If we are naturally violent, why do armies spend so much on training to kill?

Everyone can do it.
Everyone can do it.
Image: AP Photo/Sanjeev Syal
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As Oct. 2 approaches, there will be no shortage of people who feel inundated by tributes to the “Father of the Nation.” The young, in particular, might ask why they should care about someone who has been dead for 71 years and who may have been a father figure for their grandparents but not for them.

One short answer is that if you have ever felt really angry, afraid, or if you bitterly hated someone—then Gandhi might be more important to your life than you realise. This is the Gandhi that still shapes and shakes up lives across the world and he is far removed from that smiling face you ignore every time you handle an Indian currency note.

This epochal persona was more adventurer and scientist than the rather unidimensional figure who beams down from the wall of every government office in India.

Gandhi the scientist spent a lifetime exploring a question that is at the core of human existence: Is violence more natural than nonviolence or ahimsa? Are we hard-wired to be angry and afraid?

Since Gandhi himself was shot dead at point blank range, you could easily claim this as proof that violence is dominant and triumphant. But are you sure?

Perhaps you are recalling the 108 million people killed in wars in the 20th century. Or more recent and frequent reports of individuals being lynched by mobs in different parts of India.

However, this belief that nonviolence, ahimsa, as an ideal and a method is impractical, unviable, and doomed, is not validated by data.

People across the world have repeatedly proved the viability of nonviolence over the past 70 odd years. Gandhi is a recurring mascot for such diverse strivings because he lived a powerful truth—that ahimsa is not merely absence of violence, either physical or verbal. Ahimsa is the positive energy released when we learn to overcome our own fears, anger and resulting hatred.

Michael Nagler, an American peace activist, has found that this struggle to master your own emotions creates what he calls “the nonviolent peak experience.” And Nagler claims this experience can be addictive!

If violence was the dominant trait of our species, armies would not find it so hard to train men to kill. As a lieutenant colonel in the US Army, Dave Grossman spent many years training soldiers and wrote a book titled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Like many others before him, Grossman found a definite resistance to killing which he concluded is a consequence of “instinctive, rational, environmental, hereditary, cultural, and social factors.”

A sense of impotence breeds violence

Multi-disciplinary research has shown that a sense of impotence breeds violence. It is when people feel powerless that they resort to violence.

Observe yourself closely the next time you are feeling enraged. More often than not it will be a moment in which a sense of frustration is exploding as anger—in the end making you feel unhappy with yourself.

Again, the sceptic might argue this anger and resulting violence has been essential to the survival of the human species. There was indeed a time when this belief was fashionable and known as the killer ape theory. This theory claimed that interpersonal aggression was the driving force behind human evolution—making our ancestors more capable than other primate species because they had a stronger violent instinct.

However, by the end of the 20th century, scientific research had established otherwise. Even war is an invention, not a biological necessity.

In 1986, Unesco convened an international meeting of scientists to consider the nature of violence in human society. In what came to be known as the Seville Statement, that gathering concluded that:

  • Humans do not have a “violent brain”
  • War or any other violent behaviour is not genetically programmed into human nature
  • In the course of human evolution, there’s not been a selection for aggressive behaviour more than for other kinds of behaviour

This is why you don’t have to be a saint to experiment with nonviolence. If you tread this path you will be following in the footsteps of millions of ordinary people in cultures across the world. Since both violence and ahimsa are learnt behaviours, it follows that either can be developed.

Ahimsa seems harder to learn because when we are angry or frightened, our forebrain, which is unique to human beings, becomes less powerful than the midbrain, which is indistinguishable from the mind of an animal. The good news is that even the midbrain can be trained and conditioned for constructive and creative, rather than destructive, responses.

It has been found that when people who have a history of violent behaviour are enabled or taught to channelise their energy towards social competence, they are able to reorient their urge for “power over” somebody to “power with” others.

But, if you wait until the time of crisis, it may be too late, says Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist: “Even if you know that nonviolence is better than violence, if your understanding is only intellectual and not in your whole being, you will not act non-violently. The fear and anger will prevent you.”

For instance, Gandhi was quite capable of feeling really angry but, he wrote: “I succeed on almost all occasions to keep my feelings under control. Whatever may be the result, there is always in me conscious struggle for following the law of non-violence deliberately and ceaselessly. Such a struggle leaves one stronger for it. The more I work at this law, the more I feel the delight in my life, the delight in the scheme of the universe. It gives me a peace and a meaning of the mysteries of nature that I have no power to describe.”

Ahimsa for restorative justice

This explains why ahimsa is the only approach that moves us away from retribution and towards restorative justice. Thus, political struggles based on ahimsa are not about destroying the old order but rather about transforming it so that there is a constructive and creative role for everyone, including those responsible earlier for structural violence, by giving them a chance to redeem themselves.

The 20th century may have been the most violent century in the history of human kind. But over the same hundred years, in nations across the world—from India to USA, South Africa to Argentina, Denmark to Poland— people struggled successfully for dignity and justice and overcame tyranny through some form of ahimsa. Those keen to know more can see a documentary film called A Force More Powerful, based on actual footage from these struggles, to show step-by-step how ahimsa has been interpreted and acted upon by people in diverse cultures and brought to life in many different ways.

For instance, Swarthmore College, in the US, has developed a Global Nonviolent Action Database that tracks struggles based on some form of ahimsa. The database, which went online in 2011, has so far recorded 1,000 such campaigns in 200 different countries.

Most of these struggles are locally anchored and only distantly inspired by what Gandhi did decades ago. Yet they validate a core insight refined by Gandhi and his fellow travellers: namely, that while militaries use physical weapons and advocates of ahimsa use moral power through tactics are sometimes amazingly similar.

In a war the aim is to demoralise the opponent, to break his will, destroying his confidence, enthusiasm and hope. Nonviolent resistance also aims to demoralise the opponent but in order to create a new morale. Ahimsa aims not to break the opponent’s will but alter it, not destroy his confidence, enthusiasm, and hope but transfer them to a finer purpose.

An academic study of both nonviolent and violent campaigns of protest against governments between 1900 and 2006 shows that nonviolent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent ones. According to this study, titled Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan, nonviolent movements attracted participation by a larger number of people, evoked international support, neutralised the opponent’s security forces, and compelled loyalty shifts among erstwhile opponents. By comparison, armed campaigns get active support from relatively smaller numbers of people, give the opponent a justification for violent counterattacks, and are less likely to prompt loyalty shifts and defections from those who are being opposed.

Above all, as Martin Luther King Jr repeatedly pointed out: “The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”

In case you are still feeling sceptical about being able to do any of this in your own daily life—it might help recall that as a species we have a long record of changing practices and adopting new inventions. So why not ahimsa?

In case Gandhi’s expression of ahimsa as love-in-action seems emotionally and psychologically too demanding, consider this observation by Frans de Waal, Dutch primatologist and author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society: “…We know a great deal about the causes of hostile behaviour in both animals and humans, ranging from hormones and brain activity to cultural influences. Yet we know little of the way conflicts are avoided—or how, when they do occur, relationships are afterward repaired and normalised. As a result, people tend to believe that violence is more integral to human nature than peace.”

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