Friday, January 22, 2010

Working with our capacities for nonviolence

When we consider our natural human reaction to existential threat we often automatically think 'flight or fight.' Is this correct?
1. Do people believe that humans are violent by nature?
2. If people believe that humans are violent by nature, are they more likely to engage in or approve of violent behavior?

First in my mind is the Seville Statement, the result of a conference on this topic and the construction of an opinion on the question by lead academics and academic associations from around the world. While it is now old, it has not been refuted or rescinded. In a nutshell, they note that while humans are naturally potentially violent they have the ability to override that impulse too. From Wikipedia (which has links to strong documentation):

The statement contains five core ideas. These ideas are:

1."It is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors."
2."It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behaviour is genetically programmed into our human nature."
3."It is scientifically incorrect to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behaviour more than for other kinds of behaviour."
4."It is scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a 'violent brain'."
5."It is scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by 'instinct' or any single motivation."
The statement concludes: "Just as 'wars begin in the minds of men', peace also begins in our minds. The same species who invented war is capable of inventing peace. The responsibility lies with each of us."

In his germinal book On Killing, Lt. Colonel David Grossman outlined the reponses to perceived mortal danger.
Posing (bluffing, like a cat puffing up)
Surrender (exposing our jugular vein--works for wolves, leaves other species dead)
Creativity (this is our hope in nonviolence)

There are also ongoing studies that show how we respond to threat and how we define threat both consciously and unconsciously. Further, there are studies at both Stanford and the Medical School in Hamburg, Germany, that examine how we are instructed to perceive threat and how we can create neural pathways that are even beyond classical Pavlovian conditioning. Various portions of our brains are involved, mostly mid-brain and below, all the way to limbic (reptilian). In short, the implications for society, war and peace are enormous. Here is a piece of that meta-study abstract:

"In classical Pavlovian fear conditioning, a neutral stimulus (conditioned stimulus, CS) comes to be evaluated as threatening due to its association with an aversive stimulus (unconditioned stimulus, UCS), and elicits fear. In a subtype of fear conditioning paradigms, called instructed fear or anticipatory anxiety, subjects are made aware of the CS–UCS association prior to actually experiencing it. Initial fear elicitation during this type of conditioning results from the negative evaluation of the CS as a consequence of CS–UCS contingency awareness."

A meta-analysis of instructed fear studies: Implications for conscious appraisal of threat..
Authors:Mechias, Marie-Luise1
Etkin, Amit2
Kalisch, Raffael1
Source:NeuroImage; Jan2010, Vol. 49 Issue 2, p1760-1768, 9p

You can see from the citation it is brand new. This is exceedingly helpful as we learn how conflict affects us and how we can manage it toward peaceful outcomes. One researcher, Dr. Jo Groebel, pointed out that, for example, the identification of an extra chromosome in some serial killers was interesting but not a predictor because the vast majority of men who are afflicted with this (which seems to produce far more testosterone and possibly more aggressive responses) have never committed a violent assault. Thus, even strong impulses toward violence that seem to be especially hard-wired can be overcome. We do have free will, as contaminated as that may be by both our hard-wired capacities and mediated (instructed) fear/violence capacities.

Without critical thinking and training, we are often at the mercy of our mainstream 'if it bleeds it leads' media. This is part of why peace education and nonviolent training are so crucial.

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