I’ve had this quotation from primatologist Frans deWaal in my head for a long time. Sadly, I think it’s relevant now for life in the United States:
“Humans have something of the bonobo and the chimpanzee in them, which makes them bipolar in character. Most of the time, actually, we like to have a peaceful relationship with everybody around us. But at the same time we can be aroused to a point, under certain circumstances – either by political leaders, or by an invasion, or by some traumatic event – that we start killing, and not killing on a small scale like chimpanzees do, but genocide… When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are better and more altruistic than any primate that I know. ” — Frans de Waal, primatologist (source)
The two pieces of this passage that mean the most to me are that: (1) peaceful relations are our default preference, and (2) mass acts of violence require being goaded or aroused by some external push factor.
The first premise, a preference for peace, can be debated. Throughout history individuals have sought status, wealth, and significance through conflict, either militarily or politically. But for the most part, the stability afforded by peace provides an opportunity to focus on our immediate needs, like basic food acquisition, the well-being of our loved ones, our occupations, or whatever pet projects and hobbies we have. All of these are severely compromised during periods of conflict.
The second piece, that mass acts of violence require some external push factor, is something I think we need greater awareness of. Too often, conflicts are seen as the inevitable result of “natural political enemies” or “ancient ethnic hatreds.” However, mass conflicts don’t just arise spontaneously from nowhere. Instead, they are cultivated or fomented.
In Rwanda, the Hutu-controlled radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) broadcast anti-Tutsi hate speech for a year before the genocide. There is evidence that villages with better radio reception were more likely to participate in killing than neighboring villages where reception was blocked by the hilly terrain. The “Balkan Fever” in the former Yugoslavia required a sustained, Machiavellian assault on the psyches of the people there. As the war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote:
It took Milosevic four years of hate propaganda and lies, pumped forth daily over the airways from Belgrade, before he got one Serb to cross the border into Bosnia and begin the murderous rampage that triggered the war. And although the war was painted from afar as a clash of rival civilizations, the primary task of Milosevic in Serbia, Franjo Tudjman in Croatia, and the other ethnic leaderships was to dismantle and silence their own intellectuals and writers of stature and replace them with second-rate, mediocre pawns willing to turn every intellectual and artistic endeavor into a piece of ethnic triumphalism and myth. (Hedges, 2003: 21).
In short, propaganda works. We’re seeing this play out in the U.S. today. This summer several violent incidents have been carried out across the country, from homicide to police brutality, to destruction of property. We are being goaded deeper and deeper into polarization so frequently that it permeates everything. Social media is awash with “second-rate, mediocre pawns” and politicians stirring the pot and encouraging violence, while voices of calm are hard to find. The result is that polarization and conflict seem almost natural and inevitable. When you throw into the mix a pandemic, high unemployment, deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, 300 million guns, extremist organizations itching for relevance, and prominent politicians throwing fuel on the fire, the situation can feel ripe for chaos. At times it can feel like the country is circling the drain, that peace is tenuous.
As naive as it may sound, I think it’s necessary to hold onto hope because to lose that makes a wider conflict a self-fulfilling prophecy. So where to find hope? For one, I think remembering that most people would rather just live their lives in peace is instructive. The final part of DeWaal’s quote is also important: that despite our capacity for violence, humans have an unparalleled ability for altruism among primates. That too needs to be cultivated, however, so don’t let that light go out. The organization Beyond Conflict pointed out that so much of our polarization is exaggerated, writing that “Americans incorrectly believe that members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them about twice as much as they actually do.”
Finally, I think it’s important to remember that people can change. Broken relationships can be mended. There are many examples of forgiveness and reconciliation for even horrible offenses, though this took effort. Rivals and enemies can be converted if not into allies, then at least into a more neutral relationships. There is also evidence that for individuals who seek conflict due to a propensity for adventure or sensation seeking, they can be re-directed into more peaceful activities, provided this also gives them a sense of adventure (Schumpe et al 2020). None of this will be easy, and I feel like I’m shouting into the void while much louder voices with greater influence preach the opposite message. But we have to try.
Hedges, C. 2003. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Anchor Books.
Schumpe BM, Bélanger JJ, Moyano M, Nisa CF. 2020. The role of sensation seeking in political violence: An extension of the Significance Quest Theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 118(4): 743-61.