I went to college six weeks after my 17th birthday, and I learned how to kill people.
That educational process started early on during my time at the United States Naval Academy with one-on-one types of hand-to-hand combat and self-defense techniques, before we moved on to heavier fare, literally and figuratively. I qualified as a marksman with a pistol and as a sharpshooter with a rifle during my freshman year, and then I had the opportunity to operate a variety of portable ordinance devices in later years, including shooting at a (scrap) truck with a tube-launched, optically-sighted, wire-guided anti-tank missile. That was fun! Later on, I trained in airplanes, on submarines (including ballistic missile boats), and on surface warfare ships that were all stacked with formidable people-killing armament. I then went on to a decade-long career managing budgets and contracts for a program that designed and built nuclear propulsion plants for transporting various instruments of mass carnage around the globe, rapidly, stealthily, lethally.
Thankfully, I was never asked to use any of those skills nor any of those tools in any real acts of hostility, simply by virtue of having had my time in the military correspond to an unusually long peaceful streak in our nation’s history. Had I been directed to do so, though, I certainly would have followed my orders. Interestingly, though, I doubt that I would have actually felt any real sense of personal hostility toward any of my targets, but rather would have just been a willing pawn deployed to implement my kingdom’s institutionalized hostilities toward other kingdoms.
Unless, of course, someone was shooting at me or my loved ones first, which would have changed everything, instantly. I can think of few things more likely to trigger towering feelings of hostility than the sheer indignity of having one’s life or family threatened directly, whether by an enemy combatant, or by an armed robber, or by a drunken or road-raging driver, or by any other external assault on my/our well-being.
I learned first-hand by stepping into the boxing ring during my time at the Academy how such an unbidden sense of preservation-based hostility can emerge suddenly and unexpectedly. I fought my own room-mate a couple of times, and while I truly do love him like a brother, he’s a good deal bigger than me (it sucks to weigh in at the bottom of the heavy-weight division), and after he popped me in the face a couple of times and the adrenaline started flowing, I just wanted to hurt him quick before he hurt me again. If I’d have been able to score a knock-out blow, I would have been happy to land it. And then the final bell rang, and then we hugged it out. Hostility resolved. Wow, where did that come from? And where did it go?
In considering the nature of institutional and personal hostility, it seems helpful to sort the ways in which it can emerge or be imposed, as a possible first step in considering how (and if) it can (or should) be mitigated. Perhaps a quadrant model like this, where the X-axis plots how ordered the hostility is, and the Y-axis plots the number of humans sharing in the hostility:
In the organized group hostility quadrant (top right), the types of hostilities experienced are generally those imposed from above or beyond any one individual’s emotions. Below that, hostilities in the organized individual quadrant (bottom right) may be more personally deep-seated, with gang members deeply hating their rivals, xenophobes self-organizing into militias to fight the feared others (whoever they might be), and rival sports teams (or more often their fans) actually hating those who play or root for other teams.
On the chaotic side of the grid, the group quadrant (top left) represents spontaneous or non-governmental hostility against a ruling caste, or a different ethnic group, or a competing economic system. The chaotic individual hostility quadrant (bottom left) seems to be one most prone to and rife with sudden personal violence, and it’s also the space where those transient, emergent senses of rage and aggression and ill-will can quickly emerge, and possibly abate, just as quickly.
While the word “hostility” is certainly one fraught with negative connotations, as I look at this graph, I can hypothetically formulate situations in the upper quadrants where hostility may be a justified, and even noble, emotional state. Oppressed citizens throwing off the yoke of a tyrant (top left), for example, or soldiers fighting a “just war” as the Allies did in Europe against the monsters who conceived of the Holocaust (top right), among myriad other horrors. (More problematic: those who were just “following orders” in implementing those vile dictates). Humans should feel hatred toward loathsome dogma, and if that hatred manifests itself as active, overt, institutional hostility toward those who embrace such dogma, that seems a fair, fitting and reasonable fuel for the actions required to quell and quash such noxious beliefs and the regimes that promulgate them.
The lower half of the quadrant is more difficult to parse: it’s hard to frame a sound argument for justified street crime, or sports hooliganism, or mob hits, or hateful graffiti, or destruction of private and public property as a hostile response to undesirable stimuli. The sense that individualized hostility is always (or nearly always) a negative condition to be avoided or suppressed is borne out in mental health diagnosis and practice, where hostility is actually considered a symptom of many underlying mental or emotional disorders, and where numerous theories have been put forth to explain hostility as a psychological phenomenon.
So unwell people may feel hostility as part of their mental illness, and we would theoretically seek to treat or cure that symptom and its cause — even as every single one of us feels what could be considered clinical hostility toward some of the people we interact with, some of the time, regardless of how we might aspire to avoid such emotional states. We may not act on our hostilities, mind you, but we feel them, on a very deep, organic basis. In some ways, it seems that this type of chemical hostility is simply a manifestation of the disgust reflex: nobody likes feeling repelled or nauseous by filth and decay, but that strong bodily reaction to such stimuli actually protects us from harm by steering us away from toxicity. Are some forms of emotional hostility toward others just manifestations of that disgust reflex?
If hostility is, in fact, an intrinsic, organic part of what we are — and century upon century upon century of humans hating and harming each other would certainly seem to indicate that this may be the case — then perhaps the only meaningful reflection on individual hostility is to consider how and when we let that inner state of aversion manifest itself externally. Is shouting racial slurs at strangers acceptable, desirable behavior? Of course not. But how about “punching Nazis” (to cite a common current trope), literally or figuratively? Is that hostility justified? And if so, is acting on it acceptable and desirable? Could be.
While we may not be able to choose what feelings of hostility we experience as individuals, we do have more personal agency when it comes to our willingness to accept and act on institutional hostility. As noted above, I know full well that had I been given a legal order to take the lives of others in the field of war, I would have done so, accepting that whatever hostility my Commander-in-Chief dictated on behalf of the Nation’s citizenry was a hostility that I would be willing to act on, whether I actually felt it emotionally or not.
Many others would not and do not, obviously, by either refusing to take up arms, or refusing to accept orders to use them. I tend to think that when a national leader regularly expresses loathsome personal hostilities, then there’s an even greater onus on those who serve the nation to actively, consciously weigh their obligations to embrace institutional hostility, since it’s a slippery slope down the “just doing my job” argument into concentration camps and genocide.
There’s a conundrum in all of this: many (most?) of us are willing to service hostilities that we don’t personally feel, even as we work hard to not act on the hostilities that we actually do experience internally. The social contracts that create this odd dichotomy are easily understood and widely accepted on a macro basis, even as they provide ripe fuel for cognitive dissonance and other psychological turmoil on a micro basis. We may even find ourselves feeling hostile toward the very structures and strictures that define how hostility manifests itself in our lives, both publicly and privately.
The only way to completely step beyond this dichotomy would be to step beyond the company of other human beings altogether — but while the hermits of the world may not wrestle regularly with the conundrums of every day hostilities, they ultimately end up being conceptually hostile to humanity as a whole. Managing our hostilities makes us functionally human, on some plane, and the shared alignment of our expressed hostilities may even serve to create and bind the societies we live in — and thereafter the societies that we hate, individually and institutionally.
Imagine a world where all humans were all hostile toward the same things, in the same ways. A single global hatred would actually result in a more peaceful planet than we’ve ever experienced since we learned how to kill with our hands, and with sticks and rocks, and with blunderbusses and bazookas, and with guided missiles and cluster bombs. It’s the wide breadth of human hostilities that segregates and isolates us, more than the depth of any one hatred. Ironically, as we grow ever more connected on a global basis in this our brave new digital heyday, we also grow ever more aware of just how many specific types of hatred and hostility are available to us all, individually and institutionally, which divides and agitates us ever more precisely on many planes.
So should we aspire to reject and rebuff all the forms of hostility that surround, shape and define us? I’m personally hostile to that idea, and I would oppose a regime that promoted it as a defining organizational dogma, since such a regime would pragmatically represent nothing more than the fever dreams of mad Utopians. A rejection of hostility as a defining characteristic of the human experience is an impossibly inhuman stance, and collectively stripping ourselves of our own humanity, flawed though it may be, would be a precursor of an ultimate collective psychological and sociological implosion.
We’re better served by understanding our hostilities than we are by denying them, segregating the justifiably actionable or expressible ones from the ones that constantly patter around inside us, whether we want them there or not. Some hostilities protect us from harm. Some do not. Some hostilities define who we are. Some do not. Some hostilities shape our communities. Some do not. The art of being successfully human may come from being able to skillfully parse these distinctions, and openly and fairly encouraging others to do the same. In doing so, though, we need to understand that others may view the world through different lenses than we do, and that the hostilities experienced by (say) an older, affluent, white male may be entirely different from those experienced by a woman, or by a person of color, or by a homeless person struggling with the very basics of subsistence.
We can know how to kill without killing. We can know how to hate without hating. We can feel hostile without being hostile. Or we can be hostile without feeling hostile. We have agency in the presence of hostility imposed and hostility expressed, both individually and institutionally, but we must choose to accept that agency. I believe we should do so, and I believe we may all become better humans by occasionally facing the ugliness that sits at the very heart of our species’ collective soul, and also occasionally considering the ugliness that our societies ask us to assume as part of our social contracts, and then consciously, actively shaping our behaviors to manage, accept, or reject that ugliness, as best befits our personal and collective circumstances.
I didn’t generally feel hostile, even when I was training to be an agent of hostility.
Note: This is part one of a planned twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this first article complete, I roll the dice again . . .
. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Eight: “Curiosity.”