Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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The Violence in Our Genes: The Wolf in the Woods

Published on Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Violence in Our Genes: The Wolf in the Woods

There’s a park about a five-minute drive from my home called Deep Run. And whenever my time and the weather permit, I like to go over there in the afternoons and walk on the trails – greeting all the folks who walk their dogs and saying “hi” to the joggers along the way, panting as they feel good about fitness. Beside the trail where I walk, someone has contributed an artistic touch by taking advantage of a fallen log that looks – from some angles – like a wolf lying in repose. (See the lead photo and the second one below.) They have placed two little stones where the eyes would be, and the effect is interesting ... as well as a little menacing.

Which brings me to our current crazy and violent political scene. Whatever your views are of the Trump administration, he and his policy makers (a varied and unruly bunch who apparently don’t agree among themselves as they inhabit the West Wing) seem to have acted as a releaser, a trigger for noisy demonstrations and even some violence from both the right and the left in our body politic. As the new president began trying to fulfill his campaign promises to those who voted for him, even I said to a close friend or two, “I just may have to take to the streets in the days ahead if they go too far!” I haven’t ... yet. But just the thought – and my putting into words my own inner desire to perhaps take to the barricades at some point – underscores the raw and aggressive emotions that lurk within us all when we feel threatened.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece by David Brooks (Sept. 1, 2017), he observes the fact that in our “atomized and individualistic society” we all occupy several different roles in our lives. For me, mother, friend, writer, Episcopal priest and thus, Christian clergy, former academic psychologist, and so on. But he also notes that one of our roles can become paramount and we can become locked into it when that particular role is perceived as being attacked by outside forces.  Brooks says “when you’re disrespected for being a Jew, a Christian, a liberal or a conservative, the natural instinct is to double down on that identity. People in what feels like a hostile environment often reduce their many affiliations down to just one simple one, which they weaponize and defend to the hilt.”

So it is that in our history, whole groups have doubled down when individuals within that group feel oppressed, turning to violence if they all come to believe that it is necessary for survival. Examples include followers of Steve Beko, fighting against South African Apartheid; the Manhattan Stonewall Riots of 1969, when gays took to the streets in an uprising against police oppression; even some of the followers of Martin Luther King Jr. – a champion of non-violence – who did resort to violent protests in the face of chronic racism in our country. In another recent op-ed piece in the Times titled “Waiting for a Perfect Protest?” the authors argue that the “sanitized images” of Dr. King have masked the historical fact that even in that Civil Rights Movement, there were elements of aggressive counter-violence in defense of human rights that had been trammeled by white supremacists for decades. They say “we value nonviolence. We are part of a national campaign that promotes proven solutions to reducing gun violence, and we each work to achieve peace in our neighborhoods. But we know there has never been a time in American history when movements for justice have been devoid of violent outbreaks.”

To put those authors' last statement into a larger perspective – the fact is, violence is in our very genes. You and I and all of us have within us aggressive emotions and action tendencies which, if triggered, will cause us to lash out. Make no mistake about that. Whether as individuals we do lash out or not is in part a matter of temperament. But our behavior is also shaped by our upbringing, as well as our current personal values and social environment. But from our earliest proto-human days while still living in caves, Homo sapiens learned to band together with their own tribe and fight to the death the threatening Other that menaced their well-being.

Which finally brings me to my last point here. Let me turn to another written piece that gave me pause in reflecting about what’s going on in our current social scene – including what the whole nation witnessed in Charlottesville a few weeks back. Peter Beinart wrote a “dispatch” for the latest issue of The Atlantic titled “The Rise of the Violent Left.” (See sixth photo below.) In this article, Beinart discusses the rise of the Antifa (short for Anti-fascist movement) – who probably were also present during the recent “unpleasantness” in Charlottesville. These were folks among the counter-demonstrators who came out against the white supremacists and company, who were likely seen wearing black masks and also wielding clubs.

This counter movement, willing to use violent tactics to fight oppression and violence wielded by the state in one form or another, is not new to our history. Beinart says:

Antifa traces its roots to the 1920s and '30s when militant leftists battled fascists in the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain. When fascism withered after World War II, Antifa did too, but in the '70s and '80s, neo-Nazi skinheads began to infiltrate Britain’s punk scene. After the Berlin Wall fell, neo-Nazism also gained prominence in Germany. In response, a cadre of young leftists, including many anarchists and punk fans, revived the tradition of street-level antifascism.
Of course now in our hyper-internet world, “every screwball with a computer and an internet connection suddenly has an unprecedented way to instruct and rile up and mobilize believers, and to recruit more.” And here’s the thing. As Beinart asks, “If you believe the president of the United States is leading a racist, fascist movement that threatens the rights, if not the lives, of vulnerable minorities, how far are you willing to go to stop it?”

Here is Beinart’s point that gave me pause and should cause all of us to calm down a bit and reflect on where we are going as a nation. The author reminds the reader of recent movements on campuses from Berkeley to Middlebury College in Vermont, to Charlottesville itself, where the Antifa movement has opposed supporters of the government from gathering. He says “in the name of protecting the vulnerable, anti-fascists have granted themselves the authority to decide which Americans may publicly assemble and which may not ... trying to deny racists and Trump supporters their political rights.” [emphasis added] He ends with this warning: “Revulsion, fear, and rage are understandable. But one thing is clear. The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets ... may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.” Allies because first of all, violence breeds violence, giving the extreme right white supremacists and neo-Nazis a target for their own violent tendencies. And finally, allies of the oppressors because preventing the free expression of even loathsome beliefs is allowable and protected by our country’s constitution. Sometimes injustice does require fighting, but not at the expense of the constitutional rights upon which our country was founded.

Beware the wolf within. It lurks there waiting to attack. Beware of this wolf ... before it devours us all.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate and Theologian-in-Residence at historic St. John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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