Anti-violence post #2

We have come a long way. Even a study of recent history will reveal remarkable changes, but when you look back at the last 100,000 years or so, in which we have gone from a few thousand tribespeople on the African savannah to almost 7 billion people spread all over the planet, you really just have to sit back and marvel at the extraordinary changes which have occurred. Not least of which because this has all happened with only relatively minor changes to the human genome; as far as we can tell, there have been a series of superficial adaptations to environmental conditions, but aside from those, we are essentially still the same as the first people to look up at the stars, all those thousands of years ago. All the subsequent changes, the evolution of civilization, technology, and everything else we take for granted today, are the product of cultural evolution, derived solely from the tenuous transfer of memes from one generation to the next.

This evolutionary process shows no signs of slowing – quite the opposite, in fact. We are even today caught up in this vortex of inexorable change, running as fast as we can just to try and stay in the same place, as the saying goes. Naturally, the question arises: where exactly are we headed? It is a difficult thing to predict, but by looking at some of the selective pressures in play today, we might gain some insight into where we’ll find ourselves tomorrow.

Perhaps the most significant driving force behind the changes that have taken place is the fact that our exploding population has put immense pressure on our traditional territorial tribalism. When we grow tired of our neighbours, we can no longer just pack up and find somewhere else to live, as we’ll simply run into more humans who are likely to be just as defensive about their land as the people we left behind. Varied responses have arisen to deal with this pressure in the past: war, politics, diplomacy, and perhaps most interestingly, the expansion of social groups to include members of many different tribes. These supertribes required a powerful rallying point for social cohesion, and so we began to exaggerate the abilities of our leaders, so that their stature would match the size of the tribe, and everyone would gratefully serve them due to their unmatched power. But this line of thought soon required extending beyond the realms of human possibility, necessitating the invention of a concept above nature – the supernatural. These mythical leaders grew ever more powerful as social groups increased in size (the bigger the group, the better the odds of survival, marking a new evolutionary paradigm directed towards group selection), spurred on particularly by tales of past leaders, who were no longer around and thus could be exaggerated without any fear of being proven wrong by a need for real-life demonstrations of power. Eventually, they were removed entirely from reality, and we had ready-made gods inhabiting an imaginary realm, laying down the foundations for religion. (Ancient Egyptian culture provides a famous transitional form, exhibiting both gods and the god-king pharohs. And let’s not forget that modern Catholicism is at least partially derivative of Egyptian mythology…) But ideas that worked well in the past can wear out their welcome, such as when religious warfare leads to violence on increasingly unprecedented scales, creating marked conflicts with our kin-selected propensity for altruism and empathy. Expanding social groups gave us the ability to extend empathy beyond our immediate kin, and so ironically, turned us against the very thing that opened our eyes to the concept of a wider culture in the first place. The evolutionary march continues, and religion is on the way out, having been supplanted by nationalism and hopefully, eventually, a single, worldwide, humanist culture.

Population growth opens up other sources of pressure: the need for sustainable food sources, the need to consciously limit our impact on the environment, the need for more efficient infrastructure – and, especially when aligned with our increasingly devastating arsenal of weapons technology, the need for effective conflict resolution. It is now necessary not just to end conflicts after they arise but to figure out why they occur and how they can be prevented. A thorough understanding is required to ensure that we don’t bumble into a catastrophic and irreversible war – which, as close calls in the past have illustrated, is an all too real possibility.

Naturally, the pressure to finally put the concept of war to bed has brought forth many proposed solutions, some of which will ultimately be seen as having played a part in uncovering the final answer; others will merely be smirked at amusingly or maybe even scoffed at incredulously (*cough*pre-emptive self-defence*cough*). For mine, I would put my money on a fairly basic idea: the promotion of the positive aspects of human potential (trying not to use the term “human nature”, it is a fairly misleading concept), coupled with a comprehensive understanding of the motivations behind violence, greed, and other negative behavioural traits, which is now being brought to light through modern scientific discoveries. This understanding will allow people to make properly informed choices, and will highlight the absurdity of choosing to pursue violence, when its predictable consequences are fully laid bare. This is more of a long-term strategy, obviously; people who have already developed violent behavioural patterns are likely to be too fearful to change in the short term, because their fear has been magnified by their violent actions. But over successive generations, changes which seem impossible to us will become inevitable and unavoidable. Widespread education and rapid advancement of knowledge, coupled with constant reinforcement of empathy and other positive aspects of human behaviour, have already worked significant changes over the course of history, and this pattern shows no sign of stopping – indeed, it is only accelerating.

I’m not just putting this idea forward because of its possible applications in decreasing systemic violence, but also because of the personal benefits it brings to the individual, which make this a path worth following regardless of whether you particularly care about people being killed on the other side of the world. I think that ultimately, a system that benefits both society as a whole and the individuals that comprise that society is the only thing that can bring about a true and lasting change when it comes to such deeply ingrained and self-perpetuating problems as the ones we now face. And indeed, history tells us that both of these quotas need to be filled in order for an idea to become truly successful, in the long term. For example, in this regard, religion was an enormous step forward when it first appeared, because it didn’t just catalyse and stabilise larger societal groups, but it allowed the people within those groups to feel more closely connected with not just each other, but the universe as a whole (a sentiment usually expressed towards an anthropomorphized surrogate – ie. a god – which made the process more relatable to the quirky primate brain evolution has gifted us). As a result, religion has sustained itself for thousands of years, even though it seems antiquated and highly flawed to us today.

As I said at the start, we have come a long way, and our tendencies to resort to violence have slowly but steadily decreased as we have walked this path. This is largely thanks to our expanding social groups, which have in turn expanded our ability to empathize with others and recognise that most of us share common goals, and especially, a common desire to live in peace. Higher-minded meditation on the theory behind ethical behaviour has also helped, but not without cost, producing all kinds of bizarre types of religious morality and other codes of ethics which don’t seem to have any sort of basis in reality – quite a few of which persist to this day, in spite of their flaws. But overall, there is a definite upward trend through the course of history, leaning towards large, peaceful societies which allow people to feel safe enough to start letting go of the need to resort to violence in order to control their fear. Morality is – in the same way as the much more straightforward example of technology – a concept that has evolved over time, building upon itself as each step forward provides people with a greater understanding and more tools to work with.

Of course, there are complications here. Although we live today in what is probably the most peaceful period in history, and certainly the most peaceful period in recorded history, violence is still very much a part of our lives, in several key ways. Firstly there is the obvious and biggest problem: large-scale warfare between nations, which, although it is only participated in by a small fraction of the world’s population, is still carried out on a scale much greater than that of wars fought in previous centuries, which often leads people to the mistaken conclusion that we are actually more violent today than in the past (admittedly it is quite difficult to reconcile this immediate and confronting reality with dry statistics). At the same time, however, the relative peace that most of us live in is only afforded to us because we are sheltered by the violent minority which act in our name. It is perhaps easiest to imagine each nation as a sort of meta-organism, with the majority of citizens sheltered within the body whilst the extremeties repel invaders (or in many cases, including that of ours in the West, they are the invaders). As long as we live within such societies and enjoy the protections and benefits afforded by these acts of war, we are each of us complicit in these acts, and share in the responsibility for them. As things stand, none of us can claim to live truly violence-free lives.

Aside from this, there are also the smaller-scale and individual conflicts which occur within societies, stemming from various fear-driven impulses. For a species that spent 99% of its existence in small tribal groups, being essentially a single cell within a vast national meta-organism can be an enormously intimidating and alienating experience, especially given that no one is given a choice as to whether this is what they want – it is simply the world we have been born into, and must try to adapt to, one way or another. The feelings of fear and helplessness that arise from being surrounded by strangers and, especially, social organisations capable of wielding tremendous power of us is the driving force behind many of the personal problems that people find themselves dealing with these days, and it is also why people turn to violence as they try to enact some sort of control over these problems. Coupled with direct or indirect exposure to the large-scale, unimaginable violence of modern warfare, you have the ideal environment for producing a very fearful and anxious populace.

For much of our history, various precursory forms of this fearful outlook simply produced casual violence between citizens, who were generally self-governed by a moral outlook quite different from the one most of us possess today. But morality has developed alongside the fear-producing aspects of our burgeoning societies, creating the uniquely modern problem of both fear and nonviolence being at higher levels than ever before. The problem with this equation is that the basic formula behind most human behaviour is to first experience fear, and then to enact control (and perhaps as an afterthought, apply rationalizations to try and justify these actions) – and violence is the simplest and most straightfoward act of control there is, so it is usually the first thing people instinctively turn to when pressed. But because people now recognise the consequences of violence and wish to avoid the inevitable problems associated with it, they generally deny this impulse to reach for violence as soon as they experience fear – and thus, the fear increases even more, because they feel as though they have no way of controlling their surroundings. This leads to a whole array of bizarre behaviours which act as alternate forms of control, ranging from the standard nervous tics (nail biting, etc) to the much more problematic ones, like smoking. But the temptation towards violence is not so easily abandoned, and so inevitably, a compromise is reached, and certain types of highly-controlled violence are deemed acceptable – violent sports, for example. And of course, by far the most common type of acceptable violence these days is the fantasy-based kind. This is the final frontier of our obsession with violence, in many ways: we have made significant strides in clearing out real-world violence, but the mental landscape is something we are only just beginning to properly explore and understand, in a scientific sense at least. (Yes, I’m sure Buddhists in particular will be raising polite interjections about now.)

There are a couple of key traits which all pro-violence views possess: they are reactionary (ie. violence is always a reaction to external sources of pressure, generally revolving around anything which increases vulnerability or otherwise poses a perceived or subconscious threat), and they always come with a set of prescribed ethical behaviours designed avoid the problems associated with all other pro-violence viewpoints, which are themselves unironically dismissed as wrong precisely because they lack this unique set of ethics. These two traits are what we must focus on in order to understand why violence persists in spite of its obvious drawbacks, why all pro-violence viewpoints are inevitably seen as failures in the long run, and most importantly, how we can try to rectify this problem. Conveniently, because these different types of violent behaviour are derived from the same basic psychology, it is possible to form a one-size-fits-all solution for all of them. After all, the meta-organism is just a magnified version of the individuals which comprise it.

So, first up is the reactionary nature of violence. We all start life in roughly the same place, in this regard: before we have been exposed to the sources of fear which trigger violent behaviour, we exist in a state which religious morality refers to as “innocence”, but which I think is more accurately described as plain old ignorance. It is easy to practice nonviolence with this state of mind, simply because you don’t know any better – and moreover, violence will seem largely illogical and pointless anyway, because your fear has not yet been triggered, so there is nothing to motivate it. But of course, this mindset can’t last indefinitely, and as you grow up you are gradually exposed to different behaviours and concepts which affect your outlook in different ways. This part is tricky, because there aren’t any easy formulas to explain cause and effect – ie. you can’t say exposure to violence at a certain point will trigger violent behaviour, because it works differently for each person. To my knowledge, there is no way of predicting beforehand how environmental influences will affect people – but you can, however, trace these influences back, after the fact. Just as a somewhat extreme but still depressingly common example: imagine a child being raised in a violent household, with an abusive parent. There are a number of ways this child could develop: they might copy the behaviour of the abusive parent and become abusers themselves when they get older; they might head in the complete opposite direction, and perhaps even become a counsellor for other abuse victims; they might withdraw completely, becoming highly introverted, or they could act out socially and become highly extroverted, trying to construct a sort of social camouflage so no one will know what happened to them. There are many different options, and as I said, you would be hard pressed to figure out beforehand how these factors would unfold – but it would be quite silly to look back and say that their upbringing had no effect on them, either. It is here that we encounter perhaps the greatest roadblock to a genuine formula for consistently raising healthy children: the fact that pure random chance plays a significant role in determining exactly what type of person they eventually grow up to be. The number of variables here – genetic, environmental, psychological – is just too great to be controlled and accounted for.

Fortunately, however, all this means is that we shouldn’t treat children like programmable robots, who can just be given set commands and be expected to blindly follow them. Instead, we need to acknowledge them for what they truly are: tiny meme magnets. From an early age, the human brain has an intense desire to build up an internal understanding of how the world works, and in order to do this, it not only voraciously consumes information from its surroundings, but it starts putting this information to use, by making decisions, comparing and analyzing facts, and trying to synthesize new data from what it already knows. This process is very haphazard to begin with, because we start life in a state of extreme ignorance, and it takes a long time to gather up all the necessary data to form a wide-ranging, educated adult mind. But this self-organising nature of human intelligence is critical to understand, because oftentimes, decisions made early in life can have long-lasting repercussions, precisely because they are being made before you have a chance to gather the necessary information to make properly informed choices.

One of our most prevalent fears is the fear of the unknown. When we lack information, our imagination takes over, and because we are motivated by a fear of that which we don’t know, we tend to imagine the worst-case scenarios. Ignorance is always more harmful than the truth, even when the truth is also unpleasant – that’s why censorship not only doesn’t work, but often backfires. The real solution, I think, is not to try and extend the state of “innocence” as much as we can, allowing fear to gradually build as snippets of the things we are trying to shelter our kids from inevitably leak in and are then exaggerated by the child’s imagination – but instead to provide them with a robust education designed to show them how to deal with these sources of fear, so that they can see the inherent wisdom in choosing not to follow that fear to the often violent and selfish paths that it inevitably leads to. We need to trust that they will make the same choices we do, and for the same reasons that we did. This is, of course, based on the assumption that these choices are in fact the wisest options, and therefore there is no need to force children to make them or to worry that they will choose differently – but allowing them to choose for themselves is crucial, because if you try to force people to follow an authoritative set of rules, they will often rebel, even if it means adopting a less optimal position. People have shown time and again that they are willing to put themselves at a considerable disadvantage simply to avoid being told what to do. And for what? If you believe you really are offering the best choices, then there is no need to force people to follow them… unless you are afraid of being proven wrong, of course. This is always an option, and it is, in fact, one of the best reasons to encourage children to make their own choices – because they may well come up with solutions that everyone else has overlooked. They might be naive, but they still have the rather useful advantage of not yet having fallen into repetitive patterns of thought, and this can, on occasion, produce unexpected results. They are always in the best position to judge when the Emperor is, in fact, naked.

Personally, my parents almost always allowed me to make my own choices, even when they clearly thought I was making mistakes – and that is something I will always be thankful for, because I don’t think I would be the person I am today if they had done things differently. Making mistakes is one of the most effective, if not the most pleasant, ways to learn, and parents should should be looking to manufacture a framework that gives them the ability to be on standby if necessary but which still allows their children to safely take risks and make mistakes and feel like they are taking control of their own lives. This stands in stark contrast to the currently popular system of parenting, where we simply try to force children to adopt what their parents see as the “right” way to behave. There is a fundamentally harmful assumption at the core of this method of parenting: that we are trying to raise children to be just like us. Children are not clones, so this approach is by its very nature doomed to failure anyway. In order to effectively raise children, we should be trying to teach them to be better than us. Children are born with a tremendous capacity and innate desire to learn and create and grow, and yet somehow, we have created a system that actively robs them of this desire, in an attempt to get them to conform to the narrow ideals of the day. This is absolutely mind-boggling to me. It’s like teaching a human to hate sex… oh no, wait, we’re good at that one, too. But, you know, it’s like teaching a fish to hate water. It’s ridiculous.

I realise I’ve made a fairly substantial digression here, but the theory behind child-rearing is relevant to the rest of us, too, because it is only by analyzing the past that we can gain a proper picture of the present, and perhaps a few hints about the future, as well. It is important to look back into your upbringing, and try to pick out a lot of the choices you made as a child, and look at them again from your current, more mature perspective. Some of our worst traits, our most commonly repeated mistakes, can be traced back to an extremely early point, where we formed mistaken assumptions which we have simply taken for granted since, to the point that we don’t even reflect on them anymore. Relentless questioning of our own beliefs, our influences, and anything else from our past can bring surprising results. All it takes is a subtle shift in the mental approach that most of us instinctively adopt: instead of constantly trying to prove yourself right, start trying to prove yourself wrong. And don’t worry if it turns out you’re wrong a lot. That’s normal.

It’s important to keep all this in mind, because it is now time to examine the crucial mistake that all people make when they adopt a pro-violence viewpoint. It starts with the inherent contradiction at the heart of all violent morality, which is: how do you resolve the conflict between your desire to use violence to your advantage, and the real-world consequences of such acts, which you have already witnessed in the past? Under most circumstances, the logical course of action would be to follow your initial empathetic response and simply forgo violence altogether – but the result of this choice is that next time you experience fear and thus the desire to use violence to counter that fear rises to the surface, you will instinctively repress that reaction, in an attempt to avoid the consequences you encountered earlier. But then, surprise surprise, this increases your fear even more. If this cycle continues, the fear will build to such an extent that you feel you have no choice but to find some form of violent expression, and whatever choice you make there will impact significantly on the subsequent moral justifications you put forward in order to explain that reaction. The system of ethics which naturally arises from this point will be designed to manufacture a situation in which is becomes acceptable to temporarily switch off empathy, because that is the act necessary to catalyze violence. The goal of every pro-violence viewpoint is to justify that reaction, because it goes so profoundly against our intrinsic social nature.

This, incidentally, is why violent viewpoints are generally built around self-justifications: MY rights, MY happiness, MY worldview, we need to keep those brown-skinned people away from MY glorious country, etc etc. Little consideration is given to the effects these actions have on other people, and such effects, if they are noticed, are often written off as secondary, unchangable, inevitable imperfections in life, “they brought it on themselves”, and other such deflections of responsibility. But centring the discussion on your right to do something is fairly meaningless; much like a racist claiming their right to free speech, it doesn’t make their actions any less harmful. You have the right to do a lot of stupid, myopic things – that doesn’t mean exercising these rights is in any way a good idea, and it doesn’t absolve you of the consequences of your actions.

The justification of violence moves in a repetitive cycle, which is useful to deconstruct because it highlights the inherent flaws which always bring these justifications down. Pro-violence worldviews always start off as shining edifices of morality; a new set of carefully constructed ethical rules designed to turn violence from the horrible act it is when our enemies use it, into a powerful and entirely justifed tool that we can use to deal with those same enemies. Our opponents are wrong not because they are violent, but because their violence is unethical and savage, as opposed to our righteous acts (note that both sides of the dispute will possess these same basic views, even if the details differ – perhaps enabled by a slightly different god, for example. Or if it’s secular violence, then people will place faith in their superior intellects, or in the glory of their superior civilization). But then, as the conflict unfolds, various “unforeseen” consequences will begin to pile up. In warfare, this usually amounts to civilian deaths, torture, rape, and other war crimes. In peaceful society, it can come down to such commonplace acts as accidental shootings caused by misunderstandings, or maybe a fist fight that leads to much nastier injuries than the attacker intended. The important part is that everyone will be completely surprised that their violent worldview backfired on them. Holes will start to appear in what was previously assumed to be an unassailably ethical doctrine, as people’s empathy is triggered by the consequences of their actions, and they start asking questions and trying to get to the root of the problem. It is here, however, that they make the final mistake: they simply decide that their system of ethics wasn’t rigorous enough, and so they revise it, and begin the cycle all over again.

To solve this problem, we need to face the truth: that there is no system of ethics that will change the nature of violence. The concept is as oxymoronic as “ethical racism” or “ethical slavery”. Violence is an act of control, designed to transfer the fear we feel in the face of death on to other people, in a naive attempt to rid ourselves of that fear entirely. By passing that fear on to others, we simply provide them with precisely the motivation they need to do the exact same thing back to us. This is a cycle that will never end, unless we choose to remove ourselves from it, by practising nonviolence in all aspects of our lives.

The key mistake here that prevents people from immediately reaching this conclusion is the act of repression that some people fall back on when they are trying to adapt to the violent world into which they have been born. Repression is the term used for those times when you feel something, but don’t express that feeling, and instead try to hide it and bury it so that no one will know about it. It’s kind of like you’re about to be caught with your hand in the cookie jar, but instead of letting go of the cookies and adopting a nonchalant position, you actually squeeze the cookies tighter and slip your hand into your pocket in an attempt to keep them hidden from view. You haven’t gotten rid of your problem; in fact, you have made it significantly worse. And the harder you squeeze, the more crumbs will start to trickle out, and the less chance you’ll have of keeping anyone from finding out what you’ve done.

This is how repression always works: you haven’t successfully hidden your emotions, all you’ve done is delayed their inevitable expression. And depending on how tightly you hold on to them, you might find that they come out in a considerably distorted form when you are finally forced to let them peek through. One thing that can go really wrong here is those odd occasions where someone suddenly “snaps” and acts out violently without precedent, because they’re been bottling up their reactions for years, rather than dealing with them appropriately. Repression causes a habituation of thought, so people return to these hidden reactions over and over, and create a pattern that is increasingly difficult to break free of – until finally, one day, they just can’t hold it in any longer.

But does all this mean that if you go for the cookie jar before realising the danger it presents, you are doomed subsist on an unhealthy diet for the rest of your life? Fortunately, no, there is another option – as it turns out, it is the obvious one. Just let go of the fucking cookie.

It sounds simple, but at its heart, there is a very profound idea at work here. A mind experiencing the inherent fear that motivates violence is a turbulent one, preoccupied with anxiety and stress. But when you stop trying to exert control over your fear, and you stop trying to repress these reactions and you learn to simply let go, you will find that there is a feeling of inner peace and mental clarity that naturally emerges as the turbulence subsides. It is this thing, this flickering candle in the centre of a swirling maelstrom, that you must take hold of and nurture until it becomes strong enough to replace the harmful patterns of behaviour that you have developed in the past.

It is by no means the easiest option – indeed it is quite the opposite, which is unsurprising, because when the easiest solution to a problem is also the correct one, that problem tends to go away rather quickly. Facing your fears without the shielding behaviours you have developed in the past is obviously going to be terrifying on many levels. And there are no magical overnight solutions here, either – depending on the rate at which your old worldview collapses, you may have work at it for quite a while before you start to see some real results. But there are also great rewards to be garnered here, if you can weather the initial storm. There is… okay, there’s no non-ridiculous way for me to say this, so I’ll just come out with it: there is a feeling of wholeness, a feeling of connectedness with the universe, a feeling of such deep and lasting contentment which slowly comes to the surface here. It is a thing which by definition can only exist when the inner turbulence of fear subsides – meaning that actions which increase fear, like violence, are anathema to this state of mind. The whole world comes into sharper relief, as if you’ve only just realised that your windows are covered in dirt, and so you wipe it away to see what truly lies beyond.

It is also worth noting that, depending on how central violent behaviour was to your identity, it is quite likely that such a deep change in the memetic makeup of your mind will result in you becoming, in some respects at least, a very different person when you come out the other side. But if you are seeking to rid yourself of a problematic worldview, then surely this sort of metamorphosis can only be a good thing.

We are social animals, so we have an intrinsic desire to belong to something larger than ourselves. As I briefly touched upon at the start, this has led to expanded social groups, religion, nationalism, and similar constructs – but the greatest thing we can belong to is the cosmos itself. Which raises some interesting questions: is this an inevitable path, perhaps even a natural function of high intelligence, one that is necessary for it to survive and prosper – or have we just been extraordinarily lucky in the evolutionary crapshoot? Is there some greater significance here, or is it simply a favourable alignment of biological functions, with no meaning save that which we invent in our own minds? Either way, we have an amazing opportunity to rise wholly above our biological origins and search for the answers to these questions and many others, and we would do well to pursue it.

The sharpening of your emotional responses that this worldview brings can be a double-edged sword – certainly, I was not ready for how much more it would hurt when something properly bad happens, and even everyday insults and insensitive comments now have a somewhat keener edge to them, especially when they come from someone whose opinions I care about. This is because, without fear diluting the system, you will gain the capacity to experience much more authentic emotions – which is great when something good happens, because your enjoyment is further enhanced, but it can seem to be something of a curse when things go wrong. However, like anything else, this is something that you learn to deal with in time. And I now understand where the common clichés revolving around “hardening up” and such are truly spawned from – it is a defensive reaction against this level of vulnerability. Being so utterly exposed in your emotional reactions means every negative act will hurt more, and if you haven’t learned how to deal with fear properly, then you really have no option but to close yourself off emotionally in order to avoid the inevitable consquences of being continually provoked in this fashion. But of course, you can’t selectively close yourself off to negative experiences and expect to remain fully open to positive ones – it’s an all-or-nothing proposition here. And speaking of clichés, this is why the concept of “darkness” has become such prevalent euphemism for these sorts of fear-driven behaviours. Fear drowns out all other emotional responses (and necessarily so, because any emotion which could overpower fear would interfere with an organism’s instinct for self-preservation, and thus decrease overall fitness – except in unusual circumstances, where martyrdom is called for [bees, for example]), so it is little wonder that people who rely on fear to motivate violence are left feeling like they are experiencing a darker version of reality, unilluminated by the emotional responses we have evolved to rely upon.

Unlike a lot of people who have discovered this state of mind, I don’t see it as a mystical or spiritual sort of thing – I just see it as the natural reaction of a brain, evolved under the intense pressure-cooker of natural selection, finally being released from that system, and being free to pursue its own interests on its own time. This is the unique circumstance that has been afforded to us by modern civilization, even if it is still imperfect, even if we still have many residual violent problems still to free ourselves from. It is the thing we have always wanted, even if, for most people, it has always been perpetually just out of reach.

Interestingly, perhaps even paradoxically, part of the reason this situation has come about is because of a new source of evolutionary pressure which was only just introduced in the 20th century. As it stands now, the development of nuclear weapons has turned out to be the ultimate roll of the dice for us, as a species. The obvious consequence is that we have introduced the completely unprecedented potential not just for our own self-destruction, but also to have a significant impact on Earth’s biosphere as a whole. Life could probably survive a proper nuclear firestorm in some form or another, but it may never again rise above relatively simple forms. We don’t yet know enough about life to say whether it exists anywhere else in the cosmos or whether we could expect it to follow another evolutionary path to advanced intelligence, so at this stage, it is entirely plausible that this is our one and only shot at carrying 3.5 billion years worth of work into the future.

But on the other hand, the immensity of the potential consequences of our actions amounts to a new source of selective pressure – one which will favour nonviolence, because all other pathways now lead to dead ends. Geopolitical buffs will be well aware of the effect of the nuclear trump card: we now have no choice but to play nice, because failing to do so leads to destruction. History has been leading to this point for a long time now, as violence has gradually become less and less prominent, practiced only by those who can’t let go of their desire for power, and who can’t come to terms with their inherently fearful nature. In fact, that is why so many people think that humans are naturally violent – simply because they don’t know how to change the way they react to fear. To be honest, I find it rather heartbreaking to reflect on just how many people have bought into this mistaken assumption. If you take nothing else from this essay, remember this much at least: people can argue in favour of violence if they wish, but they can’t argue that it is an intrinsic and unavoidable aspect of human nature, and that we therefore have no choice but to manufacture an acceptable outlet for violent behaviour, because that is deeply and profoundly wrong.

Indeed, the modern ideas of morally acceptable violence – like the rules of engagement and “precision” warfare (ie. “smart” bombs, avoiding “collateral damage”, etc), righteous justice, sports, fictional entertainment, etc – are a result of the fact that we are still caught up in the process of moving from a violent way of life to a nonviolent one. They are, in effect, transitional forms, displaying traits both old and new. Which is why advocates of ethical violence think they have uncovered a clever solution, a sort of “best of both worlds” scenario – but what they don’t seem to realise that taking the best of both worlds also means accepting the worst of both worlds. When it comes to violence, the advantages and disadvantages are inseparable. In the end, this state of being caught between two different worlds is what seals the fate of almost all transitional forms. Evolution is not kind to the chimeras it necessarily produces, because even though they were indeed a step forward when they first appeared on the scene, they are nonetheless quickly superceded by more advanced versions of themselves. As time rolls on, these split-minded and tentative attempts at nonviolence will die out fairly swiftly (I mean, “swiftly” from an evolutionary perspective, anyway), so there is no need to be particularly militant in arguing against them – which is fortunate, because the fearful nature of violent worldviews means that any threat posed to them is strenuously rejected, so the more you try to force change upon the people who possess them, the further they will retreat into their established moral matrices (which, in the end, simply makes them feel even more justified in pursuing violence). People need a lot of time and space to come to terms with such deep flaws in their personal identity and their moral outlook. Urgency will only make this problem worse; patience is required to see it through to the ideal solutions. It’s just a case of continually putting forward the right ideas, weeding out mistakes, moving forward one small step at a time.

In other words, it’s just business as usual for the grand evolutionary process.

Remember, change is not only possible, it is inevitable. As a species we have reinvented ourselves time and again, and we will continue to do so into the future – this much is a given. The only question is exactly how these changes will unfold, and whether or not we can harness this process of change in order to finally rid ourselves of violence and create the peaceful society that we have spent most of history longing for. Nothing is guaranteed, because evolution doesn’t automatically equal improvement from an objective perspective; it only favours adaptations which are suited to the immediate survival of the genes and/or memes in question. Fortunately there have been selective pressures in play for a while now favouring nonviolence and social co-operation, but we are currently entering a period where we are increasingly taking our evolutionary destiny into our own hands, and so the traditional systems that carried us to this point are falling to the wayside. When natural selection gives way to artificial selection, it becomes even more important for us to try and get on top of this process of change and apply a crucial guiding hand towards the desired outcome of a peaceful and prosperous civilization. And yes, it may well be that this is a problem we can’t solve in our lifetime, and we will end up passing it along to future generations, but even so, we can still choose to be a stepping stone on that path – perhaps, if we’re lucky, making some small contribution which others can build upon in ways that we can’t even imagine today. Or alternatively, we can simply become a deadweight, futilely trying to hold back the tide of history and the march of progress.

The salient point being, we have a choice.

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