I have talked a lot in my essays, posts, podcasts and even my songs about self-delusion, especially the way our negative emotionality (fear/anger) causes all sorts of destruction which we are extremely good at ignoring, or pretending comes from somewhere else. Some people object because they insist that they have great reasons to be angry – and I absolutely agree that there are many things which are objectively infuriating in the world. The question we have to ask right after that is not “can we justify our upset?” (the pure ego answer) but rather the adult version – “what attitude on our part, best helps improve each of those frustrating problems?”
Horrendously general, I know, but the simple fact is that anger and fear are such old ways of making people act stupidly, and getting them to endorse policies which are against their long term interests, that there are whole categories of specialists who do almost nothing but manipulate the emotions of the general public based upon unwholesome primitive triggers which most of that same public furiously denies they even have!
Weirder still, this deliberately crazy-making game between persuaders and citizen/consumers has been going on for more than a century. The culture at large has made some useful progress in our general understanding of human spirit and psychology over that time, but government, business, advertisers and warmongers have studied those same subjects much harder, which means they have made quite a bit more progress in terms of messing us all up, than we’ve made learning to be happier individuals, more useful and helpful to others.
Part of the missing awareness of how manipulated we are has actually been around for awhile – media criticism was especially vital and interesting in the sixties and seventies, and a lot of stimulating theories were advanced at that time. Problem is, that historical moment was so full of contempt and ego (fear/anger again), that we failed to follow through with the full love insight available. We’ve kept right on failing on this one ever since – and at this point, freezing that error is getting us into real trouble.
The cynical half-analysis which we have popularized and come to believe (without proof, or serious compassionate scrutiny) says “Most people are dumb, they will believe anything they are told, and they can be made to do or endorse extremely foul things, if these things are explained in a way which is adequately dishonest and also invokes powerful negative emotions.”
The sad thing we have to start with is that this is absolutely SOMETIMES true. People can get whipped-up in a fury by fear and anger in combination, which is why political specialists are so good at using moments of real hurt, to make us favour very foolish things.
But the counterbalancing part we always leave out is incredibly important. People are not nearly as dumb as those who specialize in manipulating them ALWAYS end up assuming (one of those professional deformation things, where over time your work changes your psychology, often without you even realizing it’s happening. As far as you can tell, you’re just getting smarter and smarter – but to the rest of the world your specialization is taking you further and further from consensus reality).
People also have a whole range of personal measures of life, which give them much more important information than the posturing of blowhards ever could. How full is the fridge? How angry is the landlord? How are my kids doing? How are the sickest folks I know getting by? How well are my most talented friends being encouraged and rewarded? How well are my friends with the greatest basic human problems to face, being helped?
We do hear (almost always nauseatingly insincere) attempts to invoke these profound personal caring questions, made by all sorts of specialists who enjoy manipulating large numbers of people for a living. My younger friends probably won’t even realize that before this war-century, the voice of western media used to sound quite a bit different from that of politicians. Much more curious, funny and skeptical, and much more genuinely interested in the humane. Now, you sometimes have to listen for a few minutes or even wait for a caption, before you can tell whether you’re listening to a pundit, a reporter, or a politician, and an absolutely weird number of reporters and editors at the majors are former expert manipulators from malign government agencies. We used to call that gross corruption.
A wise friend of mine once said that instead of saying someone’s name and title on the caption, the networks ought to show their net worth, as a clearer and more revealing filter for the audience to use to understand the context of their ideas. I always loved that idea, but at this point I’d be happy just to know – are you a former spy, analyst, or professional war promoter – and if so, who in media hired you, and why are they still allowed to hire anyone? Separation of war and media may not be specified constitutionally, but it must surely be at least as important as separation of church and state. To allow CIA and the military to use the “free” press to amplify state propaganda and control dissent is a clear and shocking violation of every principle of freedom the cold war was supposedly fought to protect.
So – here’s the invisible question we almost never ask, but really should, and often.
Do we, in the final analysis, believe in democracy or not? By this I mean, do we have faith in human goodness, distributed widely enough in our fellow citizens, that they will steadily try to make life better for most people? (except insofar as their will is thwarted, diverted and corrupted)
I am personally convinced that we cannot hold this belief, and also the belief in the complete stupidity of humans at the same time. When we extend the logic of believing that “People will believe anything” and “People are dumb and amoral” too far, we can’t help but come to the conclusion that an aristocratic dictatorship is the only virtuous form of government. The better people should have extra power, and the ones these elect all agree are stinkers should have their power and their voice confiscated by force, for the good of all. (I don’t like Plato being so relevant here, believe me).
Of course, it is nothing short of amazing how many people now hold the belief that everyone else is stupid, but they and their friends alone are not. Such a schema defies the odds to an incalculable extent, but the commonality of this feeling is still highly revealing.
Now just for a moment – let’s ask where we get when we take serious belief in our fellow citizens (the core ‘faith’ at the heart of democracy, which really does make it worth saving) just a few more reasoning steps. For a start, when we begin from respect instead of contempt, we always ask what we don’t yet understand about our opponent’s views, instead of trying to justify and defend the emotionally satisfying rejection which we have already reached with our (obvious, because functionally proven) ignorance. We look for a reason to empathize, even with the hard feelings of others, instead of a reason to dismiss them as sub-human.
When we make it a constant habit to ask ourselves – what are the best possible reasons my opponents could have? and what are the worst reasons my own allies advance? – we can come a lot closer to overcoming the natural tribal emotional biases we humans all carry around (probably for reasons of brain architecture, even more than our patterns of acculturation).
Here’s one simple example of how we make things much too simple. Immigration in America. For people who are comfortably employed and housed, the question can be represented in clear simplistic moral terms which render all objections hateful. “How can we possibly close the door of freedom and opportunity to people who desperately need it?”
A question with all kinds of powerful emotional resonance not only for kids of immigrants, but for many who hold to an ideal vision. Where is your charity, your pride, your gratitude?
But I happen to know a couple of people who are poor and struggling hard in Urban Southern California right now (LA) and their day to day experience is genuinely heartbreaking. Both trained hard in industries since rendered irrelevant. So many local entry level employers are now eager to take advantage of the desperation of immigrants, that they have built unacceptable working conditions right into their business model, which means non immigrants must either accept standards our whole society considers unacceptable, or be in-effect priced out of the local job market. The question of housing is even weirder, not only are tens of thousands of people homeless and far more housing insecure, many places would rather rent to someone on assistance (steady, if sparse) than someone with marginal employment – even though gig-work (where the worker takes all risks, and the employers get all they want from them, with minimal cost, liability or responsibility) has come to dominate in more and more fields – a trend which started forty years ago, but has accelerated to a dizzying (and disheartening) pace this century.
To say someone wanting a job and a place to live is automatically a racist is insane. But do we passionately ask why we close the door to freedom and opportunity to so many who are already here? Some do, but for most, the inhumane and un-Christian association between poverty and immorality is an easy fall-back. Those people had their chance and blew it. But did they really?
To claim racism is behind any question about the emergency state of inadequate housing supply and the decades long erosion of working conditions which absolutely has been exacerbated by mass illegal immigration is a nice way to manipulate the passionate and comfortable into saying “the poor are rude, should have no rights, and be silenced.” Call that left if you want, but I call you a liar, flat out.
Anti-worker anti poor and anti social progress, in fact. The Democrats (and their Canadian equivalent centrist Liberals) didn’t used to have this gross and growing blind spot. One of our greatest prime ministers, Mackenzie King, entered public life from a background in social work, with the belief that labour and business both had crucial and valid interests, and government ought to work toward helping them compromise in a way which created good conditions for both to thrive. FDR had a similar balance in mind – though he is an extra amusing figure in any political conversation because he is simultaneously a great hero of leftist progressives and the world-oppressive banking industry!
What happened to the ANC in South Africa? What happened to the Congress party in India? They were so completely convinced that their brand was uniquely righteous that they slid further and further into incompetence and corruption, and covered up their errors shamelessly again and again, because of that impenetrable (though increasingly false) moral certainty. They came to feel they didn’t need to DO good, just BE (Sort of like Napoleon’s demented “I am France!”). The once mighty Liberal party has done multiple hilariously OTT cycles of this in Canada over the last few decades also (grist for another post). The deflation of ‘good-guy acts’ seems to be global. I can’t help feeling Brexit owes a lot to the same sort of falsity and smugness on the part of the EU (smugness to which NONE are entitled, after the fraud and following decimation wrought upon the Greek economy, mostly by grotesquely irresponsible and vicious German bankers).
The weird thing is – as ridiculous as the right wing blowhards keep looking to the left, leftwing blowhards keep seeming just as ridiculous to the right. Not even trying to be serious, are they?
As out of touch as the international bankers and corporate titans so clearly are (and each conference seems to take them even further up each other’s rectums), there is now no less of a disconnect in the culture of NGOs, mighty academe, or even in the almost anarchistic field of the arts, where we once expected things like freedom, truth, passion and inspiration could not ever again be stifled.
The common mode of address itself says a lot. Complaint, expletive, raise a fist, or a gun – a chant, or a molotov. Smashy/Hate-y. Not what we’re here for, folks (pick a code, I’ll argue that on your terms).
The simplest explanation is that every faction is a bit right about their opponent, but completely utterly shamefully and in every possible way wrong about themselves. The missing piece that would make those angry forms of address at least partially valid? Moral high ground. The poorest people in North America still derive huge advantages from the way our corporations treat even poorer people overseas. In other words, when we complain about the way the rich treat us (corrupting governments, swaying policy their way and screwing us unfairly in huge numbers), we are saying it is morally wrong whenever that is done TO us – but we all still think it is just fine and dandy when it is done BY and FOR us.
This is why I describe our standard indignant positions on almost everything nowadays as egotistical and juvenile – I’m not taking shots, though I can easily forgive anyone who misunderstood me that way (I am capable). I am using those words in a technical sense.
So then where does that leave us? What are our choices? If the left is nuts and the right is nuts and the centre is nuts and the rich are nuts and the poor are nuts and nobody – but nobody – is listening to anyone else at all anymore, just all trying to yell over each other like a bunch of over-excited and badly raised psychotic brats? (There, now that one was a shot) ;o)
GROW PAST DEPENDENCE ON A TEAM! – And I mean that sincerely.
One of my favourite pithy gurus liked to put it this way “Think for yourself, stupid!”
But wait – the world is so complex, fast moving, challenging – you can’t really be suggesting we get past morality itself, can you? No way – not even for a second – I’m saying get past all of this furious reflexive inflexible and inhumane dogma, so that we can finally and at long last get back to real (that is, actively and humbly seeking) morality. It isn’t a checklist, it is a muscle – and we’ve been lazily using checklists instead for so long, that our morality muscles are sagging terribly.
Here’s the hilarious (and/or reason for suicide) twist, to this whole mess. You know who fights back hardest, when you start to use love as your filter instead of anger, and begin to judge based on your best listening and empathy, instead of your angriest ignorance and dogma? A whole bunch of people you used to think were your closest dearest allies. I am really sorry to have to say this, but it goes way beyond apocrypha – this little drama is being played out all around the world nowadays.
When you think and feel for yourself, when you start setting aside fashionable opinion, and working hard for subtle understandings instead of lazy condemnation, a whole bunch of friends who really like clonking other people over the head with their rule-book will start giving you a hard time, and before long, you will find some of them chasing you around with that same rule-book. Because your thinking will now be organic, responsive to the moment and the people in it – it will be humane but imperfect, while theirs is still set in cold stone. Your friendship, kindness and honourable conduct – those precious human things don’t show up in their book, just those same old angry check-boxes you used to love too.
I can’t truthfully say “no loss” in a casual way. Every emotional rending is a loss, and we humans are way more sensitive to the opinions of groups than we can comfortably admit. But I can say with confidence that throwing out the dogma, recovering your full range of compassion and curiosity and rediscovering other humans with new and stimulating views will completely invigorate your thinking, and may very well change a bleak and dismal picture of the future, into a bleak and dismal future with a new component of clear unblinking hope.
Love is not a luxury for afterward, it does not erupt spontaneously when the last foe has been defeated. Love is not a thing we do only for those who please or flatter us. Every great leader of spirit and heart has commended us to set our love before our anger, and find the love in those around us, even at great cost to ourselves.
You can have all the fun and excitement you want parsing each others hateful dogma – and in this cacophonic age, there is plenty of that sort of fun to be had – have at it, by all means. Kind of like burger chains, fighting epic battles over market share – all sound and fury.
Or you can take a deep breath, recognize the door we all like to politely pretend is invisible, step out of that depressing madhouse and get a breath of fresh air instead.
It’s really kind of fantastic out here – so many fascinating new friends and hopeful things to learn.
(scary too, I will grant – but isn’t that really only because it has been an awfully long while since we practised standing on our own two feet, instead of riding the shoulders of comforting Ogres?)