Why Do We Harm Each Other?

Y son fieras Goya for Doing Harm blog post

Not long ago, while doing research for my second novel, I interviewed a man who’d grown up in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. Beirut, once called the Paris of the Middle East, had been a city known for its beauty and cultural sophistication where Maronite Christians, Druze, Sunni and Shia Muslims lived peaceably side by side. By 1958, however, sectarian politics had set neighbor against neighbor and engendered hatred between the groups. As my interviewee remembered, “The dear friend you played with as a boy might now knock on your door and shoot your mother in the face.”

How do we make sense of this? How could former friends and neighbors suddenly do such harm and commit egregious acts of violence? Reading the oral histories of war victims suggests a pattern: under certain conditions, especially during times of state upheaval or governmental collapse, ordinary people can be persuaded to commit atrocities or to enable others to commit them. The outer chaos of change and disruption fosters confusion that undermines our sense of trust and confidence and can deeply affect our inner lives. Empathy is the ability to feel another’s suffering, but during times of stress, when our circuits for handling negative emotions get exhausted, we grow numb to the fear mounting within us. Self-preservation becomes our focus and our instincts drive us to align with the powerful, the winning side.

Hitler Youth in Berlin for Doing Harm blog postWe don’t have to look to war zones to see evidence of this. To a lesser degree, it’s enacted on the playground, in classrooms, in corporations and in government. Although it may be comforting to think of a crazed gunman, a revolutionary, or cult leader as the sole perpetrator of evil, “good citizens” everywhere, even in our own country, have been responsible for or complicit in reprehensible crimes in the form of slavery, sex trafficking, child labor and inhumane labor conditions.

Closer to home, who hasn’t indulged in or colluded with the more minor indecencies of taunting, bullying, hazing, name-calling or ostracism? Telling an ethnic-slurring joke may seem harmless; yet if we have been the brunt of such a joke, we feel its poisonous barb. To think of someone as a category–a gook, a geek, a Pole, a retard—is to ignore that person’s individuality and make them into a “thing.” It is easier to hate a “thing” than a creature that resembles ourselves.

Neither hatred nor anger completely explains how intelligent, rational people do the unthinkable. In their testimony, Eichmann and other Nazi officials responsible for the death of millions prided themselves on having a fondness for individual Jews. To them, their lack of hatred exonerated them from their horrendous deeds and proved they were superior to the crass killers who enjoyed murdering others. In the minds of these courteous and civilized killers, they were only doing their jobs (mass extermination), and doing them well, another source of pride.

Adolph Eichmann for Doing Harm blog postHow do cruelty and meanness become normalized? As philosopher Elizabeth Minnich, one-time assistant to Hannah Arendt, writes in The Evil of Banality: On the Life and Death Importance of Thinking, “We know that we humans can shift our minds into making sense of and accepting things that, before we became insiders of utterly distorted systems, we would have found impossible to imagine ourselves approving of, let alone doing.”

Many people in the U.S. are surprised by the rank bitterness, anger and hatred circulating in the zeitgeist. We may even be surprised by our own vitriol. Our neighbor voted for the other guy (or gal), and we wonder How could he? We feel our differences are irreconcilable. Our friend is no longer our friend, she is Other.

Imagine this: The Powerful declare that people with red hair are to be guarded against. Warnings are issued. At first, no one thinks much about the warnings or laughs them off. How can a group as diverse as red-haireds be lumped together as dangerous? But then the warnings increase, suspicion takes root, and rumors abound. Fear infects people’s thought processes. As the fear increases, red-haireds go from being shunned, to being taunted, to being hunted and killed. Some of the greatest sci-fi movies of the fifties, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and the adaptation of George Orwell’s books, 1984 and Animal Farm (the 1954 American animation was funded by the CIA), aptly symbolize our fear of “aliens,” the national paranoia of communism at that time, and the surreality of living under absolute power. Orwell’s books, in particular, depict how the accretion of propaganda can numb our brains and change our hearts and minds. Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II wrote his own version of this phenomenon for the musical South Pacific.

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Princesse de Lamballe for Doing Harm blog postIn the preliminary stages of propaganda, people’s perceptions of the Other change. Maybe that red-haired banker is embezzling my cash. Should I trust my kids with the red-haired babysitter? Once perceptions change, feelings about a person change. The Powerful proclaim red-haireds are cockroaches. Soon they begin to look like cockroaches. We notice they don’t walk, they scurry. They stink like garbage; they disgust us. The vilification of another leads to his objectification. We know from history that if we dehumanize a person, it’s easier to take violent action against her. If our neighbor is now a bug, sub-human, we are free to remove her from our society. Squash the cockroach!

In his excellent chapter “The Fascist State of Mind” in the book, Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self Experience, psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas lists the mental mechanisms we use to dispassionately de-personalize the Other. The list includes distortion or slander of the other’s point of view; denigration or belittling of the other; caricature, or the cartooning of the other individual; character assassination; change of name as in labeling, and name-calling.

Battle of Nandorfehervar for Doing Harm blog postBollas wonders why we often seem to love our monsters, those “most gifted practitioners” who have achieved “places of prominence by viciously attacking others.” “Indeed,” Bollas writes, “they [the monsters] also seem to be objects of endearment to those who otherwise would be horrified by such behavior.” One way Bollas understands this phenomenon is that we may try to recover from the trauma this individual has perpetrated in our world “by reminding ourselves how, in so many other ways, this person is not only sane, but likable.”

What we do know is that when propaganda and the distortion of truth rule, we have stopped paying attention to reality and have ceded moral reflection and self-awareness to an authority outside the Self. As social beings engaged until death with our connection to others, we are called to live a thinking and feeling life. When we dissociate from the depths of our self-knowledge and abdicate the cultivation of our hearts and minds, we make room for the shadowy “Bluebeards” to dominate our world.

Watch the 1954 animated adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at

Risks of Speaking Out: Coping with the Inequality of Power


Once upon a time, a little girl in an orphanage heard poems in her head. Unfortunately, the strict matron forbade the children to have paper or pencils, and so there was no way for the little girl to preserve them. Afraid she’d forget the beautiful lines that skittered through her brain, the little girl snuck bits of soap from the showers, and with a stick she’d gathered from the playground, carved the poems into the soap. When the matron discovered the girl’s disobedience, she marched to her bedside ready to confiscate the nubbins of soap, but before she could reach her, the little girl popped the poems that had brought her hope and joy into her mouth and ate her precious words.

Mandelstams for speaking out postIn 1933, the great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, wrote a poem calling Joseph Stalin a peasant killer and comparing the dictator’s mustache to a huge cockroach, his fingers to “ten thick worms.” Mandelstam had grown increasingly critical of Stalin’s totalitarian efforts and his demand that artists become propagandists for the state. The rounding up of dissidents and mass persecutions of “enemies of the people” imperiled Mandelstam’s life. Refusing to abandon his humanistic values, he suffered years of censorship, desperate living conditions, and exile. Mentally and physically exhausted, Mandelstam died before he could live out his sentence of hard labor in a gulag. Nadezhda Mandelstam devised her own private act of rebellion: committing her husband’s work to paper from memory. Her memoir, Hope Against Hope, tells of their sorrowful but courageously defiant lives.

Gandhi, Mandela, Sitting Bull, Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few—these are our iconic heroes who have dissented from the dominant culture and changed history. Not all of us have the emotional strength, physical means, or are called to confront dictators or defy the boss. But, if we examine our lives, we may uncover situations in which we remained silent when we have felt tread upon, compromised or betrayed and felt powerless to protect our dignity, creativity, or our bodies from harm.

Anita Hill for speaking out postAnita Hill. Most of us know her story. In 1991, George H.W. Bush nominates Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court seat vacated by Thurgood Marshall. Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, composed of powerful white men, Anita Hill testifies that while working under Thomas in the Department of Education and EEOC, she was bullied and sexually harassed by her boss. Other women stand in the wings to add their testimony against Thomas, but they are not given a chance to speak. Anita Hill is quickly discredited. When she’s asked why she continued working for Thomas after his alleged indecencies, she tries to explain the pressure she felt to submit to his behavior. The men on the committee do not understand. She tries to explain the climate of fear and retribution under which she worked that influenced her choices. Her testimony is dismissed. David Brock of The American Spectator labels her “a little nutty and a little slutty,” an epithet that sticks, damaging her reputation. Thomas is awarded a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Loss of job, ostracism, impoverishment, exile, humiliation, torture, and possibly death: the cost of speaking truth to power can be life-threatening. History is saturated with sad examples of brave ones who shouted out for freedom, justice, equality, and suffered the price. Punishment is surely a powerful deterrent in keeping our silence intact.

The Emperor's New Clothes for speaking out postHere we are again in a time of public “he said/she said,” of accusation and rebuttal, a time in which the membrane between truth and fiction has worn thin. What questions might we ask about cultures or subcultures that promote and keep the status quo of silence and victimhood? How do we distinguish revenge-seekers from justice-seekers, propagandists from clear-seers? What psychology is at play within us and within the greater society that keeps repression alive? Is it only innocence and naïveté that allows the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to name the naked truth in front of everyone’s eyes?

These are big questions with multifactorial answers and they have led me to search poetry, philosophy, psychology, the shadow work of Carl Jung, and to Dr. Jean Baker Miller and her pioneering research on relational-cultural theory and the dynamics of domination and subordination to find answers.

Toward a New Psychology of Women, Miller’s groundbreaking book, is not only about the inner lives of women, but about the assumptions and codes of behavior maintained by the powerful over the less powerful. The paradigm she introduces is applicable wherever there are great differences in status. In a society that “emphasizes and values some aspects of the total range of human potential more than others, the valued aspects are associated closely with, and limited to, the dominant group’s domain,” she writes.

Susanna and the Elders by Gentileschi for speaking out postMiller reminds us that this paradigm of inequality starts at birth. Naturally, parents have power over their physically and emotionally dependent young children, and we can only hope that they rule benignly until those children are mature enough to stand on their own feet. In the sphere of larger societal structures, however, subordinates are not encouraged or helped to become equals. “A subordinate group,” Miller writes, “has to concentrate on basic survival. Accordingly, direct, honest reaction to destructive treatment is avoided. Open, self-initiated actions in its own self-interest must also be avoided. Such actions can and still do literally result in death for some subordinate groups.”

Across the board, in subtle and not so subtle ways, the subordinates in a society are made to feel substandard, defective, or deviant. This is the territory of stereotypes, racial slurs, ethnic jokes. Miller writes, “The actions and words of the dominant group tend to be destructive toward subordinates.” Subordinates are ascribed innate incapacities in areas of intelligence or discernment. They are viewed as defective or deficient in mind and body. If someone tells us we are dumb long enough, do we not believe we are dumb? If someone tells us we are lazy, incapable, passive, submissive, and expects us to be docile and pleasing, do we not begin to act out those traits? The internalization of myths perpetrated by the dominants about subordinates infiltrate our psyches and become internalized as well as becoming the norm of the culture. What’s more is that those who adhere to the norm are considered well adjusted. Those who rebel, reject, or resist the norm are “uppity,” “shrewish,” “shrill,” “treasonous,” “traitors,” and the like. Jean Baker Miller declares, “To be considered as an object can lead to the deep inner sense that there must be something wrong and bad about oneself….To be treated like an object is to be threatened with psychic annihilation.”

Gender, race, religion, ethnicity are all factors that influence who will be top dog in a culture. History too plays a role. Whoever “owns” the land, the plantation, the factory, the military means, education, and, of course, money, owns the power.

Susanna and the Elders Restored by Gilje for speaking out postThe good news is that change can begin on a very individual level. When we feel our personal integrity is at stake, our internal radar warns us: “I can’t take it anymore. I’ve had enough.” Jungian analyst John Beebe, author of Integrity in Depth, suggests that when inner psychic boundaries have been breached, our self-respect steps in to whoop up rage. Rage, outrage, and the demand to be respectfully treated are a healing response to violation. Anger can be a mobilizing force that prompts us to take action to restore ourselves to wholeness. Feeling the injury to our being ideally motivates us to act. Status quo persists when we have gone numb to the trauma, when we are immobilized by fear.

Author and educator Parker J. Palmer writes in his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between people, and between mind and heart, but between one’s self-image and public mask.” Palmer continues: “We have places of fear inside us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on the ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety.”

We have a right to protect our integrity. We can begin by holding a lantern to dark places in our lives, to become self-aware, to feel out what suffering at the hands of others has gone unspoken. Our worth is not for others to decide. Speaking out need not be a public event, but our hearts are listening for our words of self-love.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at