Western Worldview: A Latent War Myth


“St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre,” oil on panel, by François Dubois, circa 1572-84. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I recently came across a striking depiction of the dominant Western worldview, which underlies our conventional way of thinking about violence, especially our assumption that war is natural and inevitable. It is our present-day mythos—our deeply embedded conception of humanity—rendered so starkly that it startles one momentarily into a state of recognition.

I found this remarkable depiction in a book about the history and vitality of peace movements, specifically a chapter on psychology and peace. The authors, Marc Pilisuk and Mitch Hall, observe that we live in a world we have created, both a physical world we have significantly changed and “a symbolic world of mental images that define what we assume to be true.” Our prevailing myths are our most comprehensive symbols for identifying our place and purpose in life. They constitute social and political entities, such as nation-states, that “exist only because we believe they are real,” that is, “because we invest them with sovereign powers and sacred attachments” and “willingly kill or die for them.”[i]

The Western worldview is one of the dominant, although psychologically latent, symbolic constructions of our developed world. Its constellation of beliefs and values articulates inequality, amorality, and force into a mantra of progress that warrants aggression and war. It represents reality as inevitable and renders choice ephemeral.

What are the constituents of this worldview? Here is the list provided by our authors:

  • All people are free to compete for success, typically defined as expanded wealth.
  • The world’s resources exist for exploitation by those best able to take advantage of its gifts.
  • Private property is favored by law over either unowned nature or public property.
  • Freedom to speak includes the unlimited right to use wealth to influence opinion and public policy.
  • Corporations shall have the protection by law afforded to citizens.
  • Efficacy is more important than ethics in the attainment and protection of wealth.
  • Disparities in wealth of any magnitude are natural and acceptable.
  • Poverty is due to deficiencies in the poor.
  • Military force is justified to protect corporate interests (often defined as national interests).
  • Limited parliamentary democracy (mandating elections while allowing wealth to be used for persuasion) is the much-preferred form of government.
  • Psycho-cultural values of power, masculine domination, acquisition, and development are aspects of the natural world order.
  • Those not accepting these views or the policies that flow from them pose a danger and must be either trivialized or eliminated.[ii]

The myth blinds us, at the level of the war state, to our everyday, usually nonviolent ways of managing conflict. Unlike the myth of violence, we typically engage our differences with talk of one kind or another, including “ridiculing, persuading, coaxing, arguing, shouting, grumbling,” or just walking away. We see people “agreeing to compensate for damages, compromising, reconciling differences, and negotiating settlements . . . . Most individuals cope with bullying, insults, competitive conflicts, and disappointments without resorting to violence or inflicting serious harm on adversaries.”[iii]

Once revealed, the Western mythos of war is worth some critical reflection. Perhaps there is a better story to be told? “Fortunately,” as our authors insist, “we humans have the capacity to deal with long-term issues with creative dedication and with opportunities to engage with others in building solutions” that advance the cause of peace and justice by peaceful means.[iv]


[i] Marc Pilisuk and Mitch Hall, “Psychology and Peace,” in Peace Movements Worldwide, vol. 1, ed. Mark Pilisuk and Michael N. Nagler (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011), 53.

[ii] Pilisuk and Hall, 54. See also Marc Pilisuk and Joanne Zazzi, “Toward a Psychosocial Theory of Military and Economic Violence in the Era of Globalization,” Journal of Social Issues 62.1 (2006): 41-62.

[iii] Pilisuk and Hall, 55.

[iv] Pilisuk and Hall, 56.

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