Cycles of Victims and Violence

This is a reworked post from many years ago that I had a recent discussion about:

Where does violence come from?
A surprising answer is that much of the violence in the world comes from feelings of victimization. Violence creates victims, and those victims can create more violence in a vicious feedback loop. And once the feedback loop gets started, it's hard to get off the carousal.

This is the argument made by social psychologist Ray Baumeister in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. In this book Baumeister takes on what he calls "the myth of pure evil." According to Baumeister, we tend to think that evil is produced by sociopathic sadists. But if you really look at the violence in the world you quickly realize that very little of it is caused by purely evil people. The vast majority of violence comes from normal people like you and I. Consequently, if we stay fascinated by the myth of pure evil, and Hollywood helps greatly with this, we'll never come to grips with where violence comes from.

Take, as the paradigmatic case, Nazi Germany. No doubt Hitler was a sadist. But Hitler couldn't kill six million people all by himself. Hitler needed the cooperation of his Christian nation. How'd he get that cooperation? Well, he got it because Germany felt victimized in the aftermath of World War I. A narrative of injury allowed for the rise of the National Socialist Party.

Take, as a second example, the Rwandan genocide. The majority Hutu had a longstanding grievance of injury toward the Tusi who had ruled Rwanda for many centuries (backed, in the modern era, by Germany and Belgium). That narrative of injury drove many to the Hutu Power ideology that fueled the genocide.

And the examples can get more local and personal.

Take, as a third example, the research Baumeister cites in regard to domestic abusers. Why do these men beat their wives or girlfriends? Shockingly, these men tell narratives of injury. They believe they are the real victim. Think about that: abusers think they are the real victims. How so? The stories vary. Maybe she was flirting with a guy. Maybe she disrespected or demeaned him. The point is, even if we see all this as self-serving and ridiculous, the guy sees himself as having a reason, a reason that comes from a sense of perceived injury.

Finally, one more everyday example is the increasingly hostile and hateful tone of our political discourse. As James Hunter has pointed out, narratives of injury have come to dominate American political discourse. Everyone claims the position of victim in order to use moral leverage against opponents. This shifts politics away from a pragmatic, problem-solving posture into a moralized Good vs. Evil battle that quickly spirals into dehumanization and hate.

In sum, a great deal of violence in the world comes from feeling victimized. And these narratives of injury allow us to aggress against others in a way that feels right, moral and justified.

True, we spend a lot of time calling out the narratives of injury we find ridiculous or implausible. Is there really a war on Christmas? That sort of thing. But psychologically speaking, it is difficult to reason with a person who is, rightly or wrongly, clinging onto a narrative of injury. I think that's one of the main reasons our political discourse has become so ineffective, that we are trying to use rational arguments to challenge or change feelings of victimization. That's just not going to work. When people feel hurt telling them they are not hurt isn't very effective. 

Is there any way to stop this cycle of violence?

One way would be to recognize and confess my own violence. This is the moral genius of the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." The first thing I confess in the Lord's Prayer is my own sin. And in making this confession, in facing my own violence before anything else, I step away from narratives of injury and the cycles of violence they perpetuate.

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