hannah arendt



Distance Regulation

    Now we can add something important to Lorenz’ argument. I stated earlier that researchers consider overcrowding a principle trigger for aggression. Yet many species overcome crowding with distance regulation behaviors.
    In On Aggression, Lorenz argues that distance regulation behaviors get their energy from aggression or aggressive display. The aggressions flare up when violations occur to ongoing approach/separation rhythms. Lorenz called distance regulation “a very simple mechanism of behavior-psychology that gives an ideal solution to the problem of the distribution of animals of any one species over the available area in a way that is favorable to the species as a whole.”24 25
    That is to say, aggressive behaviors evolved as responses to the disruptions of rhythm whenever overcrowding became a critical infringement on homeostasis. When overcrowding threatened the food supply, interfered with breeding patterns or impinged on the regular ordering of social distances, aggressive displays were stimulated.
    To the extent that aggression fought to restore the biological rhythms needed for homeostasis, it played a conservative role in species chronobiology. However, at the same time, aggression exerted force as a perturbation, not as a rhythm itself, rather, like a lion tamers whip lash, it snapped to keep the lions dancing. It worked as a perturbation for the sake of rhythm.
    The evidence from animal behavior I interpret to show that under certain conditions (like overcrowding) aggression reinforces distance regulation to conserve the rhythms of dispersal and aggregation-the basic food gathering, sleep/waking and safety/defense rhythms. Aggressive displays keep daily dispersal/aggregation rhythms going by organizing the individual rhythms of approach and separation between individuals into systems of distance regulation.
    These larger systems maintain Edward Hall’s fourfold division into intimate, personal, social and public distances. Hall explains, “in addition to territory that is identified with a particular plot of ground, each animal is surrounded by a series of bubbles or irregularly shaped bal-loons that serve to maintain proper spacing between individuals.” 26 These bubbles conform to the four social distances.

distance regulation

Dafabriano: distance regulation in religious art


    chimp aggressionWe can liken the aggressive distance regulation system to a patch-work quilt of relationships. In the quilt, some occupy big patches, others smaller ones. The most dominant males and females and their allies command the largest, most central spaces and have the freest access to and through all other spaces. By ranking order, certain individuals can enter others’ spacchimp familyes. Some can come in but others must stay out. The closest contacts are allowed between mother and child, then between siblings, then mates, and then out to the broader social interests that regulate the whole group. The primordial territory, then, is the quilt of social distances regulated by both aggression and affection. And the quilt is dynamic. It changes. Births and deaths change the quilt, as do aging and wounds and illnesses. 27   The patches may change, but they remain contiguous. They touch eachchimp grooming other. Their borders are active and alive. Each patch is part of the whole. The sum total of the social space that everyone constructs in the daily dance of dispersal and aggregation, however it changes, always comes out to the same unitary value—one. “We are one group, we are whole. The quilt as a whole is us”. Here aggression, affection, and the rhythms of nature come together to create the experience of belonging.


Belonging and Community

    Human beings need community. Whether we shun or embrace it, community poses every kind of test of the worth and durability of deeds. It is the place where a person first knows belonging or estrangement. Here he or she wins or loses the basic contests for excellence. Of all venues, it follows, community stands as the one best suited to teach us to catch the quick of aggression on the wing, to feel the unfolding of one’s own aggressive energies, and to tame or use them for creative projects.

                                              breughel childen's games
    From aggression in natural communities, we taste our first actual alienations, usually starting with childhood rivalries and rejections. Even in small social groupings, not everyone will have good standing. Given the variability in human nature and the depths of our wounds, some will get subordinated roles or will be pushed aside.
    Natural communities are not idyllic places. They harbor injustice and provoke malice. Nevertheless, they are central for allowing us to live full lives. When viewed as the necessary link between person, nature and culture, community, tough as it may sometimes be, serves as the most reliable agent for transforming the militant enthusiasm of the Us versus Them into the agonal Us, the “us” who struggle together to create not destroy.
    The full play of our humanity depends on life in community. Community gives us a social territory of the size we were equipped by evolution to move in, to feel at home in, to behave viscerally, auto-nomically, vegetatively, and spontaneously in. Our sensory circles and social distances evolved to work in natural sized communities. It is where our personal and social epigenetic releasers get their clearest stimulation. Here the four primordial social distances receive their signals, providing the structural web from which, by lines of affinity, community life can grow.
    For millions of years, the distance regulation system was folded into the broader, older aggregation-and-dispersal rhythms responsive to the day/night cycle. The primordial social order, the patchwork quilt, formed a network of relationships based on approach/separation rhythms fitted to the four social distances that kept the structure of aggregation/dispersal going through the daily round.
    Depending on need and on the personalities of the members, all kinds of coalitions could form and dissolve. Defense, food gathering, healing, shelter building, hunting, tracking, traveling, keeping the juveniles in line, alliance building, and inter-band relations. Each would bring different leadership arrangements to the fore, not so much one top male or female replacing another, as adjustments in the whole scheme. The patchwork quilt was dynamic, always reforming, never finished.


    Nor can you simply decide to reject belonging. The need for it presses in on you. Abandonment we experience as a root fear. We carry it from infancy. Even in favorable circumstances, the natural rhythms of love and wisdom will themselves awaken the fear of abandonment. It stirs at the extremes before their reversal points. Abandonment always hovers close. The possibility never leaves. When someone dies, the fear stirs. Change provokes it.
    Belonging is our hedge against loneliness and despair. You cannot choose to reject belonging. Even voluntary exile will not snuff out the visceral pull. The presence of others will draw us into new relationships.
    Our intimacies strengthen belonging through language affinity. The very words we use when we ponder our choices are not of our own devising. Human speech emerges and develops only in community. ‘Community’ and ‘communication’ have the same root. Language is the tie that binds our hopes and fears together. We require language to become real to others and maybe to ourselves. Here with language and higher cognitive abilities, a distinctly human, one could say a normative human social life, develops.


    More insightfully than any scholarly writer I know, Hannah Arendt probed the need for belonging. Reflecting on her own experiences as a refugee from Nazi Germany, she wrote in a 1943 article:

“Man is a social animal and life is not easy for him when social ties are cut off. Moral standards are much easier kept in the texture of a society. Very few individuals have the strength to conserve their own integrity if their social, political and legal status is completely confused… we lose confidence in ourselves if society does not approve us; we are – and always were – ready to pay any price in order to be accepted by society.”28

    Without community life, love and wisdom, though they maintain their existential and creative dimensions, lose ethical and political force. To gain strength of character in the absence of deeds is an empty pursuit. To have only a private life creates enormous frustrations.


    Community is the natural venue for values. It is where love and wisdom thrive. When we withdraw and return, it is always from and to community.
    Ethical transmissions require community life because moral behavior comes into the world more through example than precept. Exemplary deeds need to be witnessed. The witnessing makes community the conducting medium for ethical examples. Our power to solve shared problems gains force when exemplary behaviors travel through real communities.


We have a primordial desire for cozy belonging. The larger the group, the weaker our gut-level identification with it. Something in our makeup resists the anonymity and leveling of mass culture, rejects distant rule, and resents absentee ownership. We are biologically predisposed to break larger groups into smaller units. And if we cannot find real communities, we opt for false ones.

1)    We attach ourselves to subgroups, to smaller scale natural social entities, within which natural dominance associations still form and function – a family, a home site, neighborhoods, churches, work associations, circles of friends – and then we feel wanted. But these secondary institutions compete for loyalties and put pressure on each other. So a complex web of conflicting loyalties forms, eliciting different behaviors and requiring complex splits in consciousness.

2)    Our sense of belonging gets more abstract, more diffuse, diluted. We allow ourselves phony belonging; we accept abasement by buying worthless products, “theme park” substitutions for life, fake adventures, false memberships and trivial connections.

3)    Those who cast their lot with humanity against the debasement of belonging, and try to protect “themselves against the loss of the object by directing their love, not to single objects but to all men alike” commit a folly. Freud wrote that “a love that does not discriminate seems to me to for-feit a part of its own value, by doing an injustice to its object; and secondly, not all men are worthy of love.”29

4)    Many people in the prosperous world try to find belonging by acquiring the portable symbols of belonging. They make possessions, wealth and money their goals. But these expedients drain belonging of meaning. The infantile fear of ab-andonment pushes through to the surface and drives us to measures that are even more desperate. The main one being the Us/Them mentality.

5)    The last most desperate and catastrophic way to secure belonging is in the Totalitarian state, a peculiar 20th century invention whose ideology promises to explain everything to people for whom nothing makes sense. Arendt argued that the crucial support for totalitarianism comes from loneliness. In the 2nd edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism she wrote that “totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it… bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.” The totalitarian state offers a very complete kind of belonging, and people long for this, but they can only get it by accepting, as an unshakable principle of organization, that the world is divided into a superior Us and inferior Them. In this world, sacrifice for the sake of the Us is the highest civic duty. The “us” has to prove its “usness” repeatedly. The slightest deviation arouses suspicion. People spy on each other. Only the ideology is pure. A secret disaffection drills its way into the self until finally we grind the “us” down so far that one suspects oneself of being one of “them”. In Stalinist days that frame of mind, heated by terror, made people confess to thought-crimes or testify against each other or testify against themselves, or even commit suicide on request. 30