The Root Cause of War and Violence

This is a brief tour of some of the most prominent theorists in the history of humanity who have tried tackling this immense problem.

Several well-respected thinkers, all with different perspective on the origin of violence, are summarized here: Alice Miller, Ervin Staub, Carl Jung, Ernest Becker, and Charles Bellinger.

(Note: These summaries do not even come close to doing justice in presenting the actual theories, as only the barest minimum of outlines are given here, for brevity's sake. So, if you're interested in a more fair and thorough description of the perspectives of these folks, we recommend going directly to the source.)

Once these perspectives are understood, the question then becomes . . . how well do these various theories hold up?

To answer this, the various shortcomings of each perspective are pointed out after each section, by clicking on the well-named "How well does this perspective hold up?" links.

And afterwards, an encompassing, integral, next-generation perspective - the best summation of humanity's understanding of the origin of war and violence that are currently aware of - is offered as well.

Off we go!

We'll begin with . . .

Alice Miller

In For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, German psychologist Alice Miller explains the roots of violence by focusing on childhood traumas.

She argues, in a nutshell, that people become violent in later life if they are beaten as children. In her words, "Every act of cruelty, no matter how brutal and shocking, has traceable antecedents in its perpetrator's past."

There is much evidence that Hitler, for example, was beaten by his father often and harshly. This is confirmed by Hitler's sister Paula: "It was my brother Adolf who especially provoked my father to extreme harshness and who got his due measure of beatings every day. He was rather a nasty little fellow, and all his father's attempts to beat the impudence out of him and make him choose the career of a civil servant were in vain." (For Your Own Good, 153)

Miller states that child abuse is a repeating cycle: when a powerless child is beaten by an adult, rage builds up that will be released at some point in the future when the grown-up child has power over someone else.

The answer to war and violence, Miller's theory implies, will come when parents stop being violent to their children.

How well does her perspective hold up?

Ervin Staub

Ervin Staub's The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence surveys social scientific efforts since World War II to understand the behavior of perpetrators of political violence. Staub, who has read Alice Miller and many other authors, attempts his own theoretical analysis of the roots of mass killing. He describes his overall project in these words:

Certain characteristics of a culture and the structure of a society, combined with great difficulties or hardships of life and social disorganization, are the starting point for genocide or mass killing. The resulting material and psychological needs lead the society to turn against a subgroup in it. Gradually increasing mistreatment of this subgroup ends in genocide or mass killing (The Roots of Evil, 4)

The concept of "difficult life conditions" is central to Staub's theory, that is, negative economic conditions, internal or external political instability, widespread criminal violence, and rapid social and technological change. Such difficulties can create mental instability, which in turn leads people to seek solutions to their problems. In some cases the solutions involve violent actions against a subgroup in order to satisfy the psychological needs created by the social disorganization.

How well does his theory hold up?

Carl Jung

According to Jung's perspective, the human psyche has two primary divisions: the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious mind consists of the ego and the persona. The unconscious mind consists of two parts, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious holds memories relating to the individual's life history and her personal dreams. The collective unconscious is the individual's point of connection with the human race as a whole and its history.

The "shadow" consists of the negative traits, inadequacies, guilt feelings, and so on, which the individual seeks to hide from himself.
In the works of Erich Neumann:

"The shadow is the other side. It is the expression of our own imperfection and earthliness, the negative which is incompatible with the absolute values; it is our inferior corporeality in contradistinction to the absoluteness and eternity of a soul which "does not belong to this world"...

If the shadow remains unacknowledged and unintegrated into the conscious personality, then it can become a very dangerous and destabilizing force, leading the individual into various kinds of distorted behavior that result from ego-inflation . . .

The shadow, which is in conflict with the acknowledge values, cannot be accepted as a negative part of one's own psyche and is therefore projected - that is, it is transferred to the outside world and experienced as an outside object. It is combated, punished, and exterminated as "the alien out there" instead of being dealt with as "one's own inner problem."

So in Jung's perspective, many cases of violence arise out of a condition of immaturity and a lack of psychological integration.

How well does his theory hold up?

Ernest Becker

Ernest Becker wrote an excellent, excellent, excellent, Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, which most of mainstream psychology apparently praised and praised for a few months, and shortly after, completely forgot about.

In subsequent years after Becker's outstanding contribution, "psychologists" (who, actually, were just biologists who called themselves psychologists) became more and more infatuated with finding the perfect happy pill, leaving the less profitable areas - such as talking about death - totally ignored.

(That, and they were most likely in denial of death, and so were probably uncomfortable talking about it. But we digress.)

Becker's theory centers on one key compelling idea:
that fear of death is the driving force behind the formation of human character and culture.

"The main thesis of this book is that . . . the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity - activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man . . ."

Becker believes that human beings desire above all else to perpetuate their physical existence. Their lives thus become continuous attempts to evade, or transcend, the ultimate evil from the perspective of self-conscious protoplasm: death.

Evil and violence, therefore, are manifestations of this fundamental drive: the dreaded sector of death is projected onto a scapegoat (most often a particular person or group of people) who becomes the embodiment and representative of death; in killing the scapegoat, one separates oneself from death and, in a way, successfully overcomes what is feared most.

How well does his perspective hold up?

These are brief summaries of four of the most prominent theorists of violence that we exist today. The crux of their theories, along with the shortcomings of those theories, has been presented.

And what, then, is the next step?


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