Cultural Contagion

The Triumph of Death, or The 3 Fates. Flemish tapestry (probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520). (Credit:  Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

The Triumph of Death, or The 3 Fates. Flemish tapestry (probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520). (Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

It is difficult to see beyond the reality of war. It is easy to believe that war is natural, destined, inescapable—a matter of fate. There is some question of whether in Greek mythology even Zeus could command the three Moirai, or fates, that spun the thread of life (Clotho), determined our lot in life (Lachesis), and chose the manner of our death (Atropos). The Moirai personified a harsh reality, an uncompromising truth, a grim inevitability.

That ancient cosmology is an example of what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) called a “meme”—a self-perpetuating cultural belief, symbol, or practice that persists through ritual regardless of the harm it does. Another such meme “that can infect any society,” observes John Horgan, is “militarism—the culture of war” (The End of War, p. 102).

Horgan imagines the eventual end of war with the aid of the metaphor of cultural contagion. It enables him to transform the notion of war’s inevitability into an image of “the essential mystery of war” (p. 96). War is something more complex than genetic or economic determinism or any other set of causes. It is a cultural invention that is infectious, that “spreads like a virus from society to society” (p. 106). War cannot be un-invented, but it can be seen as a matter of choice (pp. 16, 125), as something that can be relinquished by “resisting fear and fatalism” (p. 160). War is a pathological norm. “We have the ways to end war. We need only the will” (p. 124).

Horgan substitutes the hopeful mythos of choice and free will for the hopeless mythos of fate and determinism. He draws on Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves to define free will as “an emergent property of the brain, like consciousness, that allows us to perceive, mull over, and act upon choices” (p. 179). It does not exempt us from the causal fabric of the world in which we live or the body we inhabit. It is instead a belief in the freedom of choice on which our sense of ethics and morality is grounded. Exercising choice strengthens our sense of choice, increasing the likelihood of seeing peace as a viable option rather than succumbing to a numbing state of defeatism.

Ultimately, Horgan insists, we must break the habit of saying and thinking wars are unavoidable; “words and ideas matter” (p. 172). No good was served when Barack Obama, upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, proclaimed, “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” As John F. Kennedy warned at American University in 1963, to think that humankind is doomed to the inevitability of war is a “dangerous, defeatist belief.” War is, drawing on Horgan’s mythic metaphor, a cultural contagion that can be contained, minimized, and eventually eradicated.

Horgan’s argument for working toward an end-of-war goal applies directly and primarily to the US, which “is the world’s biggest problem and solution.” He observes that:

We claim to revere peace and human rights—and yet we keep embarking on unnecessary wars, in which we treat alleged enemies and even civilians cruelly. We pay lip service to the principles of national sovereignty and international law while secretly carrying out deadly commando raids and drone attacks around the world. We sell weapons to other nations, and to their adversaries. We prop up dictators if they let us build military bases on their land, exploit their cheap labor, or sell us their oil and other resources at low prices. We are guilty of shameful hypocrisy. If we practiced what we preached—if we showed through our actions that we recognize how wrong war is—we Americans could lead the entire world to an enduring peace. (p. 168)

Ultimately, working toward a largely demilitarized world is a matter of attitude. What we value most, we work hardest to achieve. We value health over deadly disease and thus make every effort to cure cancer despite setbacks, costs, and delays. We would choose to strengthen existing institutions for peacemaking, too, if we perceived war as a cultural disease that can be treated and cured.


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