“In the last couple hundred years, we’ve made enormous progress in understanding the farthest reaches of the universe and the smallest particles in the atomic structure, but we have not made much progress at all in evolving human nature for nonviolence,” says Marc Gopin, a rabbi, professor and writer, and the director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution.
“And we could if we wanted to.”
Gopin, 63, grew up asking what’s wrong with us, with the human species. He started studying the philosophy and psychology of violence at 13 or 14 and meshed his interests in religion and world events. In the latter, he took after Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik — a giant of Orthodox Judaism. Gopin walked him to and from synagogue and eventually studied with him in New York City while attending Columbia University and Yeshiva University.
“Why are we capable of the highest heights of accomplishments and at the same time capable of such ultimate barbarity?” he wondered.
As Gopin explored what’s wrong with us — through a doctorate in ethics from Brandeis University, as a part-time rabbi in the Boston area, in his conflict resolution work all over the world, in the classes he teaches at George Mason University and in his many books — he realized that he was asking the wrong thing.
“We form our brains with every question that we ask,” he says. “And as a civilization, when we ask the same question again and again and again in many different ways, we’re sort of forming who we are and how we think collectively. So when we say that the whole answer is STEM, science, technology, et cetera, and we have to figure out how to be better at STEM in order to conquer global problems, that’s a collective way of thinking of millions and millions of very smart people in many different countries, and we build our higher institutions for that.”
So by asking a different question and devising different solutions, we can evolve for the better. And that question, he says, is thinking about what’s right with us.
“What happens when we are collectively good?” he says. “When are we the most nonviolent? When are we the most compassionate? When are we the most honorable? And how do we get there?”
He has sought to discover and draw out the goodness in humans in his work all over the world, from a project on police and peace building in the United States to entering war zones and working with Syrian refugees.
He doesn’t believe humans are inherently evil. He thinks we get trapped in bad patterns and reinforce bad connections in our brains as a result of obedience and fear.
“We’re a herd with great brains, and when that herd is told to be obedient, we can do the most horrific things that other species are not capable of,” he says.
He sees Americans’ COVID-19 response as an example of obedience leading us down a bad path. “Once a leader says that the truth is not true, that science is not true, that medicine is not true, you would think that most people would just say, ‘Sorry, you’re wrong about this one,’” he says. “But that’s not how obedience works. How obedience works is that if you’re in my tribe, and you say black is white and white is black, then I say black is white and white is black, and that’s the crisis that we’re in. It’s not only COVID, it’s the denial of COVID that has divided us.”
Fear, too, can inhibit good and rational responses to problems. “We’re designed to watch for danger, which is OK up to a point,” he says. “Because it’s OK to defend yourself against danger; it’s not OK to have a worldview where you only see danger.”
We strengthen connections in our brains by doing something over and over, neurons firing and firing again to form neural pathways. So when that thing we’re doing over and over again is bad for us, we can get stuck in bad patterns and bad pathways, and struggle to get out of them.
“This is what happens with trauma in war is that people get used to the trauma, and then they can’t come down from it, and they live the rest of their lives with these terrible neural pathways that put them in a constant sense of danger,” says Gopin. “Politically speaking, I think that happens to whole peoples all the time. I think people are focused on that one moment where they can’t evolve to what the present reality is because they’re stuck in that place, and that creates perpetual bad relations and ethnic warfare in many parts of the world. Our job is to try and fix that.”
His solution: education. Habitual changes in ways of thinking, behavior and interactions with others can all change neural pathways in the brain for the better, he explained. And education is a tool to make that happen. (He’ll outline the details in his upcoming book, planned to be released next year, called “Compassionate Reasoning: Changing the Minds to Change the World.”)
Education for people of all ages combined with policy (from organizational contracts to rules for the playground) can change how we interact, he says. His George Mason University classes travel all over the world applying their skills — in Jordan, as an example, they visit a trauma center and use compassionate reasoning to help families affected by war.
We need to imagine our world as interconnected with the worlds of our neighbors, says Gopin. In this pandemic, he continues, it’s not useful if one person buys all the masks because our fates are intertwined. Rather, we need to negotiate and renegotiate our social contracts with our neighbors.
“The education will make us more understanding of human failings,” he said. “As we learn about human nature, we start having to be patient and build loving relationships anyways.”