Posts Tagged ‘morality’


Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Can’t be bothered to wade through that last entry? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. The basic argument is actually pretty simple; I just went off on lots of tangents about the evolutionary history that has led us to this point, and I also ran through some of the implications of these ideas, and how they relate to everyday life. Here are the key points:

- The historical and evolutionary evidence indicates we are in the process of evolving from a violent civilisation to a nonviolent one. Also, the evolution of our attitude towards violence is closely tied to the evolution of religion. Religion greatly reduced the overall violent nature of our societal groups, but it also gave rise to war when these societal groups clashed, which is why we are now moving on and seeking new alternatives, in order to build on the progress that has been made.

- There are two characteristics which all pro-violence viewpoints have in common: they are reactionary, and they come equipped with a system of ethics designed to eliminate the problems associated with all the other pro-violence worldviews that have failed in the past. This ethical code allows people to feel superior to other practitioners of violence, which is why they can sustain their position even as violence continues to cause problems throughout the world.

- Whenever this system of ethics fails, people simply refine their ethical code and start again. But in reality, there is no such thing as a system of ethics that can prevent the harmful consequences of violent behaviour.

- Violence is a fear response: we experience fear, we try to enact control, violence is usually the simplest act of control so it is the first thing people turn to (ie. it is the path of least resistance, which is something our brains always find appealing). But modern violence carries an unusual quirk: because nonviolent ideas have already permeated society to a significant degree, people are now trying to regulate their violent behaviour. This means that when they experience fear, and thus the desire for control suddenly makes violence seem an attractive option, they try to repress that response, because they have been taught that it is wrong. This is the key mistake. Repression only delays the response; it doesn’t eliminate it. In order to properly move on from violence, we need to stop repressing these actions, and learn to let go of them, and embrace the feeling of inner peace that stems from this action. Then we can all go frolicking together in meadows, etc.

- Because we are still in the process of evolving from a violent civilisation to a nonviolent one, most of the pro-violence worldviews that exist today can be viewed as the memetic equivalent of transitional forms. Many of them will provide useful, if rather unstable, stepping stones on the way to that long-term goal, but they are clearly unsustainable, and we will eventually have to complete the transition. And yeah, I know it’s probably hard to look at some of the wars and such that exist today and think “well, at least we’re making progress”, but it seems that that is indeed the case, even if we still have a long way to go.

Anti-violence post #2

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

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.


Only A Matter Of Time

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

I didn’t watch last Monday’s Tony Abbott-fest on Q&A (GNW was on, and besides, an hour of watching Abbott speak? I need at least three hours of preparatory meditation before I can endure something like that, and I don’t have that kind of time), but I just caught his answer to that question about gay marriage – quite poignantly posed, if you also missed it, by a man with a gay son who overcame his own prejudices as a result of being exposed to this alternate point of view. Funny how empathy can change people like that. Abbott, perhaps realising that the sympathy of the crowd was dangerously against him at this point, was suitably effacing in his answer – but in doing so, highlighted the absolutely absurd position this debate has reached. He praised gay relationships, not a bad thing to say against them, seemingly drawing no distinction between them and their straight equivalents – except for the fact that he believes straight relationships are special for some arbitrary reason, and therefore they are the only ones deserving of the title “marriage” (itself a completely arbitrary social construct). That’s where we are now. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman because I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” That’s all it takes to justify social oppression. Not even so much as a Biblical citation, let alone some actual logic.

The fact that the human brain is actually capable of sustaining such a position should be a cautionary tale for us all. It’s easy to cite the deeply ingrained memes surrounding homophobia passed down from a patriarchal society which automatically devalues anything that threatens aggressive masculinity, because these memes are still so prevalent that even many gay people still display latent tendencies towards them, let alone their straight allies – so people who have been taught that homosexuality is somehow a lesser form of sexual expression certainly do have a lot of memetic baggage to sort through, especially if they’ve been insulated from alternative arguments, as people raised in a religious environment often are. But there’s more to it than that. This strange desire to cling to a pre-existing viewpoint despite all logic to the contrary is a hallmark of religious thinking, and it stems from the rarely-spoken assumption that the system of morality put forward by the religion in question is the only thing standing between a stable civilisation and total societal collapse. In other words, if you were to suddenly take away religious morality, there would be no more civilisation, and we would return to a state of barbarism, if not outright savagery.

This view is plainly false. Morality is a product of evolution, and evolution does not just unravel itself like that – not when the same selective pressures which produced this behaviour are largely still in play today. True, memetic information exists in a far more tenuous state than genetic data, but even so, we have reached a level of development where only a truly catastrophic event, like nuclear war, could make such an impact on our progress as to undo it completely. Gay marriage is not, safe to say, the equivalent of nuclear war, though you could be forgiven for assuming as much if you’ve listened to some of the rhetoric from those who oppose it. And even in the event of an ACTUAL catastrophe, we would still be human, and thus still possess our kin-selected ability for empathy and a natural tendency towards social co-operation. If we survived, we could rebuild over time. We’re kind of bad-ass like that.

Aside from discussions surrounding proper problems with an actual scientific basis, like nuclear war or climate change or death by intergalactic space laser, conversations about morality should revolve around determining what is best to make people’s lives happier and healthier, not what must be done in order to avoid self-destruction. This fear that a loosening of moral standards will result in an inexorable backwards slide is really quite ridiculous. Cultures have been built around far less developed types of morality than that which exists today, and whilst they certainly weren’t perfect, they survived okay. This is kind of like when people argue for action against climate change by saying that we have to “save the planet” – it’s not about saving the planet, it’s about preserving its current state to the extent that is physically possible, so that it remains comfortably habitable for humans. That’s still a worthy goal. And the inherent selfishness of it might actually be more appealing than a Captain Planet mantra (since unironically caring about things beyond our immediate concerns is apparently still an embarrassing trait to publicly display). In the same way, people should be putting forward moral arguments in order to make the world a better place for us, the self-centred, fear-driven weirdos who live here. And arguments against gay marriage do not pass that test – they only promote divisiveness and oppression of people who don’t line up with arbitrary social norms. There is a reflex to automatically treat religions as though they have the moral high ground, because for much of our history that was actually the case (hard to imagine, I know), but morality has continued to evolve, and the major religions have – through their harmful actions and their unwillingness to catch up with this forward progression – clearly relinquished the ground they once held. There is no moral high ground for those who discriminate based on sexual orientation. It is bigoted, it is logically indefensible, and it is wrong.

You know what this “I believe because I believe” bullshit reminds me of? A school bully in the playground, playing keep-away with the socially-outcasted kid’s hat. There is no rhyme or reason to this behaviour; the bully is simply afraid, and is trying to placate that fear by wielding power over others, since that is what his greater physical stature allows. He does it, because he can. But as is the nature of power, it does not release that fear, it simply feeds it, and causes it to grow stronger. The pursuit of control only highlights what an impossible goal it is, causing him to pursue it even harder, only for it to move even further away – and so the cycle continues. The bully becomes even more strongly attached to these behaviours he has developed to try and cope with his fear, and yet he does not understand why. The bully’s hierarchical worldview is a type of morality, albeit a highly flawed one, just like the religious argument against homosexuality is a type of morality, albeit a highly flawed one. People cling to these views because even as their fears are being fed, they are even more afraid of what would happen if they had to face these fears completely exposed, without the behaviours they have developed in the past to try and cope with that fear. But the funny thing is, if you stop feeding these fears, they will genuinely stop growing, and they will become easier to deal with. Over time, you will find that you are able to develop new patterns of behaviour, and if you meditate on the consequences of your actions, you can try and ensure these new behaviours don’t have negative effects on others. That is actually a key point, because actions which harm others will also harm you (especially if you follow your natural impulse to try and create ethical justifications for your harmful actions – ironically, you’d do less harm without an ethical approach). Of course, you will always continue to make mistakes, there’s no getting around that – but as long as you acknowledge and learn from these mistakes and keep moving forward, you will notice a gradual improvement not only in your own life, but in the lives of those around you.

In other words, if you stop trying to force morality onto others and instead just learn to chillax so that productive discussions can take place, and you ensure any high-minded ethical meditations are backed by an intuitive and empathetic approach in addition to a scientific understanding of human behaviour (not just one or the other), you will quite likely find that a lot of your fears are simply figments of your imagination.

Morality and Ethics

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

What is the difference between morals and ethics? When I was a kid, this question really bothered me, mostly because I couldn’t actually see any difference between them. As far as I could tell, they were both just sets of rules designed to make sure people treated each other nicely. At that time, I still believed in God; I’d only been exposed to the friendlier parts of the Bible through the Catholic school I was attending; and I was only just starting to have my beliefs unwittingly moulded by our racist, sexist, partriarchal society; and so it all just seemed like common sense. The logic behind the Golden Rule is quite easy to grasp, after all, even for a child (and even with all the obfuscating religious propaganda surrounding it). And yet people still made this big deal out of morals and ethics, and the apparent differences which I couldn’t make sense of at that time.

I get it now, though.

What we now consider to be moral behaviour is a set of rules, usually revolving around definitions of “right” and “wrong”, that naturally emerge when social animals learn to cooperate for mutual benefit. These rules are much more highly refined in humans than in any other animal, but they are still a product of evolution, as I was attempting to explain the other day in that huge post about violence. They have since been co-opted and distorted by a long line of religions, usually without any overtly malicious intent, but more through unavoidable ignorance. One of the reasons why religion has played such a long-lasting role in human development is because it is a social behaviour formed around these basic moral rules, which allows people to live together without their more selfish tendencies taking control and destablising the group dynamic (hence most religions revolving around love, the strongest of the social emotions). That is also why most religions preach peace and tolerance, and yet so easily go to war with one another – because they are really just social groups vying for survival in much the same way that individual organisms would. Peace is fine within the group, because it provides social cohesion, but outsiders are still fair game (so you get rhetoric about chosen people, sinners, the damned… anything that justifies treating certain people differently whilst still maintaining an overall belief system that is ostensibly directed towards treating people in very much the opposite manner).

This traditional approach to morality breaks down in a globalised, increasingly-borderless world, like the one that we are now beginning to create. You can’t have Us versus Them when all people are held to be equal. That is very much the problem that most societies are now struggling with, because up until quite recently, one of the defining properties of social behaviour was an outside source of pressure that forced people to work together, because the only other choice was to be overwhelmed by that pressure. That’s why social behaviour arose in the first place, and without that outside pressure, we seem to be a little lost. Presumably this is because there is nothing forcing people to join in with social groups, and so they inevitably start to ask themselves, well, why should I bother to? What do I gain from it? Would it be as advantageous as a more selfish path? This is also one of the reasons why people like to manufacture and exaggerate foreign threats, like terrorism, immigration, etc – because counterintuitive though it may seem, it makes them feel safer and more connected within their own insular communities. We have grown so accustomed to fearing external threats that when we can’t see any, we just make them up – and because these fears have little basis in reality, they are easily distorted, and before you know it, a ragtag group of poorly-trained terrorists is being held up as a dire threat to the entire civilised world. And people accept this, because it comes naturally to them. It might seem kind of ironic that moral behaviour relies on having an oppositional force to keep it in check, but when you look at the long history of violence between religions and social groups, all these weird behaviours and fears start to make a bit more sense. (The Watchmen graphic novel captured this struggle beautifully, and carried it through to its logical conclusion – but the movie completely fucked it up, so steer clear of that.)

Of course, the other problem with traditional morality is that, as a result of its religious associations, most people see it as a sort of high-handed, impossible-to-live-up-to set of rules, and so they don’t really see it as something that is worth pursuing. This situation is no accident: for centuries now, religions have held control over their followers specifically because their rules were unrealistic and impossible to follow. This creates a feeling of guilt in those who are taught to believe in this type of morality, which the religion then exploits by offering a way to assuage that guilt. All you have to do is surrender yourself to a higher power, and your sins will be forgiven. This might not be a deliberate manipulation in all cases – it’s very easy to start believing your own hype, after all – but regardless, this distorted morality has become a problem not only for the established religions, which are currently finding it much harder to convince people to believe in their ridiculous rules now that we’ve been freed from the external pressure that would have previously motivated people to join in with social groups they disagreed with; but also for anyone who rejects these rules, and is subsequently left with no moral viewpoint to believe in at all.

You might assume that this is the part where I say, okay, it’s time we reinvent morality for the modern age – but the thing is, there are plenty of people who have already done that. Violence is being increasingly rejected the world over; there are lots of Christians who now accept and support homosexuality and other types of behaviour once held to be unthinkably immoral; there are lots of Muslims who promote women’s rights and reject the fundamentalist (and inaccurate) interpretations of their religion that have been popularized in the West as the source of all evil and terrorism; there are Jedi who have started to question the black-and-white dogma surrounding the Force… in fact most definitions of morality tend to be quite flexible and adaptable (for better or worse, in some cases). Social behaviour is a product of evolution – and therefore, unsurprisingly, it continues to evolve. Moreover, cultural ideas are no longer confined by the extremely slow pace of genetic evolution, and so they can change very rapidly. It might not seem like it from a human perspective – but just compare the massive social upheaval over the past fifty years since the rights movements began with the millions of years it usually takes for evolution to weave its magic.

So we don’t need to worry so much about trying to change morality, because that change is unavoidable and inevitable. Morality is really just the lump sum of everyone’s selfish desires, broiled together until a mutually-beneficial and fairly unselfish product can be produced (which has traditionally just meant that people were able to accept their place in the social hierarchy, but then, if morality was perfect to start off with then there would be no need for it to evolve). It think it’s actually somewhat poetic that such a cruel and wasteful process as natural selection could give rise to such a thing. And it’s obviously quite reassuring to know that there is a logical progression to this point, too. But that doesn’t mean we can take it for granted. The real trick, now, is to try and monitor this process of change, and ensure that it doesn’t get skewed too far in one direction. Because whilst this process is self-correcting and mostly balances out in the long run, when you look at the history of social upheaval and revolution throughout human development, you see that these corrections more often than not come at great cost. If we intend to avoid repeating these mistakes over and again, our new goal should be to try and take the process of change out of the hands of natural selection – as I said, it is a horribly cruel and wasteful process – and turn it into a system of artificial selection, which will hopefully not only be more beneficial to humanity as a whole, but also greatly accelerate our development into the future. This is already happening to a certain degree, but I think we are kind of stuck between the two systems at this point in time, and the process is still very ill-defined and poorly understood.

It is here that we run into a somewhat unexpected problem, and we also return to my original point – the difference between morality and ethics. In broad terms, ethics is usually defined as the philosophical analysis of morality, but when we look at it from the perspective of the natural, evolutionary development of morality, what we actually see is that it is a shift from mutually agreed-upon moral rules to a more individually-deliberated set of ideas. It is no longer a social behaviour, but an exercise in self-justification (quite possibly brought about, or at least influenced by our newfound freedom from the external pressure that had previously motivated social behaviour). Which means that all too often, unfortunately, it’s just a form of cognitive dissonance. Strange though it might seem, this is actually where a lot of bad ideas get their foot in the door.

Of course, due to the ever-changing and increasingly-sophisticated nature of morality, we are left with little choice but to study its nature in order to determine the best course of action. I’m not saying that ethics are a bad idea, just that we need to be very careful in avoiding some of the pitfalls that arise when an individual tries to determine what is best for everyone. The tendency to avoid questioning our own beliefs is so strong that it is almost impossible to avoid falling back into patterns of self-justification. It would be a good idea to learn from the traditional system of moral development, and expose ourselves to as many alternative ideas as possible, in the hope that the best ideas can emerge and succeed on their own merits. Wishful thinking, sure, but then, in a system based around constant change, perfection is impossible anyway, so we don’t need to worry about trying to obtain it. We are not arming ourselves to try and reach some kind of ultimate goal; we are instead preparing for a never-ending journey, with no destination. The competing forces of other people’s views should help balance out our individual shortcomings, in the long run.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of the problems with our current approach to ethics is the way the subject is often pursued in a highly specialized and narrowly-focused way. So people will tell themselves that they are developing an ethical approach to behaviour, but what they are actually doing is inventing an alternate set of rules that can be applied to a specific situation in order to justify something which otherwise would have been considered unacceptable. The results speak for themselves really, when you look at, say, the world of business ethics, where people routinely make decisions that literally ruin other people’s lives, and they justify it by telling themselves that it’s “just business” and that’s simply how the system works. In any other setting these same people probably would have made very different decisions, but because they have given themselves over to the capitalist ideals of profit and the pursuit of success at any other cost, they blind themselves to the very real consequences of their actions. Whilst there is certainly logic behind their actions, when viewed as part of the bigger picture you would have little choice but to call it selfish logic, and therefore, from a moral standpoint, wrong. Hence the need to invent an alternate set of rules, and label them as “ethics”. Which is for me quite fascinating: even when participating in activities which are hilariously and obviously wrong by any sane definition of the word, people still have this innate desire to justify their actions, even if only in their own mind. This might have been a useful safeguard against harmful behaviour, if humans were rational beings – but unfortunately that is clearly not the case. Which means what we are left with is significantly worse, because a person who believes they are justified in holding harmful ideas is much more dangerous, and much harder to argue with, than someone who is incapable of justifying their actions.

And if you still don’t believe me, then note the “E” in PETA*. Enough said, motherfuckers. ;)

If you find yourself with no other choice but to invent an alternate, contradictory set of rules to deal with a specific situation, then that is a pretty sure sign that there is a problem somewhere along the line. It’s just a question of whether that problem lies in the situation you are trying to justify, or in your overarching moral viewpoint. So to go with an obvious example, if you believe that people shouldn’t have sex before marriage, and yet 98% of the population does exactly that, then there is clearly a conflict that needs to be resolved. You have to ask yourself, are your moral views unrealistic, or is there some other problem preventing people from living up to them? In this case we can obviously trace the moral viewpoint back to unrealistic religious morality (perhaps caused by panic over the consequences of sex, in the time before reliable contraception and birth control) and the attempts of a patriarchal society to exert control over people’s sexuality, to maintain familial order. These views are no longer in line with modern morality and therefore need to change – and in the minds of many, they already have. This is just one of many ways in which we hold ourselves to a different level of morality than previous generations ever considered. But whilst in this and the vast majority of other cases, things have definitely improved, it’s worth remembering that evolution doesn’t equal improvement; it just means change. Which is why we have to pay close attention to this process, and ensure it doesn’t go off the rails.

Despite what the major religions would have you believe, morality is not synonymous with virtue; and indeed throughout history it has had much more in common with the tyranny of the majority. When you throw everyone’s selfish desires into a melting pot, some are inevitably going to outweigh others. The main force counteracting this has been our gradual empathetic awakening, which I detailed in that violence post, but progress on this front has been extremely slow and patchy. So whilst we may now look back into the past and think that people were shockingly or bizarrely immoral by today’s standards, the thing is, they were likely living up to the moral standards of their day, too. Their behaviour only seems worse to us because morality has evolved since then – which raises some pretty serious questions about why people think it’s such a good idea to turn to ancient religious texts to try and build their moral viewpoints. Even if they did have a few good ideas back then, why you would want to discard all the moral development in the intervening period is quite beyond me.

Hmm, I’ve lost track of whether I was trying to build up to some kind of point here. Mostly I am just so sick of arguing with people who are so caught up in the desire for self-justification that they completely shut down any chance of rational debate. How do you break through this mental shield, and open people’s minds? Answer that, and you’ll probably solve a whole bunch of problems right then and there. Thing is though, we are not only wired to resist facts that challenge our beliefs, but we are also taught to do that very same thing from an early age. Right the way through school, we are constantly told that we need to perform well to get into good classes next year so we can get good marks and go to a good university and get a good job and earn lots of money and if we screw up even once along the way then our lives will be ruined forever. Mistakes are punished, and treated as a source of shame. The fear of being wrong is drilled into us unrelentingly, and finds a welcome home in the hardwiring of our brains. What we need, instead, is to teach people that no matter where they’re at, the only thing they can truly be sure of is that their existing beliefs are either largely wrong or at least erroneous – and that by trying to deny this fact, they are shutting down their capacity for growth. Maybe then, we could finally free ourselves from the mistakes of the past.

*In case you’re unfamiliar with my views on this, I don’t have anything against animal rights – I just prefer them to be promoted by non-sociopathic organisations.

Anti-violence post #1

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Some things in life are predictable: death, taxes, humorous non-sequitur third option. Others – like my update schedule – are less so. Sometimes you can see the car headlights moving inexorably towards you, and you try to get out of the way, only to realise the road has been covered with crazy glue, and your shoelaces have been tied together. Other times, they buy an electric car and switch off the headlights, and sneak up on you. Christ, I hate my neighbourhood.

Another thing that can be placed in the “predictable” category is the storyline of my comic. Well, large chunks of it, anyway – especially if you are already familiar with my political and social views and the way I like to express them in my work. I’m hoping to mix in a few surprises along the way, within that overall framework of inevitability, but I don’t think I’m really giving much away when I say that the main theme of the first half of the story will be the causes and consequences of violent behaviour. Since it’s a subject which will no doubt continually crop up as the story progresses, I’m going to jot down a few musings here, mostly to help keep my thoughts in order.

So, let’s start off with the basics. Violence is essentially a reaction against vulnerability, sought because it delivers feelings of safety and control – but ultimately, these feelings are just an illusion. You can see this across the board, from full scale warfare right down to one-on-one encounters. A telling example is the way governments use euphemisms like “security” to justify expanding their own power and hegemony, revealing that even large and powerful groups of people still function with the exact same deep-seated fear that drives all violent behaviour. Because what is security, exactly? The ability to gain so much control that you will never have to fear violent attack? Such a situation is patently impossible, yet it is the very thing that violence promises to deliver, and so people continue to fall for it. This psychology scales down with surprisingly little change, even to an individual level. The school bully, looking to control the other kids because he feels threatened by them. The guy who starts a bar fight with almost no provocation, because he is trying to compensate for feelings of powerlessness resulting from social isolation and emotional disconnection. The husband who has been taught all his life that emotions are effeminate and wrong, and thus ends up being so filled with fear when it comes to relationships that he tries to exert control by beating his wife. In fact, sex itself is, for a number of different reasons, one of the most vulnerable experiences in life, which is why some people will turn to violent behaviour to try and deal with it, either in reality or fantasy (the psychology is basically the same either way, despite how illogical and contradictory it seems from a more superficial perspective).

The consequences of violence are numerous and well-documented. History books are filled with innumerable accounts of lives that have been ruined through senseless and careless acts, and the media takes a certain macabre delight in delivering fresh tales of similar woe each day. It’s not exactly difficult to see that violence causes far more problems than it will ever solve. So why, then, do people keep returning to it? Why are they so unendingly inured to the obvious outcomes? There are numerous factors at play, but in the end, it all comes down to perception versus reality. The real problem here is that even though violence only delivers the illusion of safety and control, this illusion is the result of the brain equating mastery of its immediate surroundings with a more general and wide-reaching feeling of empowerment. It still feels very real, in the mind of the person committing these acts. And its absence is very noticeable. This is why violent behaviours, once learned, are amongst the hardest to let go of.

Human behaviour is driven primarily by fear, so anything which creates a feeling of safety is naturally going to be very attractive. Violence, however, actually decreases safety whilst making the user feel safer. It’s like buying a gun for protection: you might feel safer with a gun at your side, but in reality, a society full of people carrying guns is far less safe than a weaponless one. It’s easy to see how this works with something like a gun, which so obviously changes the balance of power, but this same psychology extends to all violent behaviour, to varying degrees. Because the feeling of safety increases whilst actual safety decreases, the result is an unending behavioural loop, driven by fear, in search of something which by definition can never exist.

Even when you recognise this reality, finding a way out is still extremely hard. To revisit the gun analogy: a society full of people carrying guns might be dangerous, but a society where everyone except you is armed is even worse, from your own perspective at least. Trying to go against this system means putting yourself in an even more vulnerable position – which, when you’ve formed behaviours around compensating for vulnerability through violence, is not only a truly daunting task, but it seems quite illogical if not outright stupid (I mean, get rid of your gun, when everyone else still has theirs? That’s crazy, right?). Fear can build up to such a level that abandoning violence can become seemingly unthinkable; so instead you run in the other direction, deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, despite knowing full well that you’re moving further and further away from the only path out of this mess.

I believe it can be done, however – so long as people are actually willing to make that choice. And the more people who do, the easier it becomes, because people naturally feel less vulnerable in groups than they do alone. More importantly, though, the need to move on from violence is becoming increasingly urgent, as an examination of human development will reveal.