Friday, December 6, 2013

Violence, Injustice and the Brain

Yesterday, a great man of peace died. You have heard about that already by now.
Memorial to the 14 women
Today is the 24th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. On Dec. 6, 1989, 14 young women were shot to death by a young man in a Montreal university. (You probably have never heard of this tragic event unless you lived in Canada at the time.)
How can there be a connection between the life of Nelson Mandela and a senseless act of violence specifically directed against women (the shooter famously said he was targeting "feminists")? They are such different takes on anger. In fact, they lie at separate poles.
In one case, a man acted on his anger and hurt, ending the lives of 14 women in their prime of life, and ruining the lives of all who loved them. In the other case, a man who had suffered greatly answered back not with vengeful acts of violence but with love and guidance.
Even when facing the brutality of apartheid, Mandela would not resort to violence. Furthermore, even after 27 years in prison for his nonviolent protests in the 50s and 60s, he did not emerge a bitter man. In fact, when he became president of South Africa, he created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring former adversaries into harmony with each other. (At the same time, he certainly had no desire to sweep all the past wrongs under the rug. He wanted it all out in the open, to be resolved, where apologies and restitution could be made to the victims of apartheid.)
We marvel at this man and his legacy because it is so extreme. The "norm" seems to be revenge and settling scores. A whole film genre seems devoted to this idea, and we have become numbed or inured to such behavior because it seems ubiquitous.
It does not have to be this way.
Everywhere, we hear of nations getting back at each other for recent transgressions, or ones that are hundreds of years old. On a personal level, we hang onto slights and remember them even after many years have passed. We nourish our wounds, as if letting them heal will only hand further victory to the people who hurt us. The cycle of hurt and hatred never ends.
The human brain evolved emotions and the capacity for culture - which, together, gave us both the incentive to avenge wrongs done to us or our kin and the strength to forgive. Evolution can be cited in both cases, not only the one that sells the most movie tickets. When someone says we are warrior species and that nothing can be done about it, we have to think of Great Souls like Mandela, Gandhi before him (another South African, by the way), Olaf Palmer, Martin Luther King Jr., and other peacemakers. They resisted (or, more accurately, rechanneled)  the strong impulses born of anger. By doing so, they inspired millions: by showing love and guidance instead of hatred and retribution. They lived their values and truly believed in a universal brotherhood.
Human beings and human society are not simple - and neither are the strategies to deal with difficult situations like resource scarcity, natural disasters and interpersonal misunderstandings. We are doomed to repeat the mistakes of history if we cling to the idea that our violent heritage has no room for our equally strong capacity for love and cooperation.

1 comment:

  1. Astute points. Evolution is complex and drawing conclusions based on selective ideas about humans as an intrinsically violent species is itself a specious argument.