26 April 2012

Wetiko, or, a New Approach to Old Deviltry

For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

Because of recent events in my personal life, I've been making a study of evil lately. I know in some circles it's considered an old-fashioned word, but I've always thought it relevant and applicable to all sorts of situations and even some people.

I'd watched someone I highly respected allow himself to become so deluded and corrupt that he was merely a shell of his former self. I wanted to understand why. Sure, there were lots of obvious reasons. Befriending assholes was one; climbing into a bottle was another. However, both of these "choices" felt more like symptoms than causes. They were not sufficient as an explanation.

Also, as a writer of horror, I want to hold up a candle to the darkness. I want to understand it so I can describe it.

So I read Hostage to the Devil, a book about exorcism and exorcists by Malachi Martin, a Jesuit and theologian. I learned from it, but somehow the Catholic / Christian approach to devils and the demonic didn't quite help me understand what had gone horribly wrong in my situation.

A little while back I heard about wetiko via an interview with author Paul Levy at Red Ice Radio. What's wetiko, you ask? It's a little (or maybe a lot) like the Matrix: It's in the very air we breathe, in our daily interactions with others. It's certainly in our governments and global economic system. It's in us.

Jack D. Forbes, Native-American and professor emeritus at UC Davis, wrote in his book Columbus and Other Cannibals, "Wétiko is a Cree term (windigo in Ojibway, wintiko in Powhatan) which refers to a cannibal or, more specifically, to an evil person or spirit who terrorizes other creatures by means of terrible evil acts, including cannibalism. Wétikowatisewin, an abstract noun, refers to 'diabolical wickedness or cannibalism.'"

Wetiko has been picked up by horror writers (most notably Algernon Blackwood) as a monster / plot device that signifies how scary the wilderness is, or provides a convenient excuse for cannibalistic behaviour in a character. Essentially, these approaches to wetiko have rendered it another boogeyman, in the tradition of any big bad monster. This is all in good fun but it misses the point (and is yet another form of appropriation of Native culture, itself a type of cannibalism). There is something much darker and more essential in the understanding of the term put forth by Forbes and later expanded upon by Levy.

By mmpratt99, via deviantART

Forbes's book Columbus and Other Cannibals is an attempt to answer a question posed by Derrick Jensen in his forward to the 2008 edition: "why is the dominant culture so excruciatingly, relentlessly, insanely, genocidally, ecocidally, suicidally destructive?"

Good question, right?

By partial answer, Forbes argues that "imperialism and exploitationism are forms of cannibalism and, in fact, are precisely those forms of cannibalism which are most diabolical or evil...the wealthy and exploitative literally consume the lives of those that they exploit." Forbes coined the terms "wetiko pychosis" and "wetiko disease" to highlight the sickness of boundless exploitation and greed for what it is: mass psychosis, a disease so prevalent, invisible, insidious, and vile that every atrocity committed in its name becomes normalized and rationalized by the perpetrators.

Events like the violent colonization of the Americas, slavery, and the Holocaust are obvious big outbreaks of wetiko psychosis, but it's the little daily routines that are really killing us. Other symptoms include "raw consumption for profit, carried out often in an ugly and brutal manner," double dealing, the ability to say one thing and do another, the easy way that European culture has of dividing people into "us" and "them," the disregard for and enslavement of nature, disrespect to living creatures at all levels and a separation from what's natural.

Levy, a Jungian thinker whose personal experience with wetiko changed his life, argues that wetiko is a pathogen that sits in the collective unconscious. Levy coined the term "malignant egophrenia" to describe wetiko-like behaviour. Later, when he encountered Forbes's work on wetiko psychosis, he realized that they were talking about the same phenomenon.

In a 2011 article for Sign of the Times, Levy writes,
Speaking in his own language about the predation of the wetiko virus, the spiritual teacher Don Juan, of the Carlos Castaneda books, mentions that the ancient shamans called this "the topic of topics."[xi] Don Juan explains, "We have a companion for life...We have a predator that came from the depths of the cosmos and took over the rule of our lives. Human beings are its prisoners. The predator is our lord and master."[xii] ...Don Juan continues, "It has rendered us docile, helpless. If we want to protest, it suppresses our protest. If we want to act independently, it demands that we don't do so."[xiii] It is striking how Don Juan's description of the effects of these predators is being enacted in our increasingly militarized society, as our freedoms and liberties get taken away step by step. It is as if an inner, invisible state of affairs existing as a yet unrealized archetypal pattern deep within the soul of humanity is revealing itself by materializing in, as, and through the outside world.
I find this concept really useful for working with ideas of good and evil. There are a lot of people who will say that evil is our baseline, that unthinking violence is all we would be capable of if we were not "civilized" through culture.  I have never thought this to be true. Rather, it seems to me that the process of learning to get along in our culture is one of numbing and dumbing down, of learning to dull our connections to those around us in order that we might do what's required. The more in tune we are with dominant culture, the more assoholic we become. Wickedness is something we pass back and forth to each other. It circulates, like living pain.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850)

Levy's infection metaphor is apt:
The wetiko germ is a psychic tapeworm, a parasite of the mind. Just like certain computer viruses or malware infect and program a computer to self-destruct, mind-viruses like wetiko can program the human bio-computer to think, believe and behave in ways that result in our self-destruction. Wetiko is a virulent, psychic pathogen that insinuates thought-forms into our mind which, when unconsciously en-acted, feed it, and ultimately kills its host (us).
Like a cancer of the mind that metastasizes, in wetiko disease, a pathological part of the psyche co-opts and subsumes all of the healthy parts of the psyche into itself so as to serve its pathology. The personality then self-organizes an outer display of coherence around this pathogenic core, which 'masks' the inner dysfunction, making it hard to recognize. In a psychic coup d'etat, the wetiko bug can usurp and displace the person, who becomes its puppet and marionette....In advanced stages, this process takes over the person so completely that we could rightfully say the person is no longer there; they are just an empty shell carrying the disease. In a sense there is just the disease, operating through what appears to be a human being. The person becomes fully identified with their mask, their persona, but it is as if there is no one behind the mask.
By Anita Zofia Siuda

Having witnessed what looked very much like a pathogenic takeover of an individual - the last person on the planet I would have expected to crumble - the concept of wetiko psychosis makes a great deal of sense to me. I think Forbes and Levy are exploring human consciousness in a very important way. Wetiko does not benefit from being understood or identified, so if it seems like a slippery concept, that's no coincidence. It is in its nature to hide itself. Putting a name to the previously unnamed is tricky business. It's like explaining water to a fish.


Mark K said...

Unsettling, unnerving and not of my liking. Maybe I'm a big wuss? The first image is especially disturbing.

As for evil? Sure that can only be gauged by the act of the moment? Can someone be evil 24/7? I doubt it, just like no one can be good 24/7 either. You look at the famous serial killers, they had times of 'normality' that allowed them to move freely amongst us without hue or cry. I suppose it's the inner self that is the true gauge of good or evil, and the way it is put into motion, either intentionally or not.

I could be talking complete bollocks, though.

As a PS: check my 'W' post and watch the Guild Wars 2 trailer - after reading that you like to blow sh*t up and collect treasure, I thought you might be interested in it ;)

blankenship.louise said...

People in general seem to have this idea that evil walks around with a Hello! I'm EVIL sticker on and is as subtle as a ton of bricks...

No, not at all. The pathogen is an excellent analogy. We're all infected, to some degree, and our culture encourages it.

Excellent post, love the detail.

Traci Kenworth said...

I believe evil hides behind the face of a loved one a lot of times, it has to, to be able to infect us. Thus the dredge of society walks among us, as friend not foe.

Sue Ann Bowling said...

The "Us and them" mindset is by no means exclusive to Europeans. It probably goes back to the days of wandering bands, and exists in many forms. For a psychopath, "Us" may be only self and everything else is not-human. At the other extreme, everything living may be seen as "us." One of the arguments of patriotism is the tendency of many to put the borders at the borders of the USA (or parents born in the USA) while others recognize that all members of Homo sapiens are equally human. For others the boundary can be racial, religious, or how much money "they" have. What seems universal is that the "us" is seen as human, worthy, like-me, while the "them" is seen as less than human.

Elizabeth Twist said...

It's not about people being entirely good or evil - agreed, that's too easy. For me it's more about acknowledging that global dominant culture has taken a bad turn, and the consequences are inescapable and much more broad-reaching than people like to think.

"Malignant egophrenia" just about sums it up.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Absolutely. The darkness has the best PR. If you like the analogy, you might enjoy Paul Levy's book.

Elizabeth Twist said...

It's us too, right? Every time we choose ego over our true selves.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Thanks for this comment, Sue Ann. There's a lot to think about here.

While not exclusive to European culture, I would say the "us vs. them" mindset was perfected and reached its pinnacle of perversity in the dominant global culture and through certain individuals within that culture (hello, George Bush). It most definitely originated in Europe and infected the Americas via colonization.

In the context of global dominant culture, "they / them / the other" is there to be exploited and is utterly dehumanized. I do not think this attitude is universal. I think you can acknowledge "that group over there is different from us," without adding exploitation and dehumanization into the mix. I think there are a lot of groups who do discern between their own identity and other identities without trying to attack on that basis.

My understanding of Native American philosophies is that "everything living is 'us'" is a core principle. Likewise Taoist / Shinto beliefs, shamanistic traditions, and so on. There are lots of examples of this loving outlook in the world, but they are hard to access through all this noise.