Driving to work a couple days ago, listening to the Democracy Now! headlines and barking out echoes and ripostes, as I tend to do, early in my morning, to get my voice in shape, to stay alert to Amy Goodman’s hectic delivery of information, and to vent my attitudes, I found myself verbalizing something about how our innate human interdependency and sociality and attachment needs not only orient us toward mutual care, group mind, loyalty and love in connection with our collective body (whether as clan, nuclear family, profession, workplace, ethnic fellows, sexual orientation, or nation) but also can fuel our hostile, war-mongering, aggressive, hateful and militaristic attitudes and behaviors.
By us, I mean “people,” of course. And of course this was spelled out in some rude short-hand, there in the car, where I was tooling along alone without a recording device turned on.
My concept, though, came back to me this morning washing breakfast dishes. If there’s an us that we value as native, vital, meaningful, safe, mutually supportive and helpful, there may be, whenever the sympathetic nervous system [SNS] kicks in, a them — whether it’s a sabre-tooth tiger, a plague, a boogeyman, an economic threat, a looming impression of enigmatic difference that feeds a potential paranoia, or an enemy that’s been identified in our cultural milieu (I notice we Americans still are as a culture seeing Russia in a very presumptive, negative, demonic light, and we are still regarding most Americans as un-Americans, whether because they don’t live in the USA but in some other part of the Americas or aren’t yet citizens here or have values or practices that appear to question or threaten those we have accepted as definitive of America — even when these values are as peculiarly selective as being-employed, or skin color, or going to a Christian church).
The impulse to create an other, as alien and as threat requiring control or annihilation (which is to say, an absolute and final control — such as our government hopes to impose on terrorists through drone strikes), may be an inherent capacity of humans, most likely to be exercised when a culture confronts or engages some kind of mix with what hasn’t yet been well assimilated. Bali or Tahiti before the onslaught of tourism and westernization come to mind, perhaps stupidly in me, as examples of peaceful (partly because isolated on an island) cultures — there must be more and better examples I am not scholarly enough to remark here. Our age of globalization and information explosion puts virtually every cultural difference into our implicit data bank, for Fox News or Democracy Now to remark on selectively, for better or for worse, so there is always fodder ready to this purpose, and information overload itself can add to the escalation of the SNS.
This is how, at the moment, I think that militarism and domestic terrorism and school massacres are expressions of the same thing: human goodness, in its affiliative and cooperative nature, under threat from apparent danger — often misguidedly advertised, for one reason or another. (Greed is another control demand, which I see as based in insecurity — which itself is culturally sanctioned and encouraged in our American-Dream consumerist and individualist culture.) I feel interested in and good about thinking this way, partly because it matches my seemingly unshakable sense that people are good, that love and connections are fundamental to us, and that psychopathology is a problem in the adaptive or organizational activation of these fundamental traits and needs (e.g., trauma screws it up big-time and results in adjustments that often don’t fit so well in a peaceful couple or community). I also am encouraged by hearing that people under 30 these days are much more likely to have overcome or not to have been primed by racist and sexual prejudices — though I wonder whether the same might have been said of my own Boomer generation by those older than us . . . and here we are again still.