I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There is no such thing as “the bad guy.” Every time we see an enemy it is because our minds have projected them onto the world. If we didn’t create them first in our thoughts and perceptions, they literally would not exist.
But wait, you might say, wasn’t the guy who just shot up a gay bar in Orlando a “bad guy”? Isn’t he an enemy of peace and security? Or what about terrorists and suicide bombers? Aren’t they bad people who need to be stopped?
My answer to this question is yes, but only if that is the way you construct your story about the events that transpired. Imagine instead if you thought about how impoverished social contexts give rise to emotionally broken men and women — how anger and hatred are the consequences of someone acting out in pain. This would be the foundation for a different story, one that brings sympathy instead of judgment, a call for compassion rather than responding to violence with more violence.
One of the most robust findings in all of the social sciences is this:
Human beings naturally and automatically divide our social world into groupings of people. We create “us” and “them” around superficial things like skin tone and eye color, age and gender, nationality and ethnicity, sports teams, and more.
Yet all of these divisions are synthetic constructions. They are artifacts of the human mind. They don’t exist independently out there in the world. The reality is that we perceive them to be real in here in the internal workings of our own minds. And we generally have no clue this is what we are doing because these thought processes are invisible to us.
Why is this so important to understand? There is much I could say on the topic — for this article I’ll just share three things:
- Many problems arise from the hidden recesses of the human mind. It is vital to name the unnamed processes at their core if we want any hope of solving them. This is true for the climate crisis, economic turmoil, and many other issues we might care about. It is also true for dealing with conflicts and violence.
- Systemic problems can only be solved by dealing with root causes.Failure to recognize that “us versus them” is an artifact of human thoughts and perceptions will lead to solutions (like regulations for gun control or placing a price on carbon emissions) that simply won’t work in practice. Only systemic solutions that take account of all root causes will get the job done.
- Projecting enemies onto the world is a self-fulfilling cultural pattern.We create enemies by behaving as if they exist. Behavioral researchers and family therapists have long known that violence runs in cycles — when thoughts and actions in one round recreate the conditions for it to happen again. If we want to break the cycles and create a more peaceful world, we’ll need to take seriously this psychological (and cultural) feedback as fundamental to these cycles.
The take-away lesson from all of this is that enemies don’t exist separate from our judgments and perceptions about them. Bad guys hide in our minds by lurking among the invisible-t0-us cognitive processes that give rise to our thoughts and feelings.
I have written elsewhere about how systems of wealth hoarding also hide in our minds. That the global ecological crisis is caused by the lack of conscious awareness about how we need to think about it. That humanity is moving toward a future nobody wants because we have unconscious habits about the universe and our place within it.
These things matter. How we think about things matters more than we realize. I want to live in a more peaceful world. So I practice vigilance about not treating others as “the enemy” and looking instead for systemic root causes. Hopefully, more of us will practice paying attention to the habits of our minds so we can begin to reprogram our cultures and break the cycles of violence in so many parts of the world today.
Onward, fellow humans.
Joe Brewer -- I am a change strategist working on behalf of humanity, and also a complexity researcher, cognitive scientist, and evangelist for the field of culture design.