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Avoiding the Pathologies of Defense

By Craig K. Comstock

Chapter in Sanctions for Evil: Sources of Social Destructiveness,(edited by Nevitt Sanford and Craig K. Comstock, published by Beacon Press)




In many aspects of life we recognize that harm may come to us as much by the defenses we employ as by the dangers we seek to avert. In medicine, for example, some diseases are iatrogenic, caused by efforts at treatment; and according to research on diseases of adaptation, the body may exhaust itself through excessive response to an irritation. In either case the process may be described as a pathology of defense, a situation in which the mode of protection generated by a system (or put into it) either corrupts the system from within or stimulates further danger from outside. The latter effect occurs in an arms race: the weapons procured by one side appear to the other as a threat, stimulating a cycle of deadly extravagance.

Pathologies of defense occur in many areas. Psychologists tell us that certain patterns of adaptation which may defend the personality in a given stage or situation also impair its flexibility or further development, sometimes so severely that when new challenges occur the system breaks down. In the ecosystem man is now learning that defenses such as insecticides may cause more trouble than they prevent. In social life, pathologies of defense occur on all sides. A man keeps a gun in the house for use against burglars and ends by shooting his wife during a quarrel. A motorcycle club is invited to police a rock festival and reportedly kills one of the audience, beating others. A ruler is deposed by his own army. In this sense, a pathology of defense occurs whenever an agent of violence turns against a person whom he is engaged to protect....

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