In his introduction to “Columbus and Other Cannibals,” by Jack Forbes, Derrick Jenson writes that he thinks this is “the most important book ever written on one of the most important topics ever faced by human beings: why is the dominant culture so excruciatingly, relentlessly, insanely, genocidally, ecocidally, suicidally destructive? … How could any group of people, no matter how insane, no matter how stupid, actually destroy the planet on which (or rather, whom) they live?"1 Its a good question. I doubt that anyone has a complete answer, and surely I do not claim to. But if we are to have any hope of curing this illness, then perhaps we need a better understanding of its nature and causes. The purpose of this essay is to make a contribution to this understanding.
The full title of Jack Forbe's book is “Columbus and other Cannibals: the Wetiko disease of Exploitation, Imperialism and Terrorism.” As a Native American, Forbes writes as a member of a culture that has seen the full fury of western insanity. The central thesis of his book is that western civilization has suffered for centuries from a mental/spiritual disease he calls by the Native American term “Wetiko” -- a Cree term which means "cannibal" or a person who terrorizes his neighbors with violent acts. He goes on to explain: "Cannibalism, as I define it, is the consuming of another's life for ones own private purpose or profit" 2 In western parlance, we in the dominant civilization on the planet are collectively insane.
Perhaps one of the clearest illustrations of this madness is found in the words of Christopher Columbus in his description of his first astonishing encounter with Native Americans.
"The lands... are all most beautiful... and full of trees of a thousand kinds, so lofty that they seem to reach the sky. And some of them were in flower, some in fruit, some in another stage according to their kind. And the nightingale was singing, and other birds of a thousand sorts, in the month of November... The people of this island, and all of the others I have found and seen... all go naked, men and women... they are artless and generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but he who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts... they believed very firmly that I, with these ships and crew, came from the sky; and in such opinion they received me at every place where I landed, after they had lost their terror. And this comes not because they are ignorant; on the contrary, they are men of very subtle wit, who navigate all those seas, and who give a marvelously good account of everything... And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island that I found, I took some of them by force, to the intent that they should learn and give me information of what there was in these parts. And so it was, that very soon they understood and we them, by what speech or by what signs... To this day I carry them who are still of the opinion that I come from heaven, from much conversation which they had with me. And they were the first to proclaim it whenever I arrived; and the others went running from house to house and to the neighboring villages, with loud cries of "Come! Come see the people from heaven!..."
And he adds,
"These people are very unskilled in arms... with fifty men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished..." 3
Now that is madness. As we know, this willingness to destroy a paradise and enslave a people that welcome you with open arms was not an idiosyncratic characteristic of Columbus. He was not more insane than others his culture. Rather, he accurately reflected the madness of his civilization. And, of course, the Native People were helpless against the this insane aggressiveness.
Have things improved in the last 400 years? When we look around us what do we see? A huge number of people who cannot tolerate life without the aid of drugs – whether illegal, or prescribed. A phenomenal insensitivity to the suffering of others, as we see in the routine use of torture in Abu Ghraib and other prisons. A preoccupation with gaining dominance over others, as in the US drive toward the creation of a world empire. People of all political persuasions bombing one other on a daily basis. Endless war. Religious leaders cheering all this on. The destruction of the ecosphere upon which we depend for our very survival. In some areas we seem to see progress. At least no-one believes slavery is a good thing anymore. Capital punishment is outlawed in most civilized societies, and where it is used, it is used more rarely. Headway with regard to racial equality is very real. There appears to be more acceptance of sexual diversity. Other examples could be cited.
I do not suggest that no progress has been made. But given the huge capacity for destruction our technologies have given us, it appears that our spiritual evolution -- that which is needed to save us from our madness -- may be too slow and too late. The core problem is that our technological evolution has outstripped our spiritual evolution. Revolvers are now in the hands of Chimpanzees, and mentally deranged ones at that.
In an effort to bring some order to multitudinous facts that give evidence of our madness, I would suggest that we might subsume them all under two overarching symptoms:
1. The continuing emergence of ruthless hierarchies that exploit, repress, and when necessary, slaughter the people so that an elite few might live in comfort off the labor and suffering of the rest. We are all familiar with Stalin, Hitler, and Bush. Certainly these are examples of people who were deeply infected with the madness. Paul Levy, for example, wrote a book entitled "The Madness of George Bush."4 Using a Jungian frame of reference, he argues convincingly that Bush is insane. Unfortunately, as in the case of Columbus, Bush was simply a reflection of a larger madness -- an assessment with which I am sure Levy would agree.
2. And now a second symptom of the madness of civilization has surfaced: governments and unregulated multinational corporations and banks aggressively pursuing policies that are known to endanger the ecological balance of the earth as a whole, very likely making it uninhabitable by the human species.
The diagnosis seems clear. Western Civilization is mad. Perhaps other civilizations are, or have been, mad as well. We will touch on this point shortly. But the primary focus of this essay will be the madness of our own civilization. That is what we know best.
The Primary Locus of The Madness Is In Society Itself
As I have attempted to make some sense of this astonishing and confusing world we inhabit, I found the discrepancy between two kinds of data most confusing. When I encountered people on a personal basis I found them, on the whole, to be decent human beings who would be quite incapable killing or torturing other human beings, or even inflicting unnecessary suffering on them. Ordinary people did not seem especially saintly. Even the most altruistic had feet of clay. But most people did not seem to be killer apes or monsters. Yet every day I read of the horrendous things that were being done on the political level: torture and killing in the name of fanatical delusions, lies and deceit.
It was strange. What was going on here? Then I became aware that the truly great atrocities were almost all committed by nations and groups rather than by individuals. Certainly nations kill many more people than do their private citizens. This led me to suspect that the primary locus of the difficulty might be more in the collective rather than the private sphere. 4
A second discrepancy also forced itself into my consciousness. I think it came home to me most forcibly one day when I took a plane trip. I was amazed at the technology. It enabled this huge hunk of metal I was on to get off the ground, fly through the dark at two-thirds the speed of sound, and arrive at a fore-ordained destination without mishap. Then I thought of other uses of the airplane. I thought of the fire bombings during the Second World War, and the atomic blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How was one to understand such a discrepancy between the incredible technical intelligence of creating an modern airplane, and the utter stupidity and brutality with which we handle our political affairs -- especially those between nations and different ethnic groups?
This was more than strange. It was surreal. If our propensity for transforming heaven into hell, as Columbus did, was not a matter of stupidity, what then? In general two possible explanations offered themselves. Either we really were hopelessly evil or we were insane. For reasons I will come to shortly, I decided that insanity was the more accurate diagnosis. Given the collective nature of the wrongness from which we suffer, the most reasonable hypothesis was that our civilization is itself psychotic. It is mad. As individuals we imbibe this madness, and we reflect it in our thinking, our feelings and our actions. We have some responsibility for how we respond to it. But we did not create this madness, nor are we as individuals its primary location.
Having come to the conclusion that we are collectively mad, I was pleased when I ran into the books by Levy and Ford. On all major points I am in agreement with them. But believing that complex matters can sometimes be fruitfully explored from a variety of angles, I wished to explore this issue from a slightly different perspective. My own professional background in social work predisposed me to see human dysfunction as something that emerges out of a problematic interaction between individuals and the societies they belong to. So it is from psycho/social perspective that I will attempt to add some clarification as to the specific nature of the madness that we inhabit.
Are We Hardwired as Killer Apes -- the Evidence
There is a certain plausibility about the idea that we are a war-like species because this kind of aggression is hardwired into our biology. Chimpanzees in the wild, after all, are known to conduct wars on other bands of chimps. They are one of our closest relatives. But so are bonobos, who are far less prone to such violence. In any case arguing from one species to another is, at best, rather speculative. So that kind of evidence did not seem to lead to anything conclusive. In time I discovered two rather compelling kinds of evidence in support of my disinclination to accept the "killer apes" theory of human violence. The first bit of solid evidence I became aware of came from a book entitled "On Killing" by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.5 There I learned that War Historian S.L.A. Marshall came to the conclusion that under actual conditions of battle no more than 25% of combatants were willing to try to kill an enemy soldier. Grossman quotes Marshall as follows:
"It is therefore reasonable to believe that the average and healthy individual -- the man who can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat -- still has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance toward killing a fellow man that he will not of this own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility ... At the vital point he becomes a conscientious objector."6
Although there was initially considerable resistance to accepting the truth of this observation, further research came to provide overwhelming support of Marshall's observation. This evidence does not support the "killer ape" theory. Quite the contrary. It was discovered that there was such resistance to killing that very aggressive techniques had to be instituted in boot camp to overcome it. There were exceptions. A small minority of men exhibit no such resistance. Grossman believes about 2 or 3 percent of soldiers fit this category. As he describes this 2 or 3 percent, and tries to understand them, he touches on the issue of empathy. His remarks on this are instructive:
"But there is another factor: the presence or absence of empathy for others. Again, there may be biological and environmental causes for this empathic process, but, whatever ins origin, there is undoubtedly a division in humanity between those who can feel and understand the pain and suffering of others, and those who cannot. The presence of aggression, combined with the absence of empathy, results in the sociopath. The presence of aggression, combined with the presence of empathy, results in an completely different kind of individual from the sociopath."7
We will return to this issue of empathy.
From a military point of view, the reluctance of the majority of people to kill is a problem to be overcome. Richard Holmes describes the problem in "Acts Of War".
"A soldier who constantly reflected upon the knee-smashing, widow-making characteristics of his weapon, or who always thought of the enemy as a man exactly as himself, doing much the same task and subject to exactly the same stresses and strains, would find it difficult to operate effectively in battle... Without the creation of abstract images of the enemy, and without the depersonalization of the enemy during training, battle would become impossible to sustain. But if the abstract image is overdrawn or depersonalization is stretched into hatred, the restraints on human behavior in war are easily swept aside. If, on the other hand, men reflect too deeply upon the enemy's common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with the task whose aims may be eminently just and legitimate."8
Let us set aside the question of just how often the aims of war actually are "eminently just and legitimate." In an odd sort of way Holmes conclusions are very similar to the message of a well known song from "South Pacific".
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
Grossman lists three key factors that facilitate killing. The Richard Holmes quote touches on one of these factors -- which is distance. The sort of distance that makes it easier to kill can be either psychological or physical. Holmes obviously is talking about the need to create psychological distance through depersonalizing the enemy. The other two factors are obedience to authority and the support of ones peers. A forth factor, that is probably less powerful in the immediate situation of battle, is ideology. It helps if we believe we are fighting for a worthy cause.
The data that Grossman offers constitute a powerful indictment against the killer-ape theory. It would simply not be so hard to get killer apes to kill. The same data is equally fatal to the view of human beings as innately depraved and evil. Actually the "killer ape" idea and the "humans as innately evil" idea are probably the same theory dressed up in two different vocabularies.
The second source of evidence about whether a propensity for interspecies violence is an integral aspect of the human genome comes from anthropology. Studies of a variety of cultures reveal a wide range of patterns with regard to this attribute. This little interchange with a man from the Batek culture shows just how non-violent the people in some cultures could be:
"The Batek abhor interpersonal violence and have generally fled from their enemies rather than fight back. I once asked a Batek man why their ancestors had not shot the Malay slave-raiders, who plagued them until the 1920s. [They could easily have defended themselves with poisoned darts shot from their blowpipes.] His shocked answer was: 'Because it would kill them!'"9
This sort of consideration for the well being of one's enemies is not what one might expect from killer apes. The disinclination to perpetrate violence on other members of one's own species turns out to be quite common among the members of less complex societies. Some societies are quite violent and some are not. It is an important fact, however, that many societies have been studied in which warfare is unknown, and violence within the group quite rare. Some of these have been complex societies. More have been simpler ones. Minimally this suggests that a high level of violence directed against one's own species is not an invariant aspect of human nature. We must turn then to social factors to explain why some groups of people are more violent than others. It is important to determine what factors correlate with high levels of violence as opposed to low levels.
A common way of categorizing social organization among various groups of people is to divide them into band, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. Most of us are quite familiar with states, as this is the organization of modern societies. Yet in archaeological terms this is a very recent development. We human beings have spent over 99% of our existence living in bands. Bands tend to be small -- maybe 25 to 50 members on the average. They are egalitarian, and are generally nomadic, or semi-nomadic as they go from place to place in search of food. As anthropologist, Donald Henry, comments, they were quite successful.
"The replacement of simple hunting-gathering societies composed of small, highly mobile, materially impoverished, egalitarian groups by a society that was characterized by large, sedentary, materially rich and socially stratified communities represented a dramatic shift from an adaptive system that had enjoyed several million years of success."10
Comparative studies with regard to war and the four categories of human organization lead us to a curious fact. As summarized by Jonathan Haas who studied the matter, "the level, intensity, and impact of warfare tend to increase as cultural systems become complex."11 The evidence suggests that serious interpersonal violence of any kind within hunting gathering groups is the exception rather than the rule. Many of the accounts that intend to provide proof that "primitive" tribes tend to be violent do not distinguish between bands on the one hand and tribes and chiefdoms on the other.
Lee and Daly summarize the anthropological findings about hunter and gathering societies in this manner:
"Hunter-gatherers are generally peoples who have lived until recently without the overarching discipline imposed by the state. They have lived in relatively small groups, without centralized authority, standing armies, or bureaucratic systems. Yet the evidence indicates that they have lived together surprisingly well, solving their problems among themselves largely without recourse to authority figures and without a particular propensity for violence. It was not the situation that Thomas Hobbes, the great seventeenth century philosopher described in his famous phrase as "the war of all against all."12
Or as John Gowdy sums up the matter even more simply, "Judging from historical accounts of of hunter-gatherers, for most of the time humans have been on the planet we have lived in relative harmony with the natural world and with each other. "13
It would seem that we can lay the killer-ape theory to rest. Yet it is obvious that, short of a nuclear war or some other catastrophe that leaves only a small remnant of humanity to begin again, a reversion of the hunting gathering mode of adaptation is not a realistic option for humanity. Nor is it clear that such a reversion would be desirable. Some values have, after all, been furthered by our evolution. The enhancement of knowledge through science, beauty through the arts, and health through medicine come to mind. In general, our capacity for self-reflection has been increased by civilization. Also, though organized religion seems to have had a generally negative impact on societies, I believe there is great value in spiritualities that open us to new forms of consciousness, that emphasize our mutual responsibility for each other and that make us aware of our essential oneness with all human beings and, indeed, with all of creation. It is possible, of course, to ask whether we have paid too dear a price for the enhancement of these values. But perhaps the most useful question is whether we can identify those aspects of culture that are responsible for the negative aspects of civilization, and use our capacity for self-reflection to create social structures that will enhance the loving and creative aspects of our nature. Our hypothesis will be that those societies that create and promote individuals who have a high capacity for attachment and empathy will tend be the least violent. Therefore we now turn to the matter of empathy and upbringing.
The importance of early experiences that facilitate attachment and empathy
In his influential trilogy on attachment,14 John Bowlby built on the work of Harry Harlow. Harlow discovered that a infant monkeys preferred soft terry cloth mothers to wire mothers even when both provided milk. This suggested that much more than simply physical nourishment was being sought by the infants. He felt that one of the most important motivations for the infant's developing strongly bonded relationships with the adult had to do with the need for protection and safety in a dangerous world. But he also observed that these early experiences of bonding with the mother had important developmental consequences. Females who were deprived of intense nurturing relationships with their mothers were not able to develop normal relationships with their peers as they grew into adulthood. Also, maternally deprived adults failed to bond with their own infants and were abusive and neglectful of them. To quote Harlow, “failure of normal gratifications of contact-clinging in infancy may make it impossible for the adult female to show the normal contact relationships with her own infant. Likewise, maternal brutality may stem from inadequate social experience with other infants within the first year of life.”15
Bowlby documented the importance of attachment in human relationships. He suggested that attachment was a motivational complex that was essentially independent from either seeking food, or sex. He also emphasized the importance of attachment in the development of individuals. Mary Ainsworth, a colleague of Bowlby's, set up experiments that studied the effects of short separations on young children, and demonstrated the need that a child has for a secure base from which to explore the world.
It would, of course, be considered by most people to be unethical to repeat the kind of maternal deprivation experiments that Harlow performed on monkeys with human infants, even if it provided important information about the importance of strong early attachment. Two virtual experiments did, however, emerge that threw some light on this question. One such “experiment” took place in various foundling institutions in the United States in the late 1800s and into the second decade of the 20th century. Most of the foundling institutions in which infants without parents were kept were quite clean, and the infants were well fed. However they had a death rate among the infants that approached 100% . The infants were dying from a disease called “marasmus.” The term for this disease came from a Greek word meaning “wasting away” which is precisely what the infants were doing. Why did almost none of these infants survive? The obvious was finally discovered. The infants were not receiving a sufficient amount of holding and cuddling. When the homes began bringing in women to provide holding, cuddling, smiles, and cooing the survival rate improved dramatically and immediately.16
An older experiment that was documented by the 13th century historian Salimbene is quoted in Ashley Montagu's book, “Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin”:
“It seems that Frederick the second, Emperor of Germany, “wanted to find out what kind of speech and what manner of speech children would have when they grew up if they spoke to no one beforehand. So he bade foster mothers and nurses to suckle the children, to bathe and wash them, but in no way to prattle with them, for he wanted to learn whether they would speak of the Hebrew language which was the oldest, or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perhaps the language of their parents, of whom they had been born. But he labored in vain because the children all died. For they could not live without the petting and joyful faces and loving words of their foster mothers. And so the songs are called 'swaddling songs' which a woman sings while she is rocking the cradle, to put a child to sleep, and without them a child sleeps badly and has no rest.” While Frederick the II's rather ill-conceived experiment provided us with no information with regard to the original language spoken by humanity, the historian, Salimbene, did not fail to notice that when children were forced to live 'without the petting and joyful faces and loving words of their foster mothers' they died.”17
How the self is born
Within the psychoanalytic tradition an important understanding was developed regarding how people as psychological beings come into existence. As I would formulate it, the idea was this:
Our self -- that is, who we are in the world -- emerges out of our becoming one with, and then differentiating ourselves from, the succession of people we love, and then integrating these internalized others into a coherent identity. This understanding was an overarching construct that was formulated by different theorists who focused on different aspects of the process and used somewhat different terminologies.
In this essay I can only touch on some of the contributions of a few of the key thinkers who helped develop this understanding.
In Freud we see this idea of the introjected other in his concept of the "superego" -- the internal representative of societies norms and laws -- which has its origin the internalization of the parenting figures, primarily the father, as a means of resolving the "Oedipus complex".
Margaret Mahler, a key thinker with regard to the emergence of the self, did not see the developmental process as beginning with a self that then internalizes others. She brought the focus of the developmental process back to the first year of life. She came to see the self in its very first stage as being already merged with the mother in a symbiotic oneness. It is only at about 5 months of age that the infant begins to experience a discontinuity between itself and the mother. At this point the infant begins the process of individuation -- of becoming a separate self. But the child continues to return to the oneness with the mother for sustenance. The self develops, in other words, in an ongoing dialectic process of oneness and individuation. We can see this process, for example, in a toddler who ventures out away from the mother to explore, but then periodically has to return of comfort and re-assurance.18
As she developed her theory about the dialectic between symbiosis and separation/individuation, Mahler used the language of inner experience. She speculates about the kind of experience an infant might have that would lead it to behave as it does. Bowlby, who we touched on earlier, was skeptical of efforts to describe the subjective states of infants, or to build theories on such speculations. He wanted to ground his theory in the observation of behaviors that can be perceived from the outside. Yet despite their different vocabularies and points of view, the two theorists were actually quite close. Susan W. Coates clarifies this point:
"The casual observer might suppose that Mahler is saying that separation is necessary for individuation, while Bowlby is stressing, to the contrary, that individuation occurs optimally only within the framework of secure attachment. But even a moment’s reflection will reveal that for Mahler separation from the object is an inner mental process that involves distinguishing oneself from an object who otherwise is libidinally available on a continuous basis. Put in Bowlby’s terms, separation is a process that occurs within the envelope of attachment. There
are differences between their two theories, to be sure, but they are in agreement on these
The agreement is that both attachment and individuation are essential aspects of a healthy development. To put it in my words, oneness and individuation are equally important aspects of the ongoing dialectic of growth.
Empathology -- the madness of our civilization
Building on the work of theorists like Bowby, Ainsworth, and Mahler, my thesis is that as a society we have largely failed to develop the capacity for what I would call individuated oneness. What I intend to convey by this term is our capacity to experience our “oneness” with other people, with other creatures, and with the earth itself, while at the same time maintaining a clear sense of our own boundaries and individuality. The term “empathy” – “feeling with” – is perhaps the single word that comes closest to designating the capacity that we lack. The initial capacity for individuated oneness is formed in the symbiotic relationship with the primary parenting person, and expands from there in the context of loving relationships with others.
Lack of empathy is generally considered to be one of the defining characteristics of the "psychopath" the "sociopath," or, as it has been more recently labeled, the one who suffers from “antisocial personality disorder”. A second characteristic of the sociopath, as he or she is usually understood, is a willingness to disregard the norms of society. Lack of empathy and a willingness to violate the norms of society are two very different and often contradictory characteristics. Consider Thoreau in prison as he protested slavery, Bonhoffer when he opposed the Nazi establishment, Gandhi when he deliberately disobeyed the English tyrants, Rosa Parks when she refused to sit in the back of the bus, or Martin Luther King Jr. who promoted civil disobedience. Were they sociopaths? Ah, but those are special cases, some might protest. But consider the other side of the coin – the support of, and participation in, projects of the larger society even when they create unspeakable suffering for a great many people. What about ordinary citizens who condone capital punishment, who fail to rise in protest and outrage against the torture of other human beings in Abu Ghraib and similar prisons, who are indifferent to the destruction of the ecosphere, or who condone the terrible suffering inflicted on the Iraqi people through the destruction of their infrastructure – are they not exhibiting a remarkable degree of insensitivity to the suffering of others? I would suggest that very often obedience – being a good citizen – belies a profound lack of empathy for the suffering of others. Perhaps the most vivid experimental evidence of what I am suggesting derived from the famous experiments of Milgram20 when he discovered that people would cause intense pain for helpless others simply because a person who was perceived to be an authority told them to. Also it is worth noting that firm orders by authorities is one of the regular techniques used in the military to force people to overcome their reluctance to kill.
The terms "psychopath" or "sociopath" (which are more or less interchangable) include in their definitions a unwillingness to follow the norms of society and to obey authority. Whether conformity to social norms is a desirable trait depends entirely on the circumstances. To the extent to which society is mad, disobedience is a virtue. It is because of the merging of two quite different, and at times contradictory, concepts that I reject terms such as "psychopath," and "sociopath." I wish to emphasize that "good" and "obedient" are not synonyms. So perhaps a new term needs to be coined.
The quality I am concerned with is not disobedience, but a lack of empathy resulting from an inability to attain a reasonable degree of individuated oneness. Perhaps the term "empathology" could be used to convey this meaning. I would define empathology as the inability to resonate with the joys and sufferings of the other sentient beings of which one is aware – human and otherwise. I think I mean something very close to what Forbes had in mind when he used the term "wetiko" in his book “Columbus and other Cannibals." As he puts it:
"Killing is a serious business and it requires spiritual preparation. Moreover, one should feel the pain or sorrow of killing a brother or sister , whether it is a weed, a tree or a deer. If one does not feel the pain, one has become brutalized and "sick." One is, in short, out of harmony with the Universe."21
Only a little reflection is needed for us to realize that empathy is not an either/or sort of thing. Most of us encounter situations in which we experience great empathy and others in which we do not. Probably the most important factor here has to do with which human beings or other forms of life we see as “like us.” We divide the world into countries, social classes, religions, races, species, etc., and see some of the people and creatures in these various divisions as being like us, as opposed to others who are not. Those who are like us belong to our group. With those we may feel great empathy, while with others we may be callous and indifferent to their suffering to a shocking degree. Probably the most important indication of spiritual growth has to do with how wide a range of sentient beings we are able to identify with. At one end of the continuum we would find those who care only for their family and a few friends. At the other, those who resonate with all sentient beings.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that a number of other factors influence our capacity for empathy even with people who are in our group. Anything from whether the other person has offended us in some way to whether we have a head ache can influence our capacity from one moment to another. Also, unexpected events may break through our usual defenses and enable us to feel empathy with people we would normally consider to be very different from us. So we have here a complex continuum that allows room for growth.
People who fit on one point or another on the continuum described above are not those who are normally labeled sociopathic. This term is reserved for those whose capacity for empathy is so minimal as to be ineffective with regard to the members of any group or in any situation. This suggests that it might necessary to expand the terminology I have given for this phenomenon. Perhaps we can speak of “selective empathology” when we refer to the general continuum within which most people fit, and “pervasive empathology” to designate the condition of those who feel little or no empathy in any situation. Thus the term pervasive empathology would correspond in a rough way to the term sociopathology as it is usually used.
In 1941, in his seminal work “Mask Of Sanity” Hervey Cleckey22 gave a description of the sociopathic person that was quite influential. It was his belief that some people were simply born with the inability to develop empathy. Although I disagree very strongly with his assumption that life experiences have nothing to do with why this sort of adaptation to life emerges, he made an interesting observation that is reflected in the title of his book. There are people whose lack of empathy enables them to kill people, cheat them, or manipulate them ruthlessly with no sense of guilt or remorse. These are the 2 to 3 percent of natural killers that Grossman spoke of. These people seem normal. In fact they are often quite charming. They are able to give lip service to high ideals. They have no obvious delusions, and are able to imitate the behavior of caring people when they choose to do so. They look sane, but are actually quite mad. Needless to say they tend to leave a path of suffering in their wake.
Theorists of many persuasions have very plausibly attributed "psychopathology" to a wide variety of interpersonal and psychological difficulties, from marasmus and failure to thrive, to incapacitating emotional problems in adults, to the absence of an adequate primary bond to nurturing adults. Of particular importance to us in this essay is the association between early attachment problems and serious difficulty in developing empathy with other human beings and living entities – a difficulty that entails both emotional and behavioral mal-adjustments.
The connection between character structure and the social structure
James Prescott, in 1975, in a seminal article entitled, “Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence," raised some fundamental questions with regard to why some societies (and individuals) are more prone to violence than others. He felt that progress in answering these questions was crucial to the goal of creating a more peaceful world:
“Unless the causes of violence are isolated and treated, we will continue to live in a world of fear and apprehension. Unfortunately, violence is often offered as a solution to violence. Many law enforcement officials advocate 'get tough' policies as the best method to reduce crime. Imprisoning people, our usual way of dealing with crime, will not solve the problem, because the causes of violence lie in our basic values and the way in which we bring up our children and youth.”23
His major thesis focused on the tendency for many societies – our own included – to deprive children and youth of needed sensory gratifications. As he states it, “The reciprocal relationship of pleasure and violence is highly significant because certain sensory experiences during the formative periods of development will create a neuropsychological predisposition for either violence-seeking or pleasure-seeking behaviors later in life.”23
His first area of concern was infancy. He felt that the “deprivation of body pleasure during infancy is significantly linked to a high rate of crime and violence.” Infants need a lot of cuddling, stimulation and pleasurable interaction between themselves and a nurturing adult. The data he presents led him to the conclusion that our society is seriously deficient in its ability to provide the requisite amounts of such stimulation.
“I am convinced that various abnormal social and emotional behaviors resulting from what psychologists call 'maternal-social' deprivation, that is, a lack of tender, loving care, are caused by a unique type of sensory deprivation, somatosensory deprivation. Derived from the Greek word for 'body,' the term refers to the sensations of touch and body movement which differ from the senses of light, hearing, smell and taste. I believe that the deprivation of body touch, contact, and movement are the basic causes of a number of emotional disturbances which include depressive and autistic behaviors, hyperactivity, sexual aberration, drug abuse, violence, and aggression.”24
His second area of concern involves an even more radical critique of our society. He felt that the repression of sexuality in children and youth was highly damaging.
“Premarital sexual freedom for young people can help reduce violence in a society, and the physical pleasure that youth obtains from sex can offset a lack of physical affection during infancy. ”25
The data upon which Prescott based his conclusions was derived in large part from primate studies -- especially those done by Harlow, which we have already described. Prescott supplements this with anthropological data, and his own neurological investigations. From the combination of these three sources he amassed rather compelling evidence in support of his main theses. (Cite his page here.)
In anthropological studies Prescott found evidence which is too powerful to be ignored. With regard to early infant stimulation, “Societies ranking high or low on the Infant Physical Affection Scale were examined for degree of violence”.
“The results clearly indicated that those societies which give their infants the greatest amount of physical affection were characterized by low theft, low infant physical pain, low religious activity, and negligible or absent killing, mutilating, or torturing of the enemy. These data directly confirm that the deprivation of body pleasure during infancy is significantly linked to a high rate of crime and violence.”26
It might be worth commenting in passing on Prescott's concern for “low religious activity.” One may place a high value on forms of spirituality that are life affirming, and non-hierarchical, and that emphasize the need for living in harmony with the order of nature, and still find oneself in fundamental agreement with Prescott. Organized religion has a long history of supporting oppressive hierarchies, of imposing sex-negative norms and laws on people, and of seeing pleasure, in and of itself, as something sinful or otherwise contrary to spiritual growth. This kind of religion should be opposed by thinking and progressive individuals.
With regard to his thesis about the benefits of sexual permissiveness, Prescott also found support in anthropological studies. He points out that “other research also indicates that societies which punish premarital sex are likely to engage in wife purchasing, to worship a high god in human morality, and to practice slavery.”
Wilhelm Reich, a psychiatrist who worked closely with Sigmund Freud during the 1920s, wrote "The Mass Psychology of Fascism," which was published in 1933. Throughout his life Reich was concerned with liberating people both sexually and economically from power structures that he perceived to be oppressive and exploitive. During the rise of the Nazi power structure in Germany, Reich observed that “It was precisely the wretched masses who helped to put fascism, extreme political reaction, into power.”27 This was good for the rich elite, but hardly in the interest of the ordinary citizen. This observation led to the basic question that he addressed in “The Mass Psychology of Fascism.” “What was going on in the masses that they followed a party whose leadership was objectively as well as subjectively in diametrical opposition to the interests of the working masses?”28 To answer this question he turned to the psychoanalytic perspective in which he was trained.
Both Reich and Freud believed that society imposed a painful renunciation of sexual freedom on its members, and that the repression of sexuality was internalized to become a part of the character structure of the individual. Freud's term for this internalized repressive voice of society – as funneled to the individual through parenting figures – was the “super-ego.” Reich's concern with regard to the issue of liberation, however, led to a profound break with Freud who was more conservative and who saw sexual repression as being the price that had to be paid for the development of civilization. Reich saw the same internalized structure as a Trojan Horse that consistently led individuals to betray their true interests, and to deny their own most intense desires. Yet if love energy is indeed so strong, what force would be strong enough to oppose it? This is where psychoanalytic theory takes a curious turn. The object of every child's desire is first the mother and then the father. If the father (with the support of the mother) prohibits the expression of sex love – even of a harmless infantile variety -- on pain of losing parental love, then the child turns against his or her own sexuality and learns to love and seek the approval of the repressive person. In other words fire is fought with fire. Love turns against love. The child turns against his or her own sexual desire in order the secure the love of the repressive adult. This establishes the character structure of a person who will, for the rest of his or her life, seek the love of authority figures, no matter how repressive they are. In Germany, of course, the supreme authority figure whose love was courted was Hitler. The Fuhrer.
Reich states that "every social order produces in the masses of its members that structure which it needs to achieve its main aims.”29 This would suggest that the specific patterns that internalize society's agenda might vary somewhat from one culture to another, or even from one individual to another. It might not always display the exact dynamic that Freud described as the “Oedipus complex”. But the character structure needed for oppressive forms of government always requires two things: sexual repression and an ideology that justifies repression and blind obedience. As Reich sums up the process as he sees it, “In short, morality's aim is to produce acquiescent subjects who, despite distress and humiliation, are adjusted to the authoritarian order. Thus, the family is the authoritarian state in miniature, to which the child must learn to adapt himself as a preparation for the general social adjustment required of him later. Man's authoritarian structure – this must be clearly established – is basically produced by the embedding of sexual inhibitions and fear in the living substance of sexual impulses.”30 Character structure is, in short, the link between between child rearing practices and the political sphere.
It is important that the very real contribution that Reich made to our understanding of the relationship of character structure to political dynamics not be dismissed because of his later rather controversial theories about the collection and use of "orgone energy." With any highly intelligent and creative person it is necessary to sort out what is of value in their thinking and what may have been less productive avenues of exploration.
Prescott and Reich approach the issue of development quite differently. Prescott is oriented to physiological data, while Reich comes from a psychoanalytic tradition. Yet they both come to a similar conclusion: deprivation with regard to loving physical intimacy in the primary relationship, and the prohibition against other erotically desired relationships ultimately leads to a rigid, authoritarian personality capable of great violence. Prohibition of what people most desire must be enforced with severe threats and/or punishments if it is to be effective. When one encounters these prohibitions and punishments and discovers them to be insurmountable, he or she often ends up seeking the love the prohibiting and punishing person, thus introducing a sado/masochistic dynamic to the whole process. I am suggesting that something of this sort is the “normal” – that is to say by far the most common – developmental sequence in Western society. This is our madness.
The Central Importance of Persons -- Object relations theory
Although thinkers and researchers like Harlow, Reich and Prescott have clearly contributed a great deal of importance to our understanding of human behavior, they all seem to suggest that it is pleasure itself (the orgasm in Reich's case) rather than relationships that provide the conditions for positive human development, and for healing when something has gone wrong. A bias of this sort was embedded in Freudian theory. The Freudian school of thought saw human activity as motivated by “drives.” Hunger and sex are perhaps the most obvious drives we are acquainted with. Interpersonal relationships were driven mainly by the sex drive. The sexual act served the purpose of releasing painful physiological tensions that built up within the organism. It does not seem to me that Freud was entirely consistent regarding this, and his thinking shifted and matured throughout his life. Nevertheless, it is hard to get away from the notion that for Freud the primary significance of other people was that they provided an occasion for gaining release from painful sensations. As the meaning of a piece of pie was that it allowed one to overcome the painful sensation of hunger, the primary meaning of another person was that he or she allowed one to overcome the discomfort of sexual tension.
I would suggest there are two biases that have plagued psychology from its inception. The first is that it should be built exclusively on the basis of observations that are available from the outside. Behaviorism, for example, prided itself on this. "Subjective" knowledge was not knowledge at all, and introspection was a waste of time. The second problem was the effort in the human sciences in general to reduce human reality to mechanics. Freud, of course based his theory on information provided by introspection, but was as guilty of the mechanization of human reality as was Skinner. Theories that are grounded in either or both of these biases may enable us to predict and control behavior in some situations. But even their predictive value has its limitations. It should be mentioned, for example, that it was behaviorism that was at least in part responsible for the creation of the marasmus babies wasting away in institutions we talked about earlier. But even when such theories are capable of predicting and controlling, they tell us little or nothing about the psyche -- the person qua person. They are psychologies without a psyche.
Thinking that we best understand human beings only from seeing them from the outside and conceptualizing them as machines, is a little like thinking that the equation "32 feet per second per second" gives us significant information about Newton's famous apple. In certain situations the equation can help us to predict and control how an apple will behave, but little else. The apple, qua apple, eludes such calculations. Within their sphere of application physiological descriptions of behavioral events are interesting and in some cases useful. But if we want to understand what it means to be a human being we must access the data of subjective experience and employ a vocabulary that is appropriate to the data. Let me illustrate this point by a love poem:
My Amygdala Sighs For You
My frontal lobes worship your loveliness.
You titillate my sensory cortex
which craves the opportunity to
brush up against you
more or less.
My superior colliculus scans the horizon in hope of glimpsing
your yellow shorts
no one else's
I do not mean to stare.
My optic tectum made me do it.
My amygdala sighs
as it rummages through my memory cortex
seeking the sustenance of past images
images of your bright eyes,
your slender legs
your shapely t-shirt.
My olfactory bulbs want to snuggle their nose in your arm pits.
The whole of my limbic system
gathers at the foot of your image
Wanting nothing more
than to sit in your general vicinity
while it awaits
Suggesting to it
The matter is complex and can't really be argued here. But it was in large part the desire to conceptualize human beings as "persons" rather than machines, and to understand them on the basis of direct experience and introspection, that led to object relations theory. Above all, object relations theory was concerned about how we as human beings reach out to other human beings, and how the desire for human relatedness is at the very core of what it means to be human. Human relationships are from the beginning the soil in which the ego grows. And they are the soil in which ongoing development takes place. If the soil lacks nutrients, something goes wrong. If it is absent, the person dies.
The word "object" in psychoanalytic theory does not mean object, but subject. I'm am not being entirely facetious in this remark. I mean that the term "object" refers to other human beings, as in the "object of my desire." Referring to the work of Fairbairn, one of the founders of object relations theory, Harry Guntrip states that he "makes object-relations, not instinctive impulses, the primary and important thing. It is the object that is the real goal of the libidnial drive. We seek persons, not pleasures."31 Much of psychoanalytic theory was stood on its head by this understanding. At least in healthy development, relationships with other people were sought out not only, or even primarily, because they offered the possibility of release from physiological tension -- though in satisfying hunger or sexual needs they certainly did so -- but because interpersonal relatedness was itself the supreme value that people looked for. What then was the importance of physiological desire and the experience of its satisfaction? Hunger, obviously, led to the search for food, and sexual desire led eventually to procreation. Also, pleasure is itself a value. There was no puritan mistrust of pleasure hidden away in object relations theory. However, as Fairbairn put it, "pleasure is the sign-post to the object."32 At least from a psychological point of view, the primary significance of desire (libido) is that it draws us into important relationships with others.
The babies in the institutions that deprived them of human interaction were well fed and physically comfortable but they wasted away and died anyhow. Survival itself seems worthwhile only in a social context -- in a state of relatedness with other real human beings. And the growth of the self occurs only in such a context. As Guntrip put it, "the basic drive is to self-development and self-fulfillment as a person. The importance of object-relations lies in the fact that without them the ego cannot develop."33 And of course, one of the most important accomplishments of the self as it emerges is that it develops a capacity for resonating with others -- for empathy. By establishing our relatedness to others as the centerpiece in its theory, object relations theory clarifies how this capacity it learned. It is a corrective to theories that see us simply as self-gratifying organisms, or even worse, as machines. Persons seek relatedness to others in an evolving matrix of relationships. That's how they grow and find meaning in life. When I speak of spiritual growth in this essay I have in mind the growing capacity of the individual for relating to an expanding range of sentient beings, while retaining his or her sense of individual autonomy and identity.
The Teaching and Propaganda Factor
Reality is multifaceted. I would certainly not claim that in this brief essay I have captured all the factors that contribute to the madness of our civilization. Not everything is determined by our interactions with our primary caregivers in the first few years of our lives. Societies do not create persons who will comply with their aims and rules solely through the kind of early nurturing that is provided. They reproduce themselves also through the teaching and propaganda to which children are exposed as they enter the larger world beyond their homes. Universally children learn that their nation, their religion, and their social class or ethnic or racial group is somehow superior or more human than any other group. If their early nurturing was adequate to facilitate at least some capacity for empathy, as in most cases it is, the growth toward a universal empathy is truncated by such teaching. This creates individuals who are selectively empathologized. They can relate to the members of their own group but are capable of treating human beings from other social classes, nations, religions or ethnic groups with remarkable cruelty. As the world has become a global community, unified as a single system, selective empathology of this kind is a serious matter. Indeed, given the power that technology has placed in our hands, it could be fatal to our species.
Pulling It all Together
In an article entitled "The Rise of the Second-String Psychopaths," David Schwartz tells us that "The great writer Kurt Vonnegut titled his final book "A Man without a Country." Schwartz tells us what Vonnegut meant by this title:
"He was the man; the country was the United States of America. Vonnegut felt that his country had disappeared right under his – and the Constitution’s – feet, through what he called 'the sleaziest, low-comedy Keystone Cops-style coup d’état imaginable.'”34
He was talking about the Bush administration Swartz explains, and goes on to summarize some of Vonnegut's thinking on this matter:
"How had our country disappeared? Vonnegut proposed that among the contributing factors was that it had been invaded – as if by the Martians – by people with a particularly frightening mental illness. People with this illness were termed psychopaths. (The term nowadays is anti-social personality disorder.) These are terms for people who are smart, personable, and engaging, but who have no consciences. They are not guided by a sense of right or wrong. They seem to be unaffected by the feelings of others, including feelings of distress caused by their actions. ...They suffer no remorse, no guilt, no shame. They are free to do anything, no matter how harmful. ..."
And Swartz concludes as follows:
"It is no secret that the Koch brothers and others of the super-rich seem to have undertaken a final push to consolidate control through the conversion of a marginally democratic to an essentially fascist state; extreme right-wing, authoritarian, and demagogic. This kind of government is ideal for control of a populace by the moneyed elite. ...Lest the citizenry realize who stole their money and storm their castles with torches, the rapacious elite need politicians who will carry out the work of re-directing anger at teachers, or labor unions, or the poor. I can only conclude that the people who now own the country couldn’t find any first-rate psychopaths to carry out their work. Or maybe the smart ones were all occupied. So they had to go to second-stringers, people who could actually believe what they were told to say."
"We are a country who has become second-best, even in the quality of our psychopaths."35
The diagnosis given here is largely the same as in our analysis. For reasons I have already given, I use the term "empathology" to designate what Vonnegut called "psychopathology." But, yes. We as a country are mad. I would point out that this madness did not start with the Bush administration. Our current state of madness is one manifestation of a larger madness that has infected western civilization for centuries. But certainly this country -- with increasing intensity since the election of Ronald Reagan -- has developed an especially pernicious form of the madness. At this point I'd like to pull together the data and theory that was touched on in previous sections of this paper, and sketch the probable dynamics by which a nation becomes even more mad than average.
One of our core conclusions is as follows:
A deficiency of touch and bodily pleasure in the context of loving relationships -- whether caused by neglect, unfortunate circumstances or actual repression -- produces both the character structure of the followers of authoritarian leaders, and the character structure of the leaders themselves.
In our society this deficiency is very much in evidence from birth through late adolescence. Tiffeny Field, for example has demonstrated in carefully designed studies that American children touch less and are more aggressive than French children. This study as well as additional useful information can be found at the Touch Institute.36
The impact of this deficiency is greatest during the early formative years, but it continues to be a important factor throughout the developmental process. An initial deficiency of touch and loving bodily contact, followed by an aggressive repression of sexuality, produces in individual who for his or her entire life longs for the love of the repressive and punishing parent. This is by far the most common character structure of people in our civilization. It prepares people to be obedient and mindless followers. Typically people with this character structure are capable of a degree of empathic relationships within their own group, but they are quick to demonize any person or group that their leaders tell to. They exhibit, in other words what we have called "selective empathology."
A more severe deprivation appears to produce an almost complete incapacity for empathy, or pervasive empathology. It is not true that people with this problem are, as a group, especially intelligent. My experience is that due to their capacity to manipulate others without having to put the human suffering they are causing into the equation, they appear on the surface to be more intelligent that those with a greater capacity for empathy. This is simply because they have simpler equations to deal with. However, if we take those who are both highly intelligent, and pervasively empathologized, we have the perfect Entrepreneur, Banker, CEO, or military strategist in today's ruthless, unregulated and criminal form of capitalism. People simply do not rise to the top of such systems if they feel the pain of the business associates they have deceived and betrayed, the people in the sweat shops that they exploit, the animals that they subject to lives of endless suffering, the deaths, mutilations and birth defects that their wars produce, the employees that they dis-empower, and the environments that they destroy.
Still, the most fundamental problem is not that our leaders are, to use Vonnegut's term, psychopaths. The problem is that we have a system that requires a person to be a psychopath to rise to the top. Any significant capacity for empathy would be a fatal flaw. By its failure to facilitate physically expressed loving relationships throughout childhood and adolescence our society provides intelligent individuals who are pervasively empatholigized. Precisely these people rise to the tops of our Banks, corporations and political institutions. By the same failure facilitate loving contact, our society creates a large number of selectively empatholigized people who are anxious to seek the love of these leaders. Even so, the specific individuals who are at the top are merely symptoms. Put them all in jail without changing the system and tomorrow you will have a new batch that will look pretty much like the old batch. It is first and foremost in our collective patterns of interaction and organization that our madness resides.
Character structure and social systems interact to create history and politics. When problems arise it is generally necessary to intervene both on an individual level, and on a social level. From a political point of view, however, social structures and processes must be given priority. An unchanged social structure will continue to grind our the same old problems. What are the political implications of our conclusions? It is beyond the scope of this article to address this question in any detail. However, it is possible to identify some of the goals that must be given high priority if we want to create a more just and less violent world:
The encouragement of much more loving physical contact between infants and their primary caregivers, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
The elimination of both humiliation and corporal punishment in the upbringing and education of children and youth.
The use of techniques that teach children to think and to weigh evidence rather than to simply obey and believe authorities.
The increase of sexual education and permissiveness for children and adolescents.
The use of pedagogical techniques that will imbue both children and adults with ethical and spiritual principles that expand the range of people and living systems with which they are able to empathize.
The creation of more egalitarian and less hierarchical forms of social organization.
The development of economic patterns that do not reward those who are the most consumed by pervasive empathology.
1. Jack D Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals, (Seven Stories Press, 1992) pg. 9
2. Ibid., pg. 23.
3. See my article "The Collective Face of Evil" at OpEdNews.com : http://www.opednews.com/a/124184?
4. Forbes takes his quotes of Columbus from Cecil Jane, Voyages of Christopher Columbus. (London, Argonaunt 1930)
5. Paul Levy, The Madness of George W. Bush, (Author House, 2006)
6. David Grossman, On Killing, (Little, Brown and Company, 1995)
7. As quoted in Grossman, pg. 1
8. Grossman, pp. 81, 182
9. As Quoted in Grossman, pg. 186
10. Kirk Endicott, as quoted in Douglas Fry, The Human Potential For Peace, (Oxford University Press, 2006), pg. 97
11. Donal Henry, as quoted in Fry, Pg. 135
12. Johnathan Haas, as quoted in Fry, pg. 100
13. Lee and Daley, as quoted in Fry, pg. 171
14. John Gowdy, as quoted by Fry, pg. 171
15. (1) Attachment, (2) Separation: Anxiety, (3) Anger and Loss: Sadness and Depression
16. As quoted in Ashley Montagu, The Human Significance of the Skin, pg. 42.
17. One place where this is described is in Montagu, The Human Significance of the Skin, pp 97, 98
18. As quoted in Montagu, pp. 101, 102
19. See, Margaret S. Mahler, Fred; Pine, and Anni Bergman, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation, (Basic Books Inc. New York, 1975). Especially Part II. She includesan "autistic phase" here, an idea she later abandoned. In essence she came to see Human Reality as profoundly social from birth.
20. Susan W. Coates, John Bowlby and Margaret Mahler: Their Lives and Theories. (Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 53,2) pp. 589, 590.
21. This experiment is quite adequately described in the Wikepedia article, Milgram Experiment. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment"
22. Forbes, p. 14.
23. Hervey Cleckey, Mask of Sanity (William a Dolan, November 1988).
24. James Prescott, Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence (The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists", November 1975, pp. 10-20), p. 10.
25. Ibid., 11.
26. Ibid., 12.
28. Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), p. 10.
29. Ibid. p. 40.
30. Ibid. p. 23.
31. Ibid. p. 30.
32. Harry Guntrip, Schizoid Phenomena, Object Relations and the Self (New York: International Libraries Inc.) pg. 21.
33. Ibid. 19.
34. Ibid. 91, 92.
35. David Schwartz, Are We Ruled By Seccond String Psychopaths? (http://readersupportednews.org/off-site-opinion-section/72-72/6203-are-we-ruled-by-second-string- psychopaths)
37. Touch Research Institute. ( http://www6.miami.edu/touch-research/TRITouch.html ). This site is full of material that is relevant to this article.