During this pandemic, everyone is properly worried about making sure that people’s physical needs are met. But our research in Peace Literacy shows that people have many non-physical needs that are as important, if not more important, than their physical needs, especially during times of crisis. We’ve put together this series to discuss what these non-physical needs are, how people can meet them (and help others meet them) in healthy ways, how people during a crisis can become more vulnerable to tangles of trauma such as mistrust, rage, alienation, and helplessness, and how we can deal with trauma constructively rather than destructively. Each entry in this series will focus on one of humanity’s non-physical needs, along with practical ideas to help us create stronger relationships and communities as we navigate through this struggle together.
When people try to win the struggle over truth by relying primarily on facts, they use facts like they are moving chess pieces around a chessboard, trying to corner and capture deception and misinformation. But facts are so ineffective at winning battles against violent extremism and conspiracy theories, because these ideologies do not operate on a two-dimensional chessboard – a flat surface. Violent extremism and conspiracy theories maneuver in a vast subterranean world, an inner world, beneath the surface layer of facts. This vast subterranean world is the world of our non-physical needs, and it can create sinkholes that cause facts to fall into a chasm, or create earthquakes that flip the chessboard, scattering facts in ways that are difficult to pick up. As we will discuss in this entry, humanity’s non-physical need for self-worth can cause high magnitude earthquakes.
People who think they can win the struggle over truth by relying primarily on facts are playing chess on a flat two-dimensional surface, while violent extremism and conspiracy theories maneuver through a far more complex three-dimensional battlefield by appealing strongly to our non-physical needs. What happens in the vast, three-dimensional, subterranean world of our non-physical needs affects what happens on the surface layer of facts. For example, violent extremism and conspiracy theories appeal to people’s non-physical need for belonging. If you want to counter violent extremism and conspiracy theories, you must contend not only with these ideologies, but also with the communities that form around these ideologies – communities that give people a sense of belonging.
Ideologies based on violent extremism and conspiracy theories also appeal to people’s non-physical need for explanations by offering explanations for why problems are happening, why people are suffering, and how the world works. As we discussed in the third entry in this series, if people do not have accurate explanations, they will rely on inaccurate explanations. There have been times in my life when I preferred inaccurate explanations, which I didn’t perceive as inaccurate at the time, because they spoke more powerfully to my tangles of trauma such as mistrust, alienation, rage, and cynicism than facts did.
Ideologies based on violent extremism and conspiracy theories also appeal to people’s non-physical need for purpose and meaning by not only providing a higher purpose in life, but even an epic purpose in life. Violent extremist and conspiracy theory ideologies all tell a similar epic story that goes like this: “We are involved in an epic struggle of good versus evil, and by joining our cause, you can fight for good against evil. You can be a hero in this struggle. We need you.” Violent extremism appealed so strongly to me when I was a teenager, partly because it depicted what I hated as evil, and it helped me rationalize my hatred as good.
When our non-physical need for nurturing relationships is concerned, trust is the foundation of nurturing relationships. When people want to promote violent extremism and conspiracy theories, they work to build trust. The propagation of facts depends on trust, because trust functions like a doorway into our psyche. If you don’t trust a source, it is much more difficult for facts to get through to you. Trust can be misused, because trust can become a doorway that lets in a lot of false information.
When our non-physical need for expression is concerned, violent extremism and conspiracy theories give people a way to express their concerns, grievances, and also their trauma. These ideologies form communities that are filled with many forms of expression, such as conversations, lectures, comments on message boards, images, videos, bumper stickers, and much more. Violence can also be a form of expression. As a teenager, the rage that I experienced after many years of childhood trauma gave me an almost uncontrollable urge to express myself through violence, which made violent extremism very appealing to me.
Violent extremism and conspiracy theories appeal to all of our non-physical needs, usually in unhealthy ways (as I mentioned in the previous entry, what is “healthy” exists across a continuum and depends on context). In this entry we will focus on our non-physical need for self-worth, and how this is part of the vast subterranean world of our non-physical needs. How does self-worth affect the two-dimensional surface of facts? People can resist facts if acknowledging these facts might cause them to feel humiliated, reducing their sense of self-worth. People can resist facts simply because they do not want to be “wrong.” When we change our minds about a subject after considering new information, our society tends to view this as a weakness, as being wrong and losing, rather than as a sign of strength, as growing and gaining. Violent extremism and conspiracy theories appeal to people’s non-physical need for self-worth with messages that imply, “By accepting these views, you have the courage to face and acknowledge the truth, and this makes you worthy.”
There are countless examples where people will risk their lives for self-worth, viewing self-worth as more important than the health and safety of their body. One example is anorexia, which can affect men and women, although it affects far more women than men. According to a study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, five to ten percent of people with anorexia die within ten years, eighteen to twenty percent of people with anorexia die within twenty years, and only thirty to forty percent of people with anorexia ever fully recover. Anorexia is a tragic example where people prioritize the non-physical need for self-worth over physical needs such as food, health, and in some cases even staying alive. Anorexia can also be about the need to have control in one’s life, which connects to our non-physical need for challenge and the tangle of trauma that is helplessness (which we will discuss in the next entry).
Roman general Julius Caesar, who became emperor of Rome through military conquest, also viewed self-worth as more important than the health and safety of his body. He said, “Prestige has always been of prime importance to me, even outweighing life itself.” Caesar placed a higher priority on prestige, status, and self-worth than on staying alive, and this was reflected in his actions. On many occasions, he risked his life in war to protect and increase his prestige, status, and self-worth.
Caesar was not unusual, because in cultures around the world, many people have made a comparison between self-worth and life itself. In Judaism there is an idea that humiliating people is akin to murdering them, which can describe the painful sense of annihilation that people in the modern world can feel when they are bullied and publicly humiliated. According to Rabbi Aryeh Citron, “One should be extremely careful to never shame another in public. This sin is akin to murder; just as blood is spilled in the act of murder, so too when one is shamed the blood drains from his face.”
This comparison of humiliation and murder is not just metaphorical, because throughout human history many people who were humiliated killed themselves, or responded to humiliation by risking their lives to regain their sense of self-worth. During the legendary Trojan War, the Greek soldier Giant Ajax felt humiliated and betrayed by his comrades. As a result, he fell on his sword and killed himself. When the samurai in medieval Japan were humiliated and their “honor” was wounded (“honor” back then was equivalent to “self-worth”), many of the samurai would kill themselves through ritual suicide (this was often done through coercion), or they might risk their lives in a violent confrontation by dueling or ambushing the person who had insulted their honor and self-worth. If you were to insult and humiliate a man in Europe or the United States during the eighteenth century, endangering his honor and self-worth, he might risk his life by challenging you to a duel. Today many incidents of youth gang violence around the world, among both boys and girls, are caused when a disrespectful act attacks someone’s sense of self-worth, which can compel this person to retaliate with violence even at the risk of going to prison or dying.
Furthermore, when people today are bullied, humiliated, and their self-worth is wounded, some of these people kill themselves, and many of these people might not kill themselves, but they at least think about killing themselves. If bullying is unable to harm someone’s sense of self-worth, then suicidal thoughts are unlikely to occur as a result of being bullied. But if someone who is bullied feels worthless to the point of hating oneself, then suicidal thoughts are likely to occur. To perform a thought experiment that shows how self-worth is a basic human need, imagine if I had a magic dial that could control your sense of self-worth. If I turned this dial so low that you felt completely worthless and even hated yourself, it is likely you would think about killing yourself, even if all of your physical needs were met, even if you had all of the money in the world. Today when people’s self-worth is wounded, they might not kill themselves quickly the way Giant Ajax did by falling on his sword, or the way a samurai would through ritual suicide, but they do kill themselves slowly through alcoholism, drug addiction, stress, or some other means.
The vast subterranean world beneath the two-dimensional chessboard of facts consists not only of our non-physical needs, but also the many tangles of trauma that can disrupt and distort those needs. These tangles of trauma include meaninglessness, nihilism, mistrust, disillusionment, a ruthless worldview, rage, numbness, cynicism, alienation, shame, self-loathing, helplessness, addiction, and addictive behavior. People often use facts to speak to logic, but violent extremism and conspiracy theories can speak to people’s mistrust of institutions, governments, and their fellow human beings, their disillusionment with our society, and their rage, cynicism, alienation, and helplessness. These tangles of trauma express themselves verbally or nonverbally, and they want to be heard. Peace Literacy empowers us to hear people’s tangles of trauma in far more powerful ways than violent extremism and conspiracy theories can. Peace Literacy empowers us to heal these tangles of trauma in ways that violent extremism and conspiracy theories never can.
When people’s need for self-worth is not met through healthy means, this can cause high-magnitude earthquakes in the human psyche that ripple throughout a society, resulting in both obvious and hidden harms. Self-worth gives us secure and reliable ground to stand on, whereas a lack of self-worth, or unhealthy forms of self-worth, can cause us to continually feel like we are at risk of falling. During a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes even more important for people to have secure and reliable self-worth for three main reasons:
- Navigating struggle, crisis, and uncertainty becomes more difficult when we have to deal with intense anxieties about our self-worth, in addition to all of our other fears.
- Secure and reliable self-worth increases our strength and resilience when we are trying to navigate struggle, crisis, and uncertainty, whereas insecure and unreliable self-worth decreases our strength and resilience.
- Crises of any kind can pose a variety of threats to our self-worth.
To respond to these three concerns in the midst of a crisis, we can develop secure and reliable self-worth within ourselves, giving us stable ground to stand on (our Peace Literacy curriculum discusses some of the ways that we can do this). We can also respond to these three concerns by treating people in ways that help reinforce rather than weaken their ground of self-worth.
When our interactions with people are influenced by the muscles of our humanity, we can help reinforce rather than weaken their ground of self-worth. To list just a few examples, when the muscle of hope and its highest expression of realistic idealism is concerned, if I treat you with the dignity and respect that reflect high ideals, this can help reinforce rather than weaken your ground of self-worth. When the muscle of empathy and its highest expression of solidarity is concerned, if I pay attention to you and treat you with compassion, rather than being apathetic toward you and treating you with cruelty, this can help reinforce rather than weaken your ground of self-worth. When the muscle of appreciation and its highest expression of stewardship is concerned, if I appreciate you and strive to protect you rather than exploit you, this can help reinforce rather than weaken your ground of self-worth.
As your exercise for this week, explore these four questions:
- What are some ways to develop secure and reliable self-worth within ourselves? In what ways can people feed their need for self-worth in ways that are less secure and less reliable?
- What specific practices can we use to help reinforce the ground of self-worth in others? How can these practices be used by leaders, parents, and friends?
- Revisit this earlier statement: “When people’s need for self-worth is not met in healthy ways, this can cause high-magnitude earthquakes in the human psyche that ripple throughout a society, resulting in both obvious and hidden harms.” What are some of these obvious and hidden harms?
- Our non-physical needs are interconnected, similar to how our organs in our body are interconnected. Our non-physical needs can be thought of as metaphorical organs that need proper nutrition and can affect each other. How can our other non-physical needs, such as purpose and meaning, nurturing relationships, explanations, expression, inspiration, and belonging, affect our non-physical need for self-worth?
The chessboard of facts is certainly important, but we must understand that it is a two-dimensional plane that is part of a larger three-dimensional realm. To make progress in the struggle over truth, we must not only move facts skillfully across the board, but we must also learn how to heal tangles of trauma, feed our non-physical needs in healthy ways, and navigate the vast, complex, and beautiful subterranean world of our humanity. This is truly an epic struggle. Peace Literacy helps us meet our non-physical need for challenge, the next non-physical need we will explore, by equipping us to embrace this epic struggle, along with the epic struggle of creating a more peaceful and just world.
The kind of leadership that is needed in times of crisis, at all levels especially the community level, is leadership that reduces tangles of trauma and helps people meet their non-physical needs in healthy ways.