I was in a zoom meeting the other day with members of the Chicago Ethical Humanist Circle. Part of the implicit beliefs of many of them is that all people are basically good and that all we have to do is to appeal to that goodness, coax it out to the surface of their senses of self, and conflicts can be resolved, bonds can be made, and people can be persuaded to remain good people. I believe that this is very noble thinking, but it doesn’t address the fact that contrary to the beliefs of these humanists, some people seem to be incorrigible in their evil behavior. And, in addition, some people may just have very different ideas of what they consider good behavior.
Conflict seems to manifest itself very differently in traditional natural society from the way it does in modern technological society. In traditional natural society, both sides in a conflict are usually grounded, but they are grounded in different families, different clans, different villages, different cultures, different belief systems that have developed in different physical spaces and frequently different physical ecosystems. If they are fighting for physical or psychological dominance in a given physical space, each side believes they have right on their side. In preliterate societies, their names for themselves in their language may mean “the men”. And if that is the way members of a society feel, then acknowledging the humanity in their opponents from other societies and the legitimacy of their opponents grounding becomes more difficult. So, with these kinds of grounding, which are very specific to particular groups, there are no larger groupings present that are capable of acting as templates and that can bring together opposing groups, allowing these groups to find a way to bond with one another and live in peaceful coexistence with one another.
Here, the lack of peaceful relationships is usually based on the most foundational elements of grounding: different customs, different moralities, different gods as well as competing claims to particular physical spaces. In the past, conflicts between traditional groups were resolved with wars, where one side won and either killed off the defeated group or absorbed them as slaves or, in the best of circumstances, simply ruled over them. There was very little room here for people sitting down together and singing kumbaya.
In contrast, conflicts in today’s world frequently have a very different basis and a very different flavor. Adversaries today are not always coming from a foundation of grounding in a grouping of people or a culture or a belief system. Nor are they necessarily coming out of a conflict situation involving money or objects of wealth. Sometimes, they are coming out of a situation of numbness in an experiential vacuum, and they use the conflict to pull themselves out of their numbness and feel fully alive. In other words, the cause of the conflict can be arbitrarily generated in order to pull out of the numbness. And traditional conflict causes can be appropriated as pretexts to start a conflict and, in so doing, pull out of the numbness and the vacuum. Sometimes, there can be traditional conflict causes started by people who have managed to maintain their traditional culture and much of their traditional society, but who find themselves occupying physical space where there has been a large addition of modern technological society components. I am thinking of the Islamic fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Hamas. The strong emphasis on suicide bombers is a way of embracing the experiential vacuum in which their highly traditional culture is forced to reside today. One can embrace the vacuum in the United States by having one’s life return to the mental state of shooters in the United States, although the traditional culture that these people are trying to maintain is not nearly as elaborately developed in their minds as is that of the Islamic terrorists.
However, much of the time, the perpetrator s of these modern technological conflicts are executing their aggressions free of any traditional pretexts. There are lots of mass shooters today who get started on the flimsiest of pretexts. Maybe their boss angered them on their job. Or their girlfriend went off with another man. One can understand, although not forgive, going after the person or persons who triggered the anger. But not going after all the people in an office or all the people in a school.
And sometimes, no motive is ever established. A person starts shooting and killing people until he is brought down. The police investigate and can’t find any reason for the massacre. These are the aggressions that are particularly frightening. How does one keep on the lookout for events like these. No defined discrete cause can ever be established. And that is because a person may have a predisposition to anxiety, depression or anger. But at bottom, the person is suffering from a deep numbness, and the slightest little friction in the external world is used as an excuse, a bridge to temporarily leave the experiential vacuum and feel explosively alive with an explosive response to that friction. As long as modern technology continues to make our lives more frictionless and more mediated, these explosive acts of aggression will continue to appear and to spread fear and terror. Such perpetrators will definitely not be susceptible to sitting down and singing kumbaya.