Friday, May 22, 2009

Militarism can and must be taken out of political thinking

Doug has questioned whether it is possible to get rid of militarism, in a comment on the Sri Lanka piece below. This deserves a detailed reply, so I have brought it forward to today's blog.

He writes, "you won't get rid of the root causes of "militarism" because they are intrinsic parts of human nature, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the individual, culture, and a variety of factors".

Aggression is indeed an intrinsic part of our make-up. There are four basic emotional states, happiness, depression, fear and anger. Happiness and anger are extravertive, producing activity, and fear and depression are intravertive, causing withdrawal. Anger and fear are based on a perception of threat, depression and happiness on the perception of (un)fulfilled desires.

Aggression is the activity arising from anger. In clinical psychology we aim to transform destructive aggression into useful constructive activity, named assertion. We aim to change the behaviour pattern that is produced.

The argument that aggression is "intrinsic" in human nature, if it is carried forward to the position that it is useless to try to change it, is a species of determinism. The deepest form of determinism is Calvinism, where everything is preordained by God, but genetic determinism is equally rigid, where everything is preordained by our DNA. Another common form is biological determinism, where we seen as irredeemable territorial predators.

Many thinkers and workers choose to reject determinism, for many reasons. Basically it reduces the vast array of human behaviours to as simple, single principle, whether God, DNA, or one facet of biology. It is far more accurate to view human "nature" or character as the summation of an infinite number of individual behaviours, which arise from within the individual and also from the interplay of the individual with her social, biological and physical environment.

A vast amount of economic activity is devoted to changing human behaviour. Philosophy, religion (fwiw), politics, economics, sociology, medicine, psychology, education, and parenting are just a few activities that come to mind where the aim is to modify human behaviour. To say that these are all wasted activities because human nature is unchangeable is a pretty bold position to take.

You say, "social identity theory seems pertinent here. It has also been noted, I believe, that aggression towards out-groups correlates with solidarity and close bonding within the in-group".

Absolutely right. Well, not absolutely right, because nothing is absolutely right, but I fully agree. This is the problem with the BNP, or any other nationalist or exclusivist grouping - political, ethnic, religious or familial. Social identity is an extension of the individual ego. The process of maturation should end with the individual realising that s/he is a part of a larger social whole, so learning to act in harmony with the needs of society, while retaining due individual freedoms. So also social groups need to attune themselves to the need of the whole human community, and with the constraints that the physical and biological environment imposes on us.

Doug writes"You won't get rid of "militarism" without taking out "militarists" - power-mongers, and political idealists like Prabhakaran (Tamil Tiger leader, RIP) and his commanders".

"Taking out" needs clarifying. Prabhakaran has been "taken out" in the Clint Eastwood sense, but it would not do any good by, say, trying to "take out" Gordon Brown in the same way, on the grounds that he is ready to kill millions by using his weapons of mass destruction. Another person, even more deluded and paranoid, would simply step into his place. War-mongers are not separate kinds of people, they are ordinary people whose thinking has been distorted by an irrational political system. They are voted into place by ordinary people who are taken in by the argument that we must have weapons of mass destruction at our disposal, otherwise the, hand on a minute...the Islamists will come and get us. Well, if not the Islamists, someone in the future might threaten us with their own WMD. The snag with this argument is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the Someone will be driven to acquire WMD because we have WMD. We live in an inter-active system, and military top brass are not intrinsically bad people, it is just that they are unable to grasp the effect that their decisions have on other people.

Doug says "I've enjoyed many happy months living in Tamil Nadu in India myself, and Tamils are just like any other people: there's good and bad everywhere".

Exactly. There is good and bad in everywhere. Our work is to find ways of bringing facilitating the good tendencies in people and inhibiting the bad tendencies.

"Unfortunately it's the bad who so often climb into positions of power and then make the rest of us suffer in carrying out their warped ideas".

I would re-frame this. The politicians are not Bad - they are ordinary people, who often start out with high ideals, but whose thinking is distorted in the long climb to the top.

That's why we are in Green politics, to bring fresh thinking to the political process. New thinking, based on ecological reality, which gives us a wider frame in which the otherwise conflicting ideologies of socialism, individualism, nationalism, militarism and the rest can be resolved.

So my thesis is that it is possible to change human thought and behaviour, that militarism is a kind of human behaviour, and that therefore militarism can be changed.

I do not underestimate the difficulty of achieving this, but our hope of success can be based on our success in getting rid of human sacrifice 3,000 years ago, and overt human slavery 100 years ago.

The first step in the process of getting rid of militarism is to let go of the thought that it is impossible to get rid of it. There are many other steps involved, and at the practical political level I believe that the Global Human Rights Index and the proposal for the UN to set up an office to mediate separatist claims are reasonable and achievable objectives.


Johnson County Equality Project said...

I love your blog! I thought I would share with you a video I made for Oxfam that discusses the affect of climate change on the human population. It also encourages everyone to go and visit a website where they can sign a petition telling our world's leaders that we want to see action on climate change at the Copenhagen summit later this year. I thought the video might be of interest to you.
Here's a link:

With peace,

Doug said...

Hi Richard, sorry to have been awhile before responding - time constraints and all that, I'm sure you know how it is ...

Hummm. It seems we've hit the Big One here and no mistake. This is surely the problem of "Evil" which theologians and philosophers have been chewing over for thousands of years, so it would seem a little presumptious for either of us to think that we can "solve" this problem any time soon.

My contention is that the "problem" is fundamentally insoluble, and that we must learn to live with human nature - "good" and "bad" alike - in a way that is more self-aware and positive.

If you'll pardon my saying so, it seems to me that the approach you are taking resembles more the one taken in a religious leaflet that I found on the ground yesterday, which included the words:

"The Bible warns that a conflict of immense proportions is building to an unexpected climax under the guise of peace ...

One day this conflict will be over and there will be true peace.

'The great controversy is ended. Sin and sinners are no more. The entire universe is clean. One pulse of harmony and gladness beats through the vast creation... All things... in perfect joy, declare that God is love.' p.678."

Now to my mind the above is a load of one-sided white light fantasy. It fails to recognise that "Good" and "Evil" are in many ways intrinsically linked. They are two sides of the very same coin and cannot be separated. Just as mental illness and creativity are intrinsically linked. Your approach, to my mind, resembles that of the do-gooders who want to "help humanity" by eliminating schizophrenia or autism, completely failing to see that they would be eliminating some of the most interesting and wonderful areas of human life and endeavour that go hand in hand with the misery.

I notice also that you put forth many tendentious blanket statements as if they were completely unchallengable and incontrovertible Truth. I'm sure that neither of us has the time and the energy to go into statements such as "Aggression is the activity arising from anger", but would I be right in believing that you have acquired these from some textbook or other and have little or no interest in questioning them or thinking them through any further because they satisfy your own prior assumptions and prejudices?

There is a lot more that I could write, but I'll save it for the present.

DocRichard said...

Hi Doug

If you re-read what I wrote above, you will see that I am specifically trying to get away from absolute categories such as "human nature", to re-frame the discussion so that we are dealing instead with specific thought patterns and beliefs.

Your comparison with the fundamentalist beliefs in the pamphlet you picked up is just a Straw Man, and the comparison with those who wish to get rid of schizophrenia and autism is a red herring. To compare militarism, a socio-political phenomenon which causes untold suffering and waste, with individual conditions which cause a certain amount of individual and social stress, is a very big jump.

The view of emotions I put forward is the result of thirty years of study, and more importantly, practice, of psychiatry and medicine. I am happy to defend the construct put forward, based on 4 cardinal emotions related to cognitive perceptions of threat and satiety. They are indeed to be found in textbooks, but that is not necessarily a fault.

I am a bit puzzled that you have difficulty with the notion that aggression is the activity resulting from anger. This is pretty basic physiology, fight or flight is the response of an organism to threat.

Can we at least agree that we would both like to see less militarism in the world? For instance, the world is still spending every two weeks on arms the amount of money that could provide the basics of life (food, water shelter) to everyone in the world for one year. Surely you agree that it would be a good idea to re-balance this equation?

For humanity actually to abolish militarism as it abolished human sacrifice and overt slavery is obviously a long term project, but the journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step. That first step is happening here and now, in this debate.

Doug said...

I do not accept your dismissive characterization of important issues that I have raised as either “straw men” or “red herrings”. I also cannot agree that society can somehow be separated from the individuals who comprise it.

By talking in terms of issue framing you seem to be coming very much from a relativistic, social sciences perspective which unfortunately just doesn’t work when you are talking about biology. This reminds me of your discussion about physics, where anon pointed out that you seemed to be using thermodynamics as a metaphor. You appear to be having a similar problem here; living in an idealistic modern utopian world of human perfectibility, where human beings can simply remake our bodies and minds into whatever we imagine is preferable to us. Your exceptionally optimistic view of human nature is not surprising though, coming from the perspective of psychiatry and general practice. However, those such as biologists, ethologists and anthropologists who study the human animal and its social structures generally get a more realistic view. Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox’s concept of biogrammar (by analogy with our built-in language acquisition capacity) is particularly useful. The fact is that humans are animals. It has taken millions of years of evolution to make the human animal what it is today. Like every other species we are adapted to our historic environment and can only change very slowly. It is our misfortune that we have changed what surrounds us too rapidly, and our biological selves cannot keep up, causing a terrible swathe of problems (see “Mean Genes” by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan)

Another part of the problem may be that you are trying to artificially separate a problem that you are choosing to call “militarism” off from the rest of our humanity, as somehow a discrete phenomenon rather than an intrinsic part of ourselves and our environment. The sort of violence we see in Sri Lanka is a very complex phenomenon arising from a whole range of factors, including culture (much easier to invent suicide bombing if you firmly believe that you will be reincarnated - or go to paradise for example) historical events, economic and geographic patterns, and so on, as well as biological factors like competition for resources.

Furthermore, you seem to just glibly assume that individual people are all more or less the same. My experience tells me that this is fundamentally untrue. People are hugely diverse; some people are very altruistic, kind, loving and so on, some are particularly selfish, greedy and power-seeking control freaks. Most of us are somewhere in between, in terms of these characteristics. To excuse the selfish, greedy and power-hungry minority who rapaciously exploit other people and our environment, because you are unable to face up to the fact of destructive human behaviour just smacks of unrealistic and cowardly irresponsibility. We need to face the unpleasant reality and deal with such individuals as they become apparent. Of course we must create better systems and structures to reduce the opportunities for such people to gain too much power and do too much harm, but they will still always keep cropping up, whether they are murderous control freaks on a purely individual level or on the wider social scale.

DocRichard said...

Doug said "By talking in terms of issue framing you seem to be coming very much from a relativistic, social sciences perspective which unfortunately just doesn’t work when you are talking about biology".

He originally said:
"Unfortunately it's the bad who so often climb into positions of power and then make the rest of us suffer in carrying out their warped ideas".

To which I replied:
I would re-frame this. The politicians are not Bad - they are ordinary people, who often start out with high ideals, but whose thinking is distorted in the long climb to the top.

So we were talking about politics, not biology.