How Well Does Ernest Becker's Perspective On Violence Hold Up?
Charles Bellinger on Ernest Becker
The following is from The Genealogy of Violence by Charles K. Bellinger
Becker's theory of violence appears to improve on the theories of Miller, Staub, and Jung in two important aspects.
First, it grows out of a deeper reflection on the existential core of the human condition. Becker's interpretation paints a penetrating picture of the human condition in general...
Second, Becker does not relieve human beings of moral responsibility for their actions...He is calling people to abandon idolatry and delusionary thinking.
His theory regarding the denial of death as the mainspring of human behavior clearly has a lot of merit. Yet...in spring of 1999, two boys walked into their high school in Colorado, shot dead thirteen people, and then killed themselves. If the fear of death is truly the mainspring of human behavior, then how is this explained?
Becker does not seriously address suicide in The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil, which points to a major flaw in his theory. The teenage boys in Colorado were obviously psychologically disturbed. Does Becker's theory actually help us to understand the nature of this disturbance?
I submit that it does not do that very effectively - it simply makes no sense to say that persons who commit suicide are motivated by a fear of death. Here the theory breaks down, and a breakdown at this point is too crucial to be ignored.
On a larger scale, we can ask about the mass suicide at Jonestown. And we can ask why soldiers throughout history have been so willing to turn themselves into cannon fodder.
Becker's explanation is that dying in the service of a state (or a religion) is a form of self-sacrifice that leads to a kind of immortality. But is this is explanation really convincing? If "fear of death" is the answer to the question of why people are giving up their lives, then the problem has been transposed onto a level of paradoxically that short-circuits the theory.
I suggest that the key concept Becker is missing is the possibility of psychological growth into greater human maturity.
Human beings do not exist in a static moment in time: human beings exist diachronically. We are moving through time and we have the potential to develop psychologically as we are drawn toward a greater fullness of life and understanding. Time is not simply an external environment in which we live; time is a reality within us as we develop spiritually.
The roots of violence, then, can be sought in the dynamics of personal growth, rather than in a static aspect of the finitude of the human condition. This is the key insight that Becker lacks.
For Becker the mainspring of human behavior is the denial of death: for Kierkegaard it is the denial of the fullness of life to which God is calling each person. Becker's ideal of mental health is to become oneself before Death; Kierkegaard's message is a call to become oneself before God. Everything that the two authors say about the human condition grows out of these starting points.
from The Genealogy of Violence by Charles K. Bellinger
* As we also state later, it is well worth noting here that, according to many sources, more individuals have been slaughtered in the name of "God" - or more specifically, deluded morons who think they understand something about God - than any other single cause.
This is a fact that Bellinger is well aware of, and devotes an entire chapter to. The question, of course, becomes a matter of figuring out who, or what, is "God"?