Moral idealism is dangerous because it is inevitably accompanied by the belief that the end justifies the means, that violence in service of justice is justified. Gandhiji was aware that this would open the floodgates to brutality, and therefore he insisted on the priority of means over ends. We need a blanket rejection of violence, no matter what the cause, writes Sudhir Kakar. Justice is important, but compassion is equally important
Violence, we must admit, is as Indian as aam ka achar, as American as apple pie, as Japanese as sushi rolls. Odd as it may sound, the two biggest causes of violence all over the world, identified by psychologists such as Roy Baumeister, are the two we admire as positive qualities and encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. On the collective level, we give high self-esteem, the narcissism of a community, the high sounding name of izzat, honour, and justify any number of acts of cruelty and murderous violence in its name. But there is an even greater source of violence that bedevils our individual and collective lives: moral idealism.
Once you believe that your violence is a means to a moral end, the floodgates to brutality are opened. As long as the perpetrator of violence maintains his moral commitment -- to his faith, to his religious community, to the oppressed, or whatever else is the ‘cause’ -- he rarely displays guilt or shame for his murderous actions, something which is not true of the same actions as a member of other kinds of groups.
We know that most major atrocities of the last century, and I have no doubt the trend will continue in the present one, were carried out by men believing they were creating utopias, or defending their faith or idealised community from attack. Idealism is dangerous because it is inevitably accompanied by the belief that the end justifies the means. If you are fighting for God, for the oppressed, or your religious community, then what matters is the outcome, not the path. Once you feel you have a moral mandate, you care much less for rules and legalities; the quest for ‘justice’ tends to be contemptuous of the notion of fairness.
Unfortunately, there have been eloquent voices that have defended violence in service of justice. In her Reflections on Violence, the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes: “…Under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again… In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it, belong to the ‘natural’ emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanise or emasculate him.”
The problem with this position is that such ‘hot’ violence inevitably turns into a ‘cold’ carnage characterised by planning and calculation. Moreover, violence that begins with a clear purpose acquires a life of its own, fulfilling obscure wishes more than its consciously stated goals. It begins to exercise a dangerous fascination, a “terrible beauty”, from which, also, we cannot avert their eyes. We get a glimpse of this fascination in many kinds of collective violence, especially of the revolutionary kind. This violence has been described by Franz Fanon, in his The Wretched of the Earth, as one that “binds men together as a whole, since each individual forms a violent link in a great chain, a part of the great organism of violence which has surged upwards”. He might well have been speaking of the orgasm of violence.
No, what we need is a blanket rejection of violence no matter what the cause. Justice is extremely important, but we need to teach our children that the value of compassion is above that of justice. When Gandhiji, in contrast to revolutionaries of the left and right, insisted on the priority of means over ends, he was intuitively aware of the malignant violence inherent in the other position.
What can we do? In the short term, there is no alternative to a firm resolve of the state that violence, no matter what the stated cause, will not be permitted. We know, for instance, that in ethnic/communal riots there is a window of about 24 hours in which the tension between the opposing groups is very high, but violent acts have not yet taken place. Firm police action in this crucial time period can prevent the outbreak of violence which will otherwise spiral out of control.
How to isolate responsible police officers from political interference within this 24-hour period (switching off all mobile contact?) is an issue needing urgent attention.
In the longer term, we need to focus our educational efforts on emphasising the value of compassion, of which fairness and tolerance are important constituents, as much as of justice, of re-dedicating ourselves to the priority of means over ends. This is not an idealistic choice but is based on our evolutionary reality as human beings. We need to awaken our natural human compassion to counteract our perhaps equally natural propensity for violence, and not just cede the battleground to the latter. Indeed, compassion is as natural as violence. We now know from experiments using brain imaging that watching the suffering of someone who appears to be a victim of violence, activates a similar ‘pain network’ in our brains, the so-called ‘mirror neurons’. Showing the suffering of victims, of terror attacks or other forms of collective violence, as part of our educational curriculum in schools and colleges, as also in other group settings, is an obvious next step in the long-term combating of violence. We need to use all our available knowledge on social violence to begin freeing ourselves from this ancient curse of humankind.
(Dr Sudhir Kakar is an eminent psychoanalyst and writer. This article first appeared in Peacewards, published by Citizens for Peace in association with Seagull Books, 2009)
Infochange News & Features, October 2011