One of the most persistent causes of human distress in world has been that too many human relationships are built around the tendencies of dominance and exploitation. This is true not just of the apparently more hostile relationships but even of some apparently friendly relationships where the urge for dominance often remains at least on one side and contributes in many less obvious ways also to distress. This tendency can be seen in the relationships of individuals, groups and entire nations.
While this is widely recognized, there is also a much less recognized aspect of such situations . If this neglected aspect gets better recognition in our deeply troubled world, then this recognition can lead to many more efforts for improving human relationships, and it is with this neglected aspect that we are concerned here.
The relationships of dominance and exploitation of course cause much distress to the dominated and exploited people, but in addition, and this neglected aspect should be emphasized, they also cause, perhaps in less obvious but nevertheless very real and important ways, a lot of distress to the perpetrators of exploitation and domination. As I tried to explain this tendency in my book Burning on Both Ends , “The persons who fill their coffers by inflicting injustice and cruelty on others have to live with a guilt complex that can destroy their peace. To get rid of this guilt they have to lower themselves to such a level of insensitivity that deprives them of simple yet precious joys of life… The suppressing of spiritual values (that is required to be able to commit injustice) creates distortions in the persons (or the groups) due to which they are denied even that happiness which many poor people can experience freely and in plenty.”
In other words a person (or a group or a nation) who inflicts injustice and injury on others, will either live with a guilt complex (if he wants to retain some sensitivity) or else he’ll have to reduce himself to a level of insensitivity that will prevent him from feeling small but precious joys of everyday life and this in turn is bound to adversely affect his closest relationships including those with his family members. Thus relationships of dominance and exploitation are not only destructive, these are also self-destructive.
This can be explained by giving several examples from the life of those who played a leading role in cruel or exploitative undertakings. The man who in a way started the entire colonizing process of modern times , Columbus, may be mentioned in this context. The endless greed and cruelties of Columbus are by now quite well known– chopping the hands of someone who could not deliver gold to him was commonplace for him. What is not quite so well known is the range of psychiatric complications from which Columbus suffered. Sigmundo Feliz, a reputed doctor who attended on him during his last days, has left a detailed note on Columbus. Extracts from this note (made available due to the efforts of historian Kirkpatrick Sale) :
“To be without roots, without a sense of home and place, is one of the most serious, though one of the least emphasized, psychological disorders. This patient suffered from this to an unusual degree. From what I have been able to discover, he had so little of that feeling we Spaniards call querencia – a love of home and a sense of inner well-being – that he could truly be called a man who never lived anywhere, who simply never had a home. …Bending truth to suit unusual circumstances is a normal enough trait, but a persistent habit of equivocation and misrepresentation, while not necessarily pathological, is certainly dysfunctional – in some cases indicative of full-fledged disorders. This patient appears from all my evidence to be someone who found it difficult, even in non-threatening circumstances, to tell the truth, a habit of delusion that at times developed into self-delusion. ..Finally, I must draw attention to a psychotic trait that can only be described as phrenitis – repeated delusions that occur with such intensity that they raise serious questions about how we are to regard his general sanity in the rest of his life.”
This is by no means an isolated example. Exploiters, cruel conquerors, those who persistently try to dominate and use others for selfish ends face this constant problem of guilt, void , aggression, denial, self-delusion, hostility, insatiable greed and dissatisfaction within them which can be very difficult to live with and keeps troubling and tormenting them. One way out that has been sought increasingly is that efforts have been made to use high technology in such ways as to create a distance between the perpetrator of injury and the effects of his actions in such a way as to remove the feeling of guilt. Ravi Sundaram writes in a review article in EPW, “The emergence of a complex division of labour under modern capitalism has meant that functional specialisation generates a necessary remoteness of human agents from the end-product of their social action. In this context, the bureaucrat’s own action becomes an end in itself. Once so isolated from the consequences of action, the bureaucrat, untroubled by moral dilemmas, can pursue his allocated tasks. The architects of the holocaust, the bombers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the technocrats who designed the Vietnam war, could continue doing so without moral qualms precisely because of the social production of distance in modernity.”
Giving an important example from modern history Sundaram continues, “This aspect is crucial in understanding the technological evolution of the holocaust. In the early history of the holocaust, the victims were rounded up and machine-gunned at point-blank range. The administrator soon found this both primitive and inefficient – and damaging to soldiers’ morale. Other techniques were sought which would preserve the optical distance between murderers and murdered. The result – the gas chamber, the perfect murdering machine. This reduced the role of the killer to that of the ‘sanitation officer’ who simply pressed the button which released the gas into the chamber filled with the hapless victims.”
However technological solutions to remove guilt and related afflictions have not always worked. Reader’s Digest magazine has described the suffering of a child, Kim Phuc at the time of bombing of Trang Bang (Vietnam) by US planes (R.D. November 1997),
“The bombs, canisters filled with napalm, had smashed into the ground behind Kim and instantly ignited. The jellified gasoline, designed to stick to and incinerate anything it touches, splashed onto Kim’s back. Her flowered cotton shirt and pants–even her sandal–combusted. She was engulfed in a cloud of smoke and fire as napalm peeled away the skin from her back and left arm. Terrified, Kim kept running. At first she could feel nothing. Then she felt as if she had been thrown onto an open fire. In horror she saw the skin drop off her arm like clothes off a doll. As she ran naked down the road that led out of the village, she began screaming, “Too hot! Too hot! Please help!”
This magazine also noted the later impact of this suffering on the sensitive mind of the pilot who caused this suffering: “Now he stared at the picture of Kim Phuc, her agony caught for eternity. His own son Louis was about the same age. He could almost smell the child’s burning flesh.
…Later he kept his role in the bombing of Trang Bang secret, locked deep within his soul. It surfaced in the form of a nightmare. First Plummer would see a picture of Kim, with arms outstretched and mouth frozen in a silent scream. Then the image would widen to include Kim’s brother and cousins running alongside her. Finally, he would hear their screams, louder and louder until he felt surrounded by the accusing children. To drown his guilt, Plummer began drinking heavily. In July 1973 he married for the second time, but he still kept his secret. No one can understand, he thought. John Plummer’s drinking cost him his marriage in 1979. It was a vicious circle; he drank to put the bombing out of his mind, but the drinking made him more obsessed.”
Such impacts include not just alcohol and substance abuse but also aggression in personal life and self-destruction of various kinds. Time magazine reported that spousal abuse is occurring in 1 out of every 3 US Army families each year – double the civilian rate. Some cases of violence at the hands of husbands (or other men in family) are so gory that not many people will be able to stand any detailed descriptions. As reported in Time, a marine in California, who was a ‘hero’ of the Gulf War, not only killed his newly-divorced wife but in addition also killed their five year old daughter. In North Carolina an airman hacked his wife to pieces, wrapped her remains in plastic garbage bags and stored them in the refrigerator.
These are examples of aggression in one part of life ( the battlefield) intruding into another part of life ( close family relations ), but in addition there are other manifestations also as can be seen from the guilt and the distress suffered by so many US armed forces veterans ( as well as the veterans of many other conquering armies which inflicted a lot of cruelty on innocent persons in the course of their conquests).
There is need for much further work on this subject, of course, to establish in greater detail and with many examples the fact that in relationships of domination and exploitation while the immediate distress may be caused to those who are the victims, in the longer-term and wider context a lot of distress is also caused to the perpetrators. As there is greater realization of this, the most important task of basing human relationships on cooperation and care rather than on domination and exploitation will get a big boost.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril , Man Over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children.