Omnia vincit amor

Omnia carracci

The Marathon bombing has spawned a spate of articles about violence. I have not written much about this subject in my books and other pieces on sustainability-as-flourishing, but it should be quite obvious that the subjects are intimately intertwined. People can flourish in a culture where violence is rare and not systemic, but not in one where violence is part of the system, the culture. There is a big difference between events that are rare and random, and events that are normal, an embedded part of the cultural system. Violence is inherently a form of domination, a condition which is highly inimical to flourishing.

The NYTimes ran an oped piece on the subject of violence, asking why the US is so violent and at the same time asserting that we are.

Clearly, we are a violent country.  Our murder rate is three to five times that of most other industrialized countries.  The massacres that regularly take place here are predictable in their occurrence, if not in their time and place.  Moreover, and more telling, our response to violence is typically more violence.  We display our might — or what is left of it — abroad in order to address perceived injustices or a threat to our interests.  We still have not rid ourselves of the death penalty, a fact that fills those in other countries with disbelief.  Many of us, in response to the mindless gun violence around us, prescribe more guns as the solution, as the Republicans sought to do during the gun debate.  And we torture people.  It is as though, in thinking that the world responds only to violence, we reveal ourselves rather than the world.

The author, Todd May, attributes the causes of our violent culture to three reasons:

  1. Competitive individualism
  2. A decline of our ability to control events in the world. I might write a sense of national impotence.
  3. The hegemony of the market and a move towards libertarianism.

I believe that the first is the key cause and that the others are derived from it. The arguments I have been making towards understanding why we have come to such an unsustainable state and also towards finding our way out are based on two foundations. One is very similar to the argument May makes; our social institutions are based on an incorrect and dysfunctional model of human beings. (The other is that we have a dysfunctional view of the world, itself) Competitive individualism and its more technical counterpart, economic maximization, boil down to a model of humans as always acting to get the most they can in any giving situation, limited only by the resources they have at hand, money or otherwise. When they do not have anything to exchange, money in most cases, they resort to violence at some level, that is, they get what they want by overpowering the others involved.

I agree completely with May about the current situation, but have a slightly different explanation about how to change it towards a culture of flourishing, the antithesis of today’s violent world. He couches his approach in the language of non-violence.

To recognize someone’s humanity is, in perhaps the most important way, to recognize him or her as an equal. Each of us, nonviolence teaches, carries our humanity within us.  That humanity cannot always be appealed to.  In some cases, as with the tragedy at Sandy Hook, it can even become nearly irrelevant.  However, in all but the most extreme cases nonviolence summons us to recognize that humanity even when it cannot serve as the basis for negotiation or resolution.  It demands that we who act do so with a firm gaze upon the face of the other.  It demands the acknowledgment that we are all fragile beings, nexuses of hope and fear, children of some mother and perhaps parents to others:  that is, no more and no less than fellow human beings in a world fraught with imponderables.

Nonviolence is too much a reactive term for me. Just as reducing unsustainability is a reactive stance to the problems of today. Operating with a positive vision is much more powerful. That is why I believe strongly that the positive vision of sustainability-as-flourishing can really change the world where greening or non-violence cannot. Both are important but lack the power to change the culture at its roots. Increasingly, I have come to see the positive image for action as love. Love, as the acceptance of the legitimacy of others both human and non-human to exist in their ways, provides a context for avoiding violence, but more importantly the framework for responsible, authentic, caring actions. It is that care that creates the possibility for flourishing. Nonviolence can go only so far.

But to speak in terms of love is to risk being seen as a romantic or spiritual nut because the idea has become commoditized and psychologized. Love is the antithesis of conventional rationality; it’s said to be purely an emotional response that leaves a littered playing field in its wake. As we learn more about how our cognitive system works, emotions are taking a central place, starting to overtake rationality as basic motivators. Maturana calls emotions the bodily context that determines what actions we pluck out of our stored, learned collection of responses to the world. Love for him is the most fundamental of emotions, being learned from the moment of birth onwards. It is still present in our adult cognitive system, but largely overwhelmed by the competitive, selfish culture we then grow up in. It is always there waiting to re-emerge as we know by looking at the many example of authentic loving behavior captured in history. To create a nonviolent society, first we must re-learn to love. It’s a very old idea. Virgil wrote the memorable phrase in the Eclogues about 40 BCE: Omnia vincit amor—love conquers all.

(Today’s image is Carracci’s “Omnia vincit amor,” circa 1600 CE.)

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