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Some Thoughts on Violence

Edmund A. Opitz

The Reverend Mr. Opitz is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Educa­tion. This article, slightly abridged, appeared in The Lutheran Scholar, October, 1970.

Most human differences are set­tled peacefully. Collisions of in­terest occur sporadically, but when intelligence and good-will com­bine we work out a modus vi­vendi. Conflicting opinions are resolved by an appeal to reason; patience and persuasion ease the frictions arising out of personal encounters. Thus it is in most areas; we carve out survival pat­terns and get along with each other. But there are periods of history more violent than others when arbitration works poorly and conflict intensifies; we are living through one such.

Warfare of unusual ferocity has plagued the West for more than half a century—despite lip service to peace in the form of nominal pacifism and humanitarianism. But international strife is not the only plague; domestic ten­sions break out of bounds with increasing frequency; riots, dem­onstrations, assault, kidnappings, bombings, strikes, and acts of sabotage barely make the front pages, so commonplace have they become. Out of the woodwork come spellbinders to lecture uni­versity audiences on gun barrel politics, revolution for its own sake, and the beauties of violence. Professors of philosophy are in­voked to provide a specious ration­ale for destructionism. A cult of violence and systematic terror comes into being. There’s no longer time to take thought, we are told; men must act. Incessant and strident calls to action are directed toward the base emotions of hatred and fear, drowning out quiet appeals to the mind. The demand that we do something results in thoughtless action, and mindless violence breeds more of the same.

Violence Displaces Reason

What has brought about this state of affairs? How shall we ac­count for the increased violence that mars our land? It is obvious that violence and the cult of vio­lence expands as faith in reason declines—only when people are convinced that differences cannot be worked out intelligently do they resort to force. The restoration of reason to its proper role in human affairs is essential if we would live in peace, but first we must try to understand what has caused men of the modern era to distrust reason.

History is not simply what Gib­bon called it, a catalogue of "the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind"; but the human record is spotty and there has been vio­lence in every era. People differ, and occasional conflict is thus a built-in feature of human action. The species could not have sur­vived, of course, were there not a preponderance of cooperation and mutual aid in human affairs, but traces of friction remain even un­der the best of conditions. Abra­sive contacts between men may be eased by good will plus a disposi­tion to argue it out rather than fight it out, but when all strata­gems fail and flight is impossible human beings do resort to force. Violence, in other words, is an­cient in human experience—but as a last resort. It is today’s cult of violence that needs diagnosing.

A collision of interests devel­ops between two evenly matched men. Before any blows are struck one man says to his adversary, "Come let us reason together," or words to that effect. If this offer is accepted it is because both men hold certain assumptions in com­mon. Each man takes it for granted that he is a finite and fallible human being; he entertains a set of convictions on grounds he deems reasonable, but he has no im­mediate access to Universal Rea­son which might assure certitude. It is assumed that men are gifted with a divine spark, reason—a valid instrument for getting at the truth when used properly, that is, with due regard for logic and in good faith. Finally, it is assumed that the universe is ra­tionally structured, in the main, so that there is a correspondence between correct reasoning and the nature of things, enabling men who start from different places to think their way through to common ground.

The human reason, employed within these rules, may thus re­duce tensions and resolve conflict. It may firm up one’s own convictions, enhance appreciation of the opponent’s views, and persuade a man to ponder the rich diversity of mankind. Admittedly, even un­der the best of conditions men may not find a reasonable modus vivendi; words may lead to blows. But violence, if it occurs, is at any rate postponed to the last stage. It is not condoned.

Imagine another encounter. The antagonists this time do not share a common faith in the ef­ficacy of reason. Skeptical of rea­son as a useful means for thrash­ing out differences of opinion they are prepared to accept the alternative that differences can be settled only by the forced imposi­tion of one man’s or one party’s will over the other. Everything that denies or diminishes Mind, everything that downgrades rea­son, transforms a point of view—which is reasonable or amenable to reason—into a nonnegotiable demand for submission to supe­rior force. Men have a condition rather than an opinion; two states of mind confront each other.

Slogans to Live By

The True Believer does not en­tertain conclusions arrived at by marshalling the relevant evidence and drawing from it the correct inferences; to the contrary, he has been programmed with a set of armed doctrines picked up ready to use from the nearest intellec­tual arsenal—newspaper, TV, lib­eral journal, college, or whatever. Instead of ideas which might en­lighten, there are slogans, catch­words, and labels—a new set every few years—that nerve both sides for combat. When the pre­vailing ideology deters men from ventilating their differences rea­sonably they fight about their differences, hence the depressing increase of violence in our time. And the proceedings are rational­ized; hence the cult of violence.

Faith in reason is at a low ebb in modern man; Mind is bogged down in the snarled ideological skein of the twentieth century. The low estate of things mental is the consequence of a trend which has brought several sets of ideas together.

• Philosophical materialism and mechanism assumes that the ul­timate reality is nonmental; only bits of matter or electrical charges or whatever are, in the final analysis, real. If so, then thought is but a reflex of neural events. "Our mental conditions," wrote T. H. Huxley, "are simply the symbols in consciousness of the changes which take place auto­matically in the organism." Fare­well to free will, if "the brain secretes thought as the liver se­cretes bile," as one materialist put it.

     Evolutionism, popularly under­stood, conveys the idea that living things began as a stirring in the primeval ooze and became what they are now by random inter­action with the physicochemical environment, moved by no pur­pose, aiming at no goal. "Darwin banished Mind from the uni­verse," cried Samuel Butler. Man, wrote Bertrand Russell, is "but the outcome of accidental colloca­tions of atoms."

    From popular psychology comes the notion that reason is but ra­tionalization, that conscious men­tal processes are but a gloss for primitive and irrational impulses erupting from the unconscious mind. Psychoanalysis discredits mind by subordinating intellect to the Id.

    From Marxism comes the no­tion that class interest dictates a man’s thinking. There is one logic for the proletariat and another for the bourgeoisie, and the mode of production governs the philosoph­ical systems men erect, and their life goals as well. The unfortu­nately placed middle class forever gropes in darkness, unable to share the light revealed to Marx and his votaries.

These are some of the battle lines where men must fight to vindicate themselves as reasoning beings, possessed of free will, ca­pable of guiding their lives with intelligence and idealism. The Mind must be restored to its rightful place in the total scheme of things, and that place is central for, if the Mind be deemed un­trustworthy, who can then trust any conclusion? The centrality of Mind must be the keystone of any philosophy worth the allegiance of rational creatures, and this is the battle line behind all the others.

   Overarching all other causes for the flight from reason is the decline of theism—an interpreta­tion of the cosmos which finds a mental or spiritual principle be­yond nature. If there is no God the cosmos is only, in the final analysis, brute fact, and a man’s thoughts are reduced to a bodily function. The thinking part of a man is validated ultimately by its kinship with the Divine Mind. Theism contends, as a mini­mum, that a Conscious Intelli­gence sustains all things, working out its purposes through man, na­ture, and society. This is to say that the universe is rationally structured, and this is why cor­rect reasoning pans a few pre­cious nuggets of truth. Restora­tion of faith in the efficacy of rea­son and a revival of theism go hand in hand. But this is not all. Acceptance of the Creator re­minds men of their own finitude; no man can believe in his own omnipotence who has any sense of God’s power. And finite men, aware of their limited vision, have a strong inducement to enrich their own outlook by cross fertili­zation from other points of view.

A revival of theism, in the third place, will curb utopianism. Men vainly dream that some combina­tion of political and scientific ex­pertise will usher in a heaven on earth, and they use this future possibility as an excuse for pres­ent tyranny. Under theism, they modestly seek to improve them­selves and their grasp of truth, thus making the human situation more tolerable, confident that the final issue is in God’s hands.



Civil Disobedience

While the idea of civil disobedience may evoke sympathy where the claim is made that the cause is just, once we accept such a doubtful doctrine we legitimatize it for other causes which we might reject. We must be even more careful in the sympathetic case because, in effect, that sets the standard of conduct which then becomes acceptable for cases not as appealing or for groups not as responsible. Thus, we substitute pressure for persuasion and squander the carefully nurtured value of self-restraint and jeopardize the system of law….

The plain fact of human nature is that the organized disobedi­ence of masses stirs up the primitive. This has been true of a soccer crowd and a lynch mob. Psychologically and psychiatrically it is very clear that no man—no matter how well intentioned—can keep group passions in control.


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