; and next to impossible to run away from weapons of mass destruction such as a nuclear or biological/chemical weapon.

    With the development of less personal and more long-range and impersonal tools of aggression, we begin to see how the hardwired strategy of "flight" may be reaching an evolutionary dead end--or, at least a limit to its effectiveness. "You can run, but you cannot hide" from today's weapons systems.

    Undoubtedly, this reality has only caused a escalation of the use of "flight"-equivalent strategies (e.g., appeasement and submission) since literally running away from the situation becomes less and less an option. Political strategies such as diplomacy, compromise, and outright appeasement come to the forefront. As Wretchard noted from the post quoted above, the increased aversion to fighting comes from an intense desire to prevent retribution--not only towards one's self, but also to protect loved ones. This has remained a viable and important strategy because it was effective and worked. Let me repeat that: appeasement works. Compromising with one's opponents and even one's enemies, works. Lives are saved--at least in the short run. Take, for example, this analysis (which I believe is right on the mark) from the Belmont Club:
    The second trump card is that Hassan Nasrallah — if given the signal by Damascus and Teheran — can plunge the region into war. That is something that terrifies Lebanon and is not viewed with relish by Israel. The BBC reported late last year that “Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has said the Lebanese Hezbollah movement now has three times as many missiles as before the 2006 Lebanon war. Mr Barak told MPs some of its 42,000 missiles could reach the southern towns of Ashkelon, Beersheba and Dimona, more than 200km (125 miles) from the border.”...

    With these two cards in hand, Nasrallah can be reasonably sure that both London and Washington, having painted themselves into a corner, will sooner or later come, tail between their legs, to his door. There will be political cover; perhaps some fig leaf to cover the abjectness of it all; but the basic position is this: if Nasrallah believes neither Obama nor Brown are willing to cross him, he will spit in their face and know they will take it.

    My guess? The Bearded One will get away with it. And oh, about Hezbollah’s pledge to destroy Israel? He never said it, and if he said it the sophisticates will never believe it; and even if they believe it they won’t consider that it matters. What matters is the illusion of the peace process. That must be kept going at all events. Even if Hezbollah declares itself out, they will always find a way to deal it in.

    There are many people today who feel that negotiation, diplomacy and appeasement are always and everywhere superior to using any kind of aggression. For that crowd, it is not even a matter of "running away to fight another day" (which is only useful if you someday really intend to fight); they reject the use of any physical aggression under any and all circumstances. In fact, there are no human values that they would be willing to lay down their life to preserve ("nothing to live or die for; and no religion, too").

    These are the very people Orwell was describing, who 'abjure' violence and are not even aware that they are kept safe by 'rough men' ready to do violence on their behalf. If anything, they tend to believe they can do away with all those 'rough men' altogether and that is precisely what is needed in order to usher in their peaceful, perfect utopia.

    They forget one important detail, however, and that is that human beings are not perfect; nor are they perfectable.

    In Part II, we will further discuss why this is the case and why to think otherwise is frankly delusional. We will also explore why in the 21st century, evil not only persists, but is actively encouraged by a mentality that refuses to accept the reality of human nature.

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