What the war in Ukraine says about humanity and confronting toxic othering
What the war in Ukraine says about humanity
Some thoughts from two people who know about war
All through time, writers, philosophers, and social scientists have brooded about human nature; most have concluded that as a species we are full of contradictions. We are quite capable of both astounding acts of beautiful compassion but at the same time -and even by the same people- grotesquely cruel behaviors.
Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tells us about the universality of evil in the human psyche. His words offer little optimism; evil will always be with us. Though now deceased, I am sure were he to be alive today he would not be surprised at Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine.
“(T)he line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years…. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
In her diary containing wisdom far beyond her years, Anne Frank reaffirms Solzhenitsyn but offers a solution, albeit one which she infers is stillborn.
“I don’t believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists. Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago! There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill. And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again! [emphasis added]”
Indeed, how can humanity undergo a ‘metamorphosis’?
What war says about humanity is that we have failed as a species to cultivate both individual and global cultural norms which are consistently able to fend off the darker sides of our human nature. In agreement, at least in part, with both Solzhenitsyn and Frank, Freud, using his study of Roman history wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) about agreeing with the wisdom that ‘homo homini lupus est‘, ‘man is wolf to man.’ He was right at the time and appears to be right now.
Confronting toxic othering means bending the moral arc toward justice. It means denormalizing and delegitimizing the urge to respond to the ‘other’ with suspicion, fear and then, ultimately, marginalization and even genocide. (See here for a blog post detailing this idea.)
Perhaps even more importantly, confronting toxic othering means addressing the fact that throughout history we have increasingly normalized and even glorified the ‘sins’ of gluttony and greed, these being fueled by unchecked capitalism and more recently neoliberalism. Social stratification, at least in its more extreme and malignant forms, only became a feature of human cultures after we transitioned to an agriculturally based economy beginning about 10,000 years ago. Social classes, and hence classism, became now a normal feature of state societies, with the gap between the richest and poorest members of society getting more and more extreme as the centuries wear on, this gap growing at an astoundingly rapid rate in the last 50-100 years. This structured social inequality matters on many levels, but fundamentally so because when people have their basic needs met -they’re ‘fat and happy’ there is less of a tendency to get angry at (to ‘other’) people and groups around them. Plug scarcity into the equation and humans are quite capable to anger and hate. By normalizing gluttony and greed we tend to applaud those who seek more wealth and power just for the sake of massaging their egos. Perhaps ‘homo homini lupus est’ is true only when we are pitted against each other in as fight for scare resources. One eloquent assessment of the impact of social stratification come s from anthropologist Miles Richardson who argued that, “The problem of the poor is not the problem, the problem is the rich.”
Many point out that we cannot change human nature. But what we can -and must- do is to continually work for a world where we institute local, state, national, and international norms, laws, policies, and practices which tamp down our inner urges to engage in toxic othering and, perhaps more importantly, inhibit pathways which encourage or make possible these negative acts. We can’t change human nature, but we can work for more just human social structures, policies, and laws.1
War in Ukraine
Are we now seeing a glimmer of hope from the world community as it responds to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine? By an overwhelming vote of 141-5 UN member nations voted for a resolution demanding that Russia end their unjust war. This does not represent an even partial ‘metamorphosis’ of humanity, of course, but it does indicate that as a global community we are able to collectively manifest the good in human hearts by condemning what is evil. Said differently, we -humans- though not able to ‘reboot’ humanity, are able to slowly bend the moral arc toward justice thus allowing the ‘better angels’ of our nature to rule the day.
But the news is not all good. Like many, I have noted with dismay (though not surprise) at the overt and ugly acts of xenophobia displayed by, for example, the Poles as non-‘white’ refugees were blocked from entry at the borders. These acts of toxic othering -racism- are clearly horrible, but that this behavior has been called out by many is an indication that the process of ‘denormalizing’ racist actions is happening, though slowly.
The list of peoples who are yet to benefit from this slow denormalization of toxic othering and racism is far too long and includes the Rohingya, Palestinians, and Uyghurs, to name a few. Perhaps a positive latent function of the global rejection of Russia’s war will be that the rising tide of humanity will lift up all- eventually.
What does the war in Ukraine say about humanity? It says that we are species still figuring out what to do with what nature has produced with us, a paradoxical species wired with contradictions.2 We are slowly showing signs of being able and perhaps now willing to embrace love and reason over hate and irrationality. The future, though, is yet to be determined. As I write this, an escalation of war efforts, including a nuclear exchange, is not ‘off the table’ in the Kremlin.
1 This idea is not new. In this speech at American University President John F. Kennedy notes, “Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions — on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned.”
2I am indebted to my muse and mentor anthropologist Miles Richardson for this insight.