Between & Beyond: Human Nature

Last weekend, while my band was playing our favorite dive bar, just hundreds of feet away, a young man was shot to death in a different bar further up the street. Somehow, we didn’t catch word of this till the next morning. I saw the police lights flashing up the street when we were loading out after our set, but figured it was just the normal late night rabble. Walking around the next day, the town just kept rolling along through a sunny spring afternoon as if nothing had changed. That was the strangest part. It felt like something should be different, but we didn’t know what to do. Is this just part of what happens?

Some like to claim that human beings are inherently violent. We can always expect war and murder because there’s just something about us, something woven into our DNA that loves violence. I have a hard time with this idea. I mean, certainly, life is violent. Violence is an element of the universe. Asteroids smash into planets, volcanoes erupt, stars explode, animals eat each other, every living thing dies, violently or otherwise. This is the ironic rub of the gun control debate. I do believe that there is a very specific legitimate use for guns: hunting. Most other claims are pretty much full of shit (vigilantism, militias, hobbyists who just think it’s cool), but hunting, with a rifle of reasonable power, is totally legit. And, I’m a vegetarian, by the way.

See, what makes the shootings that take place in this country so fucked up is the fact that we are removed from violence rather than awash in it. We pick up a package of pork chops and we grill them without ever having to know the violence inherently involved in the existence of that package. These are just products, not pigs. Our wars are products too. We get the sanitized packaged version on TV, all dressed up in the ideology of your benefit. Elsewhere throughout the culture, violence itself is commodified in stylized movies and video games. We have no actual relationship to what violence truly is.

In my quest for philosophical truth, I have often vilified language. Symbolic systems do a lot to pull us away from our relationships with reality. But, when thinking about violence and human nature, I see language as this blessing and curse. Jacques Derrida famously pointed out, in his reading of Plato, the use of the word pharmakon. Plato used the word when retelling an ancient Egyptian myth about Thoth developing writing, writing being the pharmakon. In Greek, pharmakon is both a poison and a cure. Derrida’s point was to show that the double meaning of the word presents us with the inadequacy of writing as we can never know the author’s true intention, but perhaps the myth itself serves as a second skin to the point made. Maybe language can pull us away from reality, but maybe it offers us something invaluable as well.

I feel as though the urge towards violence is akin to what we might feel in the depths of depression. All of us are emotional creatures. Our emotions wash over us, and we live and die by them, but that distance that is built into so many other aspects of our culture is present in our relationships with ourselves. Sometimes I will trudge through different corners of the internet and find places where people post their stories in desperation; people crying out in the wilderness of their own consciousness, claiming to be suicidal and in the grips of depression. When I respond to them to offer advice, I often find that what people experience as depression is just a bunch of bad habits of a mind untamed. In my responses to people I will lean heavily on the following idea which I attribute to Sartre but I would be hard pressed to find the exact source: It is far better to say, “I experience sadness within me,” rather than, “I am sad.” Do you see the difference? The former distances you from your emotions. The latter equates you with your emotions. Emotions are powerful indicators, sort of like tarot cards. They serve as ways to navigate situations but are best served without wholesale belief.

My point: I wonder if this recognition and rationalization of emotion is possible without language. Is language the arm’s length that keeps us from being overwhelmed by our initial passions? Certainly the Buddhists have their equivalent, and Eastern philosophy has way more elbow room than the hard-lined empiricism of the West. I’m speaking about the concept of The Watcher. No matter what you experience, pain and suffering, blind rage, blissful ecstasy, who you really are is that who experiences. Emotions pass through you. You are he or she who experiences.

So from this idea, I would like to believe that if there is anything innate to human nature it is the power of emotion. Maybe we are born into some kind of tangled relationship with our passions that must be overcome with time and attention. Maybe that’s why violence seems so inherent. Language does a lot to distance us from the way things really are. It distances us from the Earth and we disregard the immediacy of her failing health. It distances us from other human beings and we treat them as objects who are mere background scenery in the starring role we call our lives. It distances us from the cheap and empty gimmicks of corporate capitalism as marketing and advertising manufactures our desires and values, peddling emptiness all gussied up in desire. But, if it can help us overcome our more base and reptilian reactions that rob others (and ourselves) of peace and security, maybe there’s hope after all.