Perspectives on the Road to Peace

Forsaking Vengeance and Retaliation

Karl Menninger, M.D., 1984

Karl Menninger, M.D. is chairman of the board of trustees of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. During an illustrious career spanning nearly seventy years, he has held such positions as founder and dean of the Menninger School of Psychiatry, and distinguished professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago. He has written books on such topics as the human mind, man against himself, and the vital balance. His recognitions include the Sheen Award from the American Medical Association, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Whiteley: One of the recurrent problems our society has had is that we continue over and over again, to perpetuate violence as a solution to conflicts. What have you learned in your career that might be helpful to people struggling, along with yourself these days, to avert the course we are on?

Menninger: Well, I think that the course we're on could be altered, but only if enough people believe what has been demonstrated, believe what we see coming, believe the wisest voices we hear all over the country, all over the world, for that matter, and do something about it.

Whiteley: Why are governments not responsive?

Menninger: It's easy to say because they're the other party, but neither the Republicans or the Democratic parties have done enough to stop it. They could.

Whiteley: Do you think the answer is to be found in the voters?

Menninger: Yes, of course. The people want to be saved, they'll have to save themselves. And they have to believe what they're told: namely, that plans are being made for all the others to be destroyed, and that means for us to be destroyed. You can't have it one way. You can't shoot a shotgun without a kick. You can't make an aggressive role without having a self-injurious reaction. Psychoanalysts and psychiatrists and psychologists were studying that at the same time the atomic physicists were studying nuclear disintegration and reintegration in Chicago, forty years ago.

For forty years they've been studying ways to more effectively and controllably break down matter, with a great release of energy, how to direct that energy, and so forth. During that same period of time, psychoanalysts have been trying to understand the origins and control of psychological energy. How do we control hate? Where does hate come from? You can speak of violence as hate, so far. Now does the hate go into violence and destructiveness, or does it go into some other kind of motivation? Suppose you hate somebody very much. You can go and kill him, or you could say you could. You could write articles about him, you could scream at him, you could hit him. What else could you do? On the Sermon on the Mount it was suggested that you could be kind to him. Gentle him down.

If I had a very disturbed patient come to me thrashing his arms and waving his fists and so forth, I could say well, get out of here you rascal. I don't want you around here. I don't like people like you. He might come at me all the more. I might go at him all the harder. We might have a big fist fight here. What kind of performance is that? What I ought to do is to say what's the matter, fella? Whose after you, what does he want, whose been hurting you? How did this get started? My hopes of gentling him down are going to be, to be kind to him. And that's what the Sermon on the Mount said, but who pays attention to that. Who believes in loving their enemies or even being kind to them? That's Jesus stuff. We were advised how to avoid this violence, but not very many of us practice that technique.

I don't think Mr. Reagan ought to say any criticisms of the Russians with anger. I think he ought to say (Hypothetical Dialogue):

Reagan: "What's the trouble over there? Can't we have a talk about this, not about limiting weapons? Let's talk about doing each other some favors. Do you folks really need more wheat? If you had a drought there several years, what will you do about it? We don't want to see you suffer. You're human beings. We've got some wheat over there, and you've got some fine vodka; you've got some good things over there, haven't you?"

Russian Diplomat: "Well, yeah we may have a few, but you Americans think we've got nothing but communism and dynamite."

Reagan: "No, we want to understand you better, and we want you to understand us. We're busy playing golf or playing with computers. We're doing busy - we don't want to be stopped, we don't want to run and get our gun and start shooting at you."

Russian Diplomat: "Well, we Russians thought you did. You talk like it, you know? And you're placing guns over here in Europe closer to us. You're going to shoot them at us, we suppose. We don't know exactly what we've done, but we hear you say 'better be dead than red.' We think you mean something terrible by that. Why's red so bad? That's our theory. What's your principle?"

Reagan: "Oh, we believe in democracy, in capitalism, and other things."

Russian Diplomat: "What does that mean?"

Reagan: "Well, it means something a little different from everybody having the same amount."

Russian Diplomat: "Well, let's compare - let's discuss it."

Reagan: "Oh, we can't discuss it. It's been discussed."

Whiteley: Why doesn't that dialogue occur?

Menninger: Why doesn't it occur, I ask you? Why don't hundreds of our Americans - why don't our Senators, and some of them do go over there? There have been a number of very intelligent Senators go over in groups, look around in Russia. They come back with a different story, but the newspaper doesn't tell us anything about it. I don't know whether television has done its share of publicity.

Whiteley: Part of the problem is to listen to people who do have ideas about the way to a more peaceful world. But there is some part of our society that must block our willingness to do that. For example, if you came out with a new computer chip that would have a faster memory retrieval, that would be adopted very rapidly in our society.

Menninger: That sounds good, I guess.

Whiteley: Why don't we adopt these very sensible ideas?

Menninger: I don't know of any great organization that's given a grant for the production of such ideas. I think the Congress, which has spent a good deal of money on ammunition and such things, I think the Congress might consider giving, oh, let's say a $100,000 prize, or even a bigger one, for every usable idea contributed to the improvement of peace and the disbursal of violent intentions. You see, we're not only violent toward some people, but we're violent - our intentions are more violent. We're planning right now to murder 200,000 people. I wouldn't want to participate in murdering one person, and you wouldn't either. Most people wouldn't. But we participate with a group of war hoopers, a plan for killing a whole bunch of them. If you word it that way it looks differently.

Whiteley: Does religion, as it is practiced in America, have a role?

Menninger: Oh, sure. It's practiced many ways in America, but religion - there are religious impulses, and religious programs in everybody, but they don't get directed, as I see it. They don't get directed very frequently to what to a place where they would be most effective. As I just said about the Sermon on the Mount. Suppose we advocate the Sermon on the Mount today. You're going to have a lot of people turn off their television, saying well, I don't hear it - that's nice pious stuff. I've got to find out how to live. I've got to find out how to overcome my competitors. I've got to find out how to pay my taxes. I've got to find out how to eliminate - I've got to find out how to kill a few more Russians. We've got to kill all these Russians, or they're going to kill us. It's just defensive, we're just threatening. We're not doing it. It's just defensive threatening. It's just bluffing.

Whiteley: What would you hope that the religious leaders in America would do to enhance the possibilities for peace?

Menninger: Well, I think they're doing the best - they're trying hard. From this particular angle, I wish they were more concerned with what you're concerned with, the destructiveness. The organized destructiveness of mankind. Right now the suicidal destructiveness of our own nation, our people - I think it has been said dozens of times by wise men, that this planet may be in its last years. We, ourselves are going to bring about this terrible day, you know, the awful days of the fire, the ending. Now people say well, let's hope not, let's pray not, let's hope that something will turn up. Yes, you can. I want you to hope that. I want to hope that too, but I want to do more than hope. I want people to try to stop it while they can. You can prevent some suicides, you know. We psychiatrists try all the time to prevent suicides, and we succeed most of the time. I think we should try to prevent this earth suicide, this human attack on other people and their counter-attack on us. Now, if I were responsible for a church or a congregation, for a parish, I think I'd be talking about this all the time. I wish some of them felt inclined to just preach the Sermon on the Mount every Sunday. I don't think that we can hear the Sermon on the Mount too often in our generation.

Whiteley: From someone who has had a lifelong interest in rehabilitation and working in the criminal justice arena, what insights have you gained that are relevant to understanding the current situation our society faces?

Menninger: Well, most of us that are concerned with this scientifically, are pretty discouraged because, well, the Sermon on the Mount doesn't apply to them either very much. The Chief Justice of the highest court cries and calls and appeals every year, I was going to say perhaps every day, to fellow lawyers and fellow workers in the field. We're not doing this the right way. We are not treating prisoners right. We're not stopping crime by our methods. Let's get better methods, handle this subject differently. But it's very difficult to get the public on your side.

The public hears about crowded prisons, and they may or may not realize that they've caused part of that by scaring the judges into doing anything less than sending everybody that they have a chance to, to jail. Some judges are afraid of the public's shouts. The public says "pay them - make them pay their debts to society, take it out on them, and so on." They want to punish prisoners. We don't want to punish prisoners. Prisoners don't need punishment. We want them to keep those prisoners in such a way that they won't hurt us, that they may grow, they may produce, they may become better citizens. But the jail isn't going to do it. We may have to have them in jail because we're so afraid of them, but most of them we don't need to be afraid of.

You know, most prisoners are not violent. Most crimes are not crimes of violence, but they help fill up the jails. The violent criminals and all the other gentle criminals - I'll call them gentle. They're mischievous, they're mean, they're dishonest, they're lots of other things, but they're not for the most part violent. To jam all these people together is just simply to say, here are all the bad people, throw them in hell, or throw them anywhere, we don't care. Don't put them near us; don't put your nice honor camp in our county. Don't try to have any educating or reforming or improving of human beings in our area, because we're afraid of these fellows. You keep them locked up in some other place. I don't know where the church people are in those counties. I don't know where the Sermon on the Mount people are. I don't know where the intelligent citizens are who know that that's the sort of thing - I don't know where the people who listen to Judge Burger are. They don't act as if they heard of that.

Whiteley: What is it about human nature that makes this kind of fear predominate over, in your view, a more rationed public interest?

Human nature can grow. Human nature can be educated. It can also be contaminated by selfishness, by aggressiveness, and by revenge.

Menninger: When you say what is there about, do you want me to name something? You know what there is about it. There's human nature about it. Human nature can improve, in my opinion. Human nature can grow. Human nature can be educated. It can also be contaminated by selfishness, by aggressiveness, and by revenge. Most people are not mean out of - for amusement. Most people who are violent, most people who are aggressive, are simply acting in adult form what they learned as children from their parent and from their homes.

{Children are} being mistreated, they're being sexually abused, they're being punished cruelly, they're being ruined, and little criminals are being here and there manufactured.

Whiteley: So, the crucible of much of the violence is in the family.

Menninger: Is the family. There's no doubt about that. All this scandal about Freud in the papers the last few months, in The Atlantic Monthly, and all these others. All that business saying Freud was too naive to believe what he heard. Freud heard about the meanness of adults, of parents to children. Freud heard it, and at first he believed it, and he said people can't be that bad. The children must have imagined it. The children don't imagine the mistreatment, doctor. Children are being mistreated this very morning, in this very community, in your community, his community. They're being mistreated, they're being sexually abused, they're being punished cruelly, they're being ruined, and little criminals are being here and there manufactured.

Whiteley: And the seeds for violence in generations to come are being laid. This is a terrible block to achieving peace. How would you advise those people who care about the family in America to work to make the family a source of the positive parts of human nature rather than of violence?

Menninger: Well, now my recipe is vengeance is the worst disease in the world. Revenge is an epidemic, like herpes, or like infections of other kinds. We have to try to cure it.

Whiteley: How would you start with the family? There's got to be a way...

Menninger: Well, I would try to accept the fact that, and this we know, is that punishment does no good. It's expensive, it's cruel, it's sometimes satisfying to the punisher, but it does the punished person no permanent good, but makes him postpone the retaliation. You see, the Supreme Court encourages the schools to punish children if they wanted to, whip them if they want. Did you know that? Did you know that our Supreme Court - I think I'm using the right words

- said it was not illegal for the teachers to give corporal punishment if they felt it was deserved or needed, some such phrase like that. See, I don't think any teachers ought to teach by whipping. The Supreme Court does. I think Mr. Reagan does, doesn't he? I mean, he said the other day he wanted them to go back to old-fashioned methods to enforce the teacher's - the idea was to defend the teacher or said of course, she ought to be defended. But I think a lot of people took that to mean some whips - I'm going to spank some of these children, or whip some of these children.

Whiteley: And in your insight, the reason you're against it is it sows the seeds of later violence.

Menninger: I'm against that.... I do think so.

Whiteley: A fundamental message you would give educators is to make schools a non punishing place.

Menninger: Well, it isn't only my message. I'm not the first one that said don't hurt people; be kind to them. Love them and the teachers that are loved, remembered forever, are the ones that loved the children. They don't teach them by slapping their face. They teach them by going over the essay a second time, or a third time.

Whiteley: From a lifetime of working with people with mental illness, of trying to help them recover and lead more productive lives, what insights have you gained that would be helpful to achieving an enduring peace?

Menninger: Well, you see, we psychiatrists began taking care of those patients to get the people rid of them. People said, "we've got an uncle living in our house, and we can't stand him. He's just mad as a hatter, and he disturbs all of us, and what will we do with him? Well, the sheriff won't take him because he hasn't done anything wrong; the hospital won't take him because he doesn't seem sick. Who will take him off of our hands?" Psychiatrists began being sort of sheriffs, if you like, or somebody to help people with distressing character. And we began to look for ways to put those people out of their distress and their pain. They wouldn't act that way if they weren't hurting. Psychiatry began by helping control people, and we learned, we got better drugs, and we got better hospitals in place, hospitals, and we had better methods of handling them. And then we began to talk to them kindly, instead of saying, oh shut up now and don't do that again. Instead of that we'd say, well, what is the matter. What worries you most? Who hurt your feelings? And that makes a very different reaction from the sick person.

Whiteley: So, taking the time to listen to feelings of anguish in other people, of being concerned with their perspective.

Menninger: Psychologists began to study the various intricacies of the patterns of - what they say, you know, is I'm lonely. I'm scared. I'm frightened. I want to belong to somebody or something. I want to be liked, I want to be needed. Well, the psychologists have found various ways in which those wants can be identified. And we put them into operation in the hospital.

Whiteley: And those basic ways of treating people humanely are, for you, and important way to begin to help people...

Menninger: An essential way...

Whiteley: An essential way of helping people be more peaceful. I'd like to close by asking you to return to a theme that has been recurrent in your writings over the decades, and that is that people are capable of positive change.

Menninger: Well, of course. I take that so for granted that I scarcely understand the question.

Whiteley: How would you want us all to change as a society in order to achieve a more peaceful world?

Menninger: Well, I'd put a taboo on vengeance, and revenge, retaliation. Even if it's called patriotism, or called valor, or called standing up for yourself. All of those words - I'd try to get rid of vengeance. If that kid cries again I'll smack his face in for him. That's nothing but revenge, you know. Because the child cried and disturbed the father's peace. And you say most gentlemen don't do that. I know you don't. Most people do. But they do other forms of retaliation. You do, I do. We mustn't do it.

Whiteley: Dr. Menninger, thank you for sharing with us today, your insights into the way to a more peaceful world.