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Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Reality of Hypertoxication

Violence plays a central role in our lives.

The Earth was formed in violence. Stars are born and die in violence. The universe expands in violence.

As products of this environment, we are violent, and arguments rage whether our toxic behaviour is a product of history or a part of our human nature.

In the modern climate, it's a bit like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg; it's now both. But it suggests we can fight against our cultural and genetic programming to rise above any predisposition to violence. It also suggests we don't.

A British TV reality programme attempting a year long social experiment in the Scottish Highlands showed how shit we really are at getting along with each other. Twenty-three people were left isolated to build a self-sufficient community away from technology and modern tools. It didn't last long: Sexual jealousy, infighting and hunger resulted in over half of the contestants leaving a show that no one was watching.

Then imagine, after a year cut off from modern life in the Scottish Highlands, to re-emerge to find a world where Donald Duck Trump is US president, Britain has left the EU, and religious wars are closer than ever. Suddenly their microcosm of fuckedupness might not have seemed so bad.

Even if innate, violence is only one part of human nature. Indeed, when violent times push us together and unify us towards a common cause, our other facets come to the fore. Kindness, sacrifice, altruistic actions all show up during violent times to give episodes of mindless violence a purpose.

For violence is mindless. However cold blooded it may be sometimes, however much it may seem long planned and plotted, violence is mindless. If there is a violent synaptic in the brain, you can bet once triggered it cuts off the reasoning and empathic part of ourselves.

This "mindlessness" has undoubtedly played a large role in the development of our society, from north to south, east through west. Look back at ancient civilisations and see the wars and battles that have been fought throughout time.

War is not fought for entertainment, but we have made violence entertaining. Sport and entertainment in ancient cultures, such as gladiatorial shows, turned war into a game. It preserved an atmosphere of violence in times of peace, and functioned as a political theatre which allowed confrontation between rulers and ruled.

We don't need to look back, however, to see the enjoyment we take in violence. The violence in today's competitive sports, in our drama, in our computer games is a product of this history. Any cathartic value has been overtaken by our obsession with it. It's no longer escapism, it's how we translate our world. Its mindlessness not only traumatises, but simplifies our reality. This is the real threat.

Whatever its origins, violence is part and parcel of an existence that is cruel. I agree with this, but what I find dangerous is that we have allowed the toxic nature of our violent tendencies to oversimply our reality into a hypertoxic caricature of how life really works.

This form of hypertoxication is similar to the term "hypernormalisation" from Alexei Yurchak's 2006 book Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation.

During the 20 years before the Soviet Union collapsed, politicians and citizens were resigned to maintaining a pretence of a functioning society. Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the "fakeness" was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed "hypernormalisation".

Now the toxicity fostered in the past two decades against Islam as evil has brought us another paradox of life and to the door of war. We see the world in such stark contrasts and colours that we have been blinded to any other option but to open and walk though that door into oblivion.

This is what we would do in a Hollywood action film. It's what we would do in a video game. It's now the first language of journalism. It's constantly used to score points in politics. And it will be politicians, who have no first hand idea of the seriousness of war, which lead us into what feels so devastatingly inevitable.

We have made life so simple. Divided into symbols of good and evil. Right and wrong. Patriot and traitor. Such passion of purpose provides clarity in a chaotic world, but it's a hypertoxication of the truth that we are as bad as each other. It creates dead zones of imagination, and everything that happens we either ignore or use to confirm our bias, which IS both a product of our history and part of our nature.

It's a culture the next generation will grow up in, or else it will be a future tempered by the aftermath of war. Only near devastation of our way of life will somber us up enough to realise that life is not as simple as we try and categorise it to be. The monster might not be the strange guy from another country; he might be the nice old guy next door you've known for years. And he might not be a monster, just an irreparably damaged human being capable of monstrous acts.

Walking within these shades of gray make us feel uncomfortable. We need to draw lines to feel safe. We need to label things clearly. But what this inevitably does is create sides; it makes monsters out of pitable, damaged sad human beings in a climate that silences anyone who doesn't scream for blood.

I increasingly find that we are not spiritual beings in human clothing, but human animals in spiritual clothing. One gust of air is all takes to leave us naked and braying. This is the world we live in. We have become so censored and so restricted that the impotence we feel has turned us toxic, and that toxicity to distill life into a violent simplicity.

Life is complex, and not limited to our subjective understanding or to the basic urges that frame our will to survive. Moreover, the opposite of violence is not simply to be passive - because what you view as opposite might be fundamentally similar, and what you believe to be the same, in actuality different.

For instance, being moderate or liberal doesn't mean being impotent. This is what Mahatma Gandhi, a "great soul" and icon of non-violence, meant when he once said that it was better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts. He meant that it was better to be violent to reclaim power than be impotent - for him peaceful disobedience was still active disobedience. It wasn't about sitting back and doing nothing. It was about doing something non-violently. But even to him violence was preferable to impotence.

When I think about it, it feels to me that Gandhi was wrong about the relationship between impotence and violence. They are not separate options: violence is a consequence of impotence, not its opposite, but composite. It's a mindless response when we feel helpless. Typical bully psychology 101. People resort to violence when they feel they can do nothing else.

No one is immune. Calm, well balanced people can become unbalanced enough to cause destruction in streets they have called home for over half a century. Neighbours can become mortal enemies at the drop of a hat.

It doesn't matter if it's a build up of recent events or because we are born this way: Violence plays a central role in lives we feel we have no control over, because nothing is as comforting to simply be black or white.

We live in a world where Gandhi and Trump may have more in common than you think. The knowledge that Gandhi was racist against blacks (at least while living in South Africa) and sexually assaulted his grand nieces doesn't sit well with the simple image we have of him.

Similarly, Trump might be a racist peadeophile, but he may also see himself as a loving father with a deep set of good intentions to bring peace and stability to his country.

It's these truths that make us feel uncomfortable and resort to misguided violence, to create false, hyperrealities that come "true" over time, for a time, until a clash or a collapse shatters the illusion and we are left with the wisdom that the universe is violent, but we can choose not to be.

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