Monday, July 4, 2016

Is Violence Inevitable?

This post was written as an assignment in the Certificate of Nonviolence Studies program I am enrolled in at the Metta Center. It was supposed to be written as a conversation, but I did it as a blog post, so I thought I would also post it here. It's a very important area of thought and study so if you have any comments please feel free to share them. MR. 

Our questioner asks, as it has often been asked, that while nonviolence is a good idea, is it not, (alas!) in contradiction with hard-wired human behavior – the predilection toward solving problems with violence? The reason there has always been war, this argument goes, is that “mankind” is warlike; that we manipulate others to protect and advance ourselves and, at best, a small group of our closest relatives; or, to put a Lockeian spin on it, that human civilization is a battle of all against all.

I want to counter this argument by moving through, as it were, the range of science, from the so-called harder sciences, to the softer.

First, the “hard” science of human biology. In the popular understanding, Darwin's theory of evolution supported the Lockeian version of individualism sampled above: that the goal of life is to win, to survive and reproduce, and that because cooperation doesn't advance these goals it is against human hard-wiring – that is, evolution.

This understanding has been put to political purposes virtually since it was promulgated, to support a “social Darwinism” that, conveniently, jibed very well with the prevailing paradigm of private property and income inequality.

Yet it leaves a key question unanswered: how does altruism – which undoubtedly exists in human relationships – arise and continue to exist in a system that rewards only selfishness? In the absence of a moral reasoning, why should evolution work this way? This has been a great question of sociobiology.

In 1980, sociobiologist Robert Axelrod developed a game that would test how people would do if they cooperated, or if they acted selfishly. The full explanation can be found here but the upshot is that those pursuing the “nice” strategy – working cooperatively and rather trustfully – did better than those who attempted to take advantage. To be brief in the extreme, at the end of the process Axelrod delineated the following strategy for maximum success in the game:

  • Be nice: cooperate, never be the first to defect.
  • Be provocable: return defection for defection, cooperation for cooperation.
  • Don't be envious: focus on maximizing your own 'score', as opposed to ensuring your score is higher than your 'partner's'.
  • Don't try to be tricky.

This sounds a lot like Gandhi's strategy! He may not have known anything about evolutionary biology, but apparently he was onto something.

The question of “provocability” leads us into the question of “mirror neurons.” V.S. Ramachandran, a distinguished professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, conducted early research on mirror neurons, and calls them “the basis of civilization.”

Briefly, there are motor command neurons that fire when I take a particular action, such as waving my hand or picking up something. Apparently, when you watch me doing such an action, a certain subset (about 10-20%) of the neurons in you that it would take to perform the same action, called mirror neurons, also fire in you. When you see me in pain, these motor neurons fire in you and you feel a certain amount of my pain. This, Ramachandran and others hypothesize, forms the biological foundation of empathy.

So here we have the biological basis of empathy and cooperation – that is, nonviolent means of achieving what Darwinism claimed could only be achieved by manipulation and selfishness.

On the “softer” scientific, sociological level, we turn to the research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. In their groundbreaking work, Why Civil Resistance Works, they charted the success and failure of over 300 nonviolent and violent campaigns between 1900 and 2006. They found that nonviolent campaigns proved twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as those that resorted to armed insurgency. This was the case regardless of the nature of the regime and its readiness to resort to repression. ( As time has gone on, and the sophistication of nonviolent organiation has improved, the rates of success of nonviolent strategies have continued to improve, while the rates of success of armed insurgency have declined. The main varying factor seems to be mass participation, which is higher in nonviolent struggles and has significant subsequent advantages, including strategic flexibility and diverse and resilient leadership.

Significantly, this disproves the popular adage, attributed to Chairman Mao, that “all political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” This truism is of a piece with the “people are violent, only violence works” theory we are discussing here.

The question will inevitably arise as to whether nonviolent strategies could work against a indiscriminate user of violence, such as ISIS. Leaving aside the fact that it was violence – that is, the invasion of Iraq – that led to the rise of ISIS in the first place, we have seen in places like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan that continued application of violent methods have not come close to solving the issues in those countries. The question then becomes, do we continue to apply the same failed methods, or do we try to apply methods of nonviolent action that have proven effective in domestic situations? Eventually – perhaps when all other options have been thoroughly exhausted – we will try this.

And the third form of “science” I want to bring into the discussion is the humanities – the human moral voice. Despite the fact that much of the violence in the world today comes from people identifying with one or another religious teaching, in fact both the teachings of the various religions, and their practices, lead to the pursuit of peace as both the means and the end of human existence.

In terms of teachings, virtually every spiritual tradition in the world has a version of the teaching to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In my own Jewish tradition, this is based on the idea that each human being, whatever their “race”, nation, or creed, is created btzelem elohim – in the image of God – and that their life and freedom, and justice itself, are based on this basic, not similarity, but sameness, between us.

It is the application of the moral voice to the scientific method that gave both power and his strategic acumen to the greatest nonviolent strategists, from Gandhi and King through Soo Chi and the Serbian activists of Otpor!. While their opponents were convinced, as our questioner is, that only violence can work in human struggles, they were utilizing the “force more powerful” - nonviolence – and it is the secret to their success – and, potentially, to our own.