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Malcolm Hollick

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Individualism and violence
by Malcolm Hollick   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Sunday, January 27, 2008
Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2008

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Recent articles by
Malcolm Hollick

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           >> View all

I began this series of articles with the question “Why is it so hard to change the world?” In response, I argued that a fundamental cause is trauma. The trauma of climate change was probably a major cause of the loss of the early partnership culture, and the rise of harsh dominator civilizations – a process immortalised in the myths of humanity’s ejection from the Garden of Eden. Trauma continues to lock us into a self-perpetuating feedback loop that strongly resists a return to more peaceful, egalitarian, cooperative relationships and societies. Despite this resistance, much progress has been made towards partnership over the last century, but it is a slow and painful process.

In this article and the next I want to start looking at other explanations to see how they relate to the trauma model, and what further insights we can draw from them.

Part of our resistance is due to the belief that human nature is aggressively competitive, territorial and hierarchical. But, as I argued a couple of articles ago, this case is hard to sustain when we look at the huge diversity of human cultures, many of which are non-aggressive, cooperative and egalitarian. Great volumes of research reveal how we can foster these characteristics by raising and educating children appropriately. And it turns out that the key criterion that differentiates partnership from dominator child-rearing is trauma. Children who are cherished and experience appropriate adult models of behaviour tend to grow up non-aggressive, cooperative, caring and sharing. They suffer relatively little emotional, psychological or physical trauma compared to those who become aggressive, violent, selfish and competitive.

This trauma model is only one of many possible explanations of the human predicament. I discuss another possible cause here.


My book, "The Science of Oneness: A worldview for the twenty-first century", arose from my belief that we need a new worldview in order to solve the planetary problems of war and violence, poverty and social breakdown, climate change and environmental destruction. The fundamental beliefs and assumptions we hold about the nature of reality constitute our worldview, and determine how we perceive and experience that reality. Indeed, in a very real sense, our worldview creates our reality and the future we forge.

Individuals and civilizations alike resist changing their worldviews. These fundamental beliefs are so deeply embedded that they are accepted unquestioningly as ‘the way things are’. And to question them can threaten our very existence. It can shatter our sense of identity, meaning and purpose; and destroy our emotional and psychological security. It can pitch us into an alien world where we no longer know the rules, and where there are no reassuring answers to our deepest questions. In other words, a change of worldview can be traumatic.

This being the case, why do I believe change is essential? Wouldn’t it be better to avoid this trauma by hanging onto our core beliefs? The answer, I think, lies in balancing the trauma of change against the trauma caused by our current worldview. Our present ‘reality’ produces emotional and psychological trauma that flows through to physical trauma. We can choose to continue this trauma for the foreseeable future, or to endure the relatively brief trauma of a transition to a more positive belief system and a future of less trauma.

How, you may be wondering, does the modern worldview create trauma? To answer that question I’ll quote passages from an article on Worldview and Peace that I wrote for the journal Dialogue and Alliance published by the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace. I have already quoted the first section in an earlier entry on The Danger of Truth. The second section, on Individualism is quoted below. Although the idea of ‘trauma’ is not emphasized, I think the message is clear.


Over three centuries ago, René Descartes believed he had cracked the problem of identity when he declared “I think, therefore I am” – a statement which has become one of the foundation stones of the modern western worldview. Its consequences are profound.

My mind is a highly personal world which I cannot share directly with you, and which you cannot comprehend fully even with the latest high-tech equipment. I believe this will remain the case no matter how sophisticated our brain scanning techniques become. So if I am my mind, I am cut off from direct relationship with other humans and other living beings. Inverting John Donne’s conclusion, I am, and will always be, ‘an island, entire of itself.’

This sense of isolation is reinforced by the reductionist approach of science that seeks to understand how the world works by breaking things down into separate components, and then studying their properties and interactions. Thus physicists have been engaged for centuries on the search for the fundamental particles of matter in the belief that discovery of this holy grail will open the door to a ‘theory of everything.’ Following the same track, social scientists often study the behavior of individuals, or social atoms, in order to understand society as a whole.

These two factors are significant sources of the individualism that has swept the modern world – a belief system that is justified by the nineteenth century philosophies of social Darwinism and capitalism. Inspired by the traumatic social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, and drawing on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, social Darwinism envisages society as a fierce, competitive struggle for survival in which only the fittest individuals survive. The strong and ruthless prosper, while the weak and merciful go to the wall – an idea that inspired Hitler’s drive for Aryan supremacy. In a complementary theory, Adam Smith claimed that when individuals pursue their economic self-interest, they are led by an invisible hand to serve the good of the collective as well. And so we need not concern ourselves with issues such as poverty and exploitation.

For a period after the Second World War, the worst excesses of individualism and capitalism were moderated by Social Democracy. But in the greedy eighties and beyond these reforms were swept aside by revitalized right wing political and economic ideologies, and the collapse of the Communist bloc.

Individualism and the sense of separateness that it brings is implicated in many of our problems today. It has led us to regard nature as no more than a cornucopia of riches for our exclusive benefit, and to cause the greatest number of species extinctions for hundreds of millions of years. It justifies our brutal treatment of animals on factory farms and in experiments, claiming with Descartes that they are unfeeling machines whose cries of pain mean no more than the squeaking of a wheel. And it enables us to stereotype other races, cultures and religions as sub-human, leading to torture, pogroms, and genocide.

If we are isolated individuals, it is to be expected that we will pursue personal self-interest rather than the good of the collective. Hence, this belief feeds our greed, and erodes community and social ethics such as cooperation, compassion and charity. What were once social functions, such as care of the elderly, sick and young, become absorbed into the economy, dependent on the impersonal exchange of money rather than loving human relationships. People no longer work together to meet their social needs but rely on government and business to provide for them. Alienation, fear and loneliness increase as the sense of belonging to a caring community fades.

Individualism implies uniqueness and diversity. And yet we mostly strive to conform to group norms by holding acceptable opinions, wearing the latest fashions, listening to ‘in’ music and watching the most popular films. Our culture actually encourages only superficial differences and denies and rejects genuine diversity. We stereotype Jews, Muslims, Blacks and others, and our tolerance has very strict boundaries. We believe conflict arises from difference, and hence aim for cultural simplicity and homogeneity. But there is another view that conflict arises from lack of diversity because, if we are all similar, we have to compete with one another for status rather than being able to express our true uniqueness. Also, social diversity is like a library of alternative forms of social organization that we can draw on as we face the growing challenges of the future.

Individualism encourages an emphasis on individual rights, and neglects the essential counter-balance of responsibilities. People grab all they can for themselves, and opt out of responsible citizenship and community involvement as far as possible. Individualism similarly erodes values such as honesty and the honoring of contracts on which capitalism itself depends. Without these values, greater and greater reliance must be placed on law and regulation to prevent abuses. But such systems are costly and it is impossible to police every situation. Besides, if we all pursue our own self-interest, where will we find incorruptible guardians of public morality? These issues underlie the rapid rise of corporate and government corruption, with scandals such as Enron and the financial collapse of many retirement pension schemes. Simultaneously, the salaries and benefits that top corporate management pay themselves have exploded while the lid has been kept firmly on wages.

The growing gulf between the few obscenely rich and the many on the edge of survival is now a global phenomenon. In the ‘two-thirds world’ large corporations play country against country, continually moving production to gain rock-bottom wage rates and lax environmental regulations. Free markets and free trade give them the freedom to operate as they choose; the freedom from responsibility that allows them to pass on the social and environmental costs of their operations to peoples and nations that suffer the resultant social breakdown, ill health and ecological devastation. Economic freedom gives them the right to ‘discover’ traditional healing plants and patent them; to force indigenous peoples off their land in order to exploit mineral and other resources; to assume ownership of water resources that the poor can no longer afford; and to ignore the unprofitable diseases of the poor.

Meanwhile, in wealthy nations, corporations use both sticks and carrots to control the workforce. The sticks include the threat of unemployment due to competition from poor countries and new technologies. The carrot is an ever-rising flood of consumer goodies and gadgets to feed insatiable consumer wants stimulated by advertising. The population is further tranquillized by manipulation and sanitizing of media information.

More directly related to the issue of war and peace, it has been estimated that as many as half the scientists and engineers in advanced countries are employed on military research. Not only does this emphasis draw funds away from urgent problems such as poverty and climate change, but also it has led to the increasing use of military superiority by rich nations to dominate others, and the use of smart weapons to avoid the risks of military engagement.

This brief overview reveals that capitalism is aggressive at heart, thriving on inequality and exploitation. It is an economy of violence of the haves against the have-nots. It is dividing the world into two camps as the rich build defensive barriers against the poor while continuing to exploit them to meet their selfish ends. The violence may be non-physical most of the time, but it is violence nevertheless. Gross inequalities and injustice breed anger, resentment and violence. They incite anti-social behavior, crime and terrorism, and they exacerbate old racial and ethnic conflicts rather then resolving them.


It may seem far-fetched to attribute so many of our problems to individualism. But let’s imagine how things might be if we identified not only with our minds, but also with our bodies, emotions, relationships and souls (if you believe we have souls); and if our worldview emphasized not only our individuality but also the fact that we are integral parts of larger wholes.

Our contracted sense of identity would expand to embrace more of who we are. Descartes’ declaration that “I think therefore I am” would be joined by the Buddha’s “I breathe therefore I am”, Nicholas Humphrey’s “I feel therefore I am”, and the social and ecological perspective that “I relate therefore I am.”

The last of these is particularly important. It recognizes the indisputable fact that our very existence depends on the support of natural and social systems. Without our brothers and sisters, the bacteria, fungi, plants, insects, birds and mammals that form our ecosystem we would have no food to eat, no air to breathe, no water to drink. Without the Living Planet and all her life-support systems, we would not exist. Without our fellow humans, we would scrape a bare subsistence living at best. Without our society, we would have no language or culture, and no role or identity beyond that of an animal bent on survival. We are not only precious individuals with rights, but also totally dependent parts of larger wholes with the responsibility to care for them.

Once we recognize that we have no existence or identity apart from the whole, our sense of self starts to expand to include not only our minds and bodies, but also our families, our communities and our ecosystems. They become acknowledged parts of us. We come to understand that protecting and nurturing them is protecting and nurturing ourselves; that our true self-interest lies in the well-being of the whole. From this perspective, exploitation of other beings becomes exploitation of ourselves; violence against another being becomes violence against ourselves.

As with our belief in Truth, the pendulum has swung too far. We need to move towards a new balance in which individuality is complemented by an equally powerful collective identity – a strong belief in human and ecological community. With such a worldview, an economy of sufficiency and a society of cooperative communities would naturally emerge.

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