The war on the Ukraine (which is personally disturbing to me, as I have a good friend who grew up in Mariupol) has led me to think about how such terrible acts happen when a very high majority of people in the world are so peaceful, loving, or at the very least, not willing to take action even if they are angry or disagree with someone or an ideology, a people, a religion. Most ordinary citizens are trying to go about their daily lives: paying bills, buying groceries, taking care of their families, going to work, trying to get enough sleep. This is the plight of billions of people in the world, and there are often many more stresses added to it for people in difficult socioeconomic conditions, such as no water, no reliable electricity, poor access to healthcare and education. And when there are crises, these people feel alarmed, deeply affected, sad, or at least concerned. There has been a global outpouring of support for Ukrainians, be it performing music and concerts to raise money to help the people there, hanging Ukrainian flags in their yards, donating money, or wearing a button with a kind message.
When there is this deluge of love and sympathy, how is it that Putin and other warmongers, sociopaths, dictators, or even local-level bullies, greedy individuals, and manipulative people manage to have so much control and wreak havoc? One big piece of it, I believe, is a power grab. While people are attending to daily preoccupations, some people are willing to sacrifice their personal life for power. They are willing to lose sleep, have terrible quality relationships, commit unethical deeds to get ahead. Granted, political activists have told us for decades, centuries or millennia even, that we need to be involved in our political systems; otherwise, the power-hungry will take over. Perhaps, after attending to their Maslowian needs, people get caught up about their clothing, enjoying entertainment, feeling apathetic about the political system, or checking social media ad nauseam in the modern era?
While there could be an element of truth to this belief that people are sleeping while a few grab power, this is a gross error and huge misassumption in the overall context of culture and evaluating power dynamics. People in power often use force or violence to get there. Think of countless coups in Latin America, genocide in Cambodia, Armenia, and Central Europe, or 9/11. The access to weapons and tools of aggression is frightening at a level that is staggering in our globally-interconnected world. Trying to find the paper trail of, say, a Saudi sheikh who is funding terrorism would be quite difficult, perhaps even nearly impossible in some cases. Same for the one percent who can stash their money offshore through all kinds of financial havens and evade paying taxes. In their case, their weapons are loopholes in the law.
What does this tell us? That the structures and institutions we live in are unjust, unethical, and favor a tiny minority who is in power and in control.
We all start out the same as babies and children. We differentiate into unique personalities, and in these early stages, trauma can have a lasting impact for the rest of a child’s life. Personality disorders form: if not treated, they grow and become a menace not only to the afflicted individual, but also to society. Sometimes these things are invisible: think of the doctor who is accomplished, holds a prestigious degree, appears respectable on the outside, but is cheating her tenants as a landlady and violating local laws. (I, unfortunately, have been the injured party in this situation not once but twice.) Or perhaps an event later in life like a major life change, or a discovery of a talent for making money, amassing property, or holding sway over people leads a person to develop a false sense of power and confidence. Unchecked and unregulated, this individual develops into a narcissist. At the core, this person is weak and frightened, and can only compensate by losing a sense of empathy for others and getting ahead. We live in a frightening era with the rise of the far-right all over the world (with South Korea most recently added to the list.) Innocents and truth tellers are punished, even killed: for every Maria Ressa, there is a Daphne Caruana Galizia.
All these things which I have discussed are things we have witnessed in all sorts of institutions: the Catholic Church, the Oval Office, 1930s German politics, academic departments, 12th-century Mongolian rule, and too many more to list. What does this tell us? We need to evaluate our institutions and ask what sorts of people they produce. Are they enabling bad behavior? Are we, on an individual level, enabling bad behavior simply by not speaking up about it? The bystander effect is something very real. Fundamentally, how do we regulate human behavior, eliminate violence of any form, and develop empathy? These questions extremely difficult to answer and are as old as human beings themselves. So is the situation of powerlessness. But so is the human capacity to fight back and offer love and support.