By Dr David Laing Dawson
It occurred to me watching the Republican Convention, the commentators who invoke Jesus and the latest cop shooting in Florida, that one of our problems is a persistent misunderstanding of human nature.
During my residency, my immediate boss, the Chief Resident, called me into his office one day to tear a strip off me, to berate me. He was a few inches shorter than I, a few pounds lighter. I was also more popular with the nurses and more likely to have influence on our ward. As he chastised me standing there I felt the Grey-Back Ape within awaken. My rat brain stirred. The image in my mind was clear. With little effort I could pick him up and throw him through the window onto the pavement two stories below.
I did restrain myself but that moment proved indelible. I am not being overly fanciful when I reference my rat brain or the Grey Back within, for it was, subjectively, a moment of being in touch with the lineage of my species, my DNA.
We were not created in God’s image. We were not born pure of heart. We are not all kind and good and righteous save for the “bad guys”. We are seldom entirely rational. We don’t even always act in our own best interest. No. For millions of years our families and our tribes fought and killed one another for food, and land, and water, and gold, and, sometimes, once we learned to speak and write, just for the stupid ideas being promoted by a charismatic leader. (which throughout history can be summarized in two phrases: We are the chosen ones; they are not.) We also enslaved one another from time to time.
We fled central Africa and crossed the Sahara north, each defeated tribe having to move on to find another source of food and water. My own tribe, not so many years ago, was pushed off the arable lands of Scotland to the inhospitable rocks and fog of the Orkney Islands, and then had to trust the hold of a wooden ship to take them around the tip of South America to a new colony on Vancouver Island where they might find water and food and shelter again, after pushing a few Indians off the better land. Apparently the Indians called my great great great Uncle “Long Gun” which left us with a few adolescent opportunities for humor but which also means, I guess, that the laws permitted open carry at the time.
In many parts of the world we are no longer small tribes warring over food, land, water rights, and women of child-bearing age. We have, with some bumpy patches, accrued over the past 1000 years or so, a veneer of civilization. And, it is just that, a veneer that thickens at a snail’s pace, but can erode over night. It is a veneer based on a slowly evolved and very complex set of rules of governance, of laws and justice, of discourse, of conflict resolution, of inclusion. In this part of the world we live within a social contract very different from that of both our distant and more recent ancestors.
If we strip that veneer away I know that I will find inside myself the clansman who fought for sheep grazing pastures, the bitter Celt who was pushed off land by the Anglos, and was probably enslaved by the Romans, and ultimately the Patriarch in the jungle village fighting, and killing, for the survival of my cubs.
A year or so ago Vladimir Putin, the Alpha male in that particular jungle, roared aloud and pounded his chest. Throughout our particular jungle middle age male journalists and politicians stood up, roared aloud and pounded their chests in answer.
The fear-aggression response is close to the surface. Our veneer of civilization is thin and fragile.
We must do nothing to weaken it, for very quickly it can erode. And then the rat brain emerges and we once again live within a cycle of fear and aggression.
Inclusion, equality of income and opportunity, equality under the law, strengthens our thin layer of civility.
Donald Trump is doing his best to gouge holes in that veneer. If he succeeds the American tribe will have the Alpha Male it deserves.
But the other major threat to the American veneer of civilization is guns. The video from Miami makes that obvious. The boy or younger man is clearly impaired in some way, sitting obliviously, playing with a toy. The older man, lying in the most non-threatening posture it is possible to assume, is trying to explain the situation; the cops with weapons drawn and aimed, lurk behind poles and cars 50 feet away. The cops are in a state of arousal; they are alert, feeling threatened, fearful, and aggressive. The Grey Back Ape is stirring within each of them.
When I am pulled over for speeding I want that officer to approach my car certain, at least to a 99 per cent degree, that I will not be carrying a gun, and that I will certainly not have an automatic weapon or assault rifle. I do not want him approaching me in a fearful and hyper alert fashion. I do not want his primitive fear/aggression response triggered.
But it will be if he thinks I have a gun or even may have a gun.
So, my American friends, if you enjoy and appreciate the veneer of civilization within which you live, if you enjoy living in a land that is much safer than that of your recent ancestors, and many times safer than that of your distant ancestors, keep the guns in the stockade. By all means break then out and distribute them if you are actually invaded, but otherwise the only one in the crowd who should have a gun either concealed or open is a police officer.
Please, if everybody is carrying and a few, like Donald J Trump, are stirring up division and anger, you are risking that fragile veneer of civilization and a return to the tribal life of fear and aggression. And that, as we know, and have seen, can erupt in chaos and violence.
And then we will be saying, while watching videos of horror and killing, “They are animals!”, just as we say now watching some videos from the Middle East.