I learned a few days ago thatEmile Bruneauhadpassed away. I did not know Dr. Bruneau personally, but I knew of his work in conflict resolution. I previously referred to some of his research in apost on dangerous speech and dehumanization. It is also clear from thetributesto him on social media that in addition to his valuable research, the world has lost a really wonderful human being.
Having lost my ownbrotheras a young adult, premature deaths like Dr. Bruneau’s (orChadwick Boseman’s) resonate with me. They remind me of how fragile our lives are. His wife shared something that Dr. Bruneau wrote that made me a little emotional, both for its bravery and optimism in the face of something as potentially terrifying as one’s impending mortality, and because it reminded me of something that occurred to me too when I contemplated my brother’s death: that a part of us really does live on in the minds of others. He wrote:
“I just had a thought: I learned in physics that our physical mass never actually touches another – the outer electrons of each repel, giving us the illusion of touch. As a neuroscientist, I learned that our brains don’t really see the world, they just interpret it. So losing my body is not really a loss after all! What I am to you is really a reflection of your own mind. I am, and always was, there, in you.”
I’d like to share a few more of his words, to help keep his image reflecting in my mind, and perhaps yours as well. Not just for the sake of sharing, but because he really did have some important things to say.
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.
“We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”
I ended Part 1 with a quotation from Robert Sapolsky, who wrote (to paraphrase): We don’t hate violence. We hate and fear the wrong kind of violence… When it’s the “right” type of aggression, we love it.
Do we “love” violence in the right context, as Sapolsky suggested? Perhaps sometimes. When the news broke a week ago that Dzhokar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, had his death sentence overturned, local sentiments were mixed. The Providence Journal (located 50 miles south of Boston) asked its readers whether Tsarnaev should spend his life in prison or face another death penalty trial. Several responded with a variety of brutal ways that he should be killed. As we saw in Part 1, people are often more at ease with violence if they feel someone has failed as a moral agent so badly that they deserve to be hit, kicked, beaten, shot, killed, etc.
Attitudes toward the death penalty in the U.S. have fluctuated significantly over time. In the mid-1990s, roughly 80% of U.S. adults were in favor of the death penalty for some convicted murderers. By 2019 this dropped to 56%. Support for the death penalty is lower in Boston, however, even in cases where terrorism affected the lives of many locals. In 2015, about 30% of Bostonians felt Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty, while 60% felt he should be sentenced to life in prison. The upshot is that attitudes toward state-sanctioned violence are not set in stone. There is variation in opinion among individuals, across time, and by geography. It is pliable.
“No animal shall kill any other animal… without cause.” – the pigs (George Orwell, Animal Farm)
When I was in the second or third grade I asked my parents about the Ten Commandments, which we had just learned in my Catholic school. Specifically, I wanted to know about the fifth commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” As my father was in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, I was concerned whether he had broken the commandment. To my relief he told me that, as far as he knew, he had never killed anyone.
Beyond my own father’s past —and I know this isn’t an original thought— I wondered how to reconcile this sacred instruction with all of the killing that must have taken place in the wars across history. Were they all sins? Were all those soldiers doomed to hell?
It’s been a long time since that day, and I only have a vague memory of my parents’ response. They said that killing in war was different. Somehow, the rule was lifted when soldiers killed for their country. In the eyes of a child, I guessed that even divine decrees had exceptions.
From an anthropological perspective, it is worth considering how individuals and societies negotiate what forms of violence are permissible. Some religious scholars, like Rabbi Marc Gellman,have writtenthat a more accurate translation of the fifth commandment should be “Thou shalt not murder” instead of “kill.” Gellman noted that while killing entails ending a life, murder is “taking a life with no moral justification.” Similarly, in his book The Warriors, Glenn Gray wrote that “The basic aim of a nation at war in establishing an image of the enemy is to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder by making the former into one deserving of all honor and praise” (1959: 131-2).
However, determining when violence (lethal and non-lethal) is morally justifiable can be a gray zone, with people positioning themselves on a continuum between completely nonviolent “doves” to hyper-aggressive “hawks.” While many people hold nonviolence as an ideal; living up to that ideal perfectly has proven difficult to almost impossible. The question is where people draw their line.
“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
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 mightbe 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 Timesreferred 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, Voxreferred to this genre as “clickbait” and “apocalypse punditry.” Steven Greenhutrecently 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 beenpolitically motivated. Taking these caveats into account, the U.S. may not meet the criteria for being in a “conflict” either.
Something interesting happened with this one. It was fairly dormant for a year, then in late May 2020 (coinciding with theGeorge Floyd protests) people started to read it again. As far as I can tell, most of these views have been in the US. And most have been organic, with people finding it individually via search engines, not via social media. I don’t know their motivations for searching for something like this. It could be curiosity, maybe fear. And some people may be enthusiastic for the prospect of a civil war and a chance to kill people they dislike. Somealready havekilledpeople. Maybe the people in the pro-war group are on to something, so I started thinking of some reasons that another civil war in the US might be worth considering.
(Updated graph. The October 2020 stats are projected)
16. You Like Wasting Spending Money
Wars are notoriously expensive and a great way of dumping any excess cash you have. For example, the first (only?) Civil War in the U.S. cost an estimated $23 billion and $68 billion for the Confederacy and Union, respectively,in 2019 dollars. That may sound like a pretty good way to spend a lot of money very quickly, but the news gets better because modern wars are even costlier. TheWatson Institute for International and Public Affairsat Brown University calculated that the U.S. federal price-tag for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria was close to $6 trillion. Granted, a civil war in the US has the advantage of not having to travel very far, which would reduce transportation costs (you could have a front-row seat from your own home!). Still, modern weaponry would be much costlier than days of yore.
An added bonus is the opportunity costs of war. Eisenhower knewthat money poured into war cannot be spent on frivolous things like education, health, science, food, housing, roads, etc. Who needs those things, anyway?
15. You Have an Affinity for Apocalyptic Scenery
If you like the scenery in sci-fi movies like “The Terminator” or “The Book of Eli,” then you can make that fantasy come to life by starting an actual war. Art and reality really can mirror each other.
14. You Don’t Like Thinking Too Much…
Adrienne Rich once wrote that “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political.” If there are people you don’t like because their values seem to be all cockeyed, weird, or deviant, it can be hard to think of solutions to bridging those gaps. So maybe it’s better to not try. Just skip all that mental effort at compromise and go straight to the only logical conclusion – some people need to be wiped out. Maybe a lot of people. History shows that people never change anyway, which is why Samurai warriors, Vikings, and the Spanish Inquisition still exist, most people still believe the earth is the center of the universe, and stone tools are all the rage. And, once people are enemies, they stay that way forever. Reconciliation is a fantasy, which is why most Americans started speaking French after the Revolutionary War, just to spite the British.
13. … But You Do Like Taking Chances
If you’ve ever placed a bet on a Super Bowl or World Series, you probably know there are few guarantees in sports. Predicting the future is not easy. And that’s for sports, where the rules of engagement fall within a confined range, with referees to ensure that everyone is playing fair. The rules in war often go out the window, adding an exciting air of unpredictability. Who knows what will happen?!?! As Clausewitz once wrote: “although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.” Betting on unpredictable, low-stake sports is one thing. How much more fascinating it would be to bet on our lives and homes? What an adventure!
12. Environmental Destruction Doesn’t Bother You
We can’t afford to worry about trivial things like the environment during periods of war. Speed is of the essence, and we can’t delay by taking out all chemical and radioactive contamination from weaponry. For example, naval and aerial bombardment of the island of Vieques left marine vegetation high in concentrations of things like lead, copper, nickel, and cobalt (Massol-Deyá et al. 2005). And that wasn’t even during an emergency. That was just target practice.
Sometimes these things can last quite a while. Long after the Battle of Verdun in WW1, the surrounding area (known as Place-à-Gaz) is still contaminated with lead, arsenic, copper, and mercury as a result of massive artillery shelling and later disposal of ordnance (Thouin et al. 2016). Some plant species still have a hard time growing there, a century later. Andin Laos, massive aerial bombardment has left parts of the country contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO), 47 years after they were dropped. Up to 20,000 people have been injured or killed after the war ended, and 1600 km2 of the country still cannot be farmed. But fear not. Laos is a small country. We can farm in Alaska when the war is over.
11. You Think Food is Overrated
“Scorched earth” campaigns in war have existedfor millennia, leading to food insecurity, even famine. Some people got pretty upset when toilet paper and meat were hard to find early in the coronavirus pandemic. That’s nothing. Wait until people run out of chocolate, pasta, and coffee. In the meantime, we can sustain ourselves on rage.
10. You Don’t Mind Murder and Atrocity
The WW1 veteranHarry Patch once said that “war is organised murder, and nothing else.” If your conscience is intact, then you may need to work on that. You could be at risk for some emotional devastation at taking another human being’s life, something known as “moral injuries.” If you’ve somehow convinced yourself that the people you hate are not really fully human, then you may not have much to worry about. But beware. There have been cases of people who at first convinced themselves that their killings were justified. Some of them, like Anwar Congo below, can build up a pretty sturdy mental wall to keep out any thoughts that might contradict the view of themselves as heroic, only to have that entire edifice come crashing down years later when they accidentally dredged up their buried humanity.
9. You Think Civilians Are Fair Game in War
Speaking of murder… Many people think of war primarily as a competitionbetween two military forces. History buffs often discuss the tactics and strategies of past wars, and the decisions made by leaders. Sometimes they’ll talk about the fallen soldiers and officers who were killed and maimed. Deaths of combatants are to be expected in war. After all, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, or eventens of millions of eggs. However, statistics show that civilians are not just occasional “collateral damage” in war, due to an accidental misfire. Rather, civilians often comprise the majority of casualties, ranging between 40% in the case of Bosnia to 90% in the case of Cambodia and Rwanda (Roberts 2010).
8. You Like Travelingand Moving Around a Lot
People have a tendency to move around a lot during war, and they get to see many new places. In fact, 1% of the world’s population(about 80 million people)was displaced by the end of 2019. Being displaced is sort of like a vacation only without money, food, freedom, or the ability to really do many things that are traditionally considered “fun.” Instead of seeing beautiful scenery or new cities, people tend to end up in camps. Some of these camps are huge tent cities, with the chance to meet new neighbors living right next to you. It’s kind of like a summer camp, only you can’t really leave when you want. So let that be a fair warning: sometimes these camps are final destinations, your ability to travel after that may be severely curtailed with authorities keeping an eye on you, indefinitely in some cases. But, hey, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Some lucky Americans will really get to travel by being resettled in other countries (maybe; we haven’t been very open to accepting refugees lately, so it’s not clear how open other nations might be toward us).
7. You’re OK with Trading Mental Health for “Character”
As everyone knows, suffering builds character. For the fortunate people who survive the war, they can expect to have a lot of character-building experiences, and these can last for the rest of their lives. In a review of refugee populations, Bogic et al 2015 found that rates of depression, PTSD, and anxiety were as high as 80 to 88% in some groups, years after resettling in other countries. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” become a little more difficult under conditions of war, but if you’re one of the lucky few people to get there, I bet the payoff would be pretty sweet.
6. You Want Your Children to Be Shorter and Developmentally Delayed
With food shortages, unclean water, increased infection, and psychological stress, kids who grow up under war conditions tend to be malnourished and shorter, sometimes by a huge amount. This is a very consistent pattern, and these effects are usually permanent since you can’t get those years of growth back. That’s fine. Althoughheight seems to be correlated with earning potentialin adulthood, shorter kids (and adults) can save money by living in smaller homes and driving smaller cars. See? It all evens out.
5. Sexual Violence Doesn’t Bother You That Much
If the idea of a civil war sounds exciting to you, the prospect of being avictim of sexual violence may not have crossed your mind. Yet, history shows that this is fairly common across wars once social controls have weakened or as a deliberate method of terrorizing a population. In a review, it was found that victims of sexual violence often experience pregnancy, traumatic genital injuries, fistulae, sexual dysfunction, STDs, anxiety, PTSD, depression, social rejection, and spousal abandonment (Ba and Bhopal, 2017). This may not affect you directly, but maybe the people you hate. I’m sure everyone you know and love will be fine. Only other people are victims.
4. You Think Trust Is for Losers
Pierluigi Conzo and Francesco Salustri found that European who were exposed to World War 2 before age 6 had lower levels of trustin adulthood. In their review of background literature, the authors noted that trust is considered almost like a social “lubricant” in helping a society run more efficiently; it is an important factor in economic development, the quality of institutions, and subjective well-being. Once it is lost, it takes a long time to rebuild trust and survivors can view each other with suspicion for decades.
On the other hand, if people had been less trusting before WW2, they would have been better prepared for the coming chaos. Think about it.
3. We Don’t Need No Education
War-affected children often don’t have access to a lot of basic things that wetake for granted, including school. In 2017,61% of refugee children attended primary school, compared to 92% of children globally. Those numbers dropped to 23% and 84%, respectively, for secondary school. Education is great and all, but no one will really have time for it after the war because the survivors will be too busy doing other important things, like clearing rubble.
2. You’re OK with Chronic Diseases
Wars have a tendency to “get under the skin.” Researchers who study things like the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) idea have found that early adversity in life, including in war, can lead to long-term increased risks for chronic diseases like diabetes, schizophrenia, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity (Clarkin 2019). They can even affect your genes and possibly be passed down to the next generation. Some of these maladies can cut off years of your life, but they tend to be the years that areconsidered expendable anyway.
1. You Like Fairness and Sharing Power
Infighting in civil wars tend to leave countries weakened. How could it not? The good news is that in our compromised state, power abhors a vacuum, giving other countries a turn at being global leaders. I’m sure whichever nations step forward, they will be willing to give up the stage after they’ve had their turn.
Ba I, Bhopal RS. Physical, mental and social consequences in civilians who have experienced war-related sexual violence: a systematic review (1981–2014). Public Health. 2017 Jan 1;142:121-35.
Bogic M, Njoku A, Priebe S. Long-term mental health of war-refugees: a systematic literature review. BMC international health and human rights. 2015 Dec 1;15(1):29.
Clarkin PF. The Embodiment of War: Growth, Development, and Armed Conflict. Annual Review of Anthropology. 2019 Oct 21;48:423-42.
Massol-Deyá A, Pérez D, Pérez E, Berrios M, Diaz E. Trace elements analysis in forage samples from a US Navy bombing range (Vieques, Puerto Rico). Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 2005 2(2):263–66
Roberts A. Lives and Statistics: Are 90% of War Victims Civilians? Surviv. Glob. Polit. Strateg. 2010 52(3):115–36
Thouin H, Le Forestier L, Gautret P, Hube D, Laperche V, et al. Characterization and mobility of arsenic and heavy metals in soils polluted by the destruction of arsenic-containing shells from the Great War. Sci. Total Environ. 2016. 550:658–69
A few years ago, I wrote a short essay expressing hope that the world could unite around existential threats (supervolcanos, climate change, even hostile extraterrestrials, etc.). Perhaps in the face of such threats, I hoped, the world could be shocked out of the social divisions and behavioral patterns we’d grown so accustomed to and rediscover our shared humanity. Though I listed a few reasons why things are not so simple.
In that light, I’ve been disappointed so far how (some) people are reacting to coronavirus. There have been reports of anti-Asian racist incidents in several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and France. As one Chinese-American man, Vincent Pan, put it, we have to “fight two viruses” now: COVID-19 and bigotry.
Racism isn’t the only social division that coronavirus has driven a wedge into. Yesterday it was reported that one of the attendees at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Maryland tested positive for the virus. Two prominent Republicans, Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Paul Gosar, may have been exposed and were “self-quarantining.” Disappointingly, the response to the news on social media fell into the predictable partisan trenches that have been dug into the social fabric of the country over the past few decades.
For example, I saw some people expressing schadenfreudethat some Republicans might be affected, perhaps as a form of comeuppance or karma because several of them had dismissed the pandemic as overblown, fear-mongering, or even a “hoax” being exploited to hurt the President politically. And, Donald Trump, Jr. accused Democrats of hoping that the virus would kill millions of Americans solely to hurt his father politically. He later defended those comments, saying he was “entitled to speak with hyperbole.”
There is something seriously wrong here. Unfortunately, some people are not rising to the occasion or listening to “the better angels of their nature.” This is particularly pernicious when those people have big platforms to disseminate irresponsible ideas.
Maybe we could re-frame our approach. We should remember that a virus doesn’t care at all about your ethnicity or your political ideology. Actually, it doesn’t care about anything. It is merely an insentient genetic program that acts to replicate and thrive in a host. And every single person alive fits that description. We shouldn’t wish it on anyone for both basic decency, but also for selfish reasons — the more it spreads, the higher the risk that you or someone you love will contract it, with potentially severe consequences.
Maybe this is a chance to shock ourselves out of the stupid, paralyzing cycle of bigotry and hyper-partisanship that we’ve inherited. Someone once wrote (possibly A.D. Williams, but I cannot find an original source) “Imagine what 7 billion humans could accomplish if we loved and respected one another.” I don’t know if we all have to love and respect each other, but it is indisputable that hatred and division are counter-productive and wasteful. Time, energy, and resources are all finite, and too much of those precious things are being wasted rather than applied toward solving actual human problems. So, here is an opportunity. Coronavirus is an equal-opportunity virus that could affect any of us. There is no vaccine. Whether you are rich or poor, Chinese, American, Italian, or Iranian, you — and everyone you love — are all vulnerable.
There is at least some good news, I think. I’ve written about this before, but the fact that human beings are obligatorily social primates says something good about us. Our ancestors have been group living for about 50 million years or so. And, if you’re going to live in — and depend on — a group, then it makes sense that evolution would have equipped us to care about the other social primates around us, even non-kin. It’s been said that disasters have a tendency to bring out the best in people. Maybe, maybe not. Doctors and nurses in Iran have shown compassion for their coronavirus patients by dancing for them to lift their spirits. One doctor in China took an elderly patient who had been isolated for a month to get a CT scan in another building. They stayed outside a bit longer to see the sunset.
In the U.S., one newspaper reminded us that “we’re only as safe as our most vulnerable neighbors.” People without enough income to take sick time from work are not only vulnerable themselves, but could potentially transmit the virus to others. In other words, it is in our self-interest to care about others’ well-being, not only for its own sake, but because our lives are all interconnected. We may sometimes feel separate, and that we can live out our lives in seclusion, surviving off stockpiled supplies of canned foods and toilet paper. But coronavirus reminds even the most self-reliant of us how much we need others for our basic necessities. It might be more fruitful if we remembered as if our fates were all intertwined.
An 87-year-old COVID-19 patient and his doctor, Liu Kai, watch the sunset on their way back from a CT scan at Renmin Hospital in Hubei province. (GAN JUNCHAO / CHINA DAILY) Source
It’s that time of year, so I’m sharing this old post that I wrote on the Christmas Truce, one of the first essays on this site to take off. Looking it over, there are a few things I might have written differently; some people have told me I got some of the historical details wrong. But it wasn’t meant as a historical piece. Rather, it was about human behavior related to cooperation and conflict, and finding commonality through empathy and through the realization that cooperation, or at least restraint, is preferable to mutual punishment. After all this time, there is still some hope in there. Read more…
False killer whales, interacting with bottlenose dolphins off the New Zealand coast
A few years ago, I wrote an essay against the idea that nature was always nasty (see: “Nature, Not Always “Red in Tooth and Claw”). I think the whole essay pivoted on one important quote from the primatologist Frans deWaal, who explained why it is misguided to focus solely on the colder, cruel side of evolution. He wrote:
“The error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures. But nature’s pressure cooker does not work that way. It favors organisms that survive and reproduce, pure and simple. How they accomplish this is left open” (2009: 58).
From there I pointed out several of examples of cooperation and altruism in nature, mostly among primates, but also in other mammal species. I would like to add another one that I learned from the BBC’s Blue Planet II: the relationship between false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) and bottlenose dolphins (genus Tursiops). As the inimitable David Attenborough narrates in the clip below, pods from the two species were seen meeting near the New Zealand coast, and the audience is led to expect hostilities or predation… “But then, something truly extraordinary happens.”