In my search for answers to the toughest philosophical questions, I find myself being enlightened in the most unusual ways; and often, by the most unexpected people.
The other night, I was watching a show called “Scared Straight“, in which young offenders and troubled youths visit hardened criminals in prison in order to get a taste of criminal reality. One the convicted felons said something that stuck with me because of its poignancy. He said, “Hurt people hurt people.”
There are so many ways to interpret this: I got hurt, so I’m going to hurt others. Pain is all I know, so what else can I give? I have so much pain, I have to get rid of it onto others. Others deserve to suffer because I did. I had no choice so why should anyone else? I don’t want to be alone in my hurt. I need to share it.
Desperation is the common thread.
Any feeling felt strongly enough is a feeling that imposes the desire to share it. When you are in love, you floats. You wish to shout from the mountain tops about your potently bursting feelings. The same thing happens when you are in pain, and perhaps, a potently bursting negative feeling deserves no less tribute. In any case, human beings have a social proclivity towards sharing feelings.
In the case of hatred, anger or violence, the emotion is often so horrible and powerful that the person feeling it wants to get rid of it, and since the emotion is so volatile, the expression of it tends to be as well. In addition, even if on some deep moral level a person knows that hurting others is wrong, the compulsion to eradicate the bad feelings, on a psychological level, is prevalent. The need to not feel intensely negative all the time overrides the need to walk a moral or ethical path.
In essence, I think it is very likely that the act of imposing pain on others might be merely symptomatic of overflowing negative emotions. Every person has a threshold for pain; the breaking point is when the dam of self control breaks and the pain floods out. I would go so far as to say this a survival mechanism we are born with.
Adaptationist thinking about physiological mechanisms, such as the heart, lungs, and immune system, is common in evolutionary biology. Evolutionary psychology applies the same thinking to psychology, arguing that the mind is a modular structure similar to that of the body with different modules having adapted to serve different functions. Evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behaviour is the output of psychological adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments.
We are biologically programmed to survive. Psychologically, when a person feels fearful and hurt all the time (due to inappropriate neural networking, a person can feel threatened by even things and people that are no threat to them in reality), fight or flight syndrome kicks in and puts them in offensive mode.
To take this point further, if a child is born into an abusive life and learns nothing but abuse, pain, fear and intimidation, they will not only be conditioned to think that this type of feeling is normal (in other words, the nurture side of things conditions them to believe that this is the way things are), but they might also feel an even deeper conditioning based on the biological and social need to connect with others to share what they have experienced. In essence, if the method of connection is created in a chaotic mind, it often presents in a chaotic or harmful way. This is where is gets really interesting for me as a philosopher.
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