Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sacred Violence

Anthropologist Scott Atran reflects on war, finding it unavoidably a product of man's irrational nature, no matter how rational its justification may seem.  He doesn't appear to be making a case for absolute pacifism, but rather reminding us that rational thought will always be colored by what he calls "sacred truths" we have accepted - for good or ill.  Further, as a violent project, war inspires in us certain tendencies.

In one study, we asked 656 Israeli settlers in the West Bank about the dismantlement of their settlement as part of a peace agreement with Palestinians. Some subjects were asked about their willingness to engage in nonviolent protests, whereas others were asked about violence. Besides their willingness to violently resist eviction, the subjects rated how effective they thought the action would be and how morally right the decision was. If the settlers are making the decision rationally, in line with mainstream models, their willingness to engage in a particular form of protest should depend mostly on their estimation of its effectiveness. But if sacred values come into play, that calculus should be clouded.

When it came to nonviolent options such as picketing and blocking streets, the rational behavior model predicted settlers' decisions. But in deciding whether to engage in violence, the settlers defied the rational behavior models. Rather than how effective they thought violence would be in saving their homes, the settlers' willingness to engage in violent protest depended only on how morally correct they considered that option to be. We found similar patterns of "principled" resistance to peace settlements and support for violence, including suicide bombings, among Palestinian refugees who felt "sacred values" were at stake, such as the recognizing their moral right of return to homes in Israel even if they expressed no material or practical interest in actually resettling.
A twist on "might makes right", the act of violence seems to inspire a passion that clouds out reason, focusing narrowly on violent response. 

Thinking of capital punishment, that the law is on the books, as a violent option, would by itself inspire violence. We've seen many studies in which the suggestion of an option or concept, changes decisions that would seem to be rational, and not directly connected to the suggestion.

I wonder if this dynamic in justice doesn't have to with a basic human fear impulse. The suggestion of violence triggers something deep in us, a sort of fear response, which is built to respond with violence. Something like a fear:attack mechanism.


A larger question is what we mean by sacred ?  Surely, its basis is something quite ineffable, and changes over time. Today, not being racist is a sacred truth. But it surely wasn't a few decades ago. Other, almost invisible things have slipped away. Why were we ever racist? I'm not sure we even knew at the time - it was sacred truth. (I'm actually convinced that this lack of knowing is what allows many today to believe themselves above racism - accepting that sacred truth - while still falling subject to the many prejudices and cognitive failings that afflicted previous, consciously racist generations)

And each of us has our own sacred values, defined by various allegiances and assumptions. I think the oddest thing is the circular way in which we hold sacred truths to be self evident, yet which are based on values and principles derived from thousands of years of cultural evolution. And yet that evolution of values and principles was surely informed in no small part by "sacred" considerations. Our sacred is informed by a reason, which itself is informed by a sacred.

OK, this is kind of terrible, but I just finished Robopocalypse, by Daniel Wilson, and there's a horrendous scene near the end where the robot mind has created these little robot parasites that attach themselves to a dead body, and by squeezing the diaphragm, vibrating the voice box, manipulating the lips and tongue, are able to make the body speak. As you know, I'm a determinist, and this might be the most disturbing, misanthropic analogy for what I generally claim to be occurring in human thought! But, it is vivid.

So, seeing this kind of abyssal relationship between the sacred and the rational, and the frighteningly unconscious way in which we think - even indeed, as we think - make me all the more skeptical of the notion that we are much in control at all.

Mind you, I actually find this insight liberating, in that in a seemingly paradoxical way I feel empowered by it. In religious terms, as best I can relate to and understand them, I see this determinist operational dynamic, this causal force of the natural world, as the closest thing I can imagine to a God. And in the manner I imagine people have always taken solace from religion, as a part of something larger than themselves, something that reminds them that their personal struggles are petty in the grander scheme of things - God's plan, I too feel a sense of belonging, forgiveness and purpose in this great natural unfolding of biological and cultural evolutionary history.

Especially, when reminded of the silly ways in which I as a human am bound to think.

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