So much of what we hear going on in the world is bad news. Wars, terrorism, random shootings, organised crime, ubiquitous violence… We tend to try and understand these happenings in different ways, depending on the type of crime or violence involved. Wars are caused by ideological or territorial disputes between nations or within nations. Shootings are caused by deranged people with psychological issues. Terrorism is caused by political or religious idealism that ignores the rights of innocent people. Crime is caused by greed and lawlessness. Rape is caused by people who like mixing violence with sex. The list goes on and it is depressingly long.
In order to deal with the dizzying array of circumstances and explanations as to why these things happen, it is sometimes useful to focus on the common element that runs through them all. Let’s for a moment consider a person who shoots dead two former colleagues because he was angry at them and at the company they still worked for. This was a former TV reporter in the US. He imagined they had disrespected him in some way. He killed them, captured it on camera and uploaded it for all to see. Then he killed himself.
What about the person who assaults another person because they pulled their car out in front of them, crashing into them by accident? There are compilations of these incidents from around the world on You Tube. They are, for the most part, aggressive, ugly and hard to watch yet the road rage on display obviously counts as entertainment for a particular audience.
Or how about a man who enjoys stabbing women during sex? We had a case of this recently in Ireland. Until he takes it too far and actually kills someone – which was, as the courts decided, his intention in the first place. Is that a purely sexual crime? If there was more to it, what part did an inherent anger and aggression play? It’s hard to imagine carrying out such an act without a large degree of aggression.
We could imagine, equally, a man dressed as a sad movie character firing an automatic weapon at a cinema full of people. This also happened in the US. Yes he may have been unhinged, as they say, but his madness didn’t take the form of sitting in a corner, babbling incoherently. It was madness that allowed him buy weapons, plan his attack and nurture, indeed even piggy-back on, an extreme anger that we assume was present. How else can you motivate yourself to calmly kill innocent people who are out for a night at the movies? In fact, it might even be more useful to change the word anger for the word ‘rage’ because it better captures the sense of uncontainable ferocity in his actions. A great many of the crimes we get to hear about on an almost daily basis are committed in either a controlled or uncontrolled rage. From religiously fuelled zealots who carry out acts of extreme barbarity to the interpersonal version of it that we see in domestic abuse, or coercive control as it is known.
We could blame it on a host of factors ranging from deprivation due to the inequities in modern society, or injustices in the allocation of the world’s resources, to the increased alienation and fragmentation of internet-fuelled social groups and the push back against a commercially exploitative Western society. But that would be to forget that aggression is a part of human nature that has always been there. There is something within the human spirit that is capable of choosing an aggressive and destructive path. Does this mean that human beings are inherently bad? No, but it means that the capacity for aggression and destruction towards our fellow-man is and always has been there.
It is interesting in this context to read Sigmund Freud’s paper ‘Why War?’ which was written in 1932 after World War 1 had ended and before the Second World War would begin in 1939. This was essentially an exchange of letters between Albert Einstein and Freud on the subject of war. Einstein wrote to Freud on behalf of the League of Nations and its International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation to ask his opinion on the following question: ‘Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?’ The Nazi Party under Hitler was on the rise and had just won 37% of the vote in a General Election in March 1932. Einstein was writing to Freud in September of that year. In his letter, Einstein gave his own view as to why there is such a tendency in mankind. “Only one answer is possible. Because man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction.” He asked Freud if it was possible to ‘control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychoses of hate and destructiveness?’ He concluded his letter with: “I know that in your writings we may find answers, explicit or implied, to all the issues of this urgent and absorbing problem. But it would be of the greatest service to us all were you to present the problem of world peace in the light of your most recent discoveries, for such a presentation well might blaze the trail for new and fruitful modes of action. Yours very sincerely, A. Einstein. Vienna, September, 1932.”
Freud didn’t have the magic answer to this and said as much. But he made a good attempt at it. He said that when a nation is summoned to engage in war, a whole range of human motives respond to the appeal; some high and some low. “The lust for aggression and destruction is certainly included,” he said, adding; “the innumerable cruelties of history and man’s daily life confirm its prevalence and strength. The stimulation of these destructive impulses by appeals to idealism and the erotic instinct naturally facilitates their release. Musing on the atrocities recorded on history’s page, we feel that the ideal motive has often served as a camouflage for the lust of destruction; sometimes, as with the cruelties of the Inquisition, it seems that, while the ideal motives occupied the foreground of consciousness, they drew their strength from the destructive instincts submerged in the unconscious.”
It’s an interesting idea when we consider it in the context of our world today: that the ideals which are pronounced as informing the motives of violent groups and violent acts – it is in the name of God, it is in the name of nationhood, it is in the name of democracy – are only an excuse to allow out more primitive aggressive instincts. It offers a very different view of aggression by nations, terrorist groups, individual criminals and even people who inflict aggression (verbal, emotional or physical) on their loved ones. It is also worth remembering that two of the most influential men in history, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, brought about real change without recourse to violence. The path of violence is a choice – wherever it takes place – that allows us access our more primitive destructive instincts.
Freud in his letter to Einstein recommended that anything that promotes a civilizing effect and sharing between nations reduces the likelihood of war breaking out. The same applies to individuals. The most serious criminals in history have one thing in common – they have difficulty connecting in any meaningful sense to other human beings. They are outside the fold, outside the human bond, and have few, if any, positive identifications with those around them. You will find the same characteristics in despotic leaders. Freud famously said criminals become criminal out of a sense of guilt – they are guilty so they commit crime to justify their guilt. We could equally add that one of the first things they are guilty of is the ‘crime’ of shutting off, psychologically, from their fellow human beings, even if they have done it without knowing it, i.e. unconsciously. When there is no feeling of human concern (we can call it love) to counteract it, the destructive instinct is given free rein.
On the human instinct for destruction, Freud says: “… we are led to conclude that this instinct functions in every living being, striving to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter. Indeed, it might well be called the ‘death-instinct’; whereas the erotic instincts vouch for the struggle to live on.” The death instinct becomes destructive when it directs outwardly against external objects. If it is directed inwardly then a persecution complex develops for the individual which has equally serious consequences. Either way, Freud considered this the biological justification for all the aggressive and destructive impulses of humanity. He concluded by agreeing with Einstein’s observation that, “… there is no question of getting rid entirely of human aggressive impulses; it is enough to try to divert them to such an extent that they need not find expression in war.”
Rage is not the exclusive property of the stereotypical ‘angry man’. It is just as much a part of female experience, and neither does it matter what age you are. For people of violence, there will always be ideologies or life choices that allow them channel their rage down negative paths. The task is to ensure we are not distracted by political, religious or socio-economic rhetoric that seeks to justify the unleashing of this ever-present tendency towards aggression and violence. For ordinary law-abiding folk the risk is in being unaware of its lurking presence. Telling ourselves that there is no aggression or subliminal rage inherent in the human condition leaves us unprepared to recognise its emergence. It also leaves us unprepared to find pre-emptive ways of channelling it into more peaceful pursuits.