The Monsters We Create: The Biology Of Violence

Those gathered that day in Berlin were neither good nor bad. They were human, insecure, and susceptible to the propaganda that gave them an identity to believe in, to feel chosen and important.

– Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste (on Hilter’s celebrated return after the seizure of Paris).

Wednesday, January 6th, 2021 was the day that humanity looked at itself in the mirror—not for the first time, mind you, and sadly not for the last. Many of us watching in horror as gun-toting citizens donned helmets and goggles and assaulted the Capitol, as they threatened the lives of members of Congress and the press, as they raised literal gallows, imagined we would never be those people. We could never follow someone as ignorant, violent, and overtly obtuse as Trump. We are above that kind of mental disorder, that crazed dementia of heart and soul.

Exactly eighty years and six months prior, on Saturday, July 6th, 1940 a seething mass of emotionally exhilarated Germans celebrated Hitler’s return to Berlin after he conquered France. Flowers were strewn, flags waved, women cried in gleeful hysteria, the soldiers could barely keep the throngs of people back from spewing forth into the motorcade and consuming the Führer with their unbridled adoration.

When I’ve watched such scenes in history films, I always assumed that these millions of people had no idea what Hitler was up to. Surely, I thought, they’ve been insulated against the truth of the Third Reich and its butchery. But this is not true. They witnessed their Jewish friends and neighbors being rounded up never to return. They watched newsreels at the movies featuring bomb raids and carnage. These were not stupid and ignorant people and to write them off as such is dangerous because it leaves us ignorant of how such mass indoctrination happens.

It is tempting to see the evil ‘out there’, and imagine that these despots and the frenzy around them emerge as isolated incidents––in Hitler’s Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Castro’s Cuba, Trump’s America––that can and must be rooted out. I am personally susceptible to such thinking (and I confess, colorful revengeful imaginings). It’s comforting somehow to see the tumor as something external to us that is easily remedied by simple removal. “It is harder to focus on the danger of common will, the weaknesses of the human immune system, the ease with which the toxins can infect succeeding generations,” writes Isabel Wilkerson. “Because it means the enemy, the threat, is not one man, it is us, all of us, lurking in humanity itself.” We separate from these people and these situations at our peril. We are missing the real culprit and in so doing undermine our collective healing.

At this time in history, pointing fingers at ‘the other’, at Trump, at political parties, or finding some explanation in conspiracies, does little to achieve what we as humans have been placed here on earth to do. Such finger-pointing is as ancient as Adam and Eve and has gotten us nowhere. What is called for is a solution entirely more enlightened.

From the age of about nine or ten, German children are spared not a single graphic detail about their Nazi history. From songs to comic books to death camp tours in the wet freezing cold, schools work hard to teach not only an accurate account of history, but propaganda literacy. The children are taught discernment, how to become critical thinkers, and how to engage with family members who have differing political opinions. Like America 2021, Germany 1940 was a result of stolen elections, corruption, economic collapse, and propaganda. Unlike Germany, America suffered at the hands of propaganda served on a dangerous brain-shaping silver tray of social media (if you have not yet watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix, it’s time to do so).

The non-profit organization Facing History and Ourselves believes the bigotry and hate that we witness today are the legacy of brutal injustices of the past. “Facing our collective history and how it informs our attitudes and behaviors allows us to choose a world of equity and justice,” cites their website. Facing History helps students connect choices made in the past to those they will confront in their own lives. Their curriculum motivates students to become upstanders in their communities, whether by challenging negative stereotypes at the dinner table, standing up to a bully in their neighborhood, or registering to vote when they are eligible. They currently provide resources to help students process the insurrection of Washington, DC.

And while efforts like that of Facing History are essential and courageous, it works downstream of the real issue at play. The real issue is much deeper, systemic, and pervasive than anything we’ve wanted to face before: our failure as a society to create conditions for all humans to thrive. For over thirty years I have avidly researched the conditions required to create a thriving, just, and sustainable society. What does each human being need to thrive? From birth to adulthood, humans require a short but uncompromising list: to feel loved, to belong, to know irrevocably one’s connection to the universe, to feel and be safe, to feel heard and understood, to feel a sense of purpose, to feel pleasure and joy.

When you look at the insurgents of Washington, DC, please imagine their childhoods––did they feel loved, connected, safe, and joyful?

In America, we have the opposite conditions to create thriving. We have conditions to create violence: an entrenched caste system, no free universal healthcare, no free universal public college education, mushrooming poverty, explosive debt (much of it due to education or healthcare bills), domestic violence, untreated mental illness, and a disappearing middle class…most all of whom end up on the losing side. We have conditions that create exactly what we witnessed on Capitol Hill.

When you look at the insurgents of Washington, DC, please imagine the conditions surrounding the parents of those people––could they parent with love, connection, safety, and joy?

Decades ago several scientists undertook studies to discover the roots of violence. Amidst the research was a famous and disturbing study involving rhesus monkeys which would shape the narrative on our sense of connection, safety, love, and belonging. An American psychologist named Harry Harlow sought to discover the biological underpinnings of love, and it’s opposite––violence. Dr. Harlow separated several infant rhesus monkeys away from their mothers and raised them in a laboratory setting. Without their mothers, the monkeys showed disturbing behavior, staring blankly, circling their cages, and engaging in self-mutilation and violence.

Harlow then designed his famous wire-mother experiment. The motherless baby monkeys were given two ‘surrogate’ mothers made out of a wood frame and wire. One wire mother was covered in soft terry cloth, mimicking a mother monkey’s soft fur (thus comforting the babies with a sense of touch, i.e. love), but had no milk attached to it. The other wire mother was simply a wire, no cloth, but had a bottle of milk. The infant monkeys spent significantly more time with the soft, milk-less mother than they did with the wiry, milk-providing mother. The babies came to the wire mother to only to feed and immediately returned to cling to and be soothed by the cloth surrogate. They needed love over survival.

Absent genuine love, belonging, purpose, and safety, we humans engage with dangerous synthetic wire surrogates––Trump, Hitler, Pol Pot. In his speech to the rioters, Trump spoke deliberately powerful words to a psyche thirsty for love, belonging and being seen, “I know your pain, I know you’re hurt. We love you, you’re very special.” He said these words to them very deliberately, and for tragic reasons––to embed himself further in the broken psyche of unloved humans. Take this heartbreaking reality in for a moment. So love-, connection-, and belonging-starved are those taking arms against human decency, that they will risk their lives (and other’s) for the terry cloth-covered Trump.

I am not justifying such terrible acts. I’m not asking you to feel pity for anyone. I am pointing us towards understanding the biological mechanics behind being susceptible to propaganda, hatred, and brutality. I am exposing our fragility. Can you honestly say that if you had different parents than your own, if you had different economic circumstances, if you had lived in a different neighborhood, went to a different school, that you would not be one of those people storming Congress?

You might say, well, I would never do that. I would find another way to find belonging and love. But these are words spoken from a privilege that you in effect did have a basically secure foundation in childhood, and do not find yourself in utterly desperate circumstances. Your brain is wired differently because of that privilege. Your brain makes different choices. Your brain is more immune to manipulation. Do not underestimate the biology of violence, nor ignore the intense vulnerability of a human brain and heart when a certain tipping point of negative confluences take hold. Every human deserves to be inoculated against such fragility. We need a core systemic overhaul.

This cold-hearted savagery did not happen overnight. It did not emerge over one presidential term. It did not implant itself inside the hearts of ‘stupid people’. The monster was conceived and developed generation over generation inside an incubator of disconnection, racism, sexism, elitism, oligarchic capitalism, and fear. We made him. And now he’s been unleashed. And it will not go away or disperse with a new administration. You cannot overcome in four years what took many millennia to create.

Where do we start as an aspiring enlightened society to deal with the monster we created? I think the first step is to become educated about the real cause of human viciousness. Then we must turn our attention towards creating conditions for everyone to thrive. We must set up policies, structures, and institutions that ensure the love, safety, and belonging of all humans. Because those conditions create compassionate humans. We must understand that a war is being waged against our brains and hearts––everyone’s––through very sophisticated propaganda being levied at the Right and the Left and everywhere in between. Some of it is deliberate, some is a consequence of algorithmic targeting that is just the physics of social media. Know that dividing us just perpetuates the violence, so do your best not to buy into the polarization.

So yes, it comes down to love. Not the feel-good, sentimental Pollyanna kind of love. It would seem we are being called forth towards a fierce, physics-defying love. That mama bear kind of love with fangs and claws that would protect her children, all children against isolation, manipulation, harm, and fear. How would our society look governed by that kind of power?

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