VI. 3. Reducing Violence and Poverty
The empathy arising from affirming life by facing death can reduce
violence and poverty.
Life-affirming death awareness is the foundation for the kind of empathy that can reduce violence and poverty. Denial of death is a root-cause of the prejudice, discrimination, selfishness and fear that produces war and neglect of those in need.
The late Ernest Becker has described, perhaps more clearly and beautifully than anyone, how our denial of death is a root cause of societal violence. His analysis applies even more directly to our slow species-suicide through neglect of the biosphere, although - writing in the early 1970s when the issue had not yet surfaced - he did not focus on the issue.
Becker explained in great detail how rather than face our terror of death directly we repress it into our unconscious, and then seek further relief from it by projecting our desire to survive our creature-deaths onto individuals and societal institutions - strong leaders, prominent personalities, nations, religions, political movements, ethnic groups, and so on.
Becker called the vehicles we look to for protection from death "immortality projects." Investing in "immortality projects", as do both flag-flying nationalists and Muslim "suicide" bombers, does offer relief from the terror of death. (It might be more accurate to refer to the latter as "immortality bombers".) And it has also spurred many of humanity's greatest achievements, from our cathedrals reaching our to our gods, to defeating Nazism and creating a post-war democratic world.
"Immortality projects", however, have one fatal flaw: they foster intolerance and violence. When we invest emotionally in one particular immortality project, we find it increasingly difficult to tolerate someone else's which - by definition - invalidates our own. The Christian who believes that only those who accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior will be granted eternal life can hardly accept a Muslim faith which claims that not only does the Christian face eternal damnation, but it is the Muslim who will live forever. And, of course, vice versa.
When people face "immortality projects" different than their own, they often react in four basic ways: (1) ignoring them; (2) seeking to convert them; (3) attempting to dominate or subjugate them; and, if all else fails, (4) seeking to eliminate them.
This analysis explains a great deal, such as violence, neglect of the needy, prejudice, racism, sexism, and humanity's unfortunate habit of elevating normal men and women into demi-gods.
It is hard to imagine any other analysis that could explain the extraordinary fact that so many Americans, who inhabit one of the most sophisticated civilizations on earth, elevate the rather average men they elect President into near demi-gods after their election. There is, it seems, a near-universal unconscious need to believe that powerful people and institutions can protect us from death.
What is interesting about Becker's social analysis is that, unlike many similar theories, it has been subjected to rigorous experimental testing over the past 20 years. The Terror Management Theory school of social psychologists have conducted dozens of experiments that have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that reminders of death have a massive influence on our social behavior, including causing us to be more intolerant - and even violent - towards members of different groups.
If this evidence is correct, it leads to an interesting conclusion: if we could stop denying our deaths, stop investing in violent "immorality projects", it might well reduce violence and poverty.
Leaders and followers alike who feel real empathy for the pain of their fellow human beings facing death like themselves would create a genuine "culture of life." Our connection would extend to all humanity, rather than being limited to members of our family, community, religion, nation or ethnic groups. We would not dream of initiating or supporting "wars of choice" or other societal violence except in cases of clear self-defense or to prevent genocide. And, in such instances, we would do so as members of a cooperative world order.
There would also be a far greater concern for preventing crimes of war against civilian populations, one of the few checks humanity has against new waves of genocidal violence. Genuine empathy and love for humanity would simply not permit situations like that in the Congo, where an estimated 4 million have died in recent years without the world even noticing, or Darfur where new and extreme forms of genocidal barbarism have been invented.
This profound experience of fellow-feeling would also produce a far greater concern for those in need. The logical case for reducing world poverty - i.e. that in an interdependent world all are helped by a rise in Third World living standards - would be buttressed by the profound feeling that allowing our fellow human-beings to remain in poverty and need while we have so much is humanly intolerable. Helping the needy would not be based on guilt or social obligation, but rather occur as a natural expression of a huma consciousness that genuinely values life because it has faced its pain about its death.