4.10 The roots of violence

The authoritarian dynamic can be defined on a number of different levels: for example on the level of the individual, on the level of small social groups, or on a societal level. Here we focus on the level of the individual and especially individuals with a narrow and shallow understanding.

When challenged at or beyond coping capacity, the strong authoritarian will respond with control/coping strategies aimed at restoring personal (or ingroup) adequacy. This explains the authoritarian dynamic as described by Stenner:

intolerance = authoritarianism x threat (of not being able to cope and being inadequate)

However in its extreme the authoritarian dynamic does not lead to just intolerance but to open violence, for which we might propose a reformulation as:

Propensity for violence = shallow understanding x feelings of personal inadequacy

In this formulation violence towards others results from a shallow and narrow basis of understanding that confronts the individual either with the unintended consequences of its own actions (such as an in part self-created mess) and/or with an ill-understood world. If the resulting situation is — visibly and therefore shamefully — indicative of personal inadequacy, it is a public indication of the failure of the coping mode of though (which is dominant in these situation and generally dominant in authoritarians).

Since the very purpose of the [coping mode of thought] is the protection of agentic adequacy, a failure to do so is a sign of complete agentic inadequacy: something existential that should therefore be prevented at all costs. So the danger of a public display of agentic inadequacy may lead to the strongest possible motivation to protect a veneer of adequacy in the form of a very strong urge to stop, remove, or destroy all sources of diversity that one might expect to contribute to exceeding coping capacity and that as such contributes to the (immanent) display of personal inadequacy. This makes violence, but also other atrocities (like rape), a viable option to satisfy the existential need of (self-perceived) agentic adequacy.

This section investigates the ideas that (self-perceived) agentic inadequacy is a root cause of violence.

Shame as the root of violence

This interpretation of perceived agentic inadequacy as the root cause of violence is supported by James Gilligan, author of the book “Violence: reflection on a national epidemic”. [Gilligan, 1997]. And see this

Gilligan was the director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical school and a long term prison psychiatrist. Below we present an extended annotated quote [Gilligan, 1997, p 110–115] that argues that shame is the root cause of violence.

The emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence, whether toward others or toward the self. Shame is a necessary but not a sufficient cause of violence, just as the tubercle bacillus is necessary but not sufficient for the development of tuberculosis. Several preconditions have to be met before shame can lead to the full pathogenesis of violent behavior. The pathogenic, or violence-inducing, effects of shame can be stimulated, inhibited, or redirected, both by the presence or absence of other feelings, such as guilt or innocence, and by the specific social and psychological circumstances in which shame is experienced.

The New Oxford Dictionary defines shame as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. In the light of the role of the coping mode of thought to protect agentic agency shame can be formulated as:

The realization that others may or have become aware of your utter agentic inadequacy (at ultimo resulting from a shallow understanding of the situation).

Shame is associated with the public failure of the coping mode of thought. Gilligan continues as follows.

The different forms of violence, whether toward individuals or entire populations, are motivated (caused) by the feeling of shame. The purpose of violence is to diminish the intensity of shame and replace it as far as possible with its opposite, pride, thus preventing the individual from being overwhelmed by the feeling of shame. Violence toward others, such as homicide, is an attempt to replace shame with pride. It is important to add that men who feel ashamed are not likely to become seriously violent toward others and inflict lethal or life-threatening, mutilating or disabling injuries on others unless several preconditions are met.

The New Oxford dictionary defines pride as a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired. This suggest that pride can be defined as the emotion associated with the successes of the coping mode of thought. This allows the formulation of pride as:

a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from successful coping, either resulting from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.

Note that the coping mode of thought that lets one achieve clearly defined and attributable objectives (instead of the diffuse and often not attributable achievements of the pervasive optimization mode). In addition pride is (at least in part) associated with things that are widely admired. This again suggests a role of external authority.

This all suggests that activating a sense of pride counteracts a sense of shame and that pride and shame function as evaluators of the success of coping mode of thought. Because a main strategy of the coping mode of thought is controlling or suppression all sources of difficult-to-cope-with diversity inflicting “lethal or life-threatening, mutilating or disabling injuries on others” activate a sense of pride.

The first precondition is probably the most carefully guarded secret held by violent men, which it took me years of working with them to recognize, precisely because they guard it so fiercely. This is a secret that many of them would rather die than reveal; I put it that extremely because many of them, in fact, do die in order not to reveal it. They try so hard to conceal this secret precisely because it is so deeply shameful to them, and of course shame further motivates the need to conceal. The secret is that they feel ashamed — deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed, over matters that are so trivial that their very triviality makes it even more shameful to feel ashamed about them, so that they are ashamed even to reveal what shames them.

This vivid description of being ashamed over seemingly trivial things, i.e., things that seem trivial for those with a sufficiently developed understanding, describes an almost pervasive lack (relative to others) of understanding. The resulting publicly visible agentic inadequacy is indeed shameful.

According to Gilligan, violent men try to conceal their continual shame — of continual deep felt agentic inadequacy, i.e., their lack of understanding — as if it were a secret. However an alternative interpretation is that many of our true motivations (like maintaining agentic adequacy) are a driving force of thought and not an outcome of thought. As driving force these motivations are only accessible with sufficiently well developed self-observation capacities. Which is, one might surmise, lacking in the most violent men.

And why are they so ashamed of feeling ashamed? Because nothing is more shameful than to feel ashamed. Often violent men will hide this secret behind a defensive mask of bravado, arrogance, “machismo,” self-satisfaction, insouciance, or studied indifference. Many violent men would rather die than let you know what is distressing them, or even that anything is distressing them. Behind the mask of “cool” or self-assurance that many violent men clamp onto their faces — with a desperation born of the certain knowledge that they would “lose face” if they ever let it slip — is a person who feels vulnerable not just to “loss of face” but to the total loss of honor, prestige, respect, and status-the disintegration of identity, especially their adult, masculine, heterosexual identity; their selfhood, personhood, rationality, and sanity.

The phrase “Because nothing is more shameful than to feel ashamed” can now be translated into “Because nothing feels more inadequate than being inadequate at the most trivial things in the eyes of others”. So pretending to be in control of the situation (bravado, arrogance, “machismo,” self-satisfaction, insouciance, or studied indifference) is a viable coping strategy.

The assertion that men do not kill for no reason is often truer the more “unprovoked” the killing appears to be. A man only kills another when he is, as he sees it, fighting to save himself, his own self-when he feels he is in danger of experiencing what I referred to earlier as “the death of the self,” unless he engages in violence. Murderers see themselves as literally having no other choice; to them, “it’s him or me” (or “her or me”). This is what I mean when I say that the degree of shame that a man needs to be experiencing in order to become homicidal is so intense and so painful that it threatens to overwhelm him and bring about the death of the self, cause him to lose his mind, his soul, or his sacred honor (all of which are merely different ways of expressing the same thought).

Gilligan seems to refer directly to the protection agency (i.e., the capacity to be a source of self-decide and self-initiated behavior) when he refers to “fighting to save himself”, “he is in danger of experiencing the death of the self”, “having no other choice”, “it’s him or me”, “threatens to overwhelm him”, “bring about the death of the self, cause him to lose his mind, his soul, or his sacred honor”. Indeed these are all ways of expressing the same type of left-hemispheric thoughts.

And it must be left hemispheric thoughts since they address (the ultimate) pressing problems.

This should not be confused with the triviality of the incident that provokes or precipitates a man’s shame, which is a completely different matter. In fact, it is well known to anyone who reads the newspapers that people often seem to become seriously violent, even homicidal, over what are patently “trivial” events. Paradoxically it is the very triviality of those precipitants that makes them overwhelmingly shameful.

So the root problem that gives rise to violence is a severe coping difficulty to deal with the situation, and the triviality of the provoking incident that activated the violence is the ultimate prove of the coping incapacity. There is nothing paradoxical about this.

The second precondition for violence is met when these men perceive themselves as having no nonviolent means of warding off or diminishing their feelings of shame or low self-esteem-such as socially rewarded economic or cultural achievement, or high social status, position, and prestige. Violence is a “last resort,” a strategy they will use only when no other alternatives appear possible. But that should hardly be surprising; after all, the costs and risks of engaging in violent behavior are extremely high.

The shameful roots of state

Note that this second precondition is valid only for individuals. It is much less valid for those protected by a hierarchy. In addition hierarchy is direct consequence of the need for external authority characteristic of the left hemisphere which uses suppression of diversity (to maintain the conditions within the hierarchy can operate adequately) as main strategy. So here we have a possible cognitive shameful justification of the state as having a monopoly on violence.

The “state” (whatever this concept actually means) acquires this monopoly not because any of its subjects has a right to violence. No individual has it, so neither individuals nor groups can mandate it to the state. But what can mandated to the state is the right to maintain and shape one’s living environment (e.i., give one’s agency away). And if one does that from the sense of personal inadequacy to shape the own living environment characteristic of the authoritarian, one creates a state with the explicit purpose maintain the condition that makes the authoritarian supporters feel adequate.

To paraphrase Gilligan in the previous paragraph. The precondition for violence is met when these men — that constitute the state — perceive themselves as having no nonviolent means of warding off or diminishing their feelings of shame or low self-esteem. The very inability of these people to deal with normative threats makes violence not a last resort, but a first resort: indeed a monopoly on violence to be used whenever non-violent means exceed the competence of the state.

An as a sideline Gilligan provides also a list of incentives associated with participation in the state hierarchy: “socially rewarded economic or cultural achievement, or high social status, position, and prestige.” Interesting.

The third precondition for engaging in violent behavior is that the person lacks the emotional capacities or the feelings that normally inhibit the violent impulses that are stimulated by shame. The most important are love and guilt toward others, and fear for the self. What is most startling about the most violent people is how incapable they are, at least at the time they commit their violence, of feeling love, guilt, or fear. The psychology of shame explains this. The person who is overwhelmed by feelings of shame is by definition experiencing a psychically life-threatening lack of love, and someone in that condition has no love left over for anyone else.

With respect to guilt, being assaulted, or punished, or humiliated (the conditions that increase the feeling of shame) decreases the degree of guilt. That is why penance, or self-punishment, alleviates the feeling of sinfulness. Guilt, as Freud saw, motivates the need for punishment, since punishment relieves guilt feelings. That is also why the more harshly we punish criminals, or children, the more violent they become; the punishment increases their feelings of shame and simultaneously decreases their capacities for feelings of love for others, and of guilt toward others.

Freud commented that no one feels as guilty as the saints, to which I would add that no one feels as innocent as the criminals; their lack of guilt feelings, even over the most atrocious of crimes, is one of their most prominent characteristics. But, of course, that would have to be true, for if they had the capacity to feel guilty over hurting other people, they would not have the emotional capacity to hurt them.

With respect to fear, as we have seen, when the psyche is in danger, and overwhelmed by feelings of shame, one will readily sacrifice one’s body in order to rescue one’s psyche, one’s self-respect. That is why so called psychopaths, or sociopaths, or antisocial personalities have always been described as notably lacking in the capacity to experience fear.

A central precondition for committing violence, then, is the presence of overwhelming shame in the absence of feelings of either love or guilt; the shame stimulates rage, and violent impulses, toward the person in whose eyes one feels shamed, and the feelings that would normally inhibit the expression of those feelings and the acting out of those impulses, such as love and/or guilt, are absent.

These preconditions explain what would otherwise seem to be two anomalies. The first is that we all experience feelings of shame in one of its many forms (feelings of inferiority, rejection, embarrassment, etc.), and yet not everyone becomes violent. Most people do not commit any acts of significant violence in their entire lives, despite the fact that shame is experienced throughout the life cycle. The theory I am presenting here suggests that most people have nonviolent means available to them to protect or restore their wounded self-esteem. Or else the circumstances in which they find themselves are such that violent behavior would not succeed in accomplishing what they needed; and, finally, because most people possess capacities for guilt and empathy with others that will not permit them to engage in lethal violence except under extremely unlikely circumstances.

The second anomaly is that even the most violent people on earth, the most intractably, frequently, and recurrently assaultive or homicidal criminals or maniacs, are not violent most of the time. Their violence occurs in brief, acute crises, so that even though we have no trouble in identifying them as very dangerous people, most of the time even they hurt no one. It only happens when an incident occurs that intensifies their feelings of being humiliated, disrespected, or dishonored to the point that it threatens the coherence of the self, or when they find themselves in a specific situation from which they feel they cannot withdraw nonviolently except by “losing face” to a catastrophic degree.

I did not enter the world of the prisons knowing this. I had been taught none of it. I reached these conclusions, against much resistance, otherwise unexplained, after the violent men with whom I worked, year after year, had presented me with so much cumulative evidence that these were the only terms in which I could understand them or make any sense of their paradoxical, and anomalous behavior.


  • Gilligan, J. (1997). Violence : reflections on a national epidemic. New York: Vintage Books.