Dangerous Speech & a 2nd U.S. Civil War

“But there’s no place in politics for violence — to threaten or carry out violence — and that’s where everybody has to take a stand. Whether it’s your supporters or somebody else’s…Sometimes it’s easy to call out the other side, but you’ve got to call out your own side, too, and I think that’s something where they could definitely pick up the pace.” Steve Scalise, Republican (Louisiana) and a recovered victim of a politically motivated shooting

Albuquerque police detain members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed civilian group, following the shooting of a man during a protest over a statue of Spanish conqueror Juan de Oñate on June 15, 2020 (photo by Adolphe Pierre-Louis)


Let’s start with the good news. We are not currently in a civil war in the United States.

Over the past few years, pundits and editorialists have wondered whether this country might be heading toward a civil war, on the verge of one, or even already in one. Others have written that, yes, we’re currently in a civil war, but only in a non-violent, metaphorical sense (in other words, not a war at all).

In 2017, the Los Angeles Times referred to such stories as “bait-and-switch” because they compare political polarization to war and because they juxtapose clashes between white supremacists and left-wing demonstrators as indicative of where the country is overall. Two years ago, Vox referred to this genre as “clickbait” and “apocalypse punditry.” Steven Greenhut recently wrote that such talk of civil war is too blithe and over-the-top, and people aren’t giving the topic the seriousness it deserves.

It is true that talk of civil war is often overdone. According to the Uppsala University Department of Peace and Conflict Research (UUDPCR), a war is defined as having “at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year.” By that definition, the U.S. is clearly not in a war. However, we may be in a situation akin to a low-intensity conflict. The UUDPCR defines conflict as “at least 25 but less than 1000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year in one of the conflict’s dyads.” Last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) “Heat Map” of political violence, there were 46 incidents involving extremist murders, terrorist plots or attacks, or extremist shootouts with police. Altogether 54 people were killed in these incidents, which crosses the 25-death threshold. Tragically, 23 of these victims were killed in one horrific incident, the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas by a white supremacist who was intent on killing Hispanic people.

There are usually limits to using rigid definitions for something as complex as conflict and war. First, the cutoffs of 25 deaths and 1,000 deaths are arbitrary. The same number of deaths would be more impactful in a smaller country than in a larger one, so perhaps a rate of death might be more appropriate than a simple tally. Also, according to UUDPCR standards, such attacks in the US may not apply toward “conflict” because most were carried out by lone actors, not by formally or even informally organized groups. In addition, several U.S. incidents in the ADL Heat Map involved individual extremists who were involved in domestic incidents or robberies which may not have been politically motivated. Taking these caveats into account, the U.S. may not meet the criteria for being in a “conflict” either.

Dangerous Speech

However, there are reasons to worry. For one, it’s not just pundits who invoke civil war rhetoric. Several public officials have casually flirted with the idea, going back years. In 2012, a Texas Judge made headlines when he predicted that if President Obama was re-elected there would be “civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. We’re not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations. We’re talking Lexington-Concord take up arms and get rid of the guy.” In 2016, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin said that bloodshed might have to occur if Hillary Clinton were elected. Members of Congress have either “joked” (Iowa’s Steve King) about civil war, or mentioned it either regretfully or possibly a veiled threat (Texas’ Louis Gohmert). Before his impeachment trial in September 2019, President Trump tweeted (quoting megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress): “if the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office… it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” And this year, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton tweeted that the military should be used to restore order against protesters who got out of line and that they should give “No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” Some have pointed out that if taken literally, “no quarter” would be a war crime.

It is hard to find comparable rhetoric coming from elected Democrats. There are examples of former attorney general Eric Holder saying that when Republicans go low that Democrats should “kick ‘em.” He added that he wasn’t advocating anything inappropriate or illegal, just to be politically tough. In 2018, Hillary Clinton said that “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for.” It is true that left-wing zealots have engaged in extreme violence against Republicans, such as Steve Scalise, who was shot while practicing for a Congressional baseball game. Most recently a left-wing mob beat a Democratic state senator in Wisconsin named Tim Carpenter. On social media, there are several examples of random people fantasizing about guillotines for the wealthy. However, I cannot find an example of a Democratic official invoking the possibility of civil war. 

The drumbeat of civil war talk may not be constant now, but it is persistent, adding to a climate of fear and resentment. Last week, Scott Adams, author of the “Dilbert” comic strip, wrote that if Joe Biden is elected to the White House, “there’s a good chance you (Republicans) will be dead within the year,” adding that “Police will stand down” and “Republicans will be hunted.”

There is evidence that such speech is not sterile. Susan Benesch, Director of the Dangerous Speech Project, noted how integral speech is in paving the way for atrocity, and how all people are potentially vulnerable to it. For example, David Yanagizawa-Drott (2014) found that in Rwanda, villages with better radio reception to the infamous Hutu-controlled Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) were exposed more to incitement to violence against the Tutsi minority. Overall, he estimated that nearly one-third of the violence perpetrated during the genocide could be attributed to the broadcasts, which repeatedly dehumanized the Tutsi. While Rwanda is an extreme example, it illustrates the importance of rhetoric in stirring up animosities and creating a path toward actual violence.

In the U.S., ABC News compiled a list of several instances where President Trump seemed to be inciting violence (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” telling followers to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!; LIBERATE MINNESOTA!; LIBERATE VIRGINIA!,” saying he’d like to punch a protester in the face, etc.). He also retweeted someone who said “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” While many level-headed people take these as harmless examples of Trump’s overbearing personality, two of the hallmarks of dangerous speech are the influence of the speaker (and the office of the Presidency is obviously quite influential) and the receptivity of the audience. And there have been dozens of examples of violence and threats where people have mentioned Trump’s name.


The National Mood

Eighty-seven years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said that “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” This seems to apply to today’s atmosphere. The ability to spread rumor, fear, and anger instantly through social media adds fuel to what could become an even more dangerous situation (there are also reports that some websites, like Facebook, have been profiting from groups that promote the idea of civil war).

Understandably, the national mood is not exactly unicorns and butterflies during what Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called “a perfect storm of distress in America.” We are currently undergoing not only a pandemic, but widespread unemployment, food insecurity, the George Floyd protests, occasional riots, increasing violent crime, a spike in gun sales, videos of excessive force by police and National Guard troops, several confrontations between groups on the political left and right, and even the high-profile assassination of a federal security officer by a member of the extreme right. The Pew organization reported in late June that most Americans feel angry (71%) and fearful (66%) about the state of the country, with only a minority feeling hopeful (46%) or proud (17%).

In 2018, political scientists Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe found that 9% of Republicans and Democrats believe that, in general, violence, is at least occasionally acceptable. However, when imagining an electoral loss in 2020, approval of violence increased to 13% for Republicans and 18% for Democrats. A June 15th poll by Rasmussen Reports found that 34% of likely voters believe the US will experience a second civil war in the next five years. The poll also found that Republicans were more likely to see a civil war as impending, though two years earlier the same polling organization found the opposite, with Democrats being more likely to feel that way. I’m not sure how much stock to put into such polls and the fine-grained differences between Democrats and Republicans; for example, some analysts find Rasmussen Reports surveys to be “mediocre.” What we can say with confidence is that tensions and fears are not zero.

Adding divisive rhetoric and other structural factors to the mix could prove combustible. As the former Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis wrote: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”


Structural Factors

In his 2016 book “Ages of Discord,” Peter Turchin provided a sober look at times of conflict, analyzing a wealth of data. He likened violence to an earthquake: pressures steadily build up in the earth’s crust, but when they are ultimately released is hard to predict. Similarly, there may be structural causes that predict violence within nations, but they can be sparked by a triggering event that is difficult to foresee. Years ago, Turchin predicted that 2020 would be a time of violence in the US, not because of the pandemic, Donald Trump, or the killing of George Floyd, but because of an array of structural factors that seemed to be tipping that way. These include declining wages, wealth inequality, declining health, national debt, immigration, overproduction of “elites,” declining trust, tax rates on the wealthy, declining optimism, and increasing sociopolitical instability. According to Turchin, many of these stressors have preceded other historical conflicts, and the US is on the “wrong” side for many of them.

Ages of discord, from Peter Turchin.

Other researchers have highlighted different risk factors for civil wars, including: periods of regime change, and in “intermediate democracies” rather than harsh autocracies or coherent functioning democracies (Hegre et al). Unfortunately, there are signs that democracy in the US is declining. According to one metric, the US has fallen just (barely) out of the “full democracy” category into a “flawed democracy” one. In the recent round of primary voting, there were reductions in the number of polling places, particularly in cities with high populations of African-Americans, and there have been photos of long lines of people waiting for hours to vote (during a pandemic, no less). The Economist reported that in 2019, 29% of Republicans believed it would be appropriate for President Trump to refuse to leave office if he claimed the reason he lost was due to widespread illegal voting. And over 50% of Democrats thought it would appropriate for a Democratic candidate to call for a “do over” election if there was evidence of foreign interference in the election. So, tensions exist there as well, which have the potential to be exacerbated in November.


Actual Violence

On top of all this, it is not just that people are fearful of the prospect of increased violence. Some individuals may actually desire it. In late May, Senator Marco Rubio said this about extremists on the left and right: “while they are ideologically opposed to each other … they hate the police, they hate the government, and they want this country to fall apart … some of them want a Second Civil War.”  

However, while Senator Rubio placed equivalent blame on both sides of the political spectrum, the evidence suggests that the bulk of the violence comes primarily from one end. In February, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that “racially-motivated violent extremists,” primarily white supremacists, were “unrelenting” and considered a “national threat priority.” He went so far as to place them “on the same footing” as threats posed to the country by foreign terrorist organizations such as ISIS. In fact, the FBI has viewed right-wing extremists as the primary domestic threat since the 1990s.

Going back to the ADL “Heat Map,” between 2002 and May 2020 (the last updated month), there were 576 incidents involving extremist murders, police shootouts, or terrorist plots or attacks. When sorted by ideology, 116 were attributed to “Islamists,” 33 to left-wing perpetrators, and 426 to right-wing actors with various motives (anti-government, anti-abortion activist, white supremacist). It is reasonable to question how complete the database is; as it stands, it does corroborate Wray’s statement.

Locations of extremist murders, terrorist attacks/ plots, and extremist shootouts with police in the U.S. (2002-May 2020). According to the ADL database, 426 of the above 576 incidents were attributed to right-wing actors.

Daniel Byman at the Brookings Institute wrote that one of the goals of white supremacists is “accelerationism,” to foment further division through violence, setting off a series of events that will ultimately lead to conflict along racial/ ethnic lines. Basically, they want to create conditions to engage in ethnic cleansing. This was seen in the recent case of the three police officers in Wilmington, North Carolina who were fired after they were recorded using harsh, racist language. One was gleeful about the prospect of a civil war, even genocide: “we are just going to go out and start slaughtering them (expletive)” blacks. “I can’t wait. God, I can’t wait.” He added that he wanted to “wipe them off the (expletive) map. That’ll put them back about four or five generations.”

Trying to reading others’ intentions is difficult under even normal circumstances. It is even more difficult when enveloped in what Robert McNamara called the fog of war, as “war is so complex, it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all of the variables. Our judgment, our understanding are not adequate, and we kill people unnecessarily.” McNamara’s words, spoken at the end of his life, were a reminder of the need for humility. One of the hallmarks of human beings is that we are all equipped with what psychologists call “a theory of mind.” That is, we understand that other people have thoughts, emotions, and intentions. Basically, we are all amateur mind-readers. However, we read others’ minds very imperfectly, and we anticipate and react to not to what they think, but what we think that they think. Interviews with members of different “fringe groups,” such as the “Boogaloo” movement, suggest that individual members have a range of motivations, from true believers to hobbyists who think the idea of civil war is absurd. Acts of violence are sufficient evidence that there are enough true believers to be a danger to the public for some time. 



Perhaps Santayana’s adage “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it” should have a corollary: history sometimes has a gravitational field that pulls people to want to repeat it. And wars in particular are often romanticized. As Chris Hedges wrote, “war is a force that gives us meaning.” Hedges distinguished between “mythic war,” and “sensory war.” Mythic war is deceptively seductive, offering people the chance to participate in some great noble cause, though people’s justifications may vary (to defeat evil, for freedom, for party, for God, for country, for one’s ethnic group, revenge, etc.). Mythic war’s perennial appeal resides in its apparent opportunity to help people find meaning by contributing to something potentially historic and bigger than themselves, particularly for the marginalized and for those who have otherwise struggled to find meaning in their lives. For these reasons, Hedges wrote, war can be an “addictive narcotic.” 

By contrast, sensory war refers to the on-the-ground experiences, the fear, the atrocities, the “blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents,” ultimately revealing that – quoting Harry Patch – war is “organized murder and nothing else.”

If there is hope, perhaps it resides in Santayana’s adage, that –with any luck– enough of us have learned, over and over again, that sensory war inevitably creates horrific conditions that kill and maim indiscriminately, not just the people we dislike or the people we think deserve to be removed. Furthermore, these costs to economics, infrastructure, and health (physical, psychological, and moral) can last for generations. This is particularly true for civil war, since all fighting is carried out on one’s home field. Most rational thinking people would like to avoid that and find another solution to problem solving. In his book, The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley once wrote that the soldiers in the trenches of WW1 learned that “mutual restraint is preferable to mutual punishment.” In other words, as bad as things are now, they could certainly get much worse. 

Another hopeful thing we can cling to is that, as the Frans de Waal quote at the top of the essay suggests, most people just want to live their lives, preferring peace over war. While history is replete with examples of war and atrocity, it would be wrong to solely highlight that side of human beings without acknowledging our astounding ability for generosity, kindness, and cooperation too. As a species, we are genocidal altruists, equipped with a wide array of selfish and selfless behaviors that we deploy in order to fit our circumstances.

Furthermore, I think it helps to remember that people can change. Us’ can become thems and thems can become us.’ The divisions that we experience today can appear natural and inevitable, but history shows that alliances and friendships are constantly in flux.

And, it turns out that we may not be as divided as we sometimes believe. The organization Beyond Conflict wrote that “Americans incorrectly believe that members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them about twice as much as they actually do. In short, we believe we’re more polarized than we really are—and that misperception can drive us even further apart.” That “pluralistic ignorance” could have some drastic consequences, when perception soften supersedes reality.

Finally, as Peter Turchin wrote in his book, we have a chance to quash a wider conflict before it starts, perhaps by addressing some of the structural factors that have often sparked discord in the past:

“We are rapidly approaching a historical cusp at which American society will be particularly vulnerable to violent upheaval. However, a disaster similar in magnitude to the American Civil War is not foreordained. On the contrary, we may be the first society that is capable of perceiving, if dimly, the deep structural forces pushing us to the brink. This means that we are uniquely equipped to take policy measures that will prevent our falling over it” (2016: 242).

11 thoughts on “Dangerous Speech & a 2nd U.S. Civil War

  1. That is a thoughtful and in-depth analysis of a difficult topic. I might add that a civil war might result in a coup or revolution. The American Revolution was first and foremost a civil war. If the Confederates had won the Civil War, they would have called it a revolution. So, sometimes civil wars are what we call failed revolts.

    In some ways, I’m not sure it’s a matter of what anyone wants or doesn’t want. We are heading into an era of increasing and worsening crises that will further destabilize society, cause civil unrest, and erode trust. I don’t see any way of reverse that course of events, as it has been set in motion by actions taken over generations.

    The rise of inequality is a big factor. Look at the work of Keith Payne (The Broken Ladder) and the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (The Inner Level & The Spirit Level). For an even more concerning perspective, check out Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler. Many other books could be mentioned.

    I look at the American society and economy at present. I must admit there are many similarities to the situation and mood right before the American Revolution. When the grass is dry, even the smallest of sparks can set a blaze that turns into a wildfire. If you looked to the pre-revolutionary era, there was no way to predict what would follow, as the colonists were among the most free and least oppressed people in the world.

    I suspect we are lot closer to potential conflict than we realize. If not civil war or such, maybe it will be world war. I’m willing to bet we won’t go much longer without some kind of major war that either involves or happens in the United States. There are too many tensions, conflicts, and divides growing ever larger to avoid some kind of eruption of violence, if in the short term that merely means increasing terrorism and riots.

  2. I don’t know why I think this piece of the puzzle can move, when it’s not a peripheral piece, but the only hope I can find would be shining a light on the role of the “good violence” we do, the social control stuff, discipline and punishment, “strength.”
    I mean, not that there’s hope in a plan that involves no-one pushing no-one around, even for the best of reasons – just that all the other hopes offered seem empty without it . . . otherwise, our answer is the problem and we’re always pulling in exactly the wrong direction.
    it’s always “when good folks do nothing,” – these memes break my heart, like we apparently have no plan do change the bad ones, only the good ones. We must be “strong” to fight the evil “other,” and of course the other’s world is a cult of strength also – we have all agreed goodness and weakness are the problems and then we wonder what’s gone wrong. Human stuff, both sides of the possible American civil war have this false basis, just one more overtly than the other – so even when elections trend for the “Left,” the general warlike atmosphere doesn’t change.
    Costa Rica, though, right? Bit of something there?
    Sorry, P., this is like your article made me sad and I’m hitting back or something! Be well.
    As an aside, I saw nothing with which to disagree, sounds like Turchin sees the same world I do. I’m big about saving up our bad feelings for war, and creating those bad feelings, like on purpose, almost.


    • I’d say it’s not exactly a left versus right issue. Those who seek to promote division are the elite. But the seeming two-party system in the US is really a one-party state with two wings serving the same agenda, largely controlled by a deep state and inverted totalitarianism which is to say hidden power.

      The sense of conflict and division is created the political elite and media elite, that is to say corporatist politicians and corporate media. It’s the constant repetition of a media narrative put into partisan terms, but this is intentionally deceptive and manipulative. If you look at decades of polling, most Americans agree about most issues and the majority position tends to be well to the left of the leadership of both parties.

      So, to the degree it’s a left versus right issue, it’s also a class issue based on vast disparities of not only wealth but power and privilege, not to mention resources. It’s a left-leaning public in opposition to a right-wing authoritarian elite. But the public is kept ignorant of this fact, as they are also kept ignorant of how immense has grown inequality. Surveys demonstrate the difference between what Americans have been told and what is true.

      We live in a society where the population is stressed and anxious, victimized and traumatized, oppressed and demoralized, disenfranchised and propagandized. That is how power and control is maintained. Violence is systemic and institutionalized, including the slow violence such as lead toxicity concentrated in poor and minority communities. The understandable anger and outrage is then redirected toward scapegoating those other people, foreign and domestic.

      It’s not that most of the elite intentionally want to destroy society, much less start civil war or revolution. But they are acting in a short-sighted manner that is suicidally self-destructive. This is because a sociopathic mentality and behavior has become the norm in places of power and elite institutions. It’s not only a lack of compassion for the poor and needy but also a lack of empathy for their own future selves, not to mention their own children and grandchildren.

      This has much to do with the reactionary mind. It seeps into everything, including down into the general population. I’d call it a mental disease or else a mind virus.

    • Hi Benjamin, thanks for the kind words and your insights. I pretty much agree with all of what your wrote. There are a lot of economic pressures on people, inequality included. And I see your point about civil war vs. revolution. Hopefully, we are not that close to conflict. I have to confess that a huge part of this website has been to convince people that war is really something we should try to avoid. I’ve cited Chris Hedges’ “mythic war vs. sensory war” idea many times, hoping to persuade people who are hoping for a chance to fight for their cause that it isn’t the way to go. Unfortunately, there do seem to be many people who are enthusiastic about the prospect.

      • Have you read Keith Payne’s book? It might be the most intriguing explanation of inequality around. He goes into how and why it causes mass derangement. But most interestingly, he shows that it harms the upper classes as much as the poor. The entire society goes mad, not to mention becoming increasingly aggressive, combative, and violent. Everyone is worse off in a high inequality, as compared to similar or equivalent demographics in other countries.

        Yet even if the ruling elite and their supporters knew the costs were personal, that their lifespan is shorter and the quality of life lesser for it, the social science research indicates that many would still be willing to enforce such a punishing social order in order to maintain the status quo of the moral order they’ve come to identify with. The collective harm might not be a mere unintentional side effect but, to a degree, a consciously accepted cost of doing business.

        The part that might be unforeseen is the result of civil war, revolution, and such. The violence is inherent to the system. But there are some authoritarians and social dominators who think the forces of violence can be controlled and kept limited to their enemies and the permanent underclass. They aren’t as smart as they think, though. The short term benefits they prize might turn out to be much shorter than they expect and so some of them might find themselves as the generation caught holding the bag.


        • I haven’t read Payne’s book, but this morning I just read a review of it this morning in The New Yorker. It makes perfect sense to me that inequality has some real psychological and social costs as social primates who regularly take stock of where we are relative to others. Perhaps you’ve seen this video of capuchin monkeys given unequal rewards. There are human parallels. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meiU6TxysCg

      • There were two great insights from Payne. One was how inequality encourages short term thinking. That relates to the aggressiveness, in bringing out a stress response of fight, flight, or freeze. When conflict is left unresolved and stress continues too long, it can lead to trauma.

        In fact, research shows that continuous low level stress can be more traumatizing than a single event of intense stress. That is because background stress can’t be escaped and so contributes to general sense of anxiety and depression, along with learned helplessness.

        Here is another thing that happens in a high inequality society. The experience of inequality, even for the rich, can mimic the sense of being poor. This relates to the short term thinking that often gets blamed on the poor but which is also seen among the rich when surrounded by inequality.

        Our sense of value, worth, and identity gets distorted by the stress and anxiety. It makes every little conflict and confrontation feel like there is more at stake than there really is. High inequality feels wrong, not the way society is supposed to be. And that sense of wrongness puts us on edge. We realize how unstable is the social order.

        A culture of trust and a sense of safety further erode. So, people look around at others as potential threats, competitors, and enemies. It encourages the attitude of me getting my own, getting while the getting is good. We can’t rely on a later time and so, individually and collectively, we stop investing in the future.

        The Broken Ladder
        by Keith Payne
        pp. 2-4

        “As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

        “To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

        “This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flight. Since an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

        “But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

        “Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

        “What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”


    • Hi Jeff, I know what you mean about “good violence,” and have been mulling over another essay on that topic. Some researchers have argued that most of the violence committed by people is “moral” in the sense that people believe when they are committing violence that it is righteous, that the recipient deserves it because they have violated the moral code in some way. Not surprisingly, we find so many ways to justify our own actions so we believe that we are in the right and our actions were necessary. Our violence is almost always seen (or portrayed) as “self-defense.” We didn’t really want to engage in violence, but they made us do it. It’s a pretty consistent pattern.

      • that’s the macro version of the good violence, for sure. I’m crawling past the halfway point in The Goodness Paradox and I know it’s going to get better, but I just put it down at a low point, sounds like that Boehm fellow is saying we have the morality the tribal elders gave us, and I know he’s not going to end on that we’re stuck with that, that it’s a ceiling – but it’s plenty problematic as our starting place too. The conclusions in these pages irk me terribly, but not only the conclusions, I’ve been queasy the entire argument, it seems full of contradictions. For starters, my own sense of morality finds the coalition of male elders to be pretty much morally wrong 24/7.
        Aside – Wrangham seems a wonderful fellow, when he describes the moral violence of the elders, you don’t get the sense he approves, or that he conflates these components of morality with any developed right and wrong.
        So now it’s this other guy I’ll be blaming for everything I ever read in NatGeo, LOL

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