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While trying to make sense out of the most recent horrors committed by the Islamic State, I remember a wonderful line from a brutal movie called Calgary: “Faith is only our fear of death.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson chillingly describes it as “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”
Animals, in order to survive, have had to be protected by fear responses. Philosopher Ernest Becker in his book, “The Denial of Death,” felt it was foolish to assume that the fear response of animals would have disappeared in such a weak and highly sensitive species such as humans. Some of the early Darwinians thought those who were most afraid were the most realistic about their situation in nature. These nervous survivors passed on their paranoid realism which led to a high survival rate.
The result was the emergence of modern man: a hyper-anxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even where there are none.
We evolved in Nature to survive and we have a vast array of means to do so. We soft, clumsy, naked apes didn’t rise to the top of the food chain because we were sweet and loving. No, we are here because we are dangerous and paranoid. Never underestimate human’s ability to match Nature’s challenge of being “red in tooth and claw.”
In a previous article, Lucifer’s Bargain, I spoke of Ernest Becker’s thoughts on the denial of death as the motivating force behind humans abandoning their mortality and taking refuge in “symbolic worlds” of mental imagery. Becker also mentions the concept of “self esteem,” which might help us understand how evil can become contagious in societies.
He uses the term self-esteem to describe how humans, being social creatures, constantly monitor how they are being perceived and ranked by others. We instinctively know that folks held in high esteem by the tribe will have a better chance of survival than those on the lower levels who are most likely to become cannon fodder or human shields in the case of the Hamas.
If we live in an evil-concentric Jihadist culture, then being a badass sociopath will give you high esteem. We are “infected” with the group culture (good, bad, ugly) because it is part of our subconscious survival mechanism. Just as the Nazis all said they were only “following orders” they were also desperately trying to achieve some status in the prevailing fascist culture system of the time. We need to be part of the pack so we don’t get eaten by the pack.
It is not that evil is some sort of free floating archetype, but just one of the choices we can make to ensure our survival. Evil and its brother, terror, have tremendous power and the weaker we feel, the more seductive this power becomes. But these are human inventions to solve a mortality dilemma.
Yes we are susceptible to “mob rule” because nasty situations often require the power of the mob. Becker contends our “original sin”, our “fall from grace” was not knowledge, but imagination.
To escape the knowledge of our mortality, we neurotically conjured a symbolic world, a virtual reality where immortality can be achieved through words and stories. As Voltaire remarked,
“God created man in his own image and then man returned the favor.” Sacrificing for “causes” has nothing to do with our biology, but our theology. We humans are paradoxes—gods and animals at the same time. We do noble deeds and then turn around and commit horrors.
Ironically, Becker’s premise is it is our evolution to “symbolic creatures” rather than our “animal natures” that is the root cause of evil and destruction caused by humans in this world.
Becker believed our “creatureliness” was far more moral than our “godliness.Notice that when we speak of evil, we don’t generally refer to animals, but exclusively to humans. We have the software to overpower our hardware. We abandon our moral “lower power” (morality) to strive for a “higher power” (theology). Our worldview and our society provide a personal line of defense against our natural impotence by allowing us to believe we can transcend death by participating in something symbolic of lasting worth. Becker states that since our worldview and self-esteem defenses symbolically confer god-like, immortal status to humans, then these structures, by their very nature, take on covertly religious significance. Ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between “immortality systems” or symbolic “holy wars”.
Evil appears when we participate in the “symbolic holy wars” Becker refers to. As Becker shows us that our desire to merge with a larger whole, to dedicate our lives to a higher cause, to serve cosmic powers can, as it was designed to, overpower our humanity, and lead us to acts of colossal inhumanity and savagery.
In our innate fear we have magnified our hubris and denied our humble origin. As Sam Keen points out, “Becker shames us with the knowledge of how easily we will shed blood to purchase the assurance of our own righteousness, which in the end is nothing more than a symbolic denial of our personal and collective frailty and mortality.”
Perhaps by becoming conscious of the dynamics fueling our actions, we can begin serious contemplation of the problem of mortality and allow people to deal with their fate less defensively. Finally, by consciously being aware of the power of our creations, suffering may be alleviated by the spread of cultural practices and world views that better provide attainable bases of self-worth, value tolerance, and not encourage gaining esteem through demonizing the “other”.
Balance between our humanity and our imagination is the key point. The problem is rooted in the Greco-Judaic concept of the mind being sacred and the body considered profane.
This split perpetrated by the Abrahamic religions and Western philosophy have resulted in the imbalanced, hyper yang culture predominant in the world today. Eastern philosophies retained the concept of balance and a body-centric view of where “god” resides.
We can use our power of imagination in infinite ways. This is fine as long as we remain grounded in our humanity, our mortality, and our bodies. But it is when we long for “heaven” rather than the earth that evil and inhumanity ensues. I believe this is why we are seeing a surge of Eastern theology, yoga and meditative practices in the West. To counteract and curtail evil, we must encourage the balance of imagination and humanity.
This brings up the question of how to confront ISIS or other “imbalanced” organizations: how do we restore that balance?
How much “counterbalance” is necessary to bring them back down to earth? And, as the West is experiencing, how does a society inoculate itself against the contagion and lure of the power of evil? We have seen some encouraging work in Uganda and elsewhere in the restoration of balance after genocide, but it will be more difficult where Western philosophy is deeply engrained.
It is not by accident that the greatest peacemakers of the century, Gandhi and the Dali Lama, are Asian. We need to plumb the core of our philosophies and weigh the level of imbalance. It is there that monsters dwell.
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