Is cannibalism alive and well in the 21st century?


The spread of human cannibalism (anthropophagy...

The spread of human cannibalism (anthropophagy) in the late 19th century.

It is no secret to those of us with the capacity to honestly observe human conduct, that some of us are willing to exploit weaknesses within our own species for our own gain. Parasitic and predatory behaviors that are simultaneously by and toward our species is not news. We swim in shark infested social waters, and some of us behave in the role of the shark. The practices that fall into parasitic and predatory categories both toward and within our species are both a literal and a figurative tearing at our own flesh. The term “social cannibalism” fits to describe these behaviors that generate self-inflicted wounds.

Social cannibalism can take on many forms. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as robbery, extortion, certain types of aggression, dominance, child abuse and the like. In fact, many more subtle forms of social cannibalism are arguably much more destructive. One of the reasons for this is that they are often couched in layers of socially acceptable behavior. These behaviors are not associated with their destructive outcomes. They are compartmentalized by narrow perspectives.

Some forms of social cannibalism ride on a wave of behaviors that are highly valued from a cultural perspective. Because the destructive effects of these practices are hidden because they are so far removed from their causes, it makes them harder to spot for what they are. Consequently, they are more difficult to evaluate, much less prevent and/or eradicate.

Here’s an example of subtle social cannibalism: Armies of “consumer psychologists”, experts on human behavior and motivation, are paid handsomely to conjure up tactical methods to influence people to tether themselves to products and services that are out of sync with what is in their best interests. This same behavior benefits product and service providers while keeping those that work to buy them are trapped in a vortex of parasitic exploitation. Product branding techniques are very successful even though they are quite detrimental depending on the context.[1] There are people in the U.S. with dependent children who have no home, yet they have brand name cell phones, drink brand name soda, eat brand name potato chips, even smoke brand name cigarettes. Brand loyalty over objective self-interest reveals something particularly unsettling about both our capacity to be manipulated to our own detriment, and our willingness to exploit this vulnerability among ourselves.

It is plain that we are susceptible to ideas that are not in line with sound decision making. As a global culture, we tend to behave as if the whole of the living biosphere of which we are part is at our disposal-for our use-to whatever degree we can leverage our intellect and technology to exploit it. We have a long legacy of human centered behavior.  At times in our history exploitation was arguably a necessity in order to survive. Exploitative behaviors were not as much of an issue when we didn’t wield as much influence over our environment as we do now. Our ability to leverage technology to influence the environment beyond what it is sustainably able to deliver has not been tempered by the knowledge that we depend on this same environment for our very existence.

As scientific knowledge of how fragile and interdependent we are on the whole body of life has emerged, it appears it has not affected our culture as much as one might think. We seem to be content to rub doubting and dismissive words over our destructive deeds as if they have some kind of magical power to negate the effects of reality. Although these magic wordy spells appear to move such things as our sense of self-justification, reality does not appear to be moved at all by them. The consequences of our actions invariably flow whether we deal honestly with reality or not. The fact is, our willingness to do whatever we can without respect to the long term consequences is a danger to our continuing existence.

As a consequence of our shortsightedness, we do things because we can, and because we are so easily manipulated on emotional levels. Our behaviors are not based on whether or not they confer benefits in the context of the global body of life in which we exist. Our self-destructive values do appear to be consistent. We are shortsighted in the context of the whole earth, but we also perform with this same behavioral dynamic toward each other in personal relationships. Addicts are willing to selfishly drain the energy and resources from the people in their immediate social landscape to the point where the relational system can no longer support their addiction and it collapses. Enablers are addicted to the notion that their role is one of self-sacrifice to the point of their own destruction. They vainly attempt to please the bottomless needy pit of the addict to the point of their own collapse, then wonder why they failed. Although neither end of the exploitative spectrum is a recipe for fulfillment, we appear to sustain them in the short run with magic wordy excuses, avoidance and distortions until reality inevitably comes calling.

Let’s make sure we are clear on what the reality of our biology says about fulfillment. The heart does not attempt to dominate or drain the other organs in the body. The heart provides a valuable service to the rest of the community of relationships that compose the body, and the rest of the organs do the same for the heart. The heart must also be open to receive nourishing value from the rest of the community of relationships of which it is part. This economy, based on a balanced approach to giving and receiving is what sustains the whole body. This message, spoken through our biology is the cornerstone of what brings wealth and/or poverty to our experience of life on every scale. This includes our social structures. The plain truth is; if we align our values with those communicated through our true biological identity then we can realize the fullest experience of life. If we do not, we cannot.

Some of us frankly do not have the capacity to tell whether we’re being invited to dinner as part of the menu and not as a guest. Our capacity to think critically and respond appropriately to danger, even from each other is a social necessity to avoid being eaten. Biology is the model that best speaks to what we need to know. We provide the CO2 and nitrates the fruit tree needs to live, and the fruit tree provides the carbohydrates and oxygen we need to live. We need to recognize the message speaking to us through the body of life. Biology is a guidebook that tells us what we need to know in order to survive and be fulfilled. The alternative is inviting ourselves to our own dinner where we also just so happen to be the meal – social cannibalism.

Do you have any ideas on how to apply this message in social, educational, family, interpersonal relationship and environmental settings? I would love to hear your thoughts.


[1] For more information read: “Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy” by Martin Lindstrom. For a history of public manipulation look up “Edward Bernays” and “Engineering of Consent”. One example being the transformation of views toward war in America in the 1910’s. Another is the conversion of attitudes towards women’s smoking from a social taboo to socially acceptable in the 1920s.

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2 responses to “Is cannibalism alive and well in the 21st century?

  1. Much truth in these words! – Just one thought though, I am a little uncomfortable with the terminology that predatory people exploit others’ “weaknesses”… “Weakness” seems to place a blame or a lack of being on the prey’s shoulders. – Mostly what is exploited is trust, love, care, generosity, kindness… and these are certainly not weaknesses.

    I look forward to following and continuing to share thoughts with you! Much light and wisdom to you today!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. The discomfort is understandable if the term “weakness” is meant to imply responsibility. It is not meant to imply responsibility, blame or any other value. The lens through which this idea is presented is an observation of relational dynamics and their consequences on our experience of life, not as an assessment of the value of character qualities. In this case, it is an observation of vulnerabilities that can be exploited, not as an indication of any kind of value proposition. In fact, those of us that participate in what is being called social cannibalism here are actually unwitting participants in the overall poverty of the environment in which we and our descendents must also exist. In this light, the poverty reflects back on the predator and the parasite – more like a wounded and malnourished being that needs healing and nourishment, not a criminal that deserves punishment.

      Most, if not all aspects of strength come inevitably with a corresponding weakness. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall”, “Nice guys finish last” and so on. Although I would agree on the admirable nature of those things you mentioned, and I would call them strengths from one perspective, they are still vulnerabilities in the context of an environment that contains social cannibalistic values. In that sense they are weaknesses, at least from the perspective of lens used in this idea structure. I suppose if we were to look at values that promote life from another perspective, those qualities would bring strength without weakness, but only in the absence of predatory and parasitic elements in our culture.

      Thanks for your comment.

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