Tuesday, December 5
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
It's human nature to become defensive when one's competence or dominance is undermined. It's also human nature for groups to promote those who are most persistent in seeking power, who are often those who fear being powerless and are willing to do short-sighted or unethical things to prevent losing their position in the pecking order. Every social group has something like a pecking order, and those who threaten to shift the power dynamic will always draw attention, whether they do it intentionally or not. People also tend to accumulate subconscious guilt that comes up when they're faced with open criticism. People with a lot of power who repress awareness of their own mistakes or slights against others can become paranoid, quite easily, when challenged. They expect to be treated as they've treated others and must repress that awareness continually, and it's easy for a more objective outsider to unwittingly trigger the defense mechanism. That's one reason group boundaries can be so solid and then suddenly break down.
Sunday, December 3
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Apparently, some conservatives are upset with the first Muslim elected to Congress because he plans to carry a Quran to his swearing-in ceremony. I've just gotten used to the notion that it's OK for a gay man to have a sham marriage with a gay woman but not a sincere one with another gay man (conservatives use this argument to prove that gays aren't really discriminated against, and we all know they're just into having a fancy wedding anyway, right?) Now I have to get used to a whole new level of irony... it's OK to swear an oath on a holy book from someone else's religion, but not to use the book you do believe in when elected to office in a country whose holiest document guarantees freedom of religion.
But if that nifty two-ply roll of irony doesn't make your mind implode, let's add a third layer: Does Dennis Prager even REALIZE what the New Testament has to say about swearing oaths?
"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
I heart irony!
Wednesday, September 27
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Politicians and large masses have trouble apologizing for anything... everyone's afraid of giving ammunition to their enemies. That's a vicious cycle. We can't admit fault, so our faults are all the more glaring to others.
No amount of money or military force can stop cellular, decentralized terrorism, not without a vocal Islamic and Arab majority willing to denounce attacks on civilians. Perhaps the sectarian meat-grinder Iraq has become will inspire an Islamic media-majority to recognize terrorism as a viral and unstable tactic, not so easily kept in bounds as a tool for punishing an enemy... I've met many online, including Christian Arabs, who make excuses for terrorism against Israel or the US, while largely ignoring terrorism against Arabs by Arabs. Perhaps Americans will learn that our reliance on long-distance war is similiarly dysfunctional. Both sides have a huge amount of shadow invested in the other, so there will always be an attraction and a fear between the lines. We can either build bridges or burn them, and whichever way we choose, millions will choose with us, both friends and enemies. Whether people love or hate America, they imitate our tactics, as radical anti-Western groups imitate the tactics of Al Qaeda. I'd like us to set a good example, knowing that others will do as we do, not as we say.
Tuesday, September 26
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
"When you meet somebody who is caught in the world of WE and THEM, and you are HIM to that person, and you get caught in his mind net, you are both just intensifying one another's paranoia." -- Ram Dass, Be Here Now
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
In today's Herald, a letter writer asks, "Can we find our spine before it's too late?" A better question might be, "Can we find our soul before it's too late?" For a nation that prides itself on its Christianity, the teachings of Jesus on conflict and peace seem to have been largely left behind. Whatever happened to "love your enemy", or even, "love your neighbor" for that matter? I saw an improvised bumper sticker on the road the other night: "Die liberal scum". I don't know if I'm a liberal or not (most people I know are not so easily categorized), but I'm not sure I like the message. If I disagree with you, I have to die? Why does that feel so eerily familiar?
The above-mentioned writer is apparently upset by the "smug rooting for our enemies by Democrats." Apparently, any American who thinks the Iraq war was a bad idea is now a traitor, an enemy. The dominant emotion seems to be resentment, the dominant mode of communication, blame. It's the one thing that really unites us all. Not our shared humanity, but our collective need to lash out at those we feel are responsible for evil, always getting the judgment a little bit wrong, a little bit off balance, gradually ramping up the rhetoric and the rage as things go from bad to worse.
As a skeptic of organized faith (or a hell-bound heretic, depending on who you ask), I really have no business telling Christians how to honor Jesus. But his teachings, reflected in the ringing voices of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and carried forward in the good work of people who truly love their enemy and pave the way to peace in their hearts and in their lives, have profoundly affected me in a way that I can only describe as spiritual. There are Christians who love people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, who connect from the heart rather than being single-mindedly stuck on talking points and pigeonholes and End Times visions of mass slaughter, and who respond to insults as Jesus commanded, with humility and blessing. They seem to remain in the minority, or perhaps they are only the more vocal wing of a meek and silent majority. While I can find some love for those who hate and can feel some empathy for the pain beneath political cliches and epithets, I find it difficult to understand the rationalizations that lead from the gentle teachings of Christ ("If your enemy is hungry, feed him"..."Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse") to the shrill howling for blood on the political and media stage, the venomous talk radio name-calling, as each side rationalizes its own Machiavellian tendencies by pointing fingers at the other. The blind leading the blind will never shed light on complex issues, the system they're tied to requires them to hit hard, and never admit fault. Christians in politics serve two masters, even as they use Jesus as their brand identity. I have compassion for them, too.
Christians who were deeply moved by The Passion might want to take some time in prayer to reflect on the teachings Jesus said were central to Christian life: love your enemy, bless those who curse you, love the sinner while hating the sin. If we fall back on "an eye for an eye" instead of showing our humanity in the world (yes, even to people who don't like us), we will have serious problems down the road. As Gandhi bluntly put it, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." Perhaps that's changing, now that more Christians are disentangling themselves from political and cultural webs that promote division and mean-spirited judgment. If there is any doubt about the Biblical view on nationalism, read Acts 10:34: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right."
I have no problem with people who leave Christianity, finding their spiritual home elsewhere. But lip service to Christianity with so little genuine love is not pretty. The above-mentioned writer asks "are we doomed?" Perhaps history will doom us to repeat our mistakes. But I believe we have a hidden spiritual side, a uniquely American ability to respond to challenges creatively and moral clarity, when all other solutions have failed and apathy is dissolved in catastrophe. America may become a beacon of freedom to the world, after we've exhausted power, money and pride and discover that love for enemies and strangers is not just a theoretical virtue, but a requirement of civilization.
Sunday, September 10
Sunday, September 10, 2006
It always helps to denounce terrorism as much as one denounces the injustices which made terrorism appealing to the victimized, or vice-versa wherever one tends to emphasize one over the other. If one excuses terrorism as a "mere product of oppression", it tends to muddy the waters and make progress impossible. Even the Palestinian Christians I talk to (and you know how much Christians respect the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence... or not, depending on the Christian) shockingly often minimize the damage to the peace process done by suicide bombings and Iran's interference through Hezbollah. Granted, Palestinians deal with signs of the occupation daily, while Hezbollah is more known in the Arab world for their integrity and charity, with suicide bombings seen as a red herring used by the pro-Israeli side to minimize the suffering of Palestinians. But only a strong condemnation of suicide bombings by Arabs and Muslims will make peace possible. Israel has to take steps too. One side's obligations are never washed away by the other side's mistakes. It's easy for one side to focus on what the other side must do in order for peace to happen, harder for either side to confront its own inner demons and inconsistencies. Easier to teach virtue than to practice it... that's human nature, and to some extent, all sides will have to overcome human nature and cultural programming in order to survive.
If there's no communication, there is no way to change another party's behavior, and if one does not hear, one cannot be heard. From what I've observed this far, nobody on any side is all that great at hearing the others. They have their notions of what justice requires, and for some reason justice always seems to require more of the others than people require of themselves. Nobody wants to sacrifice pride, security or control first.
Even in my own world, where there is no violence that doesn't come through media, I find it hard to weed out my own inconsistencies than to see them in others. But I believe it's that inner work that makes it possible to judge outer conflicts in a way that each party is willing to listen and compromise. The more people in the world who recognize their own light and dark qualities, the more there will be a platform for peace, as opposed to simple denunciations of warring parties. Until then, we'll play out the "good against evil" myth with more and more destructive consequences. At some point, all sides will have to turn against extremism on their own side and withdraw the silence, excuses or support given to flamethrowers who have nothing to gain from peace and who compete to punish the enemy without regard for the consequences falling on everybody else's head.
It's so much more useful to condemn actions without regard to who is doing what, and to praise any move made by any side toward peace. It may help to shun a group in order to give more moderate groups the political advantage, but we seem to focus so much on who is wrong or right and so little on what actions should be praised or denounced no matter who carries them out.
Sunday, July 23
Sunday, July 23, 2006
I don't think people are often attacked for having an opinion, but because someone feels bullied or disrespected in some way. The offense may be real or imagined, but it's not opinions that upset people. It's how they're delivered and how they're taken. The most common mistake people then make is to keep pressing their positions on the issue, without addressing hurt feelings, misunderstandings, personal judgments and so on. That's a bit like thinking a divorce is all about who gets the furniture.
Beliefs are the furniture of our thinking, mental objects which sit around the house, and we walk around because we don't think they can be moved. Then we get mad at others for moving our furniture around in conversations. It's not that the beliefs are so important, it's that our brains are sensitive to domination, and we feel dominated when our mental filters are moved without permission. In order to understand anyone else's position, we have to have the ability to see through their filters, which can be challenging or frightening if their filters show us something unpleasant about ourselves, whether the judgment is fair or unfair.
For some reason, Americans (or maybe it's humans in general?) have a tendency to blur the line between having an opinion and being pushy or defensive(defensive meaning "pushy and jutified by a less secure position") and lash out unconsciously when they feel pushed by the other party. Again, it doesn't matter if an offense was real or unreal, the pattern is for both sides to push harder on a point, rather than backing up and realizing the other person feels bullied and needs to be reassured no personal attack was meant.
Rather than making arguments about politics or religion personal, what if we took a step back and looked at how arguments erupt in general, and what works and doesn't work to create civility and respect for the person while remaining in disagreement on the particulars of belief?
Whether a belief is in an uncompromising form of Christianity, Islam or atheism, or something less absolute and axiomatic like Scientific Pantheism, Buddhism or agnosticism, it would make a huge difference (in my absolute and unwavering opinion) if we learned as a culture the distinction between sticking to a point, and sticking *on* a point. We can all stick to our opinions without disrespecting anyone. But not everyone has learned (call out Dr. Phil's cadre of personal trainers) the art of remaining comfortable in one's beliefs while being comfortable with someone else's differences of belief, and keeping difficult conversations friendly and free of personal attacks and defensiveness. That may just be a cultural hygeine issue. Are there cultures which are especially good at accepting and transcending differences, and cultures which are especially intolerant and insensitive toward people who don't conform to the same belief system? Are there people who try to restore ecology to communication and are phased out, and people who attempt to preserve a belief at the expense of difference?
We can keep having the exact same arguments people are having in a million other places on the planet, oblivious to the ways divisions in ideology turn people into puppets that must feel attacked when the argument calls for feeling attaked, and lash out, stereotype and demonize when the argument calls for lashing out, stereotyping and demonization. As human beings, we have more to look forward to than becoming robots, fighting over religion simply because our civilization's historical script calls for a crusade, for anti-spiritual nihilism and materalism, and for the stamping out of heresy. It's not like it all hasn't happened before. We just have the benefit of hindsight (I hope).
Wednesday, May 31
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Media reflects what the masses respond to. And the masses respond to media as entertainment, which means the way we deal with human problems on a large scale isn't all that far from the way we deal with fiction. That doesn't mean the audience is evil or that the media is evil for responding to them. It's just a feedback loop, kept in place by an artificial separation between human beings. It amounts to a mass sacrifice, as when people who have no human connection to illegal immigrants perceive them as an invading wave and vote for harsher laws than they would if they knew some "illegals" in person. The solution is more social cohesion and communication, difficult at a time when everyone is pulling apart in order to feel safe.
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Values live on a deeper level than beliefs, and depend more on early role models than later teachers. Someone raised with good values will keep them regardless of what beliefs they are interested in as adults, and the only reliable way to erode good values is to put someone in an environment where being good is punished at every turn. As long as good values produce good results, people will hold onto them. Many will keep their values regardless, suffering in a climate where good intentions go unrewarded and selfishness results in tangible gain.
I believe "sin" is both a cause and a result of cultural collapse. As a culture collapses and social ties unravel, people start considering only what benefits them, their own family, their friends, their business partners, and ignoring the effects of their decisions on society as a whole. The sin of Biblical Sodom was not homosexuality, but a lack of charity and kindness between strangers. Everyone looked out for number one. Perhaps that climate also resulted in more visible homosexuality, since there was no longer a unifying moral code and people could be freer sexually (or dominate each other sexually, as the Biblical stories imply). But today's fundamentalists might look to a lack of ethics in business, a lack of kindness toward strangers, and the isolation of various subcultures, including their own, as factors in the decline of our civilization. Homosexuality doesn't even qualify, except to the degree that it creates another isolated subculture.
In any case, upholding universal values like truthfulness, compassion, and so on is a good way to resist the unraveling of culture. What we all need to get is that it's not just a matter of being a good person, but of *connecting* and keeping society alive that is so important. When we let social cohesion erode, it doesn't matter how good we are individually, because we end up feeling like isolated islands of good in a sea of chaos, and no society can function with that overriding perception.
Those who have a sense of perspective end up squeezed between chaos and amorality on the one hand, and the imposition of rigid morality and religious pride on the other. The middle needs to emerge and gain a voice, recognizing both that our actions affect society, and that some of our actions are nobody else's business. The problem is when we categorize behavior wrongly, believing homosexuality is everyone's business but greed is not.
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
It helps if people refrain from labeling others "racist" or
"communist" or anything else. People have fears, needs and values, and
when name-calling dominates the discussion, none of those real feelings
are understood and everyone reacts to the surface conflict rather than
to the underlying issues.
A lot of people are afraid right now, and many of those fears have to
do with the "leaky boat". There are times in history when people fear
there won't be enough to go around, where they feel the ship is
sinking, and they begin trying to push some group out of the boat so it
doesn't sink as fast. In extreme cases, that can lead to fascism and ethnic
cleansing. It's important to address the fear before it becomes
disguised in demand and attack.
People who want secure borders aren't necessarily racist. Some are,
some aren't. People who live in the US illegally aren't necessarily evil
or undeserving of kindness. Recognizing the needs of real human beings
BEFORE they become labels and stereotypes is crucial. If we act like
everyone else is out to take what's ours, we become inhuman to each
other, and that's tragic.
Friday, May 26
Friday, May 26, 2006
We all wrestle between our higher and lower natures, between what gives life and what leads to death and cultural entropy. Ironically, putting a lot of emphasis on morality and conformity may undermine social cohesion and ethics by polarizing people against themselves and against each other, leading to secrecy rather than healing. If we were all able to openly confess our "sins" to the world, without fearing judgment, we'd all find it very healing and repair some of the damage to our culture done by duplicity and violations of trust. But fear of being singled out and marked as "evil" stops us, so secrecy continues to undermine our wholeness, pushing us to come down hard on people who get caught while becoming strangers to each other. "An eye for an eye" grapples with "Judge not, lest you be judged." Religion addresses the problem at a particular point in our development, but becomes a liability when the dogma falls into the hands of a moral elite and a rebel culture forms based on the belief that everything is OK (usually with the caveat, "Not OK to accept the moralists"). That dichotomy, between the moralists and the amoralists, can undermine the cohesion of a culture, leading to invasion by another culture or to the sacrifice of a scapegoated class under an authoritarian or regime or anarchic tantrum. The question at this point is whether we'll develop an ethical foundation and repair the schisms in our culture as well as misunderstandings between cultures, or whether we'll engage in catastrophic warfare, sacrifice a class of "deviants" (the poor, addicted, criminal or otherwise troublesome members of society), demonize the wealthy (not hard to do with Enron etc.), or resolve the internal warfare in all of us that sows the seeds of chaos in the world.
Thursday, May 25
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Religion offers a standard, and it can be comforting and reduce confusion to have a standard that everyone can follow in common, but that doesn't mean any particular religion has the only possible standard. All cultures have rules about sex. They don't all have the SAME rules about sex. What seems to be important is not the particulars but that people can expect consistency from others. That's a good argument for being consistent in your own actions, to have your decisions match your word, and to promote honesty, fairness and other values which reduce tension in any culture and make everything work better for everyone. Religion is ONE way to accomplish that. Religions arise from the cultural matrix to solve a problem. What solves a problem may not be enough to solve a later problem.
Tuesday, May 2
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
My response to someone who was called a bigot for their views on illegal immigrant rights:
It doesn't make you a bigot to believe immigration should be limited to legal immigration, and border security is not a racist issue (I'm amazed that the serious issue of port security is getting lost here, with so few shipping containers inspected). But how people view illegal immigrants and their rights may depend a great deal on whether people actually *know* someone who has lived in the US illegally, built a life, raised kids and so on, or whether one is judging by hysteria in the media or by talking with friends who themselves are judging illegal immigrants by the perceptions of others not connected to them in any human way... a disturbing version of the "telephone game", distorting how people view others who are in a different category. Perception is always affected by the people around us, and we tend to not realize how easily our opinions (and I'm talking about everyone here, not one side or the other) can be altered by the presence of other people who all have one opinion. It's called groupthink, and it's a human problem, not a left or right problem. It leads to groups standing off as groups, rather than communicating heart to heart as individuals.
One strange aspect of this whole debate is that it's really not *possible* to deport illegal aliens who have built lives here. It's possible to return people who cross illegally, but once someone has lived here for years and has deep social ties here, it would be not only impractical and expensive but incredibly inhumane to try to round them up and deport them, splitting up families, friends, church congregations and small businesses. The question is not "do we give them amnesty or deport them all" but rather, "do we give them some way to become legal citizens, or do we pretend they're not here." No one's going to deport 12 million people. We'd do better to put amnesty on the back burner and do something serious about port and border security, not out of fear of illegal immigrants, but of suitcase nukes or biological weapons. Illegal immigrants aren't trying to kill me. Terrorists might be, now that we've alienated and pissed off the entire planet.
I'm wary of any group being labeled "illegal" as an identity, that kind of language may make it easier to dehumanize. A lot of anger is being generated around illegal immigration, and I think much of it is due to the media and to politicians using the issue to score points, not to any sudden danger from illegal immigrants. What's getting lost in all the shouting is that illegal immigrants are human beings with families, who have been going to the same church for years, working, taking care of their kids, people who have neighbors and friends and lives. Easy to forget that when we treat human beings as if they were some kind of invading force. Language can easily turn ugly, and then actions follow, so I would just like everyone to tone it down a little and treat it as the complex issue it is, with some sensitivity and mutual respect. Otherwise, bigots and extremists will hijack the issue on both sides, whipping up more anger and prodding on people who like to carry out public anger with acts of cruelty and violence. No one's kids should be getting beaten up over an issue that was barely mentioned a year or two ago.
Friday, April 28
Friday, April 28, 2006
Underneath the destruction caused by control-based addictive cycles (including war), there is some kind of ritual reaction against suffering. To avoid feeling humiliated, a person may have to be right all the time. They may make bad decisions in order to feel right. They may even cause huge destruction to the world in the process. The destruction is a byproduct. The avoidance of suffering by taking a fixed stance which causes further suffering is the core. People become "evil" when they respond robotically to a view of others which makes them believe they are under attack. In many cases where people are at each other's throats, they all have a secret desire to drop the whole game and hug. They just can't say it to the other side, because the game demands that they show the hardest, most absolute attitude possible.
Sunday, March 5
Sunday, March 05, 2006
It's easy to believe that because Moses and Mohammad were violent in serving their goals, that the goal itself was wrong. The real goal underlying all religion is to make a human family, a species that is aware of itself as one blood. Uniting subsets of that genetic library is a misunderstanding of the goal, when another bloodline is persectued out of paranoia or envy. One thing we should look into is the new science of charting family trees through DNA testing. A lot of interesting interconnections will be found, and we may discover that many of the people who commit genocide are attacking their own blood. As we reopen the wounds of the past, we must not forget to go all the way back, not just stop with "We are Jews" or "We are Muslims" or "We are black". Going back only to the point of division where one's own tribe gained its own sense of identity will not work. We have to go back further, to when identity was a human connection to the land, to nature, rather than a tribal identification with warring gods whose voices in the ears of the tribe led to persecution of other tribes.
Tuesday, February 28
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Someone on a forum mentioned the issue of mild-mannered people exploding under pressure, "going postal". My thoughts:
Another, archaic term for it is demonic possession. It's a real thing, and it happens when the energy of a group falls on one person who is rejected by the group, views the group as a whole as a kind of evil machine, and lashes back when a window of opportunity opens. The more people a society throws out or humiliates (even those who are guilty of crimes can absorb bad energy) the more the danger grows. It is imperative that we find ways to create systems that are inclusive and not based on rejection of those who don't fit in or don't have stable boundaries. We need another approach to violence, and I believe it will involve showing kindness even to those who are guilty of extreme, horrific crimes, making sure they are projected from unstable cultural energy and unable to create more victims. Containment of the energy, as opposed to pushing it all on one person and watching them take the fall for everyone's cruelty or indifference.
We've chained ourselves unnecessarily to belief systems (generally centered on punishment and judging the person rather than the act) which cause us to do far more harm to ourselves and others than would be done if we simply coasted on our animal instincts. Animals tend to be pretty sane. To create a horrifying machine-like hurricane of death, you need a large number of people with a dysfunctional belief system controlling their behavior and preventing anyone inside the machine from seeing the consequences to outsiders. We've taken our relatively gentle, territorial primate urges, and turned ourselves into genocidal ants. Religion plays a large part, although the USSR and China gave religion a run for its money without a deity. It would be the same overall pattern, with or without religion. There would be some who do what's right because it's right, and many who push "karma" onto others, inducing them to make mistakes and punish the wrong people, in a gigantic, toxic domino chain.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
The concept of karma may be derived from a genetic program that synchronizes cultures when they are in danger of collapse. The idea being to repair broken social ties, and dampen the effect of malicious gossip, backstabbing and other punitive behavior that can shred the social web. The point of any prophesy or religious path is to create a stable, deeply connected social network, so as not to fragment into tribalistic clans with no coherent ethical code or ability to defend against better organized tribes. It's not about punishment at all, but of course, we have that ingrained idea that religion is all about punishing and judging others, as opposed to making peace or repairing what is broken by "sin".
Doing good purely out of fear of punishment might be a misuse of the idea, adding more "bad karma". If it's not positive and heartfelt, it's mechanical and won't lead to much lasting good, although it may ease someone's physical burden in the short term. Homeless people don't need you to toss them a quarter out of pity. They need eye contact, someone to listen to their story and help them get their heads clear. A society that fails the poor or treats them as karmic sponges will collapse, eventually. That's the meaning of the Biblical Sodom story, it had nothing to do with the Queer Eye guys riding around on chariots giving makeovers. It had to do with an atmosphere of tribalistic cruelty, a prison-like environment where male rape would have been a realistic fear. America won't fall because for legalizing gay marriage or abortion. If it falls, it will be because of its insular attitude and predatory behavior toward other cultures. The Whore of Babylon is described as fabulously wealthy, the empire the entire world goes to for trade and exploitation. That's obviously not Iraq, poor as dirt. That's us, if we don't shape up. The Christian militia movement, which went back underground after the Timothy McVeigh incident, used to describe America as Babylon, until they got one of their own in the White House. What they'll do if Hillary wins office, is anybody's guess.
Tuesday, February 14
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
It's possible that one way or the other, some non-governmental system will have to be set up to help the poor, especially if the public rejects tax increases. The conservative axiom is, "Government has no right to force me to pay to support people who can't or won't support themselves. That's the job of churches and charities." The liberal axiom is, "Charities have their hands full and it's not enough. We need taxpayer funding for a safety net." My own position is that both are right, and both have a little hypocrisy here and there. I've met many liberals who advocated government aid for the homeless but never spent any time actually interacting with the homeless. That's the easy way out, in my opinion. And the hypocrisy of conservatives needs no mention here, we've both seen it and its political manifestations.
It's not ideal that government forces people through threat of imprisonment to support programs they don't believe in (whether it's nuclear warheads, pre-emptive wars or social programs), but there are times when the alternatives are worse, and experimentation should be done in cities and rural districts to see which types of governmental and non-governmental aid work best, before advocating massive changes to national policy. But conservatives may be right on one of their key points: if a culture unravels, government cannot reproduce the social safety net, and material aid may only increase the feeling of dependency and frustration that causes social unrest, if it fails to give people a meaningful way to contribute to society. If America is Sodom, then government aid may only buy time. If we continue to increase the anger, demonization and stereotyping across lines of division, it will matter little whether our side "wins". We need a cultural renewal, transcending religious and political dogma. A kind of meta-religion, a new moral code.
Christianity and Islam aren't going to solve the problem. They may point the way to cultural evolution, but they aren't the destination, and neither can afford to gloat about its moral consistency or courage. But then, neither can secular liberals, who often scream for change without changing their hearts. The Christian idea of renewal through repentance and rebirth is right on target. It just falls short when it falls back on scriptural prohibitions of homosexuality and women's empowerment. Islam isn't such a bad platform for community aid, one of the reasons Hamas is so popular. But it's collectivist and conformist, and that's too oppressive to be worth it. So what is the secular, independent equivalent, a network that supports the homeless and poor and provides personal contacts for re-entry into the community? By default, the religious fanatics win, if they use charity and empathy as tools for recruitment and we merely call for government safety nets. Not that government funding isn't necessary or good. We need that, but we also need something like a "faith-based program" without a religious dogma to keep out people who lack faith or interest in organized religion.
In Europe, many Islamic radicals are on welfare, but it does not make them appreciate the European system more. On the contrary, since they are socially isolated from the mainstream, government aid only increases their sense of humiliation at the hands of Western culture. America too has its class of alienated young men, converting frustration into political rage, but unwilling to connect and contribute to the community. Racism is part of it, but not the whole story. If we don't find ways to integrate alienated groups into the larger community, there will be a general breakdown of social cohesion, with each groups withdrawing into its own world, listening only to news designed to appeal to its prejudices, and the religious fanatics (both Christian and Muslim) will keep pushing their way into power.
Bush has given us a gift, he has created a viable and self-sustaining progressive movement, a patchwork of perspectives that's far healthier and more robust than the neoconservative and evangelical cabals. But when Democrats call for more funding for social programs, the public hears something missing. They want their leaders to usher in an era of cultural rewnewal, not just a way to patch the holes, but to reweave the fabric. It's the "vision thing". When Bush is out of the picture, there will be opportunities, but we still need the vision, and it's got to be one that draws from Christian ideals of compassion, renewal and mercy while avoiding religious dogmatism. It has to have Islam's social cohesiveness, without the intolerance and arrogant feeling of superiority toward infidels and Jews. Bush may have given us a good push in that direction, but we still have a lot of work to do on the cultural level, not the least of which is to promote genuine love for our enemies, something a Christian nation ought to know instinctively, but which forgets from time to time.
Tuesday, February 7
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
Perhaps poking fun at religious figures is an irreverent way to counteract the idolatry of religious dogmatism and literalism. Or, perhaps it's just tasteless. Either way, we cannot make exceptions for free speech every time a vengeful mob gathers around an embassy. Let the Danish government condemn the cartoons and distance itself from the controversy, as long as freedom of the press is not sacrificed.
I'm wondering if fanatical Muslims can see the irony (I'm certain moderate Muslims can) in recent reactions to Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad as a terrorist. Depictions of Mohammad were banned under Islam is because it was feared that representations of a prophet would lead to idolatry (I only wish the book religions were as careful about making idols out of holy books). Why Muslims did not riot when Jesus (also a prophet in Islam) was depicted on film in The Passion, isn't clear. I doubt images of Mohammad are entirely absent from the Islamic world, and supposedly there is some disagreement on how far the idolatry rule goes. Obviously the picture of Mohammad with a bomb on his head, implying he and his religion were and are violent, is viewed as a special insult. A bit like comparing Jews to Baruch Goldstein. But violent reactions to the insult make the error of confirming it. If someone says you're a terrorist and your religion is violent, does it make sense to threaten to kill him in defense of your religion?
Muslims have a right to be offended when their religion is portrayed so negatively, but I doubt Jews would riot if Moses were portrayed as a brutal, superstitious warlord. A cartoon depicting the massacre of the Midianites, arguably an act of genocide in Numbers 31 would perhaps draw some lame accusations of antisemitism, but not many death threats. Muslims with any sanity must recognize that there is something cancerous feeding on their belief system, but I'm not altogether sure what I'd do about it if I were a Muslim. Would I speak out, knowing it might come to nothing and get my family killed? Probably not. But maybe there are underground ways to create a movement against the suicide bombing cults. If Islam is to be consistent, it must recognize through its teachers and authorities that attacks against American or Jewish civilians are as evil as attacks against Muslim civilians. We need to start putting the dead and injured in one pile and mourn them as a world, rather than using the suffering of one group or another to gain political leverage or reinforce nationalist or fundamentalist zealotry. And we need some basis for interfaith and international trust, if we want to prevent nuclear proliferation from spilling over into nuclear exchange.
If a cartoon bomb on a cartoon Mohammad is blasphemous, what is it when Mohammad and the Quran are used to indulge and inflame the violent fantasies and actions of angry youth? Muslims should be offended in proportion to the act, and it is radical Jihadists who have placed real bombs on the head of their prophet, giving him the credit for mass murders committed by modern apostates. If Islam is peace, then murdering innocent people for the actions of their government is blasphemy to Islam. I could say a few things to American Christians about using the Prince of Peace to justify pre-emptive wars, but I think progressive Christians are beginning to make headway in taking back their faith from the "Pharisees". Whether Muslims can easily take back their religion from political and ideological fanatics remains to be seen, but from many discussions with Muslims, I believe it is inevitable. It's only a matter of how long it takes for extremists to become so childish and irrational in their demands that the fear they induce can no longer be taken seriously by the quiet majority. And how long it takes for the majority to find a voice. It only takes a few acts of violence to induce fear and self-censorship among many. But when it becomes intolerable to be silent, people do speak out.
Sunday, January 29
Sunday, January 29, 2006
Nobody would be fooled by a name change, unless Hamas politicians severed ties with groups that engage in or endorse suicide bombings or the destruction of Israel. No nation will negotiate in good faith with a group that has sworn its annihilation. Similarly, it may have been Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech that drove Iran to elect an extremist. Bush should instead have talked about Iran's future as a prosperous and peaceful nation under sane leadership, and winked at reformers who despise the clerical leadership. He should have stopped after the invasion of Afghanistan, saying, "This is what happens to governments that harbor terrorists." Strategically and morally, it would have been highly effective. But he got overconfident and decided to go for the big prize, democracy in Iraq. That looks like a big "oops" now, and he will be forced to push harder and harder for a least-horrible outcome in Iraq. He will also be forced to retain his "balls" in the face of provocation. Backing down would "un-brand" him as a decisive, morally unambiguous leader. Nobody knows how far he will feel compelled to go in order to avoid wavering.
Had democracy worked better in Iraq (we should all hope it still works out, since the alternative may be pretty awful), it probably would have had a positive influence on Iran. As it is, democracy doesn't look so good, although it's hard to say how much of the recent far-right Islamic election wins have been a reaction against the failures of previous regimes and how much is really an endorsement of terrorism. People in the US elected Bush because they felt the other party was weaker and not visionary enough. Palestinians may have elected Hamas for the same reasons, and perhaps with a similar outcome. Under Hamas, one of two things will happen: either Hamas will turn into a legitimate political entity, or it will become one of those visionary movements that totally destroys its culture in the name of fighting against contamination by foreign influences. Hard to say which tendency will win out, but it's very clear that Hamas doesn't have the good faith of the US or Israel, of Europe, or of Fateh. Civil war in Palestine is a possibility. But the world is currently in an interesting and unusual state, where everything can unexpectedly ripple and affect everything else.
It's impossible to say whether compassion and the human spirit will be able to compete with fanaticism and fear, but I think we're at the point where compassion is gaining momentum and power and fanaticism is lashing out more and more desparately under the weight of its own blindness. Explosive violence is a sign of weakness and insecurity, especially in those who feel poisoned or spoiled by some intrusion into their culture. People with intact souls aren't as persuaded, and the world may quickly tire of the kind of sickness that has been responsible for so many genocides and mass tantrums. More and more, people understand the psychological and social dynamics underlying the puzzle that has been so hard to solve for so many generations. Information exchange has been vastly accelerated by internet, with high school kids discussing politics and economic/environmental/social ecology in a way they wouldn't have ten years ago. Greater awareness and empathy in the mass may lead to surprisingly simple and humane solutions where force would otherwise be the fallback option.
Friday, January 20
Friday, January 20, 2006
This makes me wonder about the consequences of systems being male-heavy, and also makes me wonder if there's a hidden reason for the suspicion and demonization of women in patriarchical societies... are women "traitors" by nature, or perhaps peacemakers?
When Bad People Are Punished, Men Smile (but Women Don't)
In the study, when male subjects witnessed people they perceived as bad guys being zapped by a mild electrical shock, their M.R.I. scans lit up in primitive brain areas associated with reward. Their brains' empathy centers remained dull. Women watching the punishment, in contrast, showed no response in centers associated with pleasure. Even though they also said they did not like the bad guys, their empathy centers still quietly glowed.
Wednesday, January 4
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
Scenario planning is the art of anticipating the worst in order to prevent it or reduce its consequences. What's disturbing about "prophesy" (in religion or in secular doomsday scenarios) is that it often seems to lack the prevention aspect. Sure, you're warned to save your soul by attaching yourself to a religious dogma, or you get the temporary right to look down at others who aren't looking ahead. But what are we *doing* about the anticipated disasters of the End Times? Are we resolving conflicts before they become catastropic, conserving resources, learning to prepare for disease outbreaks? Some are, but many more are praying and doing little else. Fatalism is not moral or spiritual, it's more like a betrayal of future generations. The "time bomb" of Revelation seems to have paralyzed the Christian conscience of many Americans. They worry about the persecution of Christians under the Beast, they worry about the Whore of Babylon (described as a wealthy empire in denial, no resemblance to America implied) but they don't consdider for a moment that Revelation might have been an allegory of imperial hubris and redemption, that it might be a timeless call for integrity and compassion in wealthy and militarily powerful nations. End Times books fly off the shelves in Christian stores, and Israel is defended at all costs, but where is the prophetic mission to speak truth to power and to raise the voices of the excluded?
It would be ironic if "peace on earth" became the call of secular activism while Christians defend policies favoring material wealth and military dominance. In the US and in the Islamic world, there is the same battle between competing visions of God, one a tribalistic avenger of one group's suffering, the other calling for peace and compassion. How do people stuck between worlds reconcile those visions of God?
Friday, December 30
Friday, December 30, 2005
Fundamentalism hijacks the needs of people whose lives are swirling down the drain, or who fear losing what they have because it's all that stands between them and their "demons". It takes the basic human need for redemption, compassion, communion and meaning and handcuffs it to the belief in a judging deity, hell and the dire need to believe in Jesus or Allah before he stops giving you second chances and smites you. It's what hypnotists call "anchoring". Associate something people do innately to a specific set of symbols or beliefs, so that every time the original need arises, the symbols and beliefs must accompany it. To be a "saved" drug addict is to believe you must perpetuate the belief in hell and a vengeful End Times Jesus, or risk relapse. If you're a fundamentalist Muslim, confused by your own conflicts with sex, materialism and status guilt, it's natural enough to identify with some cleric who promises ecstatic union with the divine in return for adopting a puritannically "safe" moral code. By letting people have their sexual freedom, listen to Western music or experiment with drugs, Muslims feel they are letting their children slip away, just as Christian parents feel. But that universal parental feeling is hijacked by the religious belief system which is far more concerned with control than with balance or common sense. Clerics in Iran blame the West for polluting their children's minds, and fundamentalist Christians in the US believe gay marriage would usher in the Apocalypse, being the final straw. Neither addresses the emotional and spiritual needs of its followers, delaying all genuine catharsis for a moment of battle, a final war against evil.
But the deeper need for communion with all mankind asserts itself, despite the belief that most of the species is destined to be eternally tortured for failing to adopt the belief that Jesus is the only way to know God, or that Allah requires submission to strict Sharia law. Neither congregation can patch its spirit together by demanding that God punish its enemies and show mercy toward itself for being so obedient and pure. The more it tries, the more it produces anguish, guilt and hostility rather than piety. Probably most if not all human beings retain a childhood perception of things and people as an interconnected and interdependent system, however buried beneath self-interest, alienation or fear of being judged that perception may be. Religion hijacks that beautiful and/or terrifying view of things and uses it to serve tribal moral codes or fuel wars. At best, it acts as a mnemonic device, reminding people that behind symbols there are spiritual meanings that touch the core of life. At worst, it forces people to transform sex into aggression or self-castration and wall off consciousness in a very linear, verbal part of the brain in which afterlives carry more weight than current lives and abstract principles trample human beings.
What's ironic about reading the news into prophesy is that:
1. Jesus warned people not to read signs and try to second guess the second coming. He said it would be unexpected. As long as End Times products sell like hotcakes in Christian stores, we're safe. I like this logic. He can't come as a thief in the night if everyone's got their night light on.
2. It's a form of idolatry. Idolatry wasn't considered evil because it benefitted the statue-carvers union. It was evil because when the Hebrews were enslaved, they became familiar with systemic cruelty and indifference in the guise of religion and social hierarchy. Systems back then were both governmental and religious, and religion was not politically neutral but more a form of "branding" that identified a king with his gods (sort of like "if you drink Pepsi, you'll be youthful and edgy"). The gods you followed were a sign of tribal loyalty and affiliation, and when people consulted idols, they were adapting to a social code that exploited human beings, and consulting an order that was seemingly beyond individual accountability, the order of the mass and of the spirits. Looked at that way, smashing idols sounds like a good thing. Modern idol-smashers tend to be a bit silly about it, with Iranian clerics declaring that Western music corrupts the Muslim soul and American Evangelicals making similar statements about secular music and Hollywood. But in Biblical times, idolatry was strongly associated with tyranny, enslavement, exile and other hard times. When a tribe hostile to the Hebrews consulted its idols, its idols often told it to do something nasty, and of course Jahweh ordered a few atrocities himself. Religion rarely notices when it's become infested with true idolatry. It smashes CD collections but not the spirit of objectification and exploitation of human beings.
When Christians use End Times predictions to induce a state of euphoric expectation and identification with the "avenging Jesus", they're engaging in a kind of idolatry. Instead of connecting on the heart level to the suffering around them, they rationalize that suffering is a punishment, that the poor have to work harder, that health care is a privelege and that the death penalty is consistent with a belief in personal redemption. Posturing replaces virtue, and everyone finds some scapegoat to distract God's vengeance, as if banning gay marriage and abortion will appease His wrath and cause him to overlook hetero divorce and the sexual double standard. Christians in the US would do better to look at religious tyranny in Iran and understand that America has the same puritannical streak, the same tendency to focus on symbols without seeing the systemic dysfunction that requires "spiritual medicine" or prophesy to cure. If they did, they might transform America into a beacon of freedom and individualism rather than a blind and clumsy militant state, guided trancelike into a fog of Apocalyptic prophesy and arrogance see-sawing with shame.
Sunday, December 18
Sunday, December 18, 2005
A letter writer in the local paper feigns surprise, shock and dismay (or is being very dramatic) at the paper's mention of the retirement of the Colby "holiday tree". More than the loss of the tree itself, it is the paper's lack of "backbone", that celebrated bone in conservative lore, that upsets him. He asks "what in the world is a holiday tree anyway?" I imagine it's a tree one keeps for a holiday, like Christmas or whatever pagan celebrations the Christmas tree is derived from originally.
Speaking of, I wonder what the writer would say about the prophet Jeremiah's Biblical condemnation of the practice of cutting down and decorating trees? Of course, it's the spirit of Christmas and not Saturnalia being celebrated today, and what Jeremiah considered a vain pagan practice is now acceptable to Christians, presumably because it comes with a spirit of humility, goodwill and peace that contrasts with the materialism and cynicism of the "unsaved". But if the use of Christmas trees in Christian celebrations doesn't offend the writer, why on earth would a secular greeting with no pagan overtones (and with the word "holy" as its root) offend his sensibilities so deeply?
The letter writer asks, "You folks ever heard of the First Amendment?" Pretty ironic in a letter condemning the use of an alternative greeting by companies that serve a multifaith audience. Christmas coincides with several religious holidays, and even atheists enjoy Santa Claus, shopping for presents at the mall, and holiday trees. Stores accept everyone's credit card regardless of religious belief or disbelief, and it would be a shame if that were the only tolerance shown this season. It's our freedom of speech and religion that allows Jews, Muslims, the Herald, and even shopping malls to use greetings other than the ones preferred by Christians. If a Jewish store owner says, "Happy Chanukah" will the writer be offended that it's not a Christian greeting? Will he boycott Muslim-owned stores that don't pay homage to his version of monotheism? Or is the "war on Christmas" more about marginalizing anyone who isn't a conservative Christian in American politics? I'll make religious conservatives a deal: I won't be offended if you say "Merry Christmas", if you agree not to be offended when I don't.
Wednesday, December 7
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
On our cultural aversion to diplomacy:
Perhaps diplomacy requires that one accept feedback two ways, between oneself and one's enemy. It's fairly common for people to avoid feeling insecure or guilty by cutting off feedback with the person or group that triggers those feelings. Someone who has a knee-jerk reaction against anything French isn't likely to be getting a lot of actual feedback from France. France becomes abstracted, a placeholder for bad feelings rather than a geographic reality populated by three-dimensional human beings. But at some point, reality asserts itself. A shallow, cartoon idea of the world can't coexist indefinitely with the actual world. So when the bubble is popped, there may be some anxiety and lashing out as a one-way feedback channel is flooded by information flowing the other direction.
Friday, December 2
Friday, December 02, 2005
To someone who said, "Neoconservatives believe they own America, that they own us all":
Neoconservatives believe things like, "The government should not promote a welfare state". That position may be deeply flawed, but it's not quite the same as believing that the poor should be treated badly. If neocon beliefs and policies have negative effects, it would be more useful to point that out rather than attribute truly evil motives to people who are (mostly) just acting out bad policies based on bad political and social theory.
Saying, "Neocons want to make us all slaves" is about as accurate as saying gays want to destroy civilization by unravelling the institution of marriage. Neocon policies may promote a cheap-labor economy that harms the working class, but I don't think that was their conscious intention. In this political climate, however, everyone thinks their opponent is a Nazi and attributes the darkest possible motives to them. Nothing good can come of that, even if the "good guys" win.
Thursday, December 1
Thursday, December 01, 2005
In order to be decent to another person, one must either expect to be treated decently in return, or have an overriding belief in the importance of decency, even toward those who may not reciprocate. Religion may provide that overriding belief, but only if "infidels" are included in the class of people to be treated decently.
It may be closest to human nature to treat others as they have treated you in the past. But blind tit-for-tat reactions can lead to endless loops of retaliation, so perhaps there's some mechanism to override tit-for-tat when there is greater need (say, to reconcile tribal feuds in order to unite against a common enemy). There's also the problem of people being programmed (by an abusive childhood or some string of misfortunes, say) to expect to be betrayed, and then lashing out pre-emptively. "Do unto others as you expect them to do unto you" is a common attitude in gangs and dysfunctional families. Nations too can fall into that pattern... it can take many difficult acts of trust-building to override that kind of thinking when it becomes widespread.
Most people's behavior will be some combination of the following:
Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.
Steel Rule: Do unto others as they have done unto you in the past.
Iron Rule: Do unto others before they do unto you.
Hot Potato Rule: Do unto the next person what the last person did unto you.
The question is, what mechanisms exist to restore ecological balance to a culture which has adopted strategies that undermine its cohesiveness or ability to adapt?
Wednesday, November 30
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
"Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce conflict, we should confess that we never really meant that the cross was an alternative to the sword..." Ron Sider, whose speech at a Mennonite World Conference inspired the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams. Four CPT members have been kidnapped in Iraq.
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Someone told me, "It's time we drop the wonderfully idealistic idea that we have the capability on this earth for lasting peace". My response:
It seems to me we already HAVE given up that idea, and are reaping the consequences. What are the consequences of millions of people giving up on peace? Peace takes work. It requires that people form connections across boundary lines, and undermine
the paradigm of mutual suspicion and demonization that leads to escalation of conflict.
Wars now kill more civilians than combatants, and technology makes it possible
to kill more people on the same budget. This creates an accelerating learning curve, with increasingly painful returns if we don't change how we think about war. You can say, "There aren't enough people to stop the tide of violence", but even in Nazi Germany, against overwhelming odds, some people took a stand. Not enough. Not all Germans were perpetrators or bystanders. Some saw the weather changing and responded. But not enough, and not soon enough. There were people in Bosnia who helped their neighbors at great risk to themselves. Their action should be praised, rather than viewed as pointless. It is only a matter of how much suffering is required to unite enough people to create a more positive wave. It's a question of how many people take the apathetic position, how many instigate violence, and how
We cannot assume that wars are caused by limited material resources. Many of the causes of war are psychological. The US did not need the resources of Iraq. But the public mood in the US was paranoid and willing to accept the idea of pre-emptive attack. We fight in order to feel secure. Eventually, fighting will undermine everyone's security.
People often say, "It's ridiculous to think you can end all war". Which to me is a bit like saying you shouldn't bother to treat (or prevent) cancer because you can't cure ALL cancer. It might be a bit ambitious to try to stop ALL wars. I'd settle for focusing enough attention on the most dangerous scenarios and prevent those.
It would be nice at least if people dropped the notion that war is some inevitable
thing like an earthquake. War is the mass action of human beings, acting on beliefs and perceptions which build up for decades before violence officially breaks out.
It is only mass inaction that prevents a better outcome.
Monday, November 28
Monday, November 28, 2005
One drawback to the current focus on the Iraq war is that regardless of which side people take in the debate, they're both likely to ignore the long term issue of war and conflict in general. The Iraq war may not be as big a disaster as a conflict over Taiwan, or a nuclear showdown between Israel and Iran. We can't let current disagreement over one war lead to tunnel vision.
I keep running into people who insist that war is in our genes, that it's human nature to fight. Apart from asking, "What are the consequences of millions of people believing war is inevitable" I add this:
Consider the fact that wars *always* end, after enough people focus their attention on the problem (which usually means after enough people have been personally affected by it). The problem is always that the people most zealous about advancing their agenda are the ones most likely to be channeling collective insanity, the most likely to be overly identified with the state and the least likely to feel there is any security in reducing tensions. Note also that leaders typically act according to what they believe is the public will, and will often change course only when the public sends a clear signal that it will not tolerate risks taken at its expense.
Wars will become more dangerous to everyone than they have been in the past. If the public, whether in the US or in Iran or China, does not take a stand against war at some crisis point, there may be consequences more painful than any can imagine in advance. The question is not "are we doomed to wage war" but rather, "how much pain will we tolerate before we take a stand against the wars started by psychotic leaders in the name of passive populations". Inevitably, a stand is taken, it is only a question of how much damage is done before that point is reached.
Human beings may have an instinct to fight in order to preserve group identity and dominance. That should not be taken as a curse on mankind to destroy itself. All instincts in nature are subject to context and hierarchy, and when war undermines enough of the world's security, other instincts will kick in. If men in power commit to a disastrous course of action, women will take a stand. If women refuse to take that stand, children will take a stand against their parents. Nature is not insane, and something will always emerge to counterbalance an insane state of existence. So, how much do we want to adapt to insanity, and how much motivation do we need to represent the balancing force?
Thursday, November 24
Thursday, November 24, 2005
I believe the mental images people hold of one another are perhaps *the* key to solving many seemingly unsolvable conflicts. If we deal with them openly, we'll overcome obstacles that formerly seemed absolute. In most conflicts, those mental images and stereotypes are assumed to be reality, and placed outside the range of discussion. Is it any wonder conflicts go unresolved for generations when the
key to a mutually beneficial solution is placed where it cannot be used?
Monday, November 21
Monday, November 21, 2005
One of the most fundamental human needs is to make a difference. Those who can't make a positive difference discover at some point that it's a lot easier to mess things up for everyone else. Unfortunately, much of what society does to punish disruptive behavior only inflames the underlying need that drives it (prison makes people feel small, and then pushes them to learn the most negative ways to feel big). Consider how difficult it is for nonviolence activists to get publicity, and how easily a suicide bomber can dominate the nightly news. We're training people to believe that good deeds are pointless, while acts of newsworthy destructiveness captivate everyone's attention.
A system that pays more attention to negative acts is a system that creates negativity, by giving the impression that only bad deeds are powerful enough to get people talking. The solution is simple, but hard to convince people to try consistently: reward good deeds, and get everyone to talk about them more than the bad. Ignore people who try to use negative attention-getting devices, and then reward them when they make any attempt to use positive means instead. People generally do what they think will get others talking, so pay attention to what people talk about, which kinds of actions make it into the gossip pool and the news. It's a simple solution, but you'd be amazed how addicted people can get to rewarding bad behavior with extra attention.
Monday, November 14
Monday, November 14, 2005
I think many addictions (religious, chemical, and television) are attempts at transcending the ego and mundane individual reality. But transcendence is a gradient, it doesn't end. It always wants to include more of the universe in its envelope of spirit. So belonging to *any* group will never satisfy the craving. Transcendence is a lifelong process that can never stop at a boundary line. That's why fundamentalist groups must assimilate all other groups. Only a spirituality that includes all life can promote real transcendence, and few religious dogmas allow for that inclusion without requiring conversion. There's no way for any religion to convert everybody, so religions must inevitably clash and fight, if they cannot lower their armor and accept others as they are. True humility is not the desire to convert the world to one's belief, but the willingness to include others in one's own spiritual boundary without requiring them to adopt a dogma first.
Friday, November 11
Friday, November 11, 2005
A friend who took an online business writing course felt the writing they encouraged was manipulative and that ethics got only a passing nod. That the guiding wisdom was, "never say 'sorry'" That most of his classmates knew they could get an easy grade as long as they "played the game", and that he got the cold shoulder when he commented that the class wasn't learning anything. I've heard similar things from other people who have been involved in the corporate world. My input:
It's a sociopathic quality. Deny anything that puts a bad face on you. One thing that's really flawed is that people who depend on their superiors for jobs or grades are unable to give honest feedback, for fear of being punished. And the opinions of those outside the system aren't taken into account, so the people who should be giving feedback are the most likely to be silenced. Anyone who risks losing the approval of higher-ups to give honest feedback should get a medal. It's almost biblical, how the US is setting itself up to learn about morals. The "sins" of our subsystems undermining the future of the system as a whole... it's like Nebuchadnazzar's dream of the head of gold and feet of clay. We sell ourselves better than any other nation, but what is the product we're selling?
Friday, November 11, 2005
My answer to my state's anti-smoking initiative:
Undoubtedly many smokers will respond to the new anti-smoking initiative with anger and frustration. I do not smoke tobacco, but I'll make an offer: I'll vote against unfair anti-smoking laws, if tobacco smokers vote for marijuana legalization. People who prefer marijuana to tobacco are not permitted to smoke in public or in private, facing legal penalties even for smoking in their homes. Now that the drug war is going after tobacco smokers and more people are feeling their freedoms threatened, perhaps an alliance can be formed to overrule laws that punish one group in the name of protecting another. People who don't smoke have a right to smoke-free environments, but smokers of tobacco and marijuana shouldn't be thrown out in the cold. There are less extreme ways to protect people's health than blanket bans.
Wednesday, November 9
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
People are like onions, they have layers. They do cover up their dark side (don't we all), but perhaps there's more beneath that dark side. It's just that when it's hidden and then uncovered, it seems more "true" than what's beneath it because of earlier attempts to disguise it. Like discovering a spider in a bag of candy, the possibility that there's more candy beneath the spider doesn't seem so obvious. Perhaps in many cases the coverup is more damaging than the crime.
And, of course, someone who works hard to cover up their darkness and then exposes it in a stressful situation may be reluctant to repair the damage done, preferring to avoid the hard work of regaining trust. After all, if someone sees the darkness as your true essence, how can you convince them otherwise? Anything positive would seem like an attempt to cover the darkness back up, and the well would be poisoned. So the relationship would end without closure, one party feeling betrayed and the other feeling judged. Both would be left with a very one-dimensional view of the other, with little opportunity to transcend that view. The onion would stop at the last layer to cause pain.
It seems to me that people develop "selves" (whatever a self really is) to meet various situations, and some selves are more honest or real than others. The false ones are like scabs, they cover wounds and hide more than they reveal. False selves are generally about security and control. To be "real" is to allow oneself to be affected by another person and to express oneself without too much strategizing or vigilance. A false self would be a mask one develops in order to feel in control in a threatening environment, and if others react to that mask with defensive masks of their own, the entire relationship system is thrown off course.
Each person feels the others are inherently dangerous, threatening, dishonest, manipulative and so on. Each reacts by distorting his or her own behavior, minimizing their own participation in an unreal system as a necessary response to the actions of the others. At some point, the urge to be real (perhaps felt as a spiritual drive) asserts itself, with varying results. Who wants to be the first to drop their defenses? Easier to give up on the poisoned relationships and focus on more positive ones... but then, each person is left with an image of the others that is unreal and contaminated by bad experiences. Perhaps the baggage can accumulate and poison an entire culture. In systems regarded as evil (fascism, communism, etc) there is a general distortion of behavior and a fear of exposure that poisons all relationships. Understanding how those systems work might prevent our own from sliding into the same pattern. At least I would hope so.
Sometimes an "unreal self" can be made up of so many layers of defense and denial that it can be almost impossible for most people to see a core of integrity and
sincerity in the person. Perhaps the impulse for revenge is also a false self,
interacting with another false self to create more falsehoood. Yet beneath the false maks may lie a positive impulse, the desire to be seen, recognized and given respect
for what one truly is.
Friday, November 4
Friday, November 04, 2005
We all have an internal narrative in which we convince ourselves we are wise, likeable, funny, powerful, whatever. Seeing ourselves through the eyes
of less friendly observers can be a jarring experience. Gregory Bateson noted that
schizophrenics tend to act as if they expect their communication to be misread. That would make it pretty difficult to form a stable social self. Perhaps religious
crusades and fascism are also allergic reactions to the "cold observer". An attempt to preserve the friendly container in which one's preferred self is reinforced by the gaze of others.
Sunday, October 30
Sunday, October 30, 2005
If you look beneath beliefs, you can see what's really going on when different groups argue about politics or religion: people feel more comfortable around people they see as similar to themselves. When they meet strangers who don't appear to share significant traits, they fear being judged, deconstructed or belittled, and they turn that judgment around to judge, deconstruct or belittle the other group. All that's necessary to subvert that little subroutine is for people to make contact with members of other groups in a social rather than political setting. Then there is a groundwork of familiarity and civility that puts politics or religion in the background and renders it less divisive.
But when people feel defensive, they put out "feelers", statements designed to get a positive or negative reaction from others. All groups do that, religious or not. Some do it more blatantly. When someone puts out feelers, they're really saying, "Here's my most controversial belief. If you accept me after this, then I know you're safe." But most people take feelers as challenges, and if their belief is different, they get into an argument and often fail to make contact in the future. That leaves hardened stereotypes in people's minds, rather than three dimensional images of real human beings.
If you look at the "culture war" in the US, it's a product of groups insulating themselves from other groups, failing to get realtime feedback that humanizes one group to another. People in the middle who genuinely care about people on both sides are often astonished by the mean-spiritedness and ignorance they see in the extremes. Eventually the middle will win, because most people are not totally isolated from people with different beliefs. Given the choice of having politics or religion tear families and friends apart, or finding common ground, most people will find common ground when the alternative is civil war or the emotional equivalent.
Wednesday, October 26
Monday, October 24
Monday, October 24, 2005
As part of President Bush's "faith-based initiative," US taxpayers gave the Salvation Army's children services division $47 million this year -- 95% of its total budget. Several Salvation Army employees refused to take the Salvation Army's pledge "proclaiming Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord," reveal which church they belong to or identify gay co-workers -- and were summarily fired.
Monday, September 19
Monday, September 19, 2005
Portraying Republicans as "caring more about power than about the American people" doesn't really explain how they see their own behavior. In *their* minds, the consequences of liberals being in power (not that Democrats are actually liberals, but Republicans seem to see them as crypto-socialists) would be so horrible that Republicans feel they must hold power at all costs. They justify it to themselves as a necessity, and in order to convince Republicans to stop supporting the Bush cabal, it's necessary to engage them on the level of self-perception. To say, "Your party just wants power!" doesn't compute. But to ask, "Why are you so afraid of a Democratic administration that you are willing to overlook obvious flaws in the Bush team?" might get them to actually think.
Sunday, September 18
Sunday, September 18, 2005
It's a lot easier to focus anger on a human face than to analyze systemic problems in depth. Perhaps on some level there's a basic fear: what if *we* are part of the problem? Each group avoids changing itself by putting the face of evil on another group, and on an individual who represents that group. A great way for any group to avoid problems in its own behavior, but a terrible way to improve the system in general. Demonizing liberals allowed Republicans to ignore escalating dissonance between their own ideals and behavior. Demonizing Republicans could lead the other side to make the same mistake.
What if there were a pervasive fatal flaw in American culture, or even global culture, something ignored for centuries because the problem could always be reframed as an issue of how to expel a group or person as a "contaminant"? Each group would take turns punishing some other group for having that flaw, but without dealing with it in themselves. Let's say the problem is something like, "Everyone is escalating arguments to the point where reasonable discussion is impossible and any sense of shared public space is eroded". If that were the basic problem, simply proving a group to be wrong and expelling it from the process would only perpetuate the flaw. What then? Rational thinking would be hijacked as a tool for groups to justify excluding and demonizing other groups, leading to an erosion of shared space and a fragmentation of culture.
Even academia, which ought to be above that nonsense, can be somewhat tribalistic and exclusive. One of the reasons Evangelical Christians became so influential in politics is because they felt excluded in academia. The charge of "political correctness" enabled the Right to marginalize the Left entirely (which, ironically, led to the Right becoming more "politically correct" than the Left). There is no shared space for discussion where each person can be assured he will be heard and respected, even if his views aren't persuasive to the rest.
Wednesday, September 14
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
It's a little disturbing to see the "you asked for it, now deal with it" argument popping up so often. So a girl has a baby outside marriage (or marries a guy and is abandoned), because she's lonely and dependent on men to save her when Jesus fails her. Does she mourn her dead baby less because it was "her fault" she remained poor and lost everything in the flood? And, do we extend that idea to include the nation as a whole? Do we deserve suffering because we failed to conserve energy, or failed to take responsibility for the national debt? Some would say we do. But it's frighteningly convenient for people to avoid the human connection that gives them empathy for others, by saying people brought on their own suffering. It's no consolation to the victims to tell them it's their fault. It's a bit like a hellish triage, doling out compassion only to those who are "moral enough" to deserve it. Empathy is not something given strategically to reward good decisions. It's an innate response to the sight of suffering, and disabling it with rational judgment can become a dangerous mental habit.
It's true that pregnancy and dropping out of school are major factors in poverty. But moral condemnation isn't going to make much of a difference. The best way to prevent teen pregnancy and reduce dropout rates is to develop a culture of mutual support. Saying, "Stay in school, get a job, don't have sex!" is often another way of saying, "Stay out of my consciousness, I'm not responsible for you, I don't want to feel empathy for you". It takes social ties, not just platitudes. Religion is one way to provide social connections and a new start in life, and for many it's a good one. Religious groups have the advantage of organizational power and a network of churches ready to help in a crisis. But religion doesn't work for everyone, and there have to be more options. Religion comes with a catch: "Accept our dogma and beliefs, and you can be a new person, start over and have a support network at the ready to help you. Reject the dogma and we'll always be suspicious of you." There need to be social programs that enable people to start over with a new support network, without requiring them to accept a narrow set of moral and theological beliefs. Otherwise, religion turns compassion into a recruiting tool that discriminates against those who can't wrap their minds around the required dogma in order to feel "truly saved". Redemption and support are basic human needs, however damaged a person has become. Requiring that people accept Jesus as the only way to redeem oneself from the consequences of bad decisions amounts to theological extortion.
The failure of empathy in our culture is as terrifying to me as the breakdown of responsibility. Every social group seems bent on voting some other group off the island based on its previous choices, rather than working together to repair the social fabric and adapt to changes in the world.
Tuesday, September 13
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
There's an obvious reason for the reluctance to understand "evildoers" or to love one's enemy: understanding evil might tempt a person to empathize with the evildoer, making it harder for the group to expel or kill the threat (and making it harder for the group to deny its own projections, the seeds of evil within itself). But that need for solidarity against evildoers can also disable comprehension. We need to recognize that while in the short term solidarity against "evildoers" may be necessary, in the long term we need to understand and maybe even learn to love our enemy.
Anyone who acknowledges evil in himself and wants to understand it in others is often accused of making excuses for evil, of undermining the solidarity of the group to expel a pathogen. That may promote temporary security in the group, but it's also a great way to surround the issue with taboo and secrecy and prevent solutions from forming. The best way to prevent solutions from EVER being found is to make sure that anyone who wants to see an issue clearly is kicked out of the group, and we've been dealing with that for a few thousand years now. Jesus died for it. Scapegoats are routinely formed and expelled. Evildoers are always found so that the group doesn't have to integrate its projections. That amounts to a kind of mass psychic hemorrhaging that may lead to world wars.
Ours is one of the first cultures with the ability to see human nature clearly, and we're still resistant to self-knowledge when it makes us uncomfortable. We should recognize that and take advantage of the window of opportunity. There will be more nuclear nations governed by tyrants (some with religious beliefs disabling the pragmatism that makes mutually assured destruction work) if we don't deal with the issue of evil, and we won't solve that problem merely by eliminating "evildoers". We have to see the underlying mass behavior that makes tyranny possible, and correct that behavior in ourselves while working to make it easier for groups in general to get the kind of feedback that is normally locked out when the group finds an enemy.
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
I really wish sex and marriage could just be *individual* decisions rather than political statements. Those who flourish in in monogamy, who need the security in order to become who they are, will always prefer marriage, and everyone should respect their decision. Those who flourish in free love, who know how to handle jealousy and feel more like themselves when they aren't committed to one person, will always seek a more open environment. Some will bounce between the two extremes, and some will find some middle ground such as committed polygamy. Others will find fulfillment in celibacy. It should always be an individual decision, not a political one. Nobody should be required to sacrifice their natural inclinations in order to satisfy a religious or anti-religious ideal. The only rule should be "Don't interfere with the right of others to do what's right for themselves."
It seems to me that traditional Southern Christians are attempting to keep their own marriages together by forcing everyone else to retain the same moral code. The old, "Make me moral or I'll blame you for my sins" game. They oppose gay marriage because it gives them the feeling that they're "taking a stand" even though it does nothing to make straight marriages more secure. It gives them a line to draw in the sand while their own marriages unravel at a faster rate than those in other parts of the country. The politicization of sex and marriage is a disaster.
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
I think on some level, there is empathy for everyone that one is aware of, even distantly. But I think people can also develop an "allergy" to that awareness, and compassion fatigue is a familiar problem. The human brain may have evolved to form an awareness of one's social environment, including distant strangers who may become allies or enemies. In times of relative security, there may be an instinct to reach out to those who are different and explore possibilities for alliance. In times of danger, there may be a similar need for allies, although perhaps with more testing and probing in order to determine whether strangers are potential friends or foes.
It's easier to sustain empathy for people one has frequent contact with, especially if that contact comes with exchange of useful information, trading skills and gifts, etc. Internet makes it possible to extend one's interest group to include people around the planet. It's one thing to have abstract compassion for people in Africa, another to have an online friend in Africa who shares your interests, and through that friend, to understand the plight of Africans in general. Personal ties may be the key to creating emotional ties between masses.
Even the most selfish people are unselfish at certain times, and vice versa. People who routinely ignore poverty are quite willing to help when there's a hurricane. People are also much more giving when they feel a sense of trust and mutual appreciation, and much less giving when they feel taken advantage of or unsafe.
I think we'll have better luck with small business capitalism that forms business and friendship ties across national lines, than we would with a socialist movement (a friend of mine talks about "capitalism with soul"). If socialism were to work on a national or global scale, it would have to be shown to work in groups of 200 or so, and I'm not aware of many groups that have made it work. Perhaps they only lack the psychological resources to make it work, or perhaps humans are wired to share resources unconditionally only within families and clans, and even that sharing is rarely unconditional. For socialism to work on the national or global levels, it would have to involve either a very reliable mechanism for keeping the people responsible for distributing resources honest and transparent, or a decentralization of power into some kind of weblike network that ensures fairness and adaptability and prevents the kind of bureaucratic insanity that took over the USSR and China under Communism.
It's also important to address anger in crowds... revolutions tend to be messy and terrifying, because the overthrow of authority seems to lead not to a utopian equality and sharing, but to a series of hijackings of power by those who were formerly deprived of power. If one wishes to explore socialism, one should be very clear that Soviet and Chinese Communism is not the idea one has in mind. The association of socialism with the USSR is so strong in the US that politicians cannot speak positively of socialism without losing any hope of being elected. Even reasonable ideas like a socialized health care system or poverty safety net are very controversial, assumed to be the "camel's nose in the tent" that would lead to bureaucratic socialism and a Soviet-style nightmare. It would be dangerous to assume the opposite of a bad system is necessarily a good one, a mistake common in revolutionary movements whose idealism is greater than their capacity for self-reflection.
Monday, September 12
Monday, September 12, 2005
What happens when elite social and business networks govern a nation as a whole, yet don't interact on a daily basis with the people they're ruling? In order to understand the impact of decisions made on high levels, you have to be tapped into a wide range of people, not just preaching or talking down to them, but getting feedback consistently. If your friends are all corporate CEOs or political consultants, you'll make decisions based on feedback from those groups, rather than from the social body as a whole.
Monday, September 12, 2005
It's easy to confuse real survival needs with the need for group conformity and agreement. Disagreement in many groups is equated with a dangerous fragmenting force that might give an enemy advantage. Groups which keep an eye on the very long term may feel every act and every word is political, giving the group an advantage or disadvantage in relation to other groups. Group members who deviate will be regarded as pathogens and expelled.
When group divisions become hardened, it's a bit like a defective immune system response. "Anything you say cannot be trusted, and anything in me that feels compassion for you must be expelled from consciousness." Each group expels awareness of its own dark side, it's own power drive and repressed sexual or violent impulses, by attributing those traits to the enemy group. At some point, group members cease to be individuals and become expressions of the group's need for power, like the Borg.
I'd like to see a lot of people experiment with communication, exploring boundary lines between groups and seeing which kinds of language trigger the exaggerated immune response and which kinds lead to empathy and new growth. When an atheist and a fundamentalist Christian interact, which statements send walls up and which ones take walls down? Or a Jew and a Muslim. It's easy enough to find the sore spots... but it may take a lot of experimentation (and people willing to experiment) to collect the data needed to heal the political and religious divisions in the world.
There was an experiment done at a summer camp, where kids were divided into "tribes" and put into group competition. Each tribe began to regard the other tribe's members as inferior, unreliable, unworthy of friendship. Then a task was given to both groups that could only be solved by working together. Friendships soon formed that lasted beyond the camp experience. Something to explore as we go into what may become the most terrifying period of religious and political conflict in history. How much suffering and sacrifice might we avoid by working systematically and in large numbers to unearth the psychological roots of seemingly unsolvable conflict?
Monday, September 12, 2005
Political rhetoric, especially when fused with hard-line theology, can become a rigid shell that obscures genuine feeling and the actual needs people have for security, certainty and so on. Both parties in debate become demons rather than human beings to one another, and nobody sees his own part in escalating conflict and distorting communication. Each side reacts to what it perceives in the other, which is itself an exaggerated reaction, and the escalation of hardened masks eventually becomes robotic and dehumanizing on all sides. At some point, people snap out of it, as if waking from a trance, realizing the masks they have put on to frighten the other side are not who they really are. Sometimes that happens only after a huge amount of suffering and sacrifice. Perhaps if more people learned how the process works, if they had an accurate map of conflict, they'd be able to avoid some of that damage.
Friday, September 9
Friday, September 09, 2005
If we generalize from a few bad experiences that "no good deed goes unpunished" and avoid doing good altogether, we will die as a culture. If we find ways to show kindness where it's safe, and to create safe spaces for it, we might have some chance of survival.
Images, sounds and feelings associated with traumatic events can get stuck in the brain, override reality and superimpose hallucinations of danger (even "demons") on situations that are normally viewed as safe. That's why PTSD victims can react with rage to babies crying, and why 250 pound men can view 120 pound women as threats and assault them, insisting it was a justified response. In evolutionary terms, it makes more sense to err on the side of security than to take risks, and that's why the social fabric can get so precariously thin... people start avoiding danger to the degree that they lose the ability to reach out. They withdraw into groups where they feel safe and avoid contact with other groups, sometimes blowing up the tiniest differences in belief into huge gaps that can't be overcome. Eventually the culture is destroyed by its own lack of cohesion. It's a fractal pattern, so each individual can feel his or her part in the fragmentation process is not their fault, yet everyone inherits guilt from it and some go insane because they can't distinguish their individual guilt from the collective "sin" they're part of.
People can be scary. But consider what happens when millions of good-hearted people withdraw from the world. It's not that there are good people and evil people and we only have to get rid of the evil people. It's that the people who see opportunity to do good withdraw, leaving a vacuum. That vacuum is filled with anger, manipulation or violence. We (as a species) need to find a way to bring the good into the center, to fill the void. To do that, we need to make it safe to do good, or discover what situations are safer than others. If we view kindness to strangers as unsafe by default, we'll lose much of what makes civilization possible and worthwhile.
Cynicism is stereotyping a wide range of situations as potentially harmful. Often it involves taking a wide view of time, so that even helping people who are clearly harmless is seen as a potentially draining commitment in the long term ("If I help them now, they'll just keep wanting help and take advantage of me"). There are a lot of cognitive errors and automatic reactions involved, and "cynicism" is just a general label slapped over something more complex and involved. There is no cure for cynicism, because there is no sensory information in the word "cynicism". But changing how you react to specific situations is possible.
Sometimes cynics are just very sensitive and feel they have to help in EVERY situation, and then go to the other extreme when that backfires. It helps to talk about specifics, what happened when and how that became generalized into "avoid everything that reminds me of this". There's a tendency for a series of bad experiences to coalesce into a massive generalization about life, so you have to dig beneath a generalization and go into what actually happened and how you felt about it. At this point in history, where television and current events have put us all in a state of hypervigilance, we really need to confront fear of loss and death, and probably some guilt as well. We need to ask ourselves, what is life for? Is it for security, self-interest, altruism, teamwork, entertainment or spirituality? Events like the flood force us to confront the hard questions we've been taught to avoid, and often it is church people who handle it well because they already have a spiritual framework that includes charity and a story that gives them meaning. Those of us who are not religious may have to develop something similar if we want to stay sane.