OK, everyone, here's a long post. I wanted to just include a link you could click if you wanted to download it, but I can't figure out how to do that on this thing. If you know, please let me know and I'll post it that way. This is the paper I gave at the SLU Graduate Research Symposium and the Notre Dame Peace Studies Conference. It needs more work, particularly dealing with how Richard Horsley modifies Camara's framework of the spiral of violence.
“Psychic numbing, dehumanization and the spiral of violence”
Br. Patrick Cousins, SC
St. Louis University
In this paper I intend to explore dehumanization of the Other, primarily through linguistic means, and what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls “psychic numbing” as a primary means of alleviating the guilt of violent action. In particular, I will examine Dom Helder Camara’s notion of the “spiral of violence” and how it plays out at a psychological level as a series of movements of dehumanizations and victimizations. I will examine briefly the notion of the Other as monster or subhuman, concluding with a reassessment of the theological virtue of hope as a primary means of rehumanizing the Other and enabling the cessation of the cycle of violence.
Dom Helder Camara, the late Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, used the term “spiral of violence” to name the following pattern: violence in the form of oppression or injustice tends to prompt a violent response from those who are oppressed, which leads the initiating party to respond with greater force, creating a self-sustaining, escalating progression of violence and counterviolence. Even when one side wins and the conflict appears to have been resolved, typically the winning party is free to impose its will upon the loser, initiating the spiral anew. (Windley-Daoust 290) While upholding the correctness of this image, I would argue that what is happening can be understood as the logical result of a spiral of victimization and dehumanization, which goes on at the individual and communal levels.
In the model of the spiral of violence, the group suffering the latest injustice, seeing themselves as human beings with rights and dignity, feels victimized because the opposing side has brutishly attacked them. Since the victims presumably see themselves as “peace-loving” people who are only doing what they must to defend themselves, the Other must be a true monster, in which case the only appropriate response is absolute destruction. In fact, NOT to destroy the Other is not only cowardly but dangerous, since it places the innocent at risk. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton puts it this way: “Where the threat is so absolute and so ultimate – where the struggle becomes ‘fighting between humans and subhumans,’ in Himmler’s phrase – genocide becomes not only appropriate but an urgent necessity.” (Doctors 477)
Convinced that violence is the only way to respond to the seemingly conscienceless foe, the victim, or rather the side which feels victimized by the latest attack, now strikes back, not out of vengeance, they say, but out of obligation to the innocent of the world to stop this subhuman foe. Thomas Merton uses the Vietnam War as an example of this phenomenon: “The jungles are thought to be ‘infested’ with Communists, and hence one goes after them as one would go after ants in the kitchen back home. And in this process of ‘cleaning up’ (the language of ‘cleansing’ appeases and pacifies the conscience) one becomes without realizing it a murderer of women and children.” (Merton 253) The Other, who has now become the recipient of the aforementioned counterattack, easily realizes that the enemy has become a murderer of women and children and feels victimized by the savage attack of the enemy, who must be without conscience, hence a monster, and the cycle continues. Each side’s latest act of what they would see as self-defense looks like inhumanity to the Other, convincing the Other even more of the monstrosity of their enemy and lengthening the laundry list of reasons why they are justified in using torture, mass killings, and terrorism to destroy the enemy.
It seems obvious that the death of even legitimate combatants in war, whether soldiers or insurgents, provokes renewed hostility and demands for vengeance by their communities, since they almost universally see their fallen loved ones as heroes and martyrs who have fallen for a noble cause. If this is in fact the case, even so-called “legitimate” deaths will continue the spiral of violence as newer recruits are motivated by the memory of their fallen allies not to allow the enemy to continue their evil ways. Each side believes that sufficient force will break the will of the Other; paradoxically, however, each side’s resolve to endure, to never surrender, is typically strengthened by each attack to which they are subjected.
To carry on with the dehumanization of the Other, however, it is essential to avoid anything that would rehumanize the Other and thereby introduce guilt or compassion. In his magisterial psychiatric study The Nazi Doctors, Lifton coins the term “psychic numbing” to refer to means by which the perpetrator of an act of inhumanity is able to avoid experiencing psychologically what he or she is doing. (Doctors 442) In particular, he claims that the bureaucratization and technologization of violence have become the most effective means of psychic numbing. Psychologist Dave Grossman goes so far as to view the history of warfare as “a series of progressively more effective ways to enable combatants to overcome the inherent psychological resistance to killing.” (MacNair 5)
Speaking about bureaucratization, Lifton says, “bureaucracy deamplifies genocide…Central to this process is the dampening of language, the use not only of euphemisms (‘resettlement’ or ‘deportation’ for killing) but also of certain code terms (‘special treatment,’ for instance) that are specific enough in designating murderous acts to maintain bureaucratic efficiency, even to give them special priority, while contributing to a partial sense that one is not murdering people at all but doing something benign.” (Doctors 495) Following World War II, for example, Germans coined the term Schreibtischtäter or “desk criminal” to refer to who gave orders to others to do the dirty work while avoiding feeling that they were themselves guilty of anything (Doctors 60), while those lower in the chain of command could make what is called an “agentic shift,” which moves the individual to “feel responsible to authority rather than for actions.” (MacNair 11) In this kind of framework, the morality of an action is based on such standards as loyalty, obedience, and love for one’s own group, rather than on standards such as justice, compassion or acknowledgement of human dignity.
In his classic anti-poem, “Chant to be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces,” Thomas Merton speaks in the voice of the “efficient” concentration camp commandant who “made improvements” and “remained decent,” pointing up his ability to completely isolate such presumably noble ideals as “efficiency” from the horrific contexts in which they occur. He closes with the line, “Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done,” (Merton 262) a reference to the Vietnam War which echoes Lifton’s own discoveries he made while working with Vietnam veterans, namely, that there is an inverse relationship between the psychic distance from the Other and the level of psychotic problems that emerge upon killing the Other. The bombardier, for example, was able to calculate the effects of his work in terms of technical skill, since there were no faces to connect with the deed done, while the general infantryman in general faced much more psychic trauma as a result of seeing the person whom he killed. (Home 349)
In fact, it is for that same reason that Nazi leaders transitioned from face-to-face killing of Jews by Einsatzgruppen troops to more numbed or distanced means such as the use of Zyklon B to poison them (Doctors 15). Lifton writes about, “a technician involved in bomb preparation [in Vietnam] who later came to oppose the war but, when accused of having been a war criminal, answered simply: ‘I don’t feel like a war criminal. What I was doing is just like screwing fuses into sockets.’…Here is the essence of numbed warfare: killing with a near-total separation of act from idea…avoidance of guilt is built into the technology.” (Home 347)
Even at this numbed distance, euphemism and officialspeak continue to suck the meaning out of a reality: Merton points out that in Auschwitz, for example, the poison gas Zyklon B was referred to as “disinfectants” and “materials for resettlement of Jews.” (Merton 155) Similarly, Lifton says about the Vietnam war, “The various names chosen for the systems and component devices – Sensors, Gravel, Grasshopper, Walleye, Black Crow, Comfy Bee, Puff the Magic Dragon – serve to domesticate them by means of an aberrant mixture of humor and play. They lend an Orwellian character of words meaning their opposites (war is peace), since ‘Generally, the more innocuous the code name, the more deadly the weapon.’” (Home 353)
How, then, to respond to such a numbed and numbing world? In a word: hope. A genuine commitment to nonviolence demands a renewed understanding of the theological virtue of hope, less as waiting for the realization of a set of distant eschatological doctrines, and more as an acknowledgement that God can do more than we are able of accomplishing. The Other in fact does have more conscience than he or she manifests and does in fact have the potential to be converted. Walter Wink puts it this way: “The enemy too believes he or she is in the right, and fears us, because we represent a threat against his or her values, lifestyle, or affluence. When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying then with absolute evil, we deny that they have that of God within them that makes transformation possible.” (Wink 59) An anthropology which lacks that sense of hope in people’s potential to be converted has little hope of avoiding a purely pragmatic morality; if we must accomplish on our own everything that we want to see happen, then we must force the other into submission by any means necessary, because no one else is going to stop them but us. After white racists bombed a church in Birmingham in 1963, killing four adolescent girls, Martin Luther King preached their eulogy, including the following lines (which lost him many supporters for not calling for violence against whites, who had seemingly proved that they didn’t understand anything but force): “We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.” (King 222) That is, although it is hard at this moment to see the possibility of conversion in those who would do this, hope is our only means of warding off the dehumanizing despair that would demand that, for the sake of our innocents, we must crush those who would crush us.
I would argue that hand in hand with this depth of hope is a renewed theology and sociology of suffering as a primary means of conversion. Modern theology has (rightly) worked so hard to undo the damage done by passivist (as opposed to pacifist) notions of “offering up” sufferings for the sake of spiritual merit that there is often little room left in our modern consciousness for a fair evaluation of Martin King’s oft-repeated statement that “unmerited suffering is redemptive.” (King 221) It seems only realistic that the potential of the Other to be converted by violence, that is, by inflicting suffering on them, is virtually nil; violence, even used justly, can, at best, block the ability of the aggressor to carry on with continued aggression. Rather, the Other has a much more realistic possibility of being converted by those who have the courage and the terrible detachment from self to absorb suffering without striking back, who can actively face suffering without becoming either victims or victimizers, who refuse to dehumanize the Other and thereby continue the spiral of violence. When the aggressor no longer feels threatened or victimized, to strike out against the unarmed, obviously innocent Other can not be psychically justified; the aggressor who expects violence from an Other whom he or she sees as monstrous has the possibility of confronting their own subhuman actions when they are carried out against people who pose them no threat.
At the same time, we must be sober about the reality of human sin and our capacity for evil (cf. Challenge #56), which should both keep us realistic about the Other and call us back to awareness of the depths of our OWN capacity for violence. We spend a lot of energy on creating and sustaining means of psychic numbing and dehumanization, and so it takes a lot of energy to break through and rehumanize the Other. Lifton recounts speaking with a friend about his interviews with former Nazis, and telling the friend that “they were by no means the demonic figures – sadistic, fanatic, lusting to kill – people have often thought them to be,” to which his friend replied, “But it is demonic that they were not demonic.” (Doctors 45) Discussing a Nazi stationed at Auschwitz who was infamous for his ruthless use of a torture device which bore his name (the “Boger swing”), Thomas Merton writes, “Not even Boger can be regarded without qualification as a monster. Auschwitz becomes a little more horrible when we have to admit that Boger too is a human being.” (Merton 157) As long as one group can convince themselves of the subhumanity and absolute evil of the Other, Merton says, “we have no need of monsters: ordinary policemen and good citizens will take care of everything.” (Merton 159) Only when we recall that they are ordinary people, good citizens, responding to threats like we do, do we have a chance of believing that they can change from a path of violence.
Camara, Helder. Spiral of Violence. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books. 1971.
King, Martin Luther. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin
Luther King, Jr. Ed. James Melvin Washington. San Francisco: Harper. 1986.
Lifton, Robert Jay. Home From the War: Vietnam Veterans: Neither Victims nor Executioners.
New York: Simon and Schuster. 1973.
---. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic
Merton, Thomas. The Nonviolent Alternative. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1971.
U.S. Catholic Bishops. “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” Catholic
Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage. Eds. David J. O’Brien and Thomas A.
Shannon. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992.
Windley-Daoust, Jerry, et. al. Living Justice and Peace. Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press,
Wink, Walter. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Mercy within mercy within mercy...