Conference “Overcoming violence, a social and personal need”.

By Philippe Moal

Observatory of non-violence
Centre for Humanist Studies Noesis
University of Zaragoza, Spain
University of experience
Calatayud Campus: 24 November 2020
Épila Campus: 2 February 2021

Good morning, first of all, I hope you and your loved ones are well. I would like to thank the University for the Zaragoza experience for giving me this opportunity to present this conference, which has as its theme “coming out of violence, a social and personal need” and which is divided into four parts that you will be able to see in four different times if you wish, given that it lasts sixty minutes.

First, I will make a quick analysis of the current social and personal situation that shows the need to get out of violence, which is surely obvious to many. In the second part I will present my sources of work. In the third part, we will look at some significant difficulties that prevent us from freeing ourselves from violence. And finally, I will propose some avenues of research or solutions to resist violence.

Analysis of the current situation

The word need in the title is key. It is out of necessity that the conditions one wants to modify change. Necessity has always been a powerful engine of change in history: to abolish slavery, to establish women’s right to vote, to initiate social security for all, to reject dictatorships, … there are many examples. Needless to say, things continue as they are. Violence will not stop on its own. On the contrary, experience shows us that violence leads to more and more violence.

We know that even for some people violence is a necessity to achieve their ends: to defend ideas, to protect or acquire property, but also to impose their beliefs or claim individualistic values. For them violence is the solution and not a problem, and this is a problem.

Necessity is the driving force behind action to eradicate violence, otherwise, as the French historian René Girard said in his book “Violence and the Sacred”: “When violence is allowed to be unleashed, it is chance, in the end, that resolves the conflict”.

We are faced with a necessity that we cannot leave to chance. The planet is in a state of great upheaval in which violence can explode anywhere, at any time, in any way.

Without analyzing why, we have reached this level of violence, it is easy to see that today’s society is overwhelmed by the violence it has generated.

A few years ago, in 1997, I had the privilege of interviewing Ilya Prigogine, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. We were talking about society’s need for mutation and he said: “Mutations are always preceded by fluctuations that indicate the complexity of phenomena”. We are currently experiencing these fluctuations in all fields: ecological, political, economic, social, and this has a strong impact on the personal life of each individual and his or her environment. More complexity (today) = more fluctuations (today).

We are currently experiencing these fluctuations, with shocks… at home, with the arrival of robotics in the world of work, with the short-term vision of political decision-makers, with recurrent religious fanaticism, with sexual violence finally coming to light, with recurrent racial discrimination, and to make things easier, the health and ecological crisis is upon us.

To get out of violence, there is a lot to do, let’s look at some needs:

  • We cannot let violence become normalized to the point where we no longer see it, but see it as normal.
  • We must deactivate the prejudices, very common in society, based on values that perpetuate violence under the pretext that it is a tradition or that it has always been so or that it is our nature.
  • We have to bring back to reason those who use violence to respond to violence. Even just causes, if they go that way, are lost causes.

Nothing can justify the use of violence. For Isaac Asimov, the master of the imagination, “Violence is the refuge of incompetence“.

In this spirit, I recommend reading the “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude”, written almost 500 years ago, and still relevant today, in which the young Étienne De La Boétie says: “One cannot obediently obey the tyranny of the powers that be“.

The power of money has, over time, reinforced the legitimacy of violence by making it the main, if not the only real power on the entire planet, far above all other values. Money has become a myth and the Centre of gravity of humanity.

We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation where everyone chases money and everyone suffers for it; the poor, of course, but also the rich.

Thus, economic violence is the source of all other forms of violence, be it physical, racial, religious, sexual, psychological (all related to money) and also institutional – or structural – in which money makes the law.

In 2019, some neuro-economists from the University of Zurich published a study entitled Morality or interest? How do we make our decisions? Their conclusions were: “Morality prevails… as long as there is no money at stake”.

Sources of work

Let us now see in the second part what I base my observations on.

In the face of the violence we receive, we can respond with violence, but we can also resist it. Although it may not be obvious, this option always exists because violence and non-violence are two sides of the same coin.

When there is violence, there is always the possibility of non-violence, but we have not yet acquired these mental gymnastics, this reflex that consists of taking into account both aspects of a conflict. We can even say that most of the time non-violence does not exist, no doubt because the foundations of society are based precisely on violence.

Of course, nobody agrees with violence, well, most people, but when you are in a borderline situation, it is easy to resort to it… It is seen as the solution that will solve the problem once and for all… In principle, because, in fact, if you get into the game of violence, it never stops.

It would be necessary to make known, from childhood, the foundations of non-violence, its methodologies of action, its principles, its tools, the values it defends and those it rejects, and this in schools and universities, but also in families.

We are always faced with choices, even if we do not see them. For Martin Luther King: “It is not a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is a choice between nonviolence and non-existence“.

For Jean-Paul Sartre, without choice there is no freedom. “We are condemned to be free”, he wrote in 1946 in his work “Being and Nothingness”. If you cannot choose, you are not free.

Going back to Ilya Prigogine, he demonstrated through his experiments in thermodynamics that no phenomenon is predetermined, that nothing is certain, that there are multiple choices in any situation.

Nothing is drawn in advance and nothing is doomed to repeat itself inexorably, moreover nothing repeats itself twice in the same way, even if we sometimes wish it to. “The only permanent thing that exists is permanent change”.

Violence is not an inevitability, even if our history is full of it. However, just as violence is not natural to human beings, as we will see in part three, so too is non-violence not natural. It is based on choice, on intention and, more precisely, on the intervention of consciousness. It is through contact with consciousness that the choice of non-violence exists.

The realm of the unconscious, omnipresent in today’s society, tends to disqualify the role of the conscience and to confine each person to a personal problem, each one confronted with his own violence and that of the world. However, each person can verify that his or her personal violence depends on social violence and can see that the opposite is also true.

Is it still necessary to remember that the roots of violence are in society rather than in the personal? However, there is a need to work simultaneously on cleaning one’s own house, i.e., on one’s inner life, and to act, each according to his or her possibilities, to reject the violence installed in society.

In doing so, I draw on the related work on active consciousness, whose precursor of this concept was Franz Brentano. One of his students at the University of Vienna at the end of the 19th century, Edmond Husserl, was the founder of phenomenology based on the intentionality of consciousness. At the same time, another of his students developed the current of the unconscious: Sigmund Freud.

Synthetically, Freud’s great contribution to humanity was to show that the contents of the psyche (our problems, fears, anxieties, drives) are active; Husserl’s contribution was to reveal that consciousness is also active.

Obviously, the two schools of thought lead to different methodologies of investigation in the face of violence. Essentially, I would say that, in order to solve the problem, one looks to the past and the other is more oriented towards the future from the present.

The great challenge of research on consciousness is to elaborate new images, new paradigms, new configurations, to help elaborate projects that transform, to seek to fulfil one’s aspirations. Looking to the future conditions today’s behavior and progressively counteracts the traumas of the past. Reconciliation with the past, for example, aims at rehabilitation for tomorrow.

True integration of the difficult experiences of the past is seen in the ability to develop future projects related to those same painful experiences.

As you understand, I am close to the school of phenomenology, but more precisely to the one based on the concept of “consciousness-world” for which there is a permanent interaction between the two.

The founder of this concept, the Argentinean thinker Mario Rodriguez Cobos, called Silo, went a step beyond phenomenology for which the world is “given” to consciousness. He argues that in addition and essentially consciousness aims to transform the world, including oneself since one is part of this world.

All changes start from us, from our consciousness. Our inventions, our creations, our progress, but also our beliefs, our values and our assumptions start from there.

Of course, the environment changes us without us realizing it, but we can also change it intentionally, not forgetting to start with ourselves.

The question of human intentionality raises the question of “What to do in society and in one’s personal life“.

Nonviolence is an intentionality, a direction, a choice, and it is acting for a new human culture because the one we live in is not finished, contrary to what some economists say, for whom the law of the market is the panacea.

As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur declared in 1949: “The first condition that an authentic doctrine of non-violence must fulfil is to have traversed the world of violence in its full thickness”. This will be the subject of the third part of the conference. We will look at some of the difficulties that prevent us from emerging from violence.

Some significant difficulties

To begin with, let us immediately discard the prejudice so common today that violence is natural to human beings.

We now know that there are no genes for violence in us. Therefore, violence is not part of our nature, but is learned, as stated by the WHO in 2013, following UNESCO’s position in 1989 in the Seville manifesto and that of the humanist current in 1981. And this has been validated by the numerous investigations of eminent researchers such as the French geneticist Axel Kahn and the German neurobiologist Joachim Bauer.

However, aggressiveness should not be confused with violence. One is instinctive, the other is the result of conditioning. One is natural, the other is not; they are two different manifestations.

It is true that a gene called “Monoamine oxidase A” has been discovered in humans, as well as in animals, which can make us aggressive when there is danger… when there is an attack on our physical or mental integrity. Aggressiveness is related to the instinct of conservation of the species.

This first prejudice, widely spread, which says that we are violent by nature, is linked to ignorance or bad faith, and allows us to endorse violence, normalize it, legitimize it and apply it with a clear conscience. So, we see different results of this:

  • That it is so frequent that it has become normal,
  • That, in the face of repeated violent situations, one becomes hardened and anesthetized,
  • That when one does not look at the violent consequences of one’s actions, one can become an accomplice,
  • That when one feels powerless in the face of violence, one often looks the other way.

These situations and many others lead to a disconnection from violence as an attempt to escape it, but this, of course, does not solve it.

The neurobiologist Henri Laborit developed in 1976, in his famous book “The Praise of Escape”, this question of disconnection as the most frequent result we adopt in the face of the reality that overwhelms us. For Laborit: “Escape is not cowardice, but a response to what is forbidden, to what is impossible, to what is dangerous”. He was referring to the sailor who fled from the storm, not out of fear but out of survival instinct. We might add today that this is also true of what goes too fast and what has become too complex.

However, flight gradually leads to disconnection from feelings, from ideas, from oneself, and to no longer feeling compassion for those who suffer.

One way to compensate for the discomfort is to forget oneself in sensory activities (pleasures) and imaginary activities (dreams, projects), or to sink into nostalgia for the past, but also to rush into pathological over-consumption, or to frantically immerse oneself in an activity to forget and forget oneself… not to mention addiction to alcohol or amphetamines.

Disconnection, which seems to have become a value in today’s society,

  • makes it impossible to see violence,
  • it makes it impossible to act to eradicate it,
  • but it also allows one to kill coldly, without a state of mind.

On the other hand, in a disconnected state, one can blindly obey orders and become fiercely violent, even without agreeing to it. Disconnected from oneself, one no longer refers to what one feels or thinks; one is totally dependent on the outside, subject to an authority or influenced by a group.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt demonstrated in her “Report on the Banality of Evil” concerning the trial of the Nazi Eichmann, that anyone can sink to the worst of violence by shifting the responsibility onto others.

Those who suffer the consequences (e.g., through rape, murder or war) understandably become disconnected from the world and remain obsessed with the traumatic scenes they have experienced. Among those who manage to escape, it has been observed that they have usually developed a powerful inner process of reconciliation and/or have become personally involved in society, transcending their ego.

There are many valid reasons to flee, to disconnect from reality. However, it should be noted that escape from consciousness is impossible short of self-destruction.

Let us rather speak of “escaping consciousness” where everything becomes imaginary because it all happens in the head, because nothing will actually be done to change the oppressive situation because the priority is to flee from it.

Everything then becomes illusory and is translated into ritual acts to give meaning to what we do. Communication and intersubjectivity obviously no longer exist. Ultimately, the disconnection from violence is a kind of decreasing adaptation to the world as it is, a kind of submission to the violent conditions of the system in which we live.

In this state of escaping consciousness, the only solution is to return to oneself, which is understandable since one was outside oneself. It is a matter of becoming aware of oneself, of recognizing oneself. Yet, even in a disconnected state, consciousness sends out warning signals.

The philosopher Simone Weil expressed this experience as follows: “Contradiction is what lifts, draws the soul towards the light”. Contradiction is the indicator that there is a discordance between what I think, what I feel and what I do.

In order not to get caught in the vicious circle of contradiction, it is advisable to see it as a signal that something needs to change in oneself; in other words, to see it as a help.

Even if it is not simple because we are absorbed by the problem, conscience always sends us signals as the neurologist Viktor Frankl said: “Man’s freedom consists simply in choosing between two possibilities: to listen to his conscience or to ignore its warnings”.

How many times have we felt inside or heard an inner voice saying “Don’t do this, don’t go that way, don’t say that” and then done it anyway and realized that we should have listened to ourselves.

There is still much to say about the difficulties that prevent us from resisting violence. Let’s finish this part with the violence we generate around us.

Above all, we must admit that it is often difficult to recognize that we have been violent: “my violence is understandable, it is excusable, that of others is unacceptable”. In short, as Sartre said, “Hell is other people”.

We think we free ourselves from our own violence by projecting it onto others when in fact we produce the opposite; the more we deny it, the more it is present, the more it weighs, the more it weighs on our way of seeing, thinking, feeling and acting. Don’t we say when we recognize our mistakes: “I feel lighter”?

Acknowledging one’s mistakes is not always easy, because culturally inculcated beliefs, ideas, customs and habits do not facilitate the task: one may believe that one has done well, for example… in which case one returns to the question of the importance of education.

Perhaps it is useful to make it clear that any violence I condemn in another person also exists in me, and so I observe and condemn it. When violence touches me, it is because it is also somewhere in me and resonates as an echo. Otherwise, why would I react to one violence and not to another?

“The enemy is within us, not without,” said one of the forerunners of non-violence in the Western world, Henry David Thoreau.

Silo deepened this truth by saying: “Every world you aspire to, every justice you seek, every love you seek, every human being you want to follow or destroy is also within you.

When I fearlessly observe violence, starting with the violence within me, I become more human. Being aware of my own violence allows me to see it from another point of view, to demystify it and thus to act to counteract it.

Some research leads

We enter the last part of the conference with research and solution tracks. It is obvious that we cannot get out of violence when we are disconnected from it because in this case, we do not see it. But neither can we get out of it when we are connected to violence because in this case, we do not see it either, but are trapped by it.

The act of becoming aware of violence is unavoidable if one wants to reject it… But there are several levels of depth in the rejection of violence. Emotional shock and reflection lead to condemnation of violence, information, reflection and the search for solutions to reject it.

However, intellectual and emotional rejection of violence can be random, variable, depending on various factors that cause one to relativize, nuance, minimize, postpone, etc., according to one’s interests, beliefs, values, moods of the moment, etc.

But when the rejection is visceral, when I feel the violence in my gut, not only at the level of ideas or emotions, there is no escape, I am trapped in the body; it is impossible to escape, the violence is physically unbearable for me.

The deeper the violence in the intrabody, the stronger the response of the consciousness to reject it. The more a conflict intensifies, the more I feel that the aggressor enters me. There is an invasion. The feeling penetrates deeper and deeper into me. And my body rejects violence as a poison, as an intruder. Even before there is a moral notion, an instinctive mechanism makes me reject this violence.

The Hungarian phenomenologist Aurel Kolnaï, who was a student of Husserl, describes in his work “Disgust, Pride, Hatred” how disgust is linked to this phenomenon of rejection, producing a visceral expulsion of a sensation that has entered the body.

There is a phenomenon of visceral disgust and also a narrowing of the space between the object of disgust and the self. The distance between the perceived object and the self is reduced.

The feeling of visceral disgust makes me feel the violence I give as if I were the one receiving it, I become aware of the registration of the pain and suffering of the other.

The image of what he is experiencing acts on my own body; I put myself in his place and continuing to be violent becomes impossible, unless I completely disconnect from the other as we have seen.

It is easy to understand the value of visceral rejection in society and everyone can observe their own reactions to violence – are they emotional, intellectual, visceral? It is an interesting field of research and experience to probe.

In his work “Contributions to Thought” Silo speaks of configurations of consciousness in which all kinds of violence will provoke repugnance with somatic correlates, that such a non-violent structuring of consciousness could become installed in societies and would be a profound cultural conquest, which would go beyond ideas and emotions and begin to form part of the psychosomatic and psychosocial framework of the human being.

Well, let’s return to our case…

…If I don’t allow violence to touch me, to penetrate me, if I don’t let it reach me, fleeing from it like the plague, I risk not seeing it any more. I will no longer recognize its manifestations, neither in society, nor in my environment, nor in my own.

So, the question is: How can I connect to violence without identifying with it, without suffering, without being invaded by violence myself? If I see a child crying and I start crying with him, I won’t help him much.

The choice to let violence reach me and touch me deep inside my body can affect me, make me suffer in turn, or even make me react violently. A priori, this choice is more painful than being indifferent to it, but it is the only one that is not inhuman, the only one that makes me show solidarity with the humanity of the other – which is also my own -, it is the only choice that allows me to show compassion, solidarity… and to grasp the violence as soon as it appears and thus act as soon as possible to stop it.

But be careful not to sink into violence yourself, Nietzsche said: “When you fight monsters, you must be careful not to become a monster yourself”.

Alone, working with consciousness allows you to disidentify from a conflict while being connected to it.

Nowadays we talk a lot about “full consciousness“, but I prefer “self-awareness” for the simple reason that full consciousness invites us to observe the objects of consciousness and not consciousness itself, which can also be full of bad intentions.

Self-awareness” is a look at one’s own consciousness. “I am aware that my awareness is altered, or on the run, or violent, or, more interestingly… inspired, or charged with compassion“.

Attentional practices give the capacity to become aware of one’s own disconnection, but also to become aware of the opposite state, i.e., over-connectedness with violence, when I am on edge, caught up in anger, etc. In this case the need is not to connect, but to disconnect, to unplug.

Just over 200 years ago, the philosopher Kant wrote: “The principle of apperception is the highest of all human knowledge”.

Apperception is an act of consciousness that goes towards perception. Normally information enters the consciousness from outside. With apperception it is the opposite, it is an act of reversibility. In apperception the point of reference is inside, not outside. This allows one to put distance between oneself and the world, between oneself and one’s thoughts and emotions, between oneself and one’s beliefs, value judgements; and also, between oneself and one’s fears, frustrations, resentments, desires for revenge… that is, between oneself and what can end in violence and destruction.

The work on the reversibility of consciousness is extensively explained in Luis Ammann’s book “Self-Liberation”.


In the storm that is raging across the planet we may feel that the desert crossing is long, but let us try to stay in the eye of the cyclone and not lose faith. Faith in the sense of trust in oneself, in others and in life in general. We all know from experience that when we have faith, we have great strength.

We also have the experience that it is variable and needs to be nourished with positive thoughts and projects. The uniqueness of faith is that we can decide to have faith. It can be reactivated. It is necessary when it no longer manifests itself.

I come back to the title of this conference: “Coming out of violence, a social and personal need”. I cannot decently propose miracle recipes… on the one hand, because non-violence is fundamentally not a reparation tool, even if it uses procedures. Lanza Del Vasto, another figure of nonviolence, close to Gandhi, wrote: “Nonviolence is that which aims at consciousness. Nonviolence cannot be reduced to a technique. It is above all a way of being. It is ultimately an act of faith in the power of the spirit”.

… secondly, because the phenomenon of the de-structuring of society is beyond us. Its foundations and traditional pillars are being seriously challenged, largely due to the violence of its procedures.

Of course, human beings – we – often suffer the consequences dramatically… but we can also see that something positive is happening. Parallel to a “collapsing world” another one is taking shape.

Something is insinuating itself inside people, in the form of intuition, sensitivity, reflection, outlook on life, behavior towards others.

More than ever, it is necessary to learn to relax, to make room for new experiences, because we know that tensions take up a lot of energy. It is also an opportune time to meditate, to reconcile with yesterday’s mistakes, but above all to let new images of a better future come to us. It is a good time to give one’s best, to treat others as one would like to be treated, to show compassion, generosity, love… and patience at this time when the tendency is precisely impatience. This is probably the best one can wish for and advise at the present time.

It is not the first time that humanity is going through a dark time… but it is the first time that we are all experiencing it simultaneously on the planet. So, instead of tearing each other apart, it is wiser to help each other, without leaving aside the weakest and the neediest.

I will conclude by quoting the Franco-Chinese poet and philosopher François Cheng with an extract from his book “Five Meditations on Death”:

“For us, life is by no means an epiphenomenon in the extraordinary adventure of the universe. We do not subscribe to the view that the universe, being only matter, would have made itself without knowing it, ignoring from beginning to end, during these billions of years, its own existence. By ignoring itself, it would have been able to engender conscious and acting beings who, in a minuscule lapse of time, would have seen, known and loved it, before soon disappearing. As if all this would have been for nothing… Certainly not; we oppose this nihilism that has become commonplace today”.

Thank you for your attention.

If you wish to send me any comments on the conference, opinions, questions, please do not hesitate to write to me at the following address: