Overcoming our evil nature through great effort.
I’m sure many of us were quite shocked when Russian President, Vladimir Putin, decided to march on Ukraine with hostile intent. Despite the illusions we’ve created, we’re not beyond war and we never will be. To be honest, I don’t know why we’re not at war more often, benefits of civilisation, I guess. Civility requires a certain level of conformity and sacrifice, but what happens when our nature for war, fighting and conflict – derived from our impulses, our biology and our long history of it – becomes too strong?
“What do all men with power want? More power.” – The Oracle, The Matrix Reloaded.
I’m not going to get bogged down in a historical and political analysis of why the current Ukraine-Russia war has occurred, though it’s evident things had been brewing long before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. What I will focus on is our innate instinct for violence and conflict and how we need to understand this and it’s repercussions across multiple levels of human beings – individual, group, societal, global.
“The innocent bystanders and victims of war usually far outweigh the “winners” – if indeed there are any winners.”
Whilst we’ve been in conflict with each other as a species since the Stone Age - but thankfully due to a developed prefrontal cortex - we’ve learned to abstract out ideas through thinking rather than just kill people instead. I’m not saying ideas can’t lead to war, obviously they can and have done. What I am saying is that we’ve developed, from an evolutionary perspective, so that we can kill ideas rather than people – the only problem is that ideas are harder to kill than people.
In some sense, wars help to put things into perspective – just hear me out. I feel they remind us what we’re capable of doing to each other, which as I hinted in the opening paragraph, we can become forgetful of. It also help us to be wary that societal collapse is still very possible – that are systems are fragile and we can descend into chaos with a new order, potentially a false order, trying to arise out of it.
You don’t prevent wars, conflict and violence by being ignorant to the malevolence in your own heart, you have to learn how to constrain it. You’re not ONLY good, or as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.”
Solzhenitsyn further elaborates, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The point being, “evil” does not rest outside of you. Now, history has a long list of evildoers and you’re probably sitting there going “I’m not like them, I couldn’t be like them”, but this is not the point – you might be, you’ve just never been given the power/authority, that’s what the Stanford Prison Experiment helped illustrate. The point is, to the extent that these evildoers are human beings, it is imperative to understand what human beings are capable of doing – if you consider yourself a human being, which I believe you would – so we can steer away from such atrocities guided by our nefarious desires.
Another idea we must restrain ourselves from doing is the idea of collective guilt. The notion of collective guilt was given particular attention by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jew who survived The Holocaust in Nazi Concentration Camps while losing his father, mother and brother in the process. In his view, the idea of holding all Germans collectively accountable for what the Nazis did was “totally unjustifiable”:
“As for the concept of collective guilt, I personally think that it is totally unjustified to hold one person responsible for the behaviour of another person or a collective of persons.”
I like to think that if a man like Viktor Frankl can go through what he did and not come out the other side consumed with bitterness and hatred towards every single German then opposing the idea of collective guilt is the least I can do. Read Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, it’s only a short book and I highly recommend it – I lent mine out and never got it back, that’s how good it is!
“I see how much individuals are at war with themselves, suffering with internal conflict, and I wonder how this doesn’t manifest itself more violently on a larger scale.”
So, why should people be concerned about the war between Ukraine and Russia? I mean beyond sympathy and empathy for such a situation. The severity and lack of humanity shown in the attacks. The impact, the flow on effects and future consequences, with the fact that this is unlikely to end anytime soon, if anything, it might even escalate further. I like to think there is a duty as an informed citizen to care about the direction of society/state/country and indeed the world is heading in. As an adult, I feel we’re obligated to reduce our ignorance – you don’t get to weasel out of it or turn a blind eye/look the other way a la Steve Smith and “Sandpaper-gate”.
I truly believe that we can make the world a better place by starting with the individual and moving outward. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and a place for broader movements, but if we focus on what we can control as individuals, refrain from rewarding poor behaviour, become aware of our tendencies for violence and conflict and aim for peace instead, then I think this will create a healthier society for all.
In doing so, we can overcome our evil nature through great effort.