Breaking news alert: People are inherently good, nonviolent

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

CNN  — 

It matters how you personally respond when you hear news of violence. The way you process and frame it has real mental and physical impacts.

Mass shootings, deadly hate crimes, terror, murder, gun violence and war all have their particular details, but each story revives age-old, yet urgent, questions about who we are as a species.

Are people inherently violent? Are some people evil? Can we stop violence? Our answers to these questions are more than philosophical. They influence how we process the world around us, making us optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or scared.

“Every time we experience or hear about a traumatic event, we go into stress mode,” explained Susanne Babbel, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery. “We might go numb or have an overactive fear response to the perceived threat. Our physiology is triggered to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.”

According to a poll last year by the American Psychological Association, 31% of respondents said news of hate crimes caused them stress, 31% said crime in general did, and 30% said news of wars or conflicts with other countries stressed them out.

We also know that stress is associated with a host of health issues, including sleep deprivation and heart disease. And when stress is chronic and ongoing (as bad news seems to be, as well) it can even shorten your life.

All people are inherently good

When we hear about bad things happening, especially when lives of many are lost or damaged at the hands of a few, we need to remind ourselves that people are generally good.

We are hard-wired for goodness. It’s easier to recognize this fact when you think of children. Without mitigating factors, their innate goodness would not erode with age. But goodness is not the sole virtue of the young. The vast majority of people, when faced with simple, clear ethical choices, choose good over bad and even good over neutral.

Imagine a stranger’s baby is about to fall off a chair next to you. You would try to catch it, right? Intuition tells you that you can count on nearly everyone else to try to catch that baby, too. Empathy is an evolutionary gift, an instinct that extends in concentric circles from the self, to loved ones, to community to countries and, for the enlightened, all of humanity – a concept dating to the ancient Greek Stoic Hierocles. Everyone is capable of widening one’s circle.

Our innate sense of good over bad is where we all start. Despite thousands of years of war, rape, homicide and other violence, we are all still, fundamentally, baby catchers.

Aren’t war and other violence evidence that we are inherently violent?

War is not a symptom of a war-like nature; war is just evidence of how violence begets violence. The vicious cycle is broken only by nonviolence, as demonstrated by heroes of history who had the discipline, bravery and patience to prove it out, such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. If violence were the solution to violence, it would have ended a long time ago.

Just because there have been wars through much of human history, it’s not proof we are genetically predisposed to violence. As education expert Alfie Kohn put it, every society has made pottery, but that doesn’t mean we have a pottery-making gene.

And despite the seemingly constant barrage of terrorism and gun violence, research shows that we are living in the least violent time ever in human history. Over the centuries, we have found more ways to reduce the causes of violence and the courage to respond nonviolently to it, even if we still have far to go.

Some people are evil, though, right?

Putting aside religious arguments on the existence of evil, when we brand people with that label, we lose the opportunity to address the causes of their actions.

Remember, we start from a place of moral purity. But under certain circumstances, we are all capable of doing things to others that are painful and vicious. Some of these acts go beyond our capacity to immediately understand them, and we might label “evil” what is really illness, fear, desperation, hate or a combination.

Hate and desperation, in particular, have seeds in abuse, hopelessness, isolation, poverty and other injustices. Hate is also taught. But nonviolence and empathy can also be taught and put into action to eliminate these causes.

“If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed,” Victor Hugo wrote in “Les Miserables.” “The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.” What darknesses are we, and the society we form, and the leaders we give power to, causing?

So we’re not responsible for our actions?

Free will is a fascinating philosophical debate that has been raging since the ancient Greek philosophers. And today, there are still competing camps, not consensus. We’ll probably never get to the true answer of whether there is free will. Maybe we are just the product of everything that happens to us. Or maybe we are fully independent in the choices we make.

So let’s take a reasonable middle approach – most of us do, anyway – and agree that while some influencing factors are outside our control, we still have the ability to make choices out of free will, including what do with our anger, fear and hatred.

Believing in free will and believing that circumstances may lead to violent behavior – but do not guarantee it – is hopeful. It means we believe we can reduce violence by intervening. Free will means people may choose to do bad things, but they can choose to stop doing them, too.

There needs be more research to better understand which factors lead to violence, as well as the positive mitigating factors that can prevent it: role models, opportunity, an equal playing field for education and employment, love, parents, teachers, access to mental health care and meeting people’s basic needs. If we had more data on these methods, perhaps we’d have better public policy.

But the research that does exist has shown interventions work when it comes to reducing violent behavior. Those who work in this field often attest to this, and large studies have proved the effectiveness of those who aim to divert others from paths of violent crime.

Solutions: Nonviolent intervention

The more governments and individuals do to reduce the conditions that cause the darkness in which violence breeds (wars, poverty, systemic racism, xenophobia, homophobia, religious intolerance, bullying), the fewer acts of horror on the news we will have to process.

We can’t go back in time to change the conditions that have led to the violence we have now, but we can influence the future. As my pacifist professor in college, Colman McCarthy, would ask: Where are the criminals of 20 years from now?

Understanding our fundamental goodness and potential to change is not a mere philosophical exercise. Our conclusions directly affect how we see the world. And how we see the world affects whom we elect as our leaders. Those leaders affect which laws we live under and how we combat violence and the causes of violence.

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    Look for opportunities to break cycles of violence near and within you. Support policies and politicians with a belief in nonviolent intervention. And think about starting a discussion the next time someone calls another person or group of people evil, a discussion that does a better, more solution-oriented job of understanding the root causes of deplorable behavior.

    The American Psychological Association survey included the hopeful news that 51% of respondents said the state of the nation inspired them to volunteer or support causes they value, and 59% had taken some form of action in the past year.

    Our peaceful responses to violence create the ripples of change that will ultimately lead to less collective suffering.