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Behind primal evil:
A close look at violence

People once thought the earth was flat; they also thought it was the center of the universe. They were in the dark about the solar system, and about our world itself. One of the commonest statistics we know is how six million Jews were killed during the Second World War; we also know that three million Bangladeshis were killed in the short space of nine months during our Liberation War. Facts about Gaza, Darfur, Rwanda are common knowledge, but how does one explain the level of atrocity a human being can inflict upon another? How can a sane, average person even understand what drives a man to such violence? Let us explore similar events.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of the Columbine High School massacre; Seung-Hui Cho of the Virginia Tech massacre; Tim Kretschmer of Winnenden school shooting; the oldest amongst them was 23. They were all amongst what one would call the youth but a further thing they all have in common is that they committed mass murder before killing themselves.

Even in our own backyard there has been news of school children killing each other- stabbing in a private university, pushing someone off a roof- all quickly quelled before they caught on in the media.

Violence has existed since we have. But the level of depravity that lies in the hearts of very functioning and regular members of our society, even our own, can never be understood. But what we can try understanding is some of the circumstances that lead to a violent act.

We always assume that our society, or our group, is good, when we reflect upon other groups of people that we consider evil and till we keep to this level of distinction we will remain in the dark about violence. Violence isn't only committed by one group of people- Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists all commit violence; it's a shared human problem and for those that want to curb this problem it is necessary to understand the root of such behavior. This understanding is important to the world at large, more so than a cure for cancer or aids, because the greatest threat to humanity isn't what nature throws at us in the form of disasters or diseases but what we do to our fellow brothers and sisters.

If a violent person is asked to explain his violent actions he will spout of a bunch of rhetoric that will likely impress us with its self-righteousness and moral superiority. But is his rhetoric and high sentences enough for us to understand the root of violence? That would be like basing a mental patient's diagnosis on his babbling.

Carl Jung, notable psychologist, has a theory that focuses on the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche. The conscious parts are the ego and the persona, representing a person's self-awareness and patterns of relating to other people. The unconscious parts of the psyche have a personal aspect and a collective aspect. The collective unconscious is the individual's deep point of connection with his or her society and the human race more broadly. Jung spoke, for example, about Nazism as “an eruption of the god Wotan arising out of the collective unconscious of the German people.”

The personal unconscious is the area of the psyche within which individuals hide aspects of themselves they are ashamed of, such as their fears, guilt and fallibility and their sense of inferiority. This is the realm of the “shadow” which can cause terrible psychic and social damage if kept hidden. A shadow that is not integrated into the conscious ego is commonly projected outward onto some other group of people, ethnic minorities for example, who are then attacked viciously. Jung identifies the source of most social and political violence as this process of shadow projection and biased targeting that occurs when people have failed to integrate all of the various components of their psyche.

Ernest Becker argues that this shadow that Jung had spoken about is in individuals an awareness of their own mortality. A psychologically oriented anthropologist, he focuses on fear of physical death as the mainspring of human behavior. He argues that because we have highly developed brains we have the power to anticipate the future, and we see death as an eventuality; because of our narcissism we unknowingly all want to be immortal. The clash between what we know and what we want overwhelms us to a point that we invent lies in an effort to somehow pretend that we are immortal.

One of the lies we tell ourselves is that if we can triumph over our enemies, we can rise above the limitations of our condition. We can project the shadow, that awareness of our mortality that we have repressed into our unconscious, onto the enemies we attack in an attempt to prove that they will die and we will not. At root, violence against others is an effort to avoid facing one's own mortality.

Alice Miller, a German psychologist, attributes violent behavior to more personal reasons rather than something universal like mortality. Coining the term “poisonous pedagogy”, she explains that children that have been abused in turn abuse and hurt others when they are in a position to do so. She cites a very famous example- Hitler was brutally beaten by his father, and she describes Hitler's hatred of the Jews as a transfigured hatred of his father. The beaten and humiliated child turns his rage on helpless others when he gains the power to do so. Miller argues that the immense popularity of Hitler in Germany is a sign that most Germans had been raised within the same atmosphere of “poisonous pedagogy.”

Jung's theory focuses on human self-righteous driving the engine of violence. We see evil only in others and never in ourselves; this has locked us into a condition of psychological immaturity. We will battle the evil outside us, blind to the evil that is inside us. Becker's theory is a bit muddled when it comes to understanding suicidal behavior, because a person who commits suicide is obviously not motivated by a fear of physical death. Nevertheless, Becker does speak of efforts to symbolically escape from annihilation by leaping into death with a particular vision of a glorious afterlife in mind. He encourages us to face our mortality honestly and live ethically with our fellow human beings. Miller's writings bring to light how the mistreatment of children is in effect sowing seeds of violent behavior later in life. If we want to make the world less violent, we need to think not only in terms of struggling against terrorist organizations, but also in terms of nurturing the next generation in such a way that children grow up to be psychologically strong and healthy.

This article is not meant to be negative, or to show only the darker side of human beings. Good exists. It's true that in any newspaper today the number of bad news will outweigh the number of good news. This is because good news is barely ever sensationalist. That is the kind of world we live in. To make it free of violence what we need most is a unified fate in the good of man, while not losing sight of what we ourselves are capable of. Judgment of others will get us nowhere, but fate will.

Civilization in Transition by Carl Jung
Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
For Your Own: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence by Alice Miller
Theories on the Psychology of Violence by Charles K. Bellinger

By Ahsan Sajid

Book review

Black and Blue

IN 1971, Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University was conducting a controversial experiment with students who were engaged in role-playing as prisoners and prison guards. The results raised some pretty loaded questions about human nature. What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph?

You find yourself asking the same questions when reading Black and Blue, the eighth novel in Ian Rankin's critically acclaimed Detective Inspector Rebus series. This time around, the book opens in the middle of four cases at once. Police all over Scotland are investigating a serial killer nicknamed Johnny Bible because his MO is eerily reminiscent of Bible John, another serial killer from the 1960's. Rebus finds himself obsessing about Bible John, even as he sets out to solve a case assigned to him, one involving the bizarre death of an Edinburgh yuppie Alan Mitchinson. On top of all that, former flame and current Chief Inspector Gill Templar seeks him out regarding a drug bust she wants to solve. In trying to help her, Rebus complicates his life further as press interest in one of his old cases causes the powers-that-be to reopen the case and investigate.

Rankin explores the seamy underbelly of Scotland's criminal world, a world populated with shadowy characters with twisted minds and dark desires. The perspective switches from Rebus' own, while he goes sniffing on one or the other of the trails, to that of Bible John himself, as he tries to seek out the copycat. Deeming Rebus as a threat to his safety, he also tries to take the Inspector out of the game, and thus begins a cat and mouse game, and Rebus must solve all four cases in order to stay alive.

Rankin uses an actual case (Bible John) in this story, and takes Rebus out of his home town of Edinburgh to chase his crooks, which makes for an interesting backdrop for the book itself. He has also done an admirable job of weaving the disparate threads into one story, and as always, the Rebus books come with their own soundtrack. Where he flubs, strangely enough, is in characterization, which is usually Rankin's strength. The Rebus we see in Black and Blue lacks his usual intensity and 'bite' for lack of a better word. Nevertheless, the plot alone is enough to keep one hooked on the book, so this is one you want to look out for.

By Sabrina F Ahmad
Reference: Wikipedia



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