Undoing the cycle of violence

Stephen Blumenthal with thoughts on leaders.

31 March 2022

Two presidents, two contrasting approaches to managing violence. There are lessons in this for all of us in how to deal with conflict.

On the one hand, there is Joe Biden with his unscripted, incendiary remarks that Vladimir Putin ‘cannot remain in power’. On the other, Volodymyr Zelesnky, statesman-like in the face of severe provocation, asserting his nation’s resolve against the Russian behemoth, whilst refusing to be drawn in to rubbing Putin’s nose in his failures. 

Zelensky knows the two lessons that 30 years of working with violent states of mind has taught me – first, shame is intimately interwoven with perpetrating aggression and second, the worst way of ameliorating violence is to aggravate the offender’s sense of humiliation. Violence begets violence; the shamed becomes the shamer. In W.H. Auden’s immortal words from September 1, 1939, ‘Those to whom evil is done, Do evil in return.’

How then do we undo the cycle of violence?

We should avoid the temptation to 'diagnose' Putin from afar – to establish whether he suffers from a disorder of mind you need to discern motivation by direct contact with him. But his public proclamations, present and past, at least suggest that he is shame-prone, with hubristic aggression his toxic antidote.   

At root, all violence is an attempt to overcome a perceived threat. Insecurity is the foundation of violence, its purpose to establish a sense of precarious safety. What Putin fears most is to be seen as weak; for him this is intolerable, fight-flight-freeze mode in response to danger has only one setting. 

But the problem with human aggression is that it doesn’t end there. Violence as tragedy has the potential to escalate to tyranny. This is clear from findings in neuroscience. The ‘Rage’ system represents one of our inbuilt affective pathways, necessary for survival. There are three types.

Firstly, aggression begins in the service of self-preservation, a response to a threat. Putin tells the story in his biography, First Person, of growing up in Leningrad where he fended off rats with a stick in his apartment. He never forgot how one fought back when cornered and he vowed to do the same – ‘there is no retreat’, he said. 

When the brain circuitry associated with self-preservation is stimulated electrically, animals, including humans, will attack whatever is in front of it. Crucially, this is experienced as unpleasant and the creature will try to escape.

But human violence goes further than this, where it meets with its dangerous cousin, cruelty. Proactive, predatory violence is well-controlled, deliberate choreographed and shades into malice. 

When the neurological pathway associated with proactive rage is stimulated, the animal actually enjoys it and will self-stimulate by pressing the lever which activates the electrical current. This is the origin of sadism.

A third type of violence, social dominance aggression, completes the deadly cocktail that we see today. This is generally male-oriented and has the purpose enforcing a dominance hierarchy. This then is the source of cruel, oppressive control motivated by paranoia.  

Shame based on weakness, combined with paranoia and sadism, is a lethal blend. It incorporates the fear of annihilation with not just establishing power and control, but involves the wilful enjoyment in other people’s suffering. The victim isn’t just subjugated, they are derided in conquest.

Zelensky seems able to recognise Putin’s sensitivity to shame, his need to save face. He sees a man caught up in action, unable to think, yet despite the pressures he endures, Zelenksy keeps his head. 

When emotion is running high we can lose the ability to empathise. An escalating argument is like a tennis match. As each player hits the ball harder, the other tends to hit it back with greater force and at a more difficult angle, thereby upping the ante. 

Zelenksy perhaps understands that in this situation it’s better to act like a wall which deflects the shot at the same velocity, rather than an opponent who adds to the ferocity of the match, as Biden appears to do.

There is another affective circuit in the brain, the Care system, which is responsible for compassion, nurture and creativity. This is not simply the rolling over and acceptance of domination. But it involves the meeting of the other on a horizontal plane, promoting a democratic relationship, as opposed to vertical relations based upon power and control. 

One of these days this bloodlust will end and we will inhabit a world based on care rather than rage. This requires the assertion of compassion rather than stoking the cycle of violence.

Dr Stephen Blumenthal is Consultant Clinical Psychologist & Psychoanalyst at the Portman Clinic, Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust, and Queen Anne Street Practice.