Remarks at Michigan Pax Christi annual state conference, April 11, 2015.
Thank you for having me here. I know a lot of people have been involved in planning this event. Thank you!
I'm going to try this morning to address the question of how we can best talk our fellow human beings out of one of the primary myths that allows war to continue. And in a second speech later today I'm going to turn more to the question of activism and building a peaceful world.
I mailed a box of my books here, and I had to mail another one because the first box arrived undamaged except that all of the books were missing. Although I don't know who stole the books, Mary Hanna recommended I inform you that the message I bring you was so threatening that the books were taken, and the empty box delivered, by a bunch of -- and I quote -- Weannie-heads!
you see what I've done. I've called somebody a weannie head in a speech
about peace but arranged it so you'll blame Mary (and maybe the U.S.
Postal Service) instead of me. But of course when Michigan State's
basketball team beat Virginia's I said something worse than Mary has
probably said in her life, just as I'd done the year before, not that
I'm holding any grudges.
Now, we all know that resentment and blame are tools of war propaganda. So, in Mary's defense and mine: neither of us called anybody a name in the presence of that person or proposed to harm any person or armed ourselves with massive machinery of death in preparation for books going missing or a basketball team losing. I didn't put any Michigan State fans on a kill list and blow them and everyone near them to bits with hellfire missiles. Neither of us launched any invasions.
It's rather a key distinction, isn't it, getting angry with or without war weapons. But try to find a discussion of wars in the Middle East that even mentions that 80 to 90 percent of the weapons there are from the United States, with weapons sales and gifts up significantly under the Nobel Peace President.
So, when you come down to it, we would all probably be better people if we didn't get angry at any other people -- only at injustice. But since I didn't organize millions of people to plan and prepare for carefully executed crusades of mass murder, my anger did considerably less damage than, say, George W. Bush's feelings about Saddam Hussein having tried to kill his daddy.
I bring all of this up in order to comment on the idea of what's called "human nature." If "human nature" is something distinct from culture, then -- whatever it may be -- one might speculate (why you would I have no idea, but one could speculate if one wanted to) that my emotions watching basketball are "human nature." War, on the other hand, is a collective effort. It requires plans, preparations, manufacturing, training, conditioning. How can such a group effort be distinct from culture? War is absolutely central to our culture. One would have to speculate baselessly and pointlessly that parts of our culture are "human nature" while other parts are not. But then which would be which?
When you take war participation on the individual level, you find that most individuals want nothing to do with it, nobody gets post traumatic stress from war deprivation, and in fact intense conditioning developed over decades of cultural experience is required to get most individuals to participate, many of whom never recover from having done so.
And when you take war participation at the group level, you find that many groups of humans, large and small, rich and poor, now and in the past, have had nothing to do with war. For most of human existence there was nothing that could be called war. Since war's creation it has been sporadic. Societies have abandoned it for centuries and brought it back again. Most groups, most of the time, have left it well alone. And war today bears very little resemblance to war as it was 1,000 or even 100 years ago. In addition, the 95% of humanity that lives outside the United States mostly thinks about war very differently from how it is discussed in the United States. Discussion of "the next wars" as if war is inevitable is not normal. Debates over whether to bomb people in trouble or leave them alone are far less common than debates over how to help them. Concern over a nation resisting the presence of one's own nation's troops and missiles is unheard of outside of the imperial Homeland.
An American raised on Hollywood will tell you war is "natural," "human nature," inevitable, and genetic. But there are numerous well-documented accounts of human cultures not only free of war but unable to even understand what it is. An anthropologist asked a man why he didn't use a dart gun, meant for hunting animals, against slave raiders coming to enslave his family, and he replied "Because it would kill them." Probably I shouldn't think of that as ignorance of the possibility of killing. We always want to treat difference as ignorance. The fact is that killing is the worst thing possible. It's worse than enslaving. Logically a perfectly good case can be made for the man's action and justification. In the United States, however, the idea that you would hold a gun and not use it against someone enslaving your family is almost incomprehensible. Probably we should think of that as ignorance. In our culture we praise people by saying "You really killed!" Probably we should think of that as prejudice. What we shouldn't think of it as is "human nature."
No, I'm not advocating that you let someone enslave your family. I'm simply pointing out that cultures exist that view murder very differently from how ours does. So, if acceptance of killing and total avoidance of killing both exist, as they do, how do we choose which one is "human nature." Or if neither is "human nature," is there something else that is "human nature"?
Well, if you try to define "human nature" as what every single human does, its content is vanishingly small. If you try to define it as things that most humans that you know of at a particular time and place do, how do you pick which things to include? And why bother? What is the point? The fact is that "human nature" is a meaningless and, to state it another way, a purposeless concept.
So why does it exist as a concept? Because there are purposes it has tried to serve. I can think of two, which might be called the normative and the excusatory. By normative I mean the habit some people have had of declaring that anything most people do should be done by everyone. If it's normal for people to care for their children then everyone should care for their children. That sounds harmless enough. But what if it's normal in Indiana to be heterosexual? What if it's normal to hit kids or burn gasoline or eat dogs or sacrifice virgins? Why in the world should something's being common make it good? On the contrary, whatever is good we should work to make common.