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Hostility Potential

Misplaced social and political upbringing leads to adult immaturity, leaving human beings as potential haters and potential killers

KNOW thyself, goes the maxim that wise men long ago propounded as fundamentally important. In this modern world of ours its importance is greater than ever. Self-knowledge is only to be obtained by critical reflection about oneself, about other persons and about our relations to one another.

Reflection about oneself is necessarily introspective; one has to look inwards and observe the movements of the mind, the impulses of the heart, the workings of conscience, the nature and direction of desires, the shrinkings and aversions and antipathies we discover; one has to learn not only to recognize these things for what they are, but also to value them, to estimate them as good, bad or indifferent, and to discover whether they are deeply rooted, pervasive and recurrent, or merely fleeting and incidental.

Self-knowledge is the best and surest way to the understanding of others; and to each of us it is indispensable for the guidance of his own little bark through the troubled waters of modern life. A man may have a pretty good understanding of his fellows and yet remain strangely blind to his own strengths and weaknesses, his idiosyncrasies, his irrational prejudices, his violent antipathies, his defects of temper and character, his own virtues and his own vices. And self-knowledge is only to be attained by critical reflection upon oneself, upon one’s qualities, one’s defects, one’s motives, one’s aims, one’s conduct in all the relations of life.

Through the practice of self-knowledge, even though it be called by the dreadful name of ‘introspection’, we learn to understand our own weaknesses, our emotional susceptibilities, our liabilities; and, so learning, we may learn also to control and direct them. We learn to know when we are angry, or afraid, though we seem calm, when we are lustful, curious, ashamed, jealous, or self-assertive. Without such learning, we can make but little progress in self-knowledge or in self-control.

Take the case of anger. More than any other tendency, more even than fear, does anger spoil our lives, engendering coolness, estrangements, resentments, and marring occasions that might be wholly delightful. And it avails little to check our angry expressions when they are already in full blast. A single word or intonation, a mere trace of facial play, may have done the damage.

We must learn to anticipate the expressions of our tendencies by recognizing their faintest incipient stirrings; not only because in that we avoid untimely expressions, but also because it is at this incipient stage that we can most effectively exert control. When our anger is in full spate, the best of us may find it impossible to control it; it seems to carry with its own justification, and we pour out our angry words or exchange blows with an energy that sweeps the whole organism along in the one channel of expression. But, if we recognize the first faint stirring of the anger impulse, we may usually succeed in cutting it short; and that is far better than bottling up and suppressing the full-blown emotion, even if we can succeed in so doing.

This power we have of controlling, suppressing, or cutting short the stirrings of our tendencies is of the utmost importance. The scientific explanation of it is a very subtle and difficult problem which leads into metaphysical depths, such as the question of free will land determinism. We need not enter upon that; it suffices to know that the power is very real and can be greatly developed by cultivation.

The range of intensity of the anger impulse is not the same for all men. Just as all men of all religions are endowed with the same bodily organs, so that a textbook of human anatomy serves as a dissector’s guide, equally well in all parts of the earth, save in so far as there are found rare instances of abnormal formations, extra toes, absence of a particular muscle, or malformation, or mal-position of some organ, so also, there is a good reason to believe, all normal men are endowed with the same fundamental tendencies.

But, just as there are differences between men in respect of the degrees of spontaneous development of bodily organs and functions, so there are differences between them in respect of the spontaneous degrees of development of these fundamental organs of the mind, the emotional tendencies.

The emotional tendencies become fully developed by exercise; but in each man each tendency, like each bodily organ and function, is given by heredity in a degree that leads to a certain amount of development only with a normal amount of exercise. In one man the anger tendency develops readily to great strength, so that its impulse is easily evoked and works very powerfully; while in another it never attains much strength, and, in a third, seems almost lacking.

These facts of the varying composition of our mental foundations raise strange moral problems, the difficulties of which are illustrated by the endless disputes in the courts between lawyers who seek to uphold the majesty of the law, and physicians who attribute criminal action to ‘irresistible impulses’. The important thing is that each of us should learn to take account of these differences and to estimate his own composition, and try to do the same for those, especially children, for whom he is in any sense responsible.

Take the case of anger in a slightly bigger scenario. One glaring fact strikes us in the face; namely, the political practices are, for the most part, hostile practices. The second glaring fact is that we take such hostility for granted. Whether at the local level or the international, we are surprised when we find a disinterested concern for the ‘rational organization of social goods’, but not at all surprised to find man manoeuvring against man, party against party, nation against nation. Everywhere in politics, the accepted image is the fight-and-grab image. This is like to saying that the accepted image is that of people who are licensed to act out their impulsive, irresponsible, ego-centered immaturity.

Our most immediate danger lies at the international level; for it is here that the fight-and-grab image is most likely to be translated into total disaster. G.G. Chisholm (1947) has said; “We need to remind ourselves repeatedly that man has done his best to kill large numbers of other men”. Thus, flatly stated, without pomp or circumstances, or reference to national honour, our historic preoccupation with killing seems a sinister comment upon what we are: what we are by nature, or conditioning, or both.

Why has man “done his best to kill large numbers of other men”, why has he not been able to live permanently in a state of peace with his fellow men? This is a psychological question. Also, however, it is a psychosocial question: it has to do with the social influences that have played upon our natures.

The older view of man — that limited psychological view — was that he was essentially pugnacious: a born killer who will live even in temporary peace only if social restraints keep him in line. The newer psychosocial view is that while man may be a ‘natural’ killer when his life is directly threatened, he becomes a warrior only if social conditioning has made him so. Modern man is rarely put into a position where he kills for ‘natural’ reasons: where he responds to an immediate danger with immediate self-defensive action. In most of his enterprises of killing, he acts for social and political reasons.

There is hope in the psychosocial view; none in the old limited psychological view. As we come to understand that full strength of social conditioning, we begin to realize that we accept the policy of “killing large numbers of men” because custom and tradition have made that policy acceptable to us. It is not beyond reason, therefore, with our knowledge of “conditioned responses”, to think that our attitudes can be altered. The practical question is whether they can be altered fast enough, in enough minds to ensure human survival.

Dead men not only tell no tales; also, they build no civilization. Of all our pressing political problems, then, the most pressing is that of preventing a war that will prevent our having a human future.

If we are thus to grow, we must understand both our own ‘hostility potential’ and the manner in which we are now encouraged to turn this into overt word and action.

A mature man may set himself strongly against specific persons and policies. He may marshal all his energies and resources to oppose them. But he does so on behalf of some positive value that he attaches to human life and human experience. Only the immature man takes a pervasively hostile attitude toward his world: wears a chip on his shoulder; expects other people to gyp him; classifies every foreigner as a ‘dirty foreigner’; has an elephant’s memory for past slights; enjoys other people’s defeats; derives most of his sense of significance from belonging to some ‘in group’ that he can feel to be in sharp contrast to some ‘out group’; likes to stir other people up to mutual animosities; is prone to exaggerated angers in response to small stimuli; makes a moral virtue of unswerving partisanship; chooses the groups he joins in terms of their exclusiveness rather than of his liking for other members; has daydreams in which he is always getting the upper hand on somebody else, or telling somebody off; feels ‘alive’ only when actually or vicariously involved in conflict.

That such a man is a troublemaker in a home or community we recognize readily enough. Wherever he wields his influence, there are likely to be tensions, rational angers, quarrels that stem from insufficient causes, hurt prides, misunderstandings, bitter competitiveness, ruthlessly damaged reputations, and a general irritable readiness for fight.

What we have scarcely begun to realize is that this troublemaker acts, in all the areas of his life, much as we are all permitted — or even encouraged — to act in the political area. As though we had set this area aside as a place for letting off steam and venting our otherwise pent-up hostilities, we put the basic ordering of our life at the mercy of our less mature emotions.

One common element in our ‘hostility potential’ is ‘ethnocentrism’, an emotional tie-up with our own group, so that we accept all its attitudes and practices as more right and reasonable than those of other groups. Psychologically, there is nothing mysterious about ethnocentrism. Every child goes through a long period of dependence when he has to make such emotional security as he can out of belonging, by heart and habit, to that tiny portion of the world that comprises ‘his’ world.

His experience of being approved is inseparably tied up with doing what is approved, not by people on the other side of the world, but his own family unit. Its sense of competence is inseparably tied up with the learning of the rules and skills useful in its immediate environment. Its power to make its feeling understood — and therefore to get what it wants — is tied up with its power to speak a certain language.

Thus, strong emotional ties with the group are established long before the child is old enough to make comparisons and independent judgments. If he is surrounded by adults who encourage him to get the feel of the larger world and to understand that the part is only a part, his native ethnocentrism will not halt his psychological maturing. He will learn that affection for the familiar, and practical responsibility towards it, are compatible with goodwill towards other groups and a rational exercise of his discriminatory powers.

But few people, in any culture, are thus conditioned towards maturity. Most of them grow up in an environment where they are more likely to win approval by unquestioning loyalty than by affection tempered with discrimination. Such independence as most people assert, therefore, is itself immature in quality: an ego-centered adolescent rebellion briefly directed against adult mores without being directed toward anything in particular.

Or ‘independence’ may take the form of an intellectual relativism that is likewise immature: a repudiation of ethnocentrism in favor of an abdicating conviction that one thing is as good as another and that there are no standards by which to judge one culture as better than another.

Most people, in brief, come to their adulthood emotionally prepared to think their own group right on all counts, and to think of other groups as ‘wrong’, ‘dangerous’, or ‘backward’ precisely to the degree that they differ from the familiar, or set themselves up in opposition to it.

Certain of our institutions make tepid efforts to build more inclusive habits of thinking and feeling: thus, most mosques, schools, seminaries and universities gingerly suggest the oneness of mankind. But in time of crisis, the vast majority of them swing back into undiluted ethnocentricity; and even when there is no crisis, few of them go towards building a supraethnic mind with any great vigour.

Our political institutions not only fail to build the supraethnic mind, but shout at those who try to build it with more than an absent-minded, half-hearted zeal. Thus, ethnocentrism, as one chief factor in our ‘hostility potential’ is so rewarded that it is likely to flourish in undiminished vigour — and untransformed immaturity — through all the years of most people’s lives.

Closely related to it is a second element in our ‘hostility potential’: xenophobia — fear of the stranger, and therefore a readiness to hate that stranger. The roots of xenophobia, like those of ethnocentricity, must be looked for in childhood: in the fact that security and familiarity there seems to be the same thing.

But in its adult expressions, xenophobia — again, like ethnocentricity — is a sign of arrested development. It means that the grown-up person, who supposedly has powers of discrimination, makes an automatic negative response that has nothing to do with known characteristics of the stranger, but only with the fact of his strangeness.

Human beings are perfectly capable of outgrowing xenophobia. But most of them, in melancholy fact, grow into it rather than out of it; as adults they have more automatic prejudices against more groups of outsiders than the child has. What is merely shyness in the child, becomes all too often active hostility in the socially conditioned adult; and one reason why it becomes so is that political practices make it so.

In political circles, on the local or the international level, it is rarely considered a sufficient loyalty to be neutral toward the ‘outsider’ until all the facts are in; only a readiness for hostility is considered enough to make a person rate as a ‘good’ party member or patriot.

A third element in our ‘hostility potential’ must be noted. We are born with the will to survive. This expresses itself, when necessary, in self-defensive actions. The emotional accompaniment of such action is hostility to that which threatens us. It takes an emotional reaction of this sort, not merely a detached awareness of danger, to ‘charge’ our body with extra energy. It is not the fact of danger, but the feeling of danger, that sets adrenalin going in the blood stream. This animal equipment that we have for self-defense is one that can be so culturally conditioned that we will develop the proper hostility feeling, and will take overt action, not only against a known enemy in our actual presence, but against whole groups and nations that we have been told to accept as enemies. Part of the age-old art of the politician is precisely that of getting people to feel that the hostile action they take against another group is action dictated by their own need for self-defense.

There is a fourth element in our ‘hostility potential’: the angers, frustrations, fears, boredoms, and disappointments that mark our individual experience and that leave, as it were, a sedimentary deposit in our unconscious that can easily be stirred up to muddy the psychological waters. Virtually everyone has stored up enough latent hostility to make him ready for aggressive action when he finds that he can win approval and reward by such action.

The daily pattern of modern ‘civilised’ life discourages the individual from converting most of his fears and angers into direct and immediate action. It discourages him, also, from striking out at the actual object of his emotion — which is as likely as not to be his ‘boss’ or someone equally equipped for destructive retaliation.

His angers, therefore, become pent-up, cumulative irritations and hostilities; and they become ‘displaced’ — that is, directed not against their original object, but against a ‘surrogate’ object. This ‘surrogate’ may, at the simplest level, be a chair that is handy to be kicked; at a more complex level, however, it may become the opposing political party, or some religious minority, or some nation on the other side of the world.

The latter type of ‘enemy’ offers great ‘advantages’ over the former: for while a man looks silly kicking a chair, he can — our political assumptions being what they are — look brave, loyal and patriotic kicking an enemy who has been officially labelled as ‘kickable’. He may even be appointed to office or receive a regular monthly stipend from his government if he kicks hard enough and according to the prescribed rules.

What is being said here is that we humans are made of psychological stuff and psychological experiences that makes us potential haters; potential killers. We are not fated by our nature, however, to convert this destructive potential into action. Whether or not we do so is largely determined by our culture, by the institutions that shape us.

To the extent that a culture wants its citizens to become mature persons, it will encourage them to outgrow their ethnocentrisms and xenophobias — translating these into specific affections that are compatible with general goodwill. It will also encourage them to think of self-defense in terms of the ‘rational organization of social goods’, not in terms of periodic violence. Finally, it will aim to set up institutions — domestic, educational, and economic — that will lessen the likelihood that unliquidated hostilities will become stored up in the individual.

Knowing, however, that such hostilities do accumulate, it will not try to build guilt feelings around them in certain areas of life while rewarding their violent and ‘displaced’ release in some specific area — certainly not in such a vital area as the political. Rather, it will try to give people a maximum chance to mitigate their hostilities through a sense of competence and through constructive and cooperative action.

One of the saddest indictments that can be brought against most of the political practices of men — including those in our own culture — is that they reward hostility and penalize inclusive goodwill. Thus, they infect society at its roots with the virus of adult immaturity: of power exercised in excess of understanding.