Spiraling War Culture and Human Empathy

A people who plans, organizes, and executes the torture of human beings must consider whether they are properly called demonic or evil.  The word demonic implies agency from an autonomous power,  While modern science has thoroughly discredited the existence of mythical demons, recent and current self-destructive behavior of humans give the appearance of springing from some power whose interests are at direct odds with the crucial needs of the human race.  We will take a look at the parable of the tribes, an explanation of how ongoing war-culture pressures civilization to adopt increasingly self-destructive traditions, actions, beliefs, and symbols.  We will then look at the antidote, focusing on an idea reached separately by the wise men of widely varying cultures, all in the throes of war and instability:  the Golden Rule.  I will present the Golden Rule as neither a commandment from god nor as a merely moral imperative; rather, it can be seen as a technology of human psychology and spirituality.  Empathizing with others before acting may be the key to human behavior which can free us from our current accelerating death spiral.

In discussing demonic power in his book Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11, David Griffin says,

Can we look at the past century of our world without thinking the human race must be under the influence of such a power?  The twentieth century was by far the bloodiest century in history, with unprecedented slaughter and genocide, and yet we have taken no steps to overcome the war-system of settling disputes.  We created nuclear weapons and then, when we learned how deadly they were, built thousands more, until we had the world wired to be destroyed many times over.  After we learned that a relatively modest exchange of nuclear weapons could initiate a “nuclear winter,” leading to the death of human civilization and even most other forms of life, we still did not abolish them.  Furthermore, we learned over three decades ago that, even if nuclear war is avoided, the continuation of our present trajectory, with its increasing population and pollution, would soon lead to extinction, but we have made no real efforts to change this trajectory.  This has remained the case even after ozone depletion and climate change turned out to be occurring faster than predicted. Although the scientific consensus is that we must turn from a carbon-based to a solar-based energy system, with the rich countries reducing their emissions of carbon dioxide by 90 percent, and although the needed technologies are already available, the focus–especially in the United States, the global leader in pollution–is entirely on oil.  We are furthermore, a highly educated, smart people.  It does seem that we are possessed by some demonic power that is leading us, trancelike, into self-destruction.

David Griffin speaks in terms of divine will and demonic power, ideas likely to strike many as superstitious, but his vision of the problem and its sources couldn’t be more starkly real.  For a realistic explanation of what looks demonic, he turns to the basic idea of Andrew Bard Schmookler as expressed in his book The Parable of the Tribes:  once the war-system arises among various tribes, human competition will inevitably lead toward increasingly lethal technologies and to cultures which increasingly empower diversion of human energy into war.  A peace-loving tribe, unpracticed in the ways of war, will necessarily fall prey to a more bellicose tribe with greater fighting skills, better weapons, and perhaps most importantly, a culture which countenances wholesale slaughter of other humans.  A technology of war, once developed, will either spread to other tribes, creating a balance of power, or will lead to the annihilation of tribes which do not stay up to date with their killing skills.

Similarly, cultural developments which support more effective war-making will be selected for by the war system.  This does not mean that the entire culture be completely focused on war.  It means that once existent, cultural practices which support war-making will tend to spread and dominate, while cultural practices which weaken war-making will tend to recede.  We see then an upward spiral, independent of the thinking or implementation of any single individual or individuals.  This spiral is “pushed” by a force similar to Darwinian natural selection.  The result is that we can see individuals and cultures acting against the best interests of both their group and of all humankind.  It looks demonic, but it’s the inevitable result of the spiraling war culture.

A hierarchical societal structure renders a society more fit for war.  Belief systems which tend to hold hierarchical structures in place are then favored in the endless battles for dominion.  Thus, even among religious institutions whose forming principles involved resistance to war culture, those with belief systems and organizations which support war will thrive at the expense of those which weaken capacity for war.  And thus all human cultures will tend toward war-empowering structures, beliefs, symbols, and songs.  Societies which teach their young men to answer insult with insult will over time tend to out-number those which teach to turn the other cheek.  Societies which glorify giving one’s life and the lives of one’s young to engage war will tend to dominate over time.  These are just a couple of examples of the ways in which entire cultures tend to be selected over time based on their effectiveness in war making.  Given the beginning war culture in the mists of human history, the subsequent escalation is inevitable.

As an aside, this view of human history gives rise to an interesting take on original sin.  To most Christians, original sin concerns individual free will operating in opposition to the divine will.  When we begin to think of “evil” as incorporated into the fiber of our culture through the mediations of the above-described forces, we can consider original sin as tendencies instilled in children long before the age at which they possess the autonomy to be responsible for their beliefs and actions.

I hope you haven’t jumped off the ledge yet.  Yeah, this is highly depressing.  But I’m going to insist there is an antidote, and one developed over two thousand years ago in the face of these very problems.   During the Axial Age (900 – 200 BCE), several religions or quasi-religions arose during periods of rapid societal change and great suffering caused by ceaseless warring and raiding.  Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalization in Greece–all reached remarkably similar conclusions as to the best way for humans to free themselves from endless, self-induced suffering.  And their conclusions all involved the conscious, disciplined practice of empathy such as is invoked in the Golden Rule:  do to others the things one would want done to oneself, and refrain from doing to others that which one would not want done to oneself.

In Part II, I hope to free this ancient injunction from both discredited religious overtones and the doubts of a skeptical science.  In her book The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong calls the golden rule a spiritual technology, a recommended course of practical behavior which skillfully influences the trajectory of  history on the basis of profound understanding of the human psyche.  While many of us go along blithely believing we practice empathy, in fact we are all subject to the effects of the war culture, whether our enemies be neocons or Muslims.  I hope you will read the fuller explication of this notion, which I hope to publish within a day or two.


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    • geomoo on July 15, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    Although long, there really is just one basic idea here.  I’ve been trying to get this just right for over a year now, and finally I just decided to go for it in parts, leaving a lot of the explication out.  And hoping the good dharmites will provide useful feedback.  So, if this interests you, please stay tuned.

    My wish is to rescue the wisdom embodied in our religious traditions without alienating those who are disgusted by what religion has become.  I’m wanting to get this into a form which can make enough of a splash on the GOS to reach a lot of people.

    This idea feels to me like a tenuous lifeline to a future for the human race.

    Sadly, I’ll be away til this evening.

  1. we are babes in the woods… slaves to pleasure centers, territoriality, and bursting hormones…

    somehow, our intellect is in conflict with the chemical self, which worked fine thousands of years ago… but not so much with those damned nukes…

    we are doing what we are supposed to do… except the context has changed. the way we were made is now liable to destroy us… and our ability to assess our chemical, biological selves has grown. a new evolution.

    we are, imo, in direct conflict with our survival instincts, as they worked pre-industrial revolution

    and it’s a damned good thing.

    if i’m not making sense, i look at it like we are really Hal in 2001. the artificial intelligence all the sci fi writers write about… we have gone beyond our programming in our empathy, our quest for common good, our scaling out of tribal thinking into more global thinking. we are more than the sum of our parts.

    the only sketchy part is this: we just don’t know the outcome.

    • Alma on July 15, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    the first little bit now geomoo. Looks like it will be interesting.  I just got up and need more time and coffee to wake up for something this long.  😉

    I’ll be back later to read it thoroughly and try and give you some feedback.

    • Alma on July 15, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    You got me wondering what your antidote is for us.

  2. Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade.

    Most archaeological evidence suggests that, for the Middle East and Europe, there was a time prior to the advent of the “sky god” religions, that cultures were based on the “chalice” or more of a partnership model. She posits that for the last 2,000-3,000 years, we’ve moved to a “blade” or hierarchical/patriarchal culture.

    Eisler is now very involved with the development of The Partnership Way and her latest book is titled The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics.  

  3. But very bleak!

    Yes, the Golden Rule should make humans think before acting.

    Why was the atom bomb created?

    But it was and as we know, the nuclear energy can be used for much good in this world, such as the many medical machines used for testing for cancer, etc.  But it can also, as we know, be used for evil  — we were the first to use it by bombing Hiroshima — the effects of which linger to this day.

    Based on the thinking of Schmookler, only the strongest and wealthiest of tribes, along with

    Societies which glorify giving one’s life and the lives of one’s young to engage war will tend to dominate over time.

    And other tribes will simply succomb, it appears.

    But each human being has a choice:  to do evil or to do good and then, it becomes kind of a “birds of a feather flock together” — right now, there is most definitely more evil than good.  So, now to reverse it?  


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