Paper presented by Philippe Moal as part of the Nonviolence axis, during the 8th International Symposium of the World Centre for Humanist Studies, which took place on 16, 17 and 18 April.
Thank you for attending this presentation entitled: “Getting out of violence, a social and personal need”. This theme fits in very well with this Symposium: “A New Humanism for a new world”.
Freeing ourselves from violence is one of the necessary conditions to move towards a truly new world.
We have one hour: we are not going to be able to decipher the theme exhaustively in one hour.
I propose to present some topics for reflection which will give rise to a subsequent exchange.
By way of introduction, I would like to say that what I am going to present is a synthesis of some themes that I have been developing lately in my activities on violence and non-violence. I believe that today the fundamental issue to eradicate violence is changing, it is about helping people to see that consciousness is active. Surely psychoanalysis and the developments with the unconscious were necessary from its beginning until today to discover that our inner world is active. But this stage is over, people today know very well that their inner contents (fears, anxieties, compulsions, etc.) exist and have implications in their lives, i.e., that the contents of their inner world are active. Today it is necessary to go up a level, to go to another level, and to learn to recognise the conscience, to listen to it, to develop it and to orient it.
While it is known that the contents are active, today it is necessary to discover that consciousness is also active. Everything that goes towards this discovery is a revolution. The space of representation, the power of images, not only visual, auditory, but also kinesthetic, learning to give an intention to the intentionality of your consciousness. That’s what I’m working on now.
To begin with, to overcome violence, let’s look at two prerequisites:
Necessity is the basis that allows us to change certain conditions. Necessity has always been a powerful engine of change in history: the abolition of slavery, the integration of women in political life through the right to vote, the rejection of dictatorships, etc.
Nothing changes without necessity, but mechanically. But we are more than mechanics, we are intentionality, a fundamental theme of humanism that we do not have time to develop here.
Necessity is the driving force that allows us to act to eradicate violence… otherwise, as the French historian René Girard said in his book Violence and the Sacred: “When violence is allowed to erupt, it is ultimately chance that resolves the conflict”.
We are faced with a need that we cannot leave in the hands of chance.
This is a first topic for reflection: What is my need with regard to personal and social violence? From there I ask myself, what can I do?
The second point is the choice that goes hand in hand with the need. We are always faced with choices, even if we do not see them. For Jean-Paul Sartre, choice is linked to freedom. “We are condemned to be free” (he said in “Being and Nothingness”). If you cannot choose, you are not free!
Ilya Prigogine (a humanist reference) spoke of choice as a necessity. Through his experiments in thermodynamics, he showed that no phenomenon is predetermined, that there are multiple choices in any situation and that we must therefore choose if we want to give a direction to phenomena.
Someone will say: so, if I choose to be violent, I am free. Maybe, but this freedom eliminates the freedom of the other, which is a chaining to the other and therefore no freedom.
For some, violence is a necessity to defend ideas, goods, impose beliefs, values. Others see violence as a necessity to fight against the violence of the former.
For them violence is the solution and not a problem, and that is a problem. They are the problem of this old world.
For us the use of violence can never be justified. Even those who use it for worthy causes end up in a lost cause.
For the master of the imagination, Isaac Asimov, “violence is the refuge of incompetence”.
Well, let’s say that violence is a miscalculation: I do evil in order to be good, but sooner or later my action backfires, because of the boomerang effect.
“He who uses violence will suffer violence in turn”, said the Greek playwright Euripides 2,500 years ago.
Martin Luther King mentioned the importance of choice when he said: “It is not a choice between violence and non-violence; it is a choice between non-violence and non-existence”.
Choice is another subject of reflection to get out of violence: In what conditions do I want to live? What kind of personal life and what kind of social life am I choosing?
On the social level, as we have only one hour, let’s go to the essentials:
Money is the first power on the whole planet; it has become the centre of gravity of all humanity, and it generates a lot of pain and suffering all over the planet. One per cent of people own 50% of the world’s wealth, while 50% of the population survives on only 1% of the existing resources.
See how economic violence is the source of all other forms of violence, whether physical, racial, religious, sexual and psychological (all linked to money) and also the institutional violence by which money makes the laws.
In 2019, neuroeconomists from the University of Zurich published the study Morality or interest? How do we make our decisions? Their conclusions were clear: “Morality comes first… as long as there is no money involved”.
The centre of gravity of today’s world, money, must be shifted so that the axis “human being as a central value” can take its place. But not as an overbearing human being who can lead to fascism as Sartre pointed out in “Existentialism is a humanism”, denouncing the cult of humanity of Auguste Comte’s positivism; but as a humble, searching, rebellious human being in the face of injustice, altruistic, compassionate, a human being who looks to the future with confidence and optimism.
In this context in which we want a new world, I refer to three references:
1) Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry Ilya Prigogine. In an interview on the subject of the mutation of society he said: “Mutations are always preceded by fluctuations which indicate the complexity of phenomena”.
More complexity (today) = more fluctuations (today).
Evidently, we are still in fluctuations. When will the mutation come? Please don’t ask me when!
2) The French thinker Edgar Morin, in “The Violence of the World” commented: “We are obliged not to continue on the same path and to imagine a beginning, but the question is to know how.
He proposed two principles of hope in despair:
1- the metamorphosis of society, (caterpillar becoming a butterfly, self-destructing while self-constructing as a new being: what we can see as an allegory of mental shape-shifting for the human species).
2- the emergence of the improbable, as has already happened in history, events that change the course of history in a favorable direction. Edgar Morin goes on to say: “Let us try to have a little faith in the improbable, but let us also try to act in its favor”.
3) Finally, I refer to Silo, who, in 2006, in an interview with the Colombian humanist Enrique Nassar, noted his concern about psychosocial modifications: “Behaviors can be modified individually, but at the collective level, systems of representation are too variable. Only myths that translate signals from the deep spaces of the human being can produce profound changes’.
On another occasion he said that a new myth was currently being formed. Don’t ask me what myth, I simply believe that each of us can look for it in the depths of our being, in our consciousness.
In 2006 in Moscow, at a scientific seminar organised by the World Centre for Humanist Studies, Dr. Olga Borisova said at the end of her lecture Violence and Tolerance: “If each of us strives to establish more tolerant relations, first of all, with our immediate environment, it is possible that more civilised methods of conflict resolution will become a frequent phenomenon at the level of the state as well”.
Then everyone can be an actor in this new world to which we aspire. It is a good transition to see some significant difficulties that prevent us from moving away from violence.
First resistance: The most deeply embedded prejudice as a belief is the one that makes us say or think that violence is natural to human beings.
Despite the fact that the WHO declared in 2002 that violence is learned and that we are not genetically violent, despite the fact that UNESCO had already declared it in 1989 in the Seville Manifesto and that we humanists have been declaring it since 1981, this basic belief is still present. This is a basic prejudice, but everyone has their own prejudices.
All prejudices produce response and behaviour. It is therefore necessary to look at the “a priori” that allow us to justify, legitimise and apply violence with a clear conscience.
Second resistance: escape
Forty-five years ago, the neurobiologist Henri Laborit 45 years ago, developed the idea that escape is the most frequent way out of a reality that is beyond us. For him, “escape is not cowardice, but a response to what is forbidden, to what is impossible, to what is dangerous.
We speak of “escape of consciousness”, which gradually leads to a disconnection from feelings, from ideas, from oneself, and to a loss of compassion for those who suffer.
Of course, the current system offers many forms of escape in order to remain in its current form. There is “violence to change” and that is worth stopping and reflecting on this resistance to evolution.
Disconnection translates into a kind of attitude of indifference, with a role that seems to be a value in today’s society… To pretend that nothing is happening! Moreover, in a state of disconnection, one can easily blindly obey violent laws and orders, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt showed in her account of the banality of evil: anyone can become the worst of the violent, putting the responsibility on others, by a flight of conscience. “When you see that you are on the run, come back to yourself’, my teacher used to say. When you are upset in your flight, come back to your centre… That works!
Third resistance, in relation to the violence that one generates oneself.
Admittedly, it is difficult to recognise that one has been violent: “my violence is understandable, it is excusable, the violence of others is inadmissible”. In the end, as Sartre said, “hell is other people”. But the violence I condemn in others exists in me, otherwise I don’t see it (I only talk about teeth when I have a toothache): “Every world you aspire to, every justice you demand, every love you seek, every human being you want to follow or destroy, is also in you”, writes Silo in Humanise the Earth.
In other words, whatever violence I condemn in another person also exists in me, and that is why I see it and condemn it. When the violence of the other attracts my attention, it is because it is somewhere in myself and resonates as an echo. Otherwise, why would I react to this violence and not to that one? “One can be anti-racist, but discriminate women, that can happen.
Let us now look at some avenues of response… to investigate.
I realise that I can’t help to get out of violence when I am disconnected because then I don’t notice the violence; it doesn’t exist, it is normal.
But neither can I get out of violence when I am overconnected to it, because in this case I don’t see it either, but I am taken over by it, I have transformed myself into violence. I have transformed myself into violence.
However, whether disconnected or overconnected, the conscience sends me warning signals, sometimes very subtle, but they are there. The philosopher Simone Weil said “Contradiction is what draws the soul towards the light”. When I am torn between what I think, what I feel and what I do, I feel a contradiction which is effectively a signal that I have to change something to move towards more internal unity.
The neurologist Viktor Frankl gave a very interesting clue when he said: “Man’s freedom consists simply in choosing between two possibilities: to listen to his conscience or to ignore its warnings”.
How many times have I listened to my inner voice telling me: “Don’t do that, don’t go there, don’t say that”, only to find out each time that I should have listened to myself.
Another clue to meditate on: We have emotional and intellectual rejection of violence; it makes us condemn it and look for solutions to reject it. However, intellectual and emotional rejection can be random, variable, and depend on several factors that make me relativise, minimise… according to my interests, my beliefs, my mood of the moment, etc.
There is a more effective type of rejection: the visceral. When I feel the violence in my gut, not only at the level of ideas or emotions, there is no escape, I am trapped in the body; it is impossible to escape, to flee, the violence is physically unbearable to me.
The deeper the violence enters my intra-body, the stronger the response of the consciousness to reject it. In a conflict, I feel that the aggressor enters me; it is a real invasion. The feeling penetrates me deeper and deeper. My body wants to reject violence as a poison, as an intruder. Before there is a moral notion, an instinctive mechanism makes me reject this violence, in case of visceral rejection.
I feel the violence I do as if I were the one receiving it, I become aware of the register of pain and suffering of the other person; I put myself in his place and to continue to be violent becomes impossible, unless I completely disconnect myself from the other person, as we have seen.
It is easy to understand the interest that visceral rejection represents in society. Some will say that intra-body sensations are involuntary, that we cannot provoke them. Well, yes, but we would have to educate ourselves to pay attention to our cenesthetic sensations, to learn to detect the internal registers… Quite a programme!
Let’s move forward…
When I allow violence to touch me, it penetrates me, I feel it inside and I recognise its manifestations in society, in my environment, in myself. It can affect me, paralyse me, make me suffer, even make me react with violence… A priori, it is more painful than being indifferent to it, but it is the only choice that is not inhuman, the only one that makes me be in solidarity, feel compassion and react to violence in order to eradicate it.
The question is, how can I connect to violence without suffering, without identifying myself, so that my response is even more effective and not a compensation for my personal pain by identification?
The tools of attentional development go in this direction and give me the ability to become aware of my disconnection, or conversely, my over-connection to violence, when I am on edge, trapped by anger, etc. In this case it is not about connecting but disconnecting, unplugging.
The work of the reversibility of consciousness known as self-awareness consists of going towards the world and not the other way around, as is almost always the case: the world imposes itself on us, things happen to us. Here it is a question of going towards…
It is a look that allows me to distance myself from the world, from my thoughts and emotions, my beliefs, my value judgements, my fears, my frustrations, my resentments, my desires for revenge, in other words, to distance myself from what can end in violence and destruction.
No one can impose or prohibit self-awareness, with it I am in front of myself, without trickery or artifice, in front of my needs and my choices. I am free to be free! It is an act of absolute freedom with the greatest collective impact.
There is no doubt that the human beings of this new world to which we aspire will have to have or develop this outlook, a new outlook for a new world!
This fundamental theme is explained in the book Self-Liberation by Luis Alberto Ammann, to whom I would like to pay tribute. This great friend has just left for another space, this great humanist was, is and will undoubtedly be a reference for future generations.
With this thanks to Luis, I end my presentation.