The great stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius believed we can be stronger than the random events that afflict us. “Realise,” he wrote, “that you have something in you more powerful, more miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet”.
However, there’s a constant in our nature that drives us away from this ideal of acceptance, responsibility and emotional maturity. This constant is the way we blame anyone but ourselves for the conflicts in our lives and the suffering that ensues. This feeling of being a victim simplifies our lives. It divides people into Manichaean worlds of light and dark, good and evil, creating a soothing psychology where we never have to own our behaviour: whenever there’s conflict, it’s never our fault.
Think about the last time you had an argument, when you felt you just had to stand up for yourself because the other person made you so angry. Later, when the dust settles, you recount your experience to friends who reinforce your victimhood with sympathy and stories of their own. If only such conflicts were kept in the murkier recesses of our private worlds, the harm would be negligible. But we carry our habits wherever we go and find vindication in the groups to which we belong. This leads to a collective mindset where every human conflict, including wars between nations, follows this logic of victimhood. Put simply: every army on every side of every conflict believe they are the victims.
After the assassination of the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said :
“We are open to having this discussion but we are just as prepared to deliver a forceful response to defend our interests.”
The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded in kind:
“Our region, because of the US intervention…has become victim to the endless war.”
Wherever there is conflict, war, ethnic cleansing, genocide, the defence is always the same: to claim ‘our’ aggression is defensive whereas ‘their’ aggression is offensive and without justification. The race to victimhood is pervasive and persistent across all conflict at all times. From the perspective of the combatants, war and violence of any kind are always acts of self-defence. In any conflict, ALL sides believe they are engaged in a war of self-defence:
- The US defends itself against the “malign activities” of the Iranian regime.
- Iran defends itself against the “Great Satan.”
- In the late 1970s, Pol Pot, General Secretary of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, sent urban populations to work in the countryside leading to the death of a quarter of the population. “My conscience, is clear” he said, while defending his actions as necessary “to stop Kampuchea becoming Vietnamese.”
- Hiter saw himself in a just war of national and racial self-defence against a number of perceived threats and injustices, including the humiliation of Germany after WW1 and the threat posed to its identity by racial impurity.
- The Bolsheviks fought to defend themselves against exploitation and Stalin defended his purges as the only means to protect the revolution.
- Assad fights in Syria to “protect Syria from terrorists,” while ISIS beheads westerners to protect Muslim lands against incursions by “crusader forces.”
And so the litany of misery goes on…
Grievance and Violence
“Yes but,” the voice of reason says, “some wars really are acts of self- defence and some aren’t. There is no equivalence between Nazis and the allied forces who defeated them. The latter really were defending themselves. The same goes for ISIS. They really are the aggressors and we have no option but to defend ourselves against them.”
This defence doesn’t work.
There’s no recourse to objectivity that can settle the dispute. The pretence of a settlement is always retrospective. It takes place in the courts and history books long after the last bullet has been fired.
In the present moment, which is where every conflict happens, the psychology of the victim is everywhere the same. It starts with a grievance or a perceived disadvantage. This can be recent or emerge from the distant past. In Tolstoy’s vision of domestic misery, where “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, a trivial incident triggers aggression because it may be the latest in a long list of grievances left unaddressed.
Politically, the logic is the same. In his book Great Hatred, Little Room, Johnathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, recounts the first time Martin McGuinness, lead negotiator for Sinn Fein, visited Downing Street. McGuinness looked around and remarked that “this is where all the damage was done.” Thinking he was referring to an IRA attack on Downing Street in 1991, Powell began to talk about the damage done by the bombs. McGuinness stopped him and said he was talking about the agreement to partition Ireland – signed in Downing Street in 1921.
Grievance has a long history and, in some cases, such as the Islamist grievance against the West or the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, these grievances can stretch back hundreds, even thousands, of years. In families, the timeframe is shorter but no less toxic because of it.
Once a grievance has been established, the next step is to determine the aggressor. In large scale conflicts, every individual involved identifies with the grievances of a group. Where groups (nations, faiths, genders, races etc.) are involved, the individual subsumes his or her identity to the group identity. This creates a feedback loop that reinforces and intensifies the original grievance and mobilises the individual to act with the wind of injustice in his sails. This is the point of no return, the cliff we step off, self-righteous as we fall.
To act with such impunity demands that we fear our collective identity may be destroyed if we fail to heed the warnings. This calculation vindicates the risk of all out war. In his masterful account of human violence, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker refers to the three reasons for quarrel given by philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “gain, safety, and credible deterrence.” In each case, the outcome is to strike first before we lose our wealth, security, identity and community.
To show that this psychology stretches into our deep past, Pinker quotes a male member of the Amazonian Yanomamö.
who explained the tribe’s violence to an anthropologist: “We are tired of fighting. We don’t want to kill anymore. But the others are treacherous and cannot be trusted.”
This treachery is everywhere. In our homes, our cities, our countries and our universities.
The disintegration of robust debate on college campuses in the United States is growing rapidly, as students scurry for safe spaces from which to lodge their assault on free speech. When the gay Trump supporter Milo Yiannopoulos went to the University of California at Berkeley to speak, violence broke out among those determined to deny him a platform. The result was substantial damage to university buildings and physical assaults on those who wanted to attend the speech. Shortly afterwards, the protestors justified the violence in the student newspaper under the headline, VIOLENCE AS SELF-DEFENSE.
The same happened when the libertarian Charles Murray went to speak at Middlebury College. After an attempt to block his invitation failed, students chanted and shouted to stop him from speaking.
As he left, his car was attacked. The result was a serious physical injury to Allison Stanger, the political science professor who’d agreed to ask questions after Murray’s talk. Later, she wrote: “What alarmed me most was that I saw in the eyes of the crowd. Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me. Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. They couldn’t look at me directly, because if they had, they would have seen another human being.”
And that’s what it comes to. It begins with a grievance and ends with one group stripping another of its humanity. That’s how the Nazis made Jewish skin into lampshades, ISIS throws homosexuals off rooftops and one group polarises another in a spiral of victim psychology that leads to the gibbet. And as the bodies swing, we stand safe in the knowledge that we acted in self-defence.
How, then, does the violence stop?
We can start by giving those we oppose their humanity. They, like us, live in fear. The solution is to stop that fear driving an irretrievable wedge between identity groups. In a remarkable moment, the Black Lives Matter activist Hawk Newsome was invited on stage at a Trump rally.
Rather than attack his opponents he focused on building bridges not walls, saying, “I want to move in a positive direction. I’ve been rage. I was in Charlottesville…I’ve given speeches that were filled with rage and the day that God touched me and I said something about love it went viral.”
Above all, we can see opportunity in adversity. Instead of looking for someone to blame and punish, we can choose to accept the circumstances we find ourselves in and face forwards. This capacity to manage our emotions and take ownership of our actions is what Marcus Aurelius was referring to when he said there is “something in you more powerful, more miraculous than the things that affect you.”
The alternative is to let events “make us dance like a puppet”, to endlessly revisit past horror and turn history into destiny – if this is the path we choose, our children will witness the piling up of corpses, each one a victim.