The relationship between fear and violence

Over the past week or so, on a few separate occasions, I was reminded of how fear can make people accept the infringement on personal liberties, question the rights of others to exist, and even participate in horrible acts of violence towards others:

  • with me being German but (luckily) Germany not having been victorious at the end of World War II, I quite often think of how Nazi propaganda was used to instigate fear in the population against both political enemies of the NSDAP and an ethnic group, eventually leading to people either accepting or ignoring the genocide of the Jews
  • the recently (U.S.-) released movie “The Act of Killing” shows, from the perspective of a group of men who have killed hundreds, how in the mid-1960s the Indonesian population had to endure one of the worst mass-killings, when fears over a communist  take-over of the country were used to justify cruel and atrocious acts
  • even though the Civil Rights Movement changed America forever, to this day people of color, particularly men, are often faced with implicit prejudice about their intention, whether or not they pose a threat, making them the target of even non-police suspicion, as happened when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin
  • since the 9/11 attacks, America has been struggling with how people of Muslim background, whether or not they are religious or fanatic, are subject to extreme scrutiny and Muslims in America are probably suffering from the continued classification as “potential terrorists”
  • the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine seems to be based on fears on each side that the respective other side’s main motivation is to inflict harm and pain on the own population, leading to ever renewed outbreaks of violent acts, such as bombings and retaliative airstrikes
  • recent Russian legislation now threatens people who either identify as gay or sympathize with the struggle that gay-identifying persons are facing, with the justification being that homosexuality threatens the Russian society, and the most recent events of a gay man being killed and a Dutch man being detained may just be the beginning of a much larger “campaign” that could result in a lot of violence

And the list could easily be extended… On the outside, the people involved may have strong rational sounding opinions about why the conflict, suppression, or violence continues. Often, the reasons entail a perceived but at least at face value plausible threat to society or individual well-being, and the measures taken are made out to be necessary to restore or uphold peace and justice.

However, in all of these cases, I would argue that the base issue is that one group of a population either already holds the belief or is being made to believe that another group is to be feared because of their intention to cause harm. And these fears then bring about condoning or even participating in the infringement of rights and, in part, even violence against anyone suspected to be part of the feared group.

In some of these instances, there may even be factual reasons to be vigilant. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 actually happened, and it is normal for people suffering such a painful loss to react with fear of subsequent acts of violence. However, what is hardly ever considered is that the people on the “other side” of the conflict who are cheering at the results of these violent acts may be ultimately motivated by the same reason: fear. But is fear truly helpful when it comes to improving a conflict?

One of the results of Americans being afraid for their lives in everyday situations, I believe, can be seen by the fact that the USA is leading the statistic for number of guns per residents. Unfortunately, it seems that being afraid for your life and owning a gun doesn’t make life safer. On the contrary, overall I would argue that more or less constantly fearing for your life is probably an enormous stressor itself. And at the very least the number of people owning a gun seems to be correlated with the number of deaths by firearms.

And somehow I have the strong hunch that the level on which people “prepare for an attack”, either by individuals buying guns or the legislature passing new laws against a group of people, or entire countries procuring weapons suitable for fighting wars between nations, is relatively unimportant. As long as actions taken by individuals as well as policy makers are based on fear, I believe that violence is no longer the means of last resort but rather the next logical step…

Contrary to this approach of using force and violence, my personal vision would be to educate the public about a few things related to fear and violence, and that while these two may seem like two links in an inevitable chain of events, I believe that there are certainly methods to reduce the impact of fear–compassion can be thought of as a counter-force for violence and previous research suggests that compassion can be taught.

Eventually, I think that if humanity cannot overcome the impulse to translate being afraid of other humans into violence against the group to which those we’re afraid of belong, sooner or later someone will push the big red button and blow us all to pieces. It’s not so much if but rather when, and so I think it’s probably worth investigating how a reduction of fear can be achieved in favor of trying to find “smart solutions”, that do not overlook the actual dangers present, but do not allow the fear of these dangers to dictate decision making.

Contracts, relationships, and our society at large

Yesterday I had a very nice chat with a friend and colleague, and as part of this chat, a theme that I had thought about before came back to my mind: whenever people interact with one another, this usually implies some sort of contract. And I want to start by giving my own, personal definition of what I understand when I use the term contract…

Naturally, there are written contracts, many of them being pre-printed forms where people simply fill in some blanks and, by signing it, indicate they are willing and accept to be bound by the terms stated therein. But I would argue that most contracts that people enter into are unwritten contracts. In that sense, for me a contract is indeed just that, the willingness and acceptance to display a certain type of behavior in the future, sometimes based on conditional contingencies, sometimes regardless of other future events. And quite a few contracts also contain some sort of provision of what will happen if the contract is not fulfilled. In some contracts this part is left out, which then means that the person misbehaving might be dragged in front of a judge, given that there was a contract to begin with, objectively speaking.

Put differently, whenever I have a (hopefully reasonable) expectation about someone else’s behavior–or more precisely for that behavior to be within certain limits–and this person implicitly or explicitly agrees to my expectation–and of course at the same time has expectations about my behavior in the very same situation–there is some kind of contract at work. And whenever such a contract is violated by straying from the agreed-upon path, there is a conflict that needs resolution.

Now, what are unwritten contracts? For one, as far as I can tell, being in any kind of relationship, including an intimate relationship, can be seen as agreeing to a contract, most of which are never written down but actually only inferred by habitual and customary behavior. To give a practical example: whenever I go shopping for groceries and I put my items on the conveyor belt at the register, I enter into a (sort of business) relationship with the person on the other side of the register, and I have a certain expectation of what is going to happen next. Unless there are circumstances at play that I didn’t notice or I have made some kind of error–for instance, I might have put too many items out for the express check-out line–I would assume that the associate of the store will start scanning or manually processing my grocery items and, once done with this task, ask me to pay for my shopping. In turn, the expectation is then that I will pay and take the items with me when I leave. Obviously, nothing of that is written down or agreed upon on an individual basis, but rather the idea of entering a groceries (or other) store, collecting, and finally presenting the merchandise at the register is seen as my entering into this unwritten contract.

When it comes to personal, intimate, relationships, the contract between the two partners might be much, much more complicated: it contains clauses covering behavior in many, many more domains and regarding many, many more possible situations. But, apart from its complexity, the contract is probably equally unwritten, and entered into–at least in the beginning–implicitly. In fact, even a first date, when two people have little to no knowledge about one another, still comes with a contract: for one, you expect the other person to behave with at least a minimal amount of dignity and respect towards you, and if that part is broken, the date usually ends prematurely.

One of the big differences, comparing such a contract to the one at the groceries store, is that people don’t always agree on what exactly that contract says, which leaves (a lot of) room for conflict. In fact, my take on relationship conflicts in general is that, other than bad intentions, ignorance, and negligence, disagreements in relationships are almost exclusively caused by two people applying different versions of the same contract to one and the same relationship.

Imagine going to the bank and signing two copies of a loan agreement, and the two versions differ in, say, the interest rate and the payment terms. I think, unless your copy has the higher rate and more frequent payments, the bank will be quite dissatisfied and upset if you don’t make your interest payments on time, in the expected amount…

The same is true in an intimate relationship, with the difference being that there is no written contract. In that sense, a relationship without a written contract requires that, whenever a conflict occurs, the people in the relationship must be willing to “spell it out” and renegotiate: what are my expectations? Why were they not met? Are my expectations unreasonable or even unrealistic? Can we find a middle ground?

For that to be successful, however, it is important that both parties in the relationship understand that the terms must be negotiable to begin with. As soon or as long as one party insists that their terms are “right” or that their views on things are “the only way to see it”, negotiation becomes impossible–something that reminds me strongly of the current political situation, both here in the U.S., but also abroad. And it is somewhat unfortunate that in quite a few situations, one of the parties in a relationship either subjectively or, even worse, objectively is in a position of power to almost dictate the terms of the contract, which, if abused, in the long run can lead to an undermining of trust, the basis for any future success of the relationship…

And speaking of relationships, here’s another idea (I know, coming back to the economy…): naturally, people who work their entire life have the expectation that their retirement will be a reasonably comfortable one, although they no longer put their work force into the generation of wealth and produce. To a certain extent–wherever financial assets and investments exist–this expectation might even be backed up by a written contract. But this obviously doesn’t change the premise of what is supposed to happen: those people have worked for most of their adult life and simply expect that they don’t have to keep working until they are on their deathbed. Society, on the other hand, makes the promise that the elderly as well as those unable to provide for their livelihood by means of work will be taken care of reasonably well.

This social contract between the older and younger generation as well as between working and non-working members of society is now threatened. Why? Over the past 40 or so years, the percentage of generated wealth, as measured by the gross domestic, attributed to the production factor of labor paid in wages has declined slowly but irresistibly–put differently, prices for every good and service used by an actual end consumer are no longer, in the main, determined by the cost of labor, but by the cost of capital and corporate profit margins. On the other hand, more and more–though still select and elite–people are able to afford living without working at all, throughout their entire life, not just retirement, simply by paying for their consumption out of some capital gains. If this trend continues, those who actually have to generate the wealth through labor will no longer be able to provide for everyone… And as much as I believe in free markets and capitalism, I think it’s high time to start re-distributing wealth to those who actually provide for it: the working class!