Attempting to Understand our Inhuman Behavior

Hello from my office on a day that seems to hint a seasonal change,

The desire for Spring only grows more fervent as each day seems to say we’re not there yet. It is amazing how easily we are spoiled by a few warm days and the incredible natural motivator, also known as the sun. This winter has hung in there in ways I do not remember recently. We have not gotten the snow, but the bitter, cold, damp reality of Pennsylvania in March has been front and center. It is now almost the middle of April, and while I see daffodils, hyacinths, and other Spring flowers, little on my daily walks to the university has felt like we are on the summer side of March 21st. These days only push my intentionality to move somewhere outside the states when I retire. Some would argue I do not need too many more reasons, but I will add to my rationale anyway possible.

Over the past week, while watching the news, reading various opinions, and trying to wrap my brain around all that is going on, I have come to one conclusion, and it is a startling one for someone who is generally optimistic in my views of human nature. I want to believe in the goodness of people, and generally I do. I believe when people are offered an opportunity to stand up and make a difference, to do something for the common good, most often they will. I witnessed that these last weeks when so many people stood up to assist a family when they lost everything to a fire. I have witnessed it in my classes when I speak with my students and they offer their sense of what is happening and how they hope for better. That very ability to yearn for goodness is an important thing. I see it when people are willing to spend over $12,000.00 to support students who are often maligned for their choices, their identity, or their stance on individual rights. Indeed, there is goodness in the world. The millions of Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee their homes, cities, and country have been supported by other countries, opening arms, buildings, supplying food, clothing, and other things (and I realize there is much more that needs to be done). My heart hurts for my friends, acquaintances, and others throughout the European continent, and for those I care about in Russia also. It is easy to become overwhelmed, disillusioned, or to come to the conclusion that the entire world has lost it, but I do not want to allow for such pessimism.

As some of you know, my dissertation is on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was hanged for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler. My work in trying to understand the incredible effectiveness in the communicational processes of an Austrian and his unparalleled ability to convince one of the most gifted nationalities in history to exterminate another group is mind boggling to me. And now, another group of people, under the spell, or so it seems, of a 21st century madman, who seems hellbent to destroy another group of people, and those profoundly close ethnically, linguistically, and religiously. How does this happen? How does one person convince the great majority of an entire country that what he is doing is reasonable, justifiable, necessary? All of these are difficult and complex questions, and there will be books written about this time, but allow me to offer some initial thoughts. First, Ukraine is much more complex as a country than most Americans realize. There are those who are probably supportive of the Russian invasion, and yes, those in the Donbas region. There are those who live in the southern part of the country that do not consider what is happening in Ukraine to be completely wrong. Ukraine is a complex compilation of people, religions, and ethnic connections. It might even be said that some of what Vladimir Putin has argued about Ukraine as a country has some validity. All that being said, what about the Russian mindset as they find themselves in the midst of being named country non grata? The 19th century Russian scholar Boris Grushenko noted this about their ability to suffer. “To love is to suffer,” he said. He would continue noting the only way to avoid suffering is to not love, but to not love also is a type of suffering. Consider what that says. It matters not whether we love or fail to love, we suffer. To suffer is also to suffer . . . we are happy when we love, but we will also suffer . . . is there any escape? If Grushenko is accurate, we have no options. And yet, are we that doomed? What happens when we consider this sort of self-reflective understanding of our psyche? Experiments about the consequence of self-reflection seemed to indicate the opposite (Wray Herbert). Interestingly, the difference between Russians and Americans seem to be more about the communal versus the individual. Russians, according to the experiments, are more focused on harmony in terms of their interpersonal and therefore the individual is thoughtfully connected to the larger context. Americans’ love affair with this sense of rugged individualism focuses on the personal. Again, according to the experiments performed, this immersion within one’s oself can more regularly lead to distress and depression. So what are we to say about the current state of Russia and its decisions?

While America is a relatively young country in the scope of civilized nations, we have been stable (for the most part). Our Civil War is the only real significant upheaval in our society since our independence (I realize some might argue our current situation post- January 6th is important, but hear me out for the moment). Russia, in just the 20th century went through two revolutions, two World Wars (they occurred on their soil), and a Civil War . . . and their own socioeconomic struggles and political upheaval in the 1990s has left them disillusioned. It has also affected their national and individual identity, created uncertainty about their future, and a simultaneous concern or melancholy as well as a nostalgic hope and connection to their socialist past. This is an oversimplification of their politics, but it is offered to provide some foundation. This does not even begin to consider their ethnical or national identity. In the United States, we have created this unique idea of State’s rights under the overarching idea of e pluribus unum. In spite of our current struggle with what occurred in our last election, we have managed to maintain this idea of 50 cats, but all cats, under a big umbrella, so to speak. The size of Russia as a federation (as they call it) is enormous, and it is a country of conquest. The 2010 census showed that there are 200 ethnic groups within the Russian Federation. Those most are Slavic, there are Turks, Mongols, Tatars, Ukrainians, Bashkirs, Chechens, and that is just the beginning. The Russian poet, Fyodor Tyutchev (1866) once said, “You cannot understand Russia with your mind . . . you can only believe in it.” In my reading, and in my experience, Russian people are respectful and emote little initially. Additionally, they take pride in their appearance. They are honest about their opinions, and are more than willing to share them, seeming to be more bold than perhaps they really are. They are incredibly connected to family and they desire to make personal relationships to be willing to trust, but there is still a caution they employ. There is a reason for networking and it is generally to create opportunity. I believe there is an authentic element to my Russian acquaintances that is refreshing if you will . . .

So a week has past and the world seems to be on a crash course for something. If I were to put all the events in the past eight days into some kind of box or storyboard, I think the cartoon Family Circus might appropriately characterize my life. From an amazing dinner to an Elton John concert, from school meetings and grading to Zoom meetings with other faculty and alumni, from celebrating Easter to waking up to a mid-April snowstorm, and finally from remembering the passing of my best friend on this date to worrying about another as they struggle to manage their life, it seems each day has created some collage of experience, thought, and consequence that has the appearance of an entire room of stuff thrown into a toy box haphazardly. Any attempt to structure it all will require significant thought, consideration, and effort. Perhaps that is the real truth to our lives. Structure is fundamental to our health, be it physically, mentally, or emotionally, but creating structure requires constant effort. It is hard work, but it is also habitual. The more careful and consistent we are the more we become habitual ironically by habit. That is just the way I seem to function most effectively. The consequence is also important. Those around us know what to expect; they know just what our capabilities are. I have witnessed once again what happens when one seems to have no capability to manage things. In spite of our incredible resilience, there is a threshold, a point when our body cannot respond to our actions. This is the case for us both individually and societally.

Inconsistency creates chaos. That is my mantra for the moment. The chaos one can create be they a single person in a relatively small group or the leader of a country is self-evident in my own view at this moment. As importantly is the domino-like fallout or consequence of their action. Perhaps this is the most poignant element or truthful aspect of our being inhumane. Our selfishness, or self-centered desires, for assuaging our wants, our needs, our irresistible habits create hurt for others. This narrow-sighted process leaves destruction both visible and unseen. Selfishness and abuse of power changes the hopes and dreams of those far beyond what can be understood or imagined. Perhaps selfishness is the ultimate example of our inhumanity. There is much more that could be said, but I have other work to do. Working on a summer syllabus and CMS work needs to occur so my students can know what is coming more than a day or two ahead. In the meanwhile I find it necessary to pray for those both near and far, hoping our inhumanity might be lessened.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

6 thoughts on “Attempting to Understand our Inhuman Behavior

  1. Hi Dr. Martin,
    I think your comments on how much can be changed by one person is really interesting. Russian’s recent attacks on Ukraine have caused lots to change recently, even in areas that wouldn’t be expected. For example, in recent chess news, Russian GM Sergey Karjakin has been banned for several months from FIDE events due to his support of Vladimir Putin. Because of this, Chinese grandmaster Ding Liren will likely take his spot to compete in the candidates tournament as he is attempting to be the highest rated player. Ding Liren has been predicted to be a favored opponent for Magnus Carlsen, so he performs well in the Candidates, then he may even become the new champion. It’s interesting how one aspect of world news can have such an impact on others.

  2. Hello Dr. Martin,

    I know I am commenting on an older post, but this is one that stands out to me more after reading through a few of them. As someone who took a conflict resolution and diplomacy class in high school, I try my best to stay updated on major world conflicts. A part of this is realizing the steps we took as a world to get to this point, and the steps we can take to back down or move forward from this point. I appreciate how you do not attack the Russian people, but instead look deep and question how and if they can be okay with this, even with their extensive history.
    In light of these world conflicts, it also has a sense of bringing us together. I have a Ukraine friend who because of this bad situation reached out to his father who lives in Ukraine and they began to rebuild a rapport. No matter how bad things might look from a close or afar we must dive deeper and find hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
    For a change of thought, I applaud how this blog post feels factual, yet still has your own thoughts that do not completely diminish the facts. This post also makes me feel that I am able to disagree with something here without being attacked. I will be continuing to read more of these posts because it keeps me open-minded to others’ thoughts.

    Thank you,
    Kyle Bateman

  3. Hi Dr. Martin,
    I really appreciate how you tried to consider the whole scenario from everyone’s perspectives and provided background information to create understanding. I think too often people think about politics as wrong and right. They think there is just good and bad. I think there’s a whole lot more that goes into the way countries or just people interract. Yet, I rarely see people trying to understand all points of view. I can’t say a whole lot about this specific scenario dealing with Russia and Ukraine because I’m very out of the loop, but I thing overall people should try to be more understanding of one another.

  4. Hey Dr. Martin,

    This article was very informative, I got exposed to various facts I didn’t know like how they’re over 200 ethnic groups in Russia. During the past few days I’ve also found myself thinking about the inhumane behavior of humans, Seeing the mass shooting at Texas and the mass shooting at buffalo also. I think inhumane behavior is also caused by selfishness and sense of entitlement, pride plays a big role in this because the people who involve in these acts believe they can do it – No one should that be that confident in themselves or feel so entitled as to want to take people’s lives to prove a point or fuel the ego.

    David Olurankinse

  5. Dr. Martin,

    Humans are all unique. From our appearance to our personality, you know as well as I do that there are no two humans alike on this Earth. Yet, with 8 billion distinctive people on Earth, we all seem to value similar things. Though this is certainly not proven, there have been studies about human’s innate ability to choose right from wrong. Human nature seems to understand that certain things are right or just, while other actions are wrong or evil. Among the right/just decisions, many people value human lives. That’s why there was such an uproar again Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, it would be foolish to set aside the possibility of humans setting their humanity aside for their home. We see it in our military often – soldiers simply taking orders, even if it is not the right thing to do. This must be the same case for many Russian soldiers. They are only drones taking orders, which helps explains this inhumane behavior. While my heart still goes out to the Ukrainian people, the soldier argument allows me to sympathize with the Russian soldiers forced to take the lives of innocents. The only ones I can not pardon are those giving out the orders. The Russians in command seem to have set aside their humanity to improve their unstable country. Russia has indeed fallen from grace over the past several decades – we can even claim that Russia is no longer a world superpower anymore. Therefore, it makes sense that Russians would want to re-establish this reputation. However, to do so at the cost of human lives is unacceptable.

    Luis Donayre

  6. Dr. Martin

    I believe your thoughts are very inquisitive. When you spoke of the goodness in people, I believe you were correct. However, the word “good” is very flexible in connotation. If someone were to do the “right thing,” their action would depend on their situation. Some situations may seem cut-and-dry, but contain more when held to a magnifying glass. If a soldier were to refuse an order, they and their family might be punished. Therefore, the right or good thing to do would be to protect their loved ones, even at the expense of others. While difficult to detect morally as they may be sent to war to kill innocent people of another country, they are using their “goodness” to protect their family and themselves.
    Additionally, you mentioned that the US is more stable than Russia. As a country, I believe this is true. On the flip side, Russia’s citizens are more united than the people of the US. So, while it is true that the US has not been through the wars and conflicts that Russia encountered, Russians are more united. The United States has proven time and time again that they do not only disagree with one another but that they distrust their peers. That being considered, Russia is much more structured and if it were to waver in strength, it would easily fall; the US is more of a series of smaller buildings, easy to knock down, but there is always another to take its place while it is rebuilt.

    Thank you for listening,
    Carly J. Hill

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