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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
Horrifying acts challenge our general sense of security and our unqualified trust in our fellow human beings. The explanations offered to clarify these horrors, no less than the events themselves, challenge the lofty philosophical descriptors traditionally assigned to our species: rational animals, social animals, thinking things. If we are inherently social, why the frequency of antisocial behaviors? If we are rational thinking beings, what twisted reasons motivate the rich inventory of our gratuitously harmful behaviors across the spectrum of human time?
Answers to the dilemma of gratuitous violence arise from across the disciplines, as well they must, since the urgency of the challenge requires "all hands on deck," drawing upon the special expertise of each discipline, with its unique methodology, tools of inquiry, and points of entry into the problematic. Biologists and ethologists cite dangerous forces embedded in our animal natures. Anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists hunt for clues in the dehumanizing effects of social systems, the political forces that govern them, or the economic circumstances that compel survival instincts. Psychologists look for malfunctions in the cognitive framework of individual perpetrators. The wealth of multi-disciplinary explanations are gathered together in James Waller's excellent comprehensive study, Becoming Evil (Oxford, 2002).
Now Kathleen Taylor joins the discourse, promising to bring to the scholarly exploration of radical violence the perspective of an arena of inquiry that has heretofore remained silent on the matter, the discipline of neuroscience. Her book, Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain, as its title suggests, seeks to bring a detailed understanding of the functioning of the human brain to elucidate the dark recesses of human behavior and to suggest remedies to the problem of gratuitous human intraspecies violence. Elaborate diagrams and detailed descriptions of how brain cells, neurons, and synapses function, as we make our way through everyday life, may boggle our minds, but they do serve to convince us of the message that Taylor repeats again and again—the brain is a very complex organ.
As a general introduction to the problem of human violence, any educated reader will find Taylor's easy, familiar style accessible and appealing. However, since her inventory of existing theories on the subject is sadly incomplete and lacks appropriate citation, a scholarly audience will find it wanting. Moreover, we will not understand why she has invented new terms ("othering") to redescribe old ideas (dehumanization, demonization) that she asserts to be problematic enough to warrant abandon, since she continues to resort to the familiar terms throughout her ongoing descriptions of these mechanisms.
The scholar will also find herself disappointed in terms of the promised goals of the book; after laboring through pages of intricately detailed diagrams and descriptions of brain functioning processes, it becomes increasingly evident that a thorough knowledge of brain biology adds nothing whatsoever to previous explanations of gratuitous violence. Neuroscientific explanations for how brains process emotions, evoke associations, and stimulate reactions seem to offer no new explanatory data to the existing knowledge on the subject of why people happily harm others. Ultimately, the reader suspects that Taylor, too, recognizes the frustrated objective of the work, since at the close of each complex brain process description, she reverts to an already existing theory to demonstrate the applicability of her description.
This very well-written and compelling study will be appreciated largely by non-specialists, especially if they are prepared to skip over large sections of daunting neurological descriptions. Any educated adult will benefit from a review of the literature on violence causality. However, I would be reluctant to recommend it even to a general audience because, after all the instruction it offers on violence's reasons, its conclusions are deeply troubling. Taylor closes by recommending that, to counter our violent urges, we need more moral opprobrium in our societies to "render callousness less socially acceptable" (p. 264). Employing the "tools of politics and science," we must reconfigure the symbolic, and fire up the "moral passions" to reach more deeply into the recesses of our psyches to configure us for appropriate reactions (disgust, shame) to behaviors that are inappropriate and cruel.
The fact is that politics and science are implicated in histories of cruelty, and indeed make possible long-distance, thus conscience-free, killing. Moreover, if studies of violent perpetrators tell us anything very clearly, it is that people who harm others, where they are not simply mentally ill, have one thing broadly in common—a deep-seated sense of shame. More often than not, entrenched negative feelings about themselves and others is precisely what drives people to lose control of their "moral passions" and resort to cruel behaviors. To explain current cruelty by stating that societies have simply grown callous is to ignore the millennia of intraspecific violences that predate us. This facile conclusion is simply disingenuous. No societies find cruelty socially acceptable. Most people are quite capable of recognizing wanton violence and they actively moralize and legislate against it. But individuals, usually burdened with deep-seated negative emotions, can construct "reasons" why this violence is functional and necessary, and not simply cruel.
© 2009 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., SAC (Dip.), North Carolina A&T State University
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