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Altruism Black Earth

In the light of recent events concerning the best way to deal with those who had been drawn into working with Daesh in Syria, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The three posts, of which this is the last, appeared on consecutive Thursdays.

The first post looked at the implications of two books – Altruism and Black Earth – which led me to reflect on the possibility that we might not be immune to a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust. At the end of the previous post we had reached the point of arguing that it is essential, if our society is to lift its collective consciousness to a more compassionate level, that we focus more intently upon the education of our children.

There are two key areas that determine the direction of a child’s development: parenting and schooling.

Parenting

Let’s take parenting first, and why it matters.

One main point is, and probably always should have been, fairly obvious, though now we have empirical evidence to back it up. When Jeremy Rifkin in his excellent book – The Empathic Civilisation – looks at where we are at present with the challenges we face, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, acceptance, and a sense of belonging.

There are also less obvious forces at work as well. Ricard explores the exact relationship as currently understood between evolution and altruism. He looks carefully at the evidence and quotes Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s conclusion from her research that (page 173):

. . . . ‘novel rearing conditions along the line of early hominids meant that youngsters grew up depending on a wider range of caretakers than just their mothers, and this dependence produced selection pressure that favoured individuals who were better at decoding the mental state of others, and figuring out who would help and who would hurt.’

In other words, the fact that newborns interact quickly with a large number of people may have contributed considerably to raising the degree of cooperation and empathy among humans.

Hrdy’s final point of view is very clear (page 174):

. . . without the help of “alloparents,” there would never have been a human species.

We are now breaking that pattern (ibid.):

The notion of “family” as limited to a couple and their children developed only in the 20th century in Europe, and as late as the 1950s in the United States. Before that, most families included members of three generations, comprising aunts, cousins, et cetera.

This carries a significant risk (pages 175-76):

. . . . given empathy and the faculties of understanding others developed thanks to particular ways of taking care of children, and if an increasing proportion of humans no longer benefited from these conditions, compassion and the search for emotional connections would disappear. [Hrdy] questions whether such people “will be human in ways that we now think of as distinguishing our species – that is, empathic and curious about the emotions of others, shaped by our ancient heritage of communal care.”

Schooling

Is there any sign that our educational systems, not just in the West but also in countries such as China, are working hard enough to counteract a trend towards narcissistic materialism and competitiveness? There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Of American education John Fitzgerald Medina writes in his hard-hitting Faith, Physics & Psychology (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

Though Jeremy Rifkin sees it more positively and refers to the existence in schools of programmes designed to develop empathy, he is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

[An example of what Rifkin refers to elsewhere in his book when describing programmes for cultivating empathy is in this clip.]  

An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians.

An article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

chinese teachers

Chinese Teachers in UK (for source of image see link)

A recent series on BBC television showed clearly how China is walking along the same potentially destructive path. Four teachers came to the UK to prove how the Chinese system is far more effective than ours in boosting academic performance. They emphasised, in their comments on their approach, how China stresses preparing their students to succeed in what they see as an extremely and inevitably competitive world. Their blackboard-based monologues, pumping out facts with no opportunity to experience their living meaning, was reminiscent of the Gradgrind approach to education Charles Dickens satirised in Hard Times:

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘My father as calls me Sissy. sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. . . . Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours. . . .’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. . . . . .

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Unfortunately the Chinese teachers’ approach was shown to produce better grades than the UK system. My worry is that it probably does not produce better human beings, even while conceding that our own system leaves a lot to be desired still in that respect.

In addition to the need to build back into the curriculum elements of creativity, morality, and spirituality, there is an additional vital element we must not forget. A service component, something at the core of the Bahá’í approach, is almost certainly crucial to any educational system, not just one for remedial purposes. Compassion has to be linked to action to be fully internalised.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. For example, the research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems. He was reacting to the fact that an expensive implementation of the programme involving nearly 600 students across several sites failed to produce any of the expected benefits (page 131):

What happened? It turns out that each site was given a fair amount of latitude in how they implemented the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme], and none of the sites adopted the entire curriculum. In particular, most of the site managers decided to focus on the mentoring aspects of the program and non-fully implemented the community service component – the very component that we know, from the Teen Outreach and Reach for Health programs, has beneficial effects! Sadly, more than $15 million was spent on a five-year intervention in which a key ingredient (community service) was eliminated. . . .

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

For a sense of the what the Bahá’í Approach involves this video is a good introduction. It shows how the Bahá’í emphasis upon engaging young people in the process of child education and community building works in practice.

(Published on 2 May 2013: You can download this film from the Official website: http://www.bahai.org/frontiers/)

It seems to me imperative that everyone, no matter what their circumstances might be, needs at the very least to find whatever ways they can to raise consciousness among their family, friends and contacts, so that more and more people internalise a vision of humanity as one family and understand better how to nurture and sustain people, fellow creatures and the planet. If that can also involve directly relevant action so much the better.

It is also appropriate to add here that even those who have ended up seduced by the manipulations of extremists can potentially be rehabilitated, as a recent article by Lynne Wallis in the Guardian contended, and, if we are to be true to the Universal House of Justice’s exhortation to take responsibility for the welfare all human beings without exception, then, provided we protect ourselves at the same time, we should offer them this chance.

Wallis feels strongly, in spite of the difficulties involved, that the evidence suggests ‘the process of indoctrination can . . . be reversed. It is commonly referred to as “exit counselling”, and when it happens – it’s often hard to get a cult member alone for long enough – it is often successful.’ As we are not dealing with people embedded in a ‘cult’ with repatriated Daesh members: they may well have gone through a process in the courts and be prisoners, in which case consistent access should be no problem.

My personal plan

For the foreseeable future I plan to explore, as often as I am able, this whole issue of altruism. In particular I want to understand more fully what factors enable us to widen the compass of our compassion and what factors narrow it.

I am already fairly clear that this will take me back over some familiar territory, though perhaps seeing it through a slightly different lens, but it will also require me to look carefully at some areas I have not explored in detail. Historical texts, for example, have not been my favourite grazing ground in the past – something about the way they marshal information switches me off. However, Snyder’s book has persuaded me I ought to give them another chance as I came to realise, from reading Black Earth, how little I really understood about many of the background factors that shaped the Holocaust. Maybe I also need to revisit some philosophical work that I have previously avoided as too challenging in its approach.

Some bolder experiments in terms of my personal experience might not come amiss either. I doubt that I can fully understand the challenges of this area without stepping into the fire.

What I have realised about this topic is that I can investigate it almost anywhere at any time, no matter what I am doing – perhaps even when I am chilling out in front of some anodyne murder mystery on the television.

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Had the life and growth of the child in the womb been confined to that condition, then the existence of the child in the womb would have proved utterly abortive and unintelligible; as would the life of this world, were its deeds, actions and their results not to appear in the world to come.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í World Faith: page 393)

This is the last of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014, 2015 and 2016. It seems appropriate to publish them yet again, because I have been pondering on the issue of theodicy in preparation from my talk in May at a humanist group. They will be interwoven another sequence over a three week period. 

In the previous two posts, I have been looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD) most particularly for what it has to say about suffering.

Both TPD and a rich and interesting approach to psychotherapy – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – owe much to existentialism. Mendaglio acknowledges his debt in the last chapter of the book he edited on this subject (page 251):

However, there is a great deal of similarity between existential psychology and the theory of positive disintegration. Both emphasise similar key concepts such as values, autonomy, authenticity, and existential emotions such as anxiety and depression. A more fundamental similarity is seen in the philosophical underpinnings of TPD, which is in large measure existentialism.

In spite of my own immense debt to existentialist thinking, only rivalled by my debts to Buddhism and to the Bahá’í Faith, I have certain reservations about Dabrowski’s take on the degree of choice we are able to exercise.

Crucial Caveats

His take on suffering is truly inspiring. Care needs to be taken though that we do not adopt this view in a way that assumes that those who are crushed by their sufferings are somehow to blame.

It is true that his model presupposes that each of us will probably meet a challenging choice point sometime in our lives, where we can either cling to the familiar comfortable half-truths that have failed us or strive to rise about them to higher levels of understanding. It is also true that he feels that many of us are capable of choosing the second option, if we only would.

However, not everyone is so lucky. I include here a brief summary of the life history of Ian – the man whose interview I have quoted extensively in the first three posts on An Approach to Psychosis.

His history shows very clearly that he could only make the second choice at times and then meet the pain and work through it to alleviate his tormenting voices. At other times the voices were preferable to experiencing the guilt and he chose what we might call madness rather than lucidity. Given the horrors he had faced it was clear that he should not be thought a failure. I would probably have done the same had I gone through what he had experienced in his life, from his earliest days.

Dabrowski seems to feel that our capacity to choose is genetically determined. Mendaglio explains (page 250):

Dabrowski . . . . postulated the existence of a third factor of development, representing a powerful autonomous inner force which is rooted in the biological endowment of individuals.

It seems to me that it would have taken a truly exceptional individual to make the choice to experience Ian’s level of pain in order to progress. If that does not seem quite convincing, there is another case history I would like to share very briefly.

Among the sequence of posts related to mental health there is a poem called ‘Voices.’ The woman upon whose experiences that poem is based, was brutally abused by her father, sexually, and by her mother, physically, from her earliest years through her mid-teens.

She came to us to work on her father’s abuse. We developed a safe way of working which involved starting with 15 minutes exploring how things had been since we last met. Then we moved on to 15-20 minutes of carefully calibrated work on the abuse. Then the last half hour of the session was spent helping her regain her ordinary state after mind after the work on her early experiences had intensified her hallucinations.

After almost a year of this work things seemed to be going well. Then came the unexpected. She found herself in a building that closely resembled the building strongly connected with the worst episode of abuse she had experienced at the hands of her father. Just being there was more than she could cope with. She became retraumatised in a way we none of us could have anticipated or prevented. The next time we met she could not stop sobbing.

We discussed what she might do. There were two main options.

She could, if she wished, continue on her current low levels of medication and move into a social services hostel where she would be well supported while we continued our work together, or she could be admitted onto the ward and given higher levels of medication in order to tranquillise her out of all awareness of her pain.

She chose the second option and I could not blame her in any way for doing so. It would be a betrayal of the word’s meaning to suppose she had any real choice at that point but to remain psychotic while the medication kicked in rather than deal with the toxic emotions in which she felt herself to be drowning.

It is when I consider these kinds of situation at my current level of understanding of his theory, that I feel it could leave the door open to destructive attitudes.

He believes, if I have understood him correctly, that some people’s genetic endowment is so robust they will ultimately choose the harder option regardless of the environment in which they grew up. Most of us are in the middle and with an environment that is not too extreme we will do quite well. The endowment of some is so poor, he seems to be saying, that it requires an optimal environment if they are to choose to grow even in a modest way.

This approach, if I have got it right, has two problems. The first, which is less central to the theme of this post, is that it is perhaps unduly deterministic because of the power that is given to inherited ‘endowment’ to determine the life course of any individual. The second problem is more relevant to current considerations in this post, though related to the first point. By placing such a determining role upon heredity, the force of the environment may be unduly discounted.

I am not claiming that he attaches no importance to environment. In fact, education for example is much emphasised in his work and he is clearly aware that limited societies will be limiting most people’s development – and he would include the greedy materialism of Western cultures in that equation. I’m not sure where he would place the impact of natural disasters in his scheme of things.

He may though be minimising the crushing impact of such experiences as the two people I worked with had undergone, in the second case throughout almost all her formative years. Could a strong genetic endowment have endured such hardship and come through significantly less damaged? If you feel so, you may end up not so much thinking ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I!’ but more ‘They broke because they were weak.’ Empathy, which Dobrawski values so much, would be impaired because we can start to define people as essentially different from us, not quite part of the same superior species.

More Complexities

This is a truly complex area to consider though, and I will have to restrict myself at this point to a very brief examination of one approach to it which does justice to that complexity.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his description of the various components of our character, suggests that what we inherit is a source of either strength or weakness (Some Answered Questions: page 213):

The variety of inherited qualities comes from strength and weakness of constitution—that is to say, when the two parents are weak, the children will be weak; if they are strong, the children will be robust. . . . . . For example, you see that children born from a weak and feeble father and mother will naturally have a feeble constitution and weak nerves; they will be afflicted and will have neither patience, nor endurance, nor resolution, nor perseverance, and will be hasty; for the children inherit the weakness and debility of their parents.

However, this is not quite the end of the matter. He does not conclude from this that moral qualities, good or bad, stem directly from the inherited temperament of an individual (pages 214-215):

But this is not so, for capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good—in the creation of God there is no evil; but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil. For example, God has created all men in such a manner and has given them such a constitution and such capacities that they are benefited by sugar and honey and harmed and destroyed by poison. This nature and constitution is innate, and God has given it equally to all mankind. But man begins little by little to accustom himself to poison by taking a small quantity each day, and gradually increasing it, until he reaches such a point that he cannot live without a gram of opium every day. The natural capacities are thus completely perverted. Observe how much the natural capacity and constitution can be changed, until by different habits and training they become entirely perverted. One does not criticize vicious people because of their innate capacities and nature, but rather for their acquired capacities and nature.

Our habits and choices have a crucial part to play. Due weight though has also to be given to the power of upbringing and the environment (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 95, pp. 124–25):

It is not, however, permissible to strike a child, or vilify him, for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse.

This theme is taken up most powerfully by the central body of the Bahá’í Faith ((Universal House of Justice: April 2000):

In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate. Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially. Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty. This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere. The social dislocation of children in our time is a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition–it cuts across them all. It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are employed as soldiers, exploited as labourers, sold into virtual slavery, forced into prostitution, made the objects of pornography, abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention. Many such horrors are inflicted by the parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

This position allows for the fact that we need to take responsibility for our own development while at the same time acknowledging that we may be too damaged by the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous’ upbringing to do so to any great extent without a huge amount of help from other people. And most of us are the other people who need to exert ourselves to protect all children and nurture every damaged adult who crosses our path to the very best of our ability. Maybe Dabrowski is also saying this, but I haven’t read it yet. Even so his thought-provoking message is well worth studying.

In the end though, as the quote at the beginning of this post suggests, any consideration of suffering that fails to include a reality beyond the material leaves us appalled at what would seem the pointless horror of the pain humanity endures not only from nature but also from its own hands. I may have to come back to this topic yet again. (I did in fact return to a deeper consideration of Dabrowski’s model in a sequence of posts focused on Jenny Wade’s theory of human consciousness: see embedded links.)

Points of View

Given my current sequence on the dangers of ideology, I couldn’t resist reblogging this.

Altruism Black Earth

In the light of recent events concerning the best way to deal with those who had been drawn into working with Daesh in Syria, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The three posts, of which this is the second, appear on consecutive Thursdays.

The previous post, triggered by two contrasting books – Altruism and Black Earth – raised the possibility that we might repeat the horrors of the Holocaust. We may not have travelled as far down the road of moral enlightenment as we would like to think. We are prone to rationalising our self-centredness and have not freed ourselves from the virus of racism.

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand

That a popular strain of American thought idolises the guru of egotism, Ayn Rand, should give us pause for thought. While proponents might contend that Rand and her acolytes place sufficient emphasis upon preserving the powers of the state to protect individual freedom in a way that will prevent any repetition of Hitler’s state destroying excesses, it is worth examining for a moment some of her ideas and the results that they are having to this day.

Ricard (page 302) recalls a televised interview in which Rand stated: ‘I consider altruism as evil . . . Altruism is immoral . . because . . . you are asked to love everybody indiscriminately . . . you only love those who deserve it.’ Her ‘sacred word’ is ‘EGO,’ but it did not bring her any happiness (page 305).

If she were not so influential in the States her bizarre position would not matter. Many Americans, in a 1993 survey, ‘cited Atlas Shrugged, her main work, as the book that influenced them most, after the Bible!’ Furthermore, as Ricard points out, she has powerful advocates (page 301):

Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, which controls the American economy, declared she had profoundly shaped his thinking, and that “our values are congruent.” Ayn Rand was at Greenspan’s side when he took the oath before President Ford. . . . .

She has shaped libertarian economic thinking (page 303) which regards the poor as ‘killers of growth, beings who harm entrepreneurs.’ Moreover, ‘Only the individual creates growth; society is predatory, and the welfare state, a concept that prevails in Europe, constitutes “the most evil national psychology ever described,” and those who benefit from it are nothing but a gang of looters’ [The quote is from Ayn Rand 1976 in The Economist, 20 October, 2012, page 54].

I understand that it is important not to be simplistic about this and dismiss all libertarians as narrow-mindedly self-seeking. Jonathan Haidt analyses some of the complexities in his excellent The Righteous Mind. He clarifies that on the American political scene the word ‘libertarian’ denotes someone of a conservative mind set.  He teases out some important aspects of this world view in order to get out from under his preconceptions about it (pages 305-306):

[Libertarians] do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).

He unpacks this in the context of his understanding of the value of moral capital (page 292):

. . . we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community . . . . . .  and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

He writes (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

So, after this analysis of the way that liberals, with whom he identifies, fail to understand some of the crucial insights of their political opponents (and of course vice versa), he reflects upon a disturbing trend (page 309):

America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. . . . .

So even from within his own balanced critique which accepts the value of moral capital, he is clearly aware of the dangers of group identity and especially of any group identity with a black-and-white view of the world and/or with an egotistical creed.

Narrow ideologies of this type are many and varied.

Collaboration

During the Second World War, for example, those who believed in some form of nationalism, originally well-short of Nazism’s totally racist ideology, when battered by the depredations of the Soviet Union during the period of its cynical pact with Hitler, were more likely to collude with pogroms (Snyder: page 130-31):

Insofar as the Soviets removed states that people wanted, and insofar as the Germans could pose as the ally of those who wished to restore them, the Germans could manipulate a powerful desire. The nature of this opportunity depended, of course, upon what leaders of national groups believed they could gain or lose from occupiers.

He explains exactly what this specifically meant in practice (page 142):

By destroying the Lithuanian and Latvian states, the Soviets gave the Germans the ability to promise a war of liberation.

What the Germans learnt (page 143) ‘was to exploit the experience of the Soviet occupation to further the most radical goals of their own, and what they invented was a politics of the greater evil.’

That pogroms were in fact somehow related to the sense that the Nazis were liberators is made clear (page 150):

. . . pogroms were most numerous where Germans drove out Soviet power, . . . Pogroms and other forms of local collaboration in killing were less likely in Poland, where anti-Semitism had been more prevalent before the war, than they were in Lithuania and Latvia, where anti-Semitism was less prevalent.

That pogroms tended not to escalate where that hopeful belief in liberation was absent is confirmed by their rarity in Poland where (page 161) ‘Germany could not even pretend to offer Poland to the Poles. Germany had already invaded Poland once.’ It seems as though people are not inclined to go the whole hog with wholesale systematic slaughter on the basis of psychological or material gain alone: you need an ideological component as well.

Narrow ideologies, possibly always in combination with greedy and/or self-serving tendencies, make us more vulnerable to perpetrating systematic atrocities against those who are seen as beyond the Pale[1] we have ourselves arbitrarily created. Self-interest and dissonance reduction seem to have played a strong part in the Holocaust as well: for example, blaming the Jews for all the ills perpetrated under Soviet occupation exonerated everyone else in those territories from the shame of their own collusion as well as ensuring the property they had gained would not be restored to their original owners (Snyder page 152-54). Killings do, of course, occur without an ideology to back them, and can involve large numbers of victims, but never on the same massive and sustained scale.

Raising a more general and bleakly pessimistic point, Snyder earlier quoted Herling, a victim of the Gulags (page 122): ‘. . . There is nothing, in fact, which a man cannot be forced to do by hunger and pain.’ Herling became convinced that ‘a man can only be human under human conditions.’

While the examples of heroic self-sacrifice in Nazi and Japanese concentration camps, in the cases of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, as well as in the current example of Bahá’í prisoners in Iran, suggest most strongly this is not true for everyone, Herling’s point is probably true for most of us under such extreme conditions. In our relatively benign social climate, the rarity of whistleblowing in the face of toxic reactions within an organisation suggests that most of us are too craven to stand up against abuses.

Expanding our Circle of Compassion

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

This sad probability is what drove Zimbardo, after his many experiences of humanity’s inability to resist evil, to formulate his ‘ten-step programme for resisting the impact of undesirable social influences and at the same time promoting personal resilience and civic virtue’ (The Lucifer Effect – pages 452-456). He ends his explanation of the steps by saying (page 456):

Before moving to the final stop in our journey, celebrating heroes and heroisms, I would like to add two final general recommendations. First, be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures. Second, moderate you’re in-group biases. That means accepting that your group is special but at the same time respecting the diversity that other groups offer. Fully appreciate the wonder of human variety and its variability. Assuming such a perspective will help you to reduce group biases that lead to derogating others, to prejudice and stereotyping, and to the evils of dehumanisation.

All this has confirmed my conviction that there is an imperative need for our society to actively believe in two fundamental truths: first, that altruism is as natural as egotism and can therefore be nurtured in our children, and second, that in this age it is not enough for us to extend our compassion only as far as our family or immediate neighbourhood – we can and should learn to embrace the whole earth and its inhabitants, living and non-living as our concern.

A core aspect of this is articulated in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

There is a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored this together in a recent workshop at the Bahá’í Summer School in Keele.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

It was heartening to find that Ricard’s book addresses exactly the same issue more effectively (page 28):

Like the sun that shines equally over both the “good” and the “bad,” over a magnificent landscape as well as over a pile of trash, impartiality extends to all beings without distinction. When compassion thus conceived is directed at a person who is causing great harm to others, it does not consist of tolerating, or encouraging by inaction, his hatred and his harmful actions, but in regarding that person as gravely ill or stricken with madness, and wishing that he be freed from the ignorance and hostility that are in him. This doesn’t mean that one will consider anyone who does not share one’s moral principles or deeply disagrees with them, as being ill. It refers to people whose views lead them to seriously harm others. In other words, it is not a matter of contemplating harmful actions with a equanimity, even indifference, but of understanding that it is possible to eradicate their causes the way that one can eliminate the causes of an illness.

In explaining a related meditative exercise he recommends (page 263):

Go further; include in this loving kindness, those who have harmed you, even those who are harming humanity in general. That does not mean that you want them to succeed in their malevolent undertakings; you simply form the wish that they give up their hatred, greed, cruelty or indifference, and that they become kind and concerned for the well-being of others. Look at them the way a doctor looks at his most seriously ill patients. Finally, embrace all sentient beings in a feeling of limitless and love.

fallon2-b0ee8cb596cc89ff6f00864002eb74ed8351d68e

James Fallon (far right) with his wife, daughters, and son.

What becomes even clearer both in terms of Ricard’s argument in his book as a whole, but also in terms of the Bahá’í model of civilisation building, is that prevention is infinitely better then cure. We need to address the problem of how to enable our society as a whole to widen its compass of compassion so that everyone who grows up within its sphere of influence embraces the whole of humanity in its circle of concern. There is some evidence (see link for Fallon’s view) to suggest that certain kinds of positive experience can temper the destructive aspects of even a genetic predisposition to psychopathy.

And once we have convinced ourselves of this, and we must do it soon, we need to ensure that we educate our children to become citizens who will feel inwardly compelled to take responsibility for the care of everyone and everything that lies directly or indirectly within their power. We must ensure that this sense of responsibility is not just a feeling. We must ensure that it is active.

More of this next time.

Footnote:

[1] The term ‘pale’ came to mean the area enclosed by a paling fence and later just figuratively ‘the area that is enclosed and safe’. So to be ‘beyond the pale’ was to be outside the area accepted as ‘home’. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. This was the name given to the western border region of the country, in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, ‘beyond the pale’. (See link for source of reference.)

‘Greed is Good’

The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering. The more the ground is ploughed the better the seed will grow, the better the harvest will be. Just as the plough furrows the earth deeply, purifying it of weeds and thistles, so suffering and tribulation free man from the petty affairs of this worldly life until he arrives at a state of complete detachment. His attitude in this world will be that of divine happiness. Man is, so to speak, unripe: the heat of the fire of suffering will mature him. Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest men have suffered most.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks page 184)

This is the second of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014, 2015 and 2016. It seems appropriate to publish them yet again, because I have been pondering on the issue of theodicy in preparation from my talk in May at a humanist group. They will be interwoven another sequence over a three week period. 

The Role of Suffering in Personal Growth

After the first more general post on this issue, this one brings me onto a more detailed consideration of Sal Mendaglio’s book about Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD).

I have to own up. I’ve not quite finished the book yet and it is rather uneven. Some of the chapters are excellent while others leave too many gaps in the thinking to do full justice to the aspect of his theory they are tackling. However, I am already convinced that this approach to the human predicament has a huge amount to offer – not least on the issue of suffering and a related issue, sacrifice.

I will have to summarise fairly brutally here if I am to avoid seriously over-inflating this series of posts.

Rather as in the British Psychological Society (BPS) article I quoted from last time, Dabrowski sees suffering as triggering a process that can move in either of two directions. In his terms, it can lead us either to negative disintegration, regression to ineffective ways of being, and even to possible illness, or to a positive disintegration, an unusual take on the world, conducive to higher development and growth.

Where he differs from the BPS article is in the way he privileges suffering, even when it is apparently close to mental illness, as a necessary and powerful means of personal and moral development. This is all closely allied to his model of human potential which is hierarchical. It hypothesises that there are levels which rise from the lowest, least conscious and least developed (biological & social), through the next highest level which is somewhat more conscious and conflicted but still too automated and blindly conformist, via two higher levels of inner conflict which are more autonomous, consciously choosing higher rather than lower values, to level five, where the highest ideals the person can envisage are chosen and enacted regardless of social disapproval and discouragement.

The diagram above is a very crude approximation of his model just to convey a general sense of it. Mendaglio explains that Level I (page 35):

. . . . is a cohesive mental organisation dedicated to gratifying an individual’s biological instincts, drives and needs, including social needs.

The social aspect is not ultimately beneficial (page 36):

. . . . some individuals characterised by primary integration are overly socialised; their way of being in the world is highly socially conforming.

Level II involves a challenge to this comfortable conformity which makes it distinctly uncomfortable (page 37):

Dabrowski postulated that when crises have the effect of loosening the integrated mental organisation of individuals, they have limited choices. Individuals return to the previous integrated state or they move to the next level. Remaining in Level II may lead to bad consequences such as psychoses or suicide.

At Level III (page 38):

Inner conflict arises from the individual’s growing awareness of the way personal and social phenomena ought to be is discrepant with the way they are. The ideal-real discrepancy intensifies as the individual becomes increasingly self-aware and aware of societal values.

Without the suffering that spurs a person to abandon lower levels of integration which involve biological urges and social conformity, there would be no growth to start with, and without the determination to pursue the higher path in spite of the suffering it can involve, there would be no final peace of mind as the person lives out their highest values.

When a person reaches Level IV something Dabrowski calls the ‘third factor’ comes into play (page 26):

. . . . It is described as the force by which individuals become more self-determined, controlling their behaviour through their inner voices and values.

Level IV is a distinct leap forward (page 38):

Whereas Level III is dominated by disintegrating dynamisms, Level IV sees the rise of developmental dynamisms such as autonomy, authenticity, self-education and autopsychotherapy, and the third factor. Under the direction of the third factor, individuals deliberately select higher values and courses of action, abandoning lower ones. In addition, individuals develop a strong sense of responsibility for self and others.

The diagonal line on the top surface of the diagram is meant to represent the idea that as dissolving dynamisms fade, developmental ones increase in power.

In Dabrowski’s model at Level V (page 39):

[individuals] conduct their lives by enacting the personality ideal, whereby behaviour is directed by their constructive hierarchy of values. Virtually no inner conflict is experienced, since the lower forms of motivation have been destroyed, and replaced by the higher forms of empathy, autonomy, and authenticity.

Chrysalis from Music of Nature

Where suffering can take us if we let it

There are certain issues to clarify here. For example, in Chapter 3 of the book, Piechowski makes an important point (page 75):

I feel that the Dabrowski extolled the virtues of inner conflict perhaps too much, as he believed in the ennobling value of suffering but failed to mention that the ennobling is possible only if one accepts the suffering as something to grow through. Acceptance is essential.

It may be possible in a later sequence of posts to explore the parallels and differences between this view and the position of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an approach already explored in previous posts (see links) where the need to face pain in order to enact one’s values is central, but there seems little emphasis if any upon suffering as a primary spur. It may also be appropriate to bring in ideas from Jenny Wade‘s book ‘Changes of Mind‘ which also sees an hierarchical structure to our personality development. But more of that eventually maybe.

Tillier in Chapter 5 (page 119) quotes passages of great importance from Dabrowski’s own writing:

‘Crises are periods of increased insight into oneself, creativity, and personality development’ . . . . And: ‘Every authentic creative process consists of “loosening”, “splitting” or “smashing” the former reality. Every mental conflict is associated with destruction and pain; every step forward in the direction of authentic existence is combined with shocks, sorrows, suffering, and distress.’

This resonates with the view of spiritual traditions, including that of the Baha’i Faith, which place great emphasis upon the crucial importance of crises and ‘tests’ and the way we deal with them (Arabic Hidden Words: nos. 18 & 51):

O SON OF SPIRIT! Ask not of Me that which We desire not for thee, then be content with what We have ordained for thy sake, for this is that which profiteth thee, if therewith thou dost content thyself.

O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.

At the end of this path lies the highest development of the human personality. There are examples given of people who seem to have achieved this. The degree of empathy they have realised seems to make possible supreme acts of self-sacrifice, for example (page 99):

Janusz Korczak, physician, writer, and above all, educator. He was Polish and of Jewish origin. When the decision was made in the Second World War to burn in the crematorium at Treblinka all the children attending his school, he decided to go with them even though he had received an amnesty from the Nazis. . . . . The decision arose from the compassion and love he had for the children and his fidelity for them.

Or (pages 134-135):

Henri Bergson was born in France in 1859 and lived and taught there all his life. When, after the fall of France in 1940, the Vichy government introduced anti-Semitic measures based on the Nazi model, it was proposed, because of Bergson’s international reputation, that he be exempted from them. He refused to be treated differently, resigned his various honours, and, although at that time an enfeebled old man who had to be supported while standing in line, registered with the other Jews.

Part of this empathy seems to have derived, at least in some instances, from a strong sense of unity with all creation. Tillier quotes the Peace Pilgrim (page 62):

. . . . In the midst of the struggle came a wonderful mountain-top experience, and for the first time I knew what inner peace was like. I felt oneness – oneness with all my fellow human beings, oneness with all of creation. I have never felt really separate since.

Universal Values


There is a tricky issue lying behind this. Dabrowski places great importance on the value of autonomy. Suffering, in his view, spurs a person to discover what their highest values are in order to live by them. He also believes there are universal values and that some people, as a result of suffering, will autonomously choose to work towards these values. He is contemptuous of any education system that creates conformity. He trusts that we can and will choose these universal values, rather than be dogmatically forced towards them. Mróz explains this succinctly (page 231):

Dabrowski . . . . assumes the existence of absolute values prior to their experience by the individual. These values are only discovered in the process of disintegration and the discovery is associated with the achievement of advanced levels of development. . . . . . The values consciously selected and adopted by the individual . . . . become the building material for the personality ideal formed at these levels.

This raises various questions. A relativist, which Dabrowski is not, will ask, “Are there really any absolute values?” Someone with a strong sense that there are, if (s)he feels (s)he knows exactly what they are, might question whether it is safe to leave anyone free to decide for themselves what these values might be.

Interestingly, the Bahá’í Faith offers a way past this dilemma. On the one hand, it insists that people should be left free to investigate reality for themselves and come to their own conclusions. At the same time, it explains that, at this stage of human development, we must recognise the essential oneness of all humanity and the principles that can be derived from that recognition. If we do not, we risk taking, to paraphrase the Porter in Macbeth, ‘the primrose way to the . . . bonfire’ that destroys our whole civilisation. The principles we need to take on board include the detailed operational definitions of universal compassion and universal justice to be found in the Bahá’í Writings (see links to get started on that one!). So we can feel free, if we are so minded, to choose the destruction of all that mankind has created – no pressure there then.

Also this position leaves open the intriguing possibility that at a higher stage of human development we will be able to grasp even higher values. This in a way may be inherent in the Bahá’í concept of ‘progressive revelation.’

In the next post I will explore some further implications of Dabrowski’s view of suffering.

Given my current sequence on the dangers of ideology I couldn’t resist reblogging this.

The Fundamentalist

For source of image see link

Dad in Civil Defence

My father (centre) in the Civil Defence

In the light of recent events concerning the best way to deal with those who had been drawn into working with Daesh in Syria, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The three posts, of which this is the first, will appear on consecutive Thursdays.

The first memory I have from my childhood is of my father stepping through the backdoor in the morning light after an anxious night scanning the sky and listening for the warning of the siren’s wail. I rushed to greet him as he was taking his helmet off.

I pleaded with him to let me try it on. He wasn’t keen but finally gave in. All I can remember after that was the sting of the dust that fell into my eyes. Since that time I have never been completely able to shake that dust out of my mind.

Baby gas maskFrom time to time over the succeeding years we would take out the gas masks and recall the times spent in the cellar hiding from the bombs with our sawn off Darth Vader headgear at the ready. I have no memory obviously of ever wearing the gas mask for babies, but when we tried on the adult ones after the war we looked like stranded frogmen and the humour perhaps helped soften the memories for my parents. At primary school on rainy days our lunchtime recreation took place in the windowless red-brick air raid shelter next to the playground. The two doors at each end were angled so that almost no light could travel in or out. In virtually complete darkness we would play a variation of piggy-in-the-middle using the stones which lay all around the floor. How there were no serious injuries with so much stone flying through the darkness I will never know.

It was quite some years after the war before the blackout blinds in our kitchen were replaced by something more cheerful and ration books disappeared at last. The terror of those days of war must still have been with me when I went on to grammar school. The last version of the nightmare that had haunted my childhood came only then I am sure. I was running for my life, pursued by the Gestapo. I burst through the doors of the gymnasium at Stockport School and dashed towards the wall-bars at the end (interesting symbol in such a situation). As I clambered to the top, the doors at the far end burst open and the pursuing gang of torturers burst in and I woke terrified.

Later, as I read about the war as a young adult I came to realise that Hitler was almost certainly a narcissistic megalomaniac psychopath. The mystery was how so many people bought into his fantasies and followed him. I could only hope the same thing would never happen again but books such as Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and her concept of the ‘banality of evil,’ as well as Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness were not entirely reassuring on that point.

Altruism Black Earth

What about now?

The spread of a dark ideology is woven into the pattern of our current culture. It is derived from a distortion of Darwinism. It shapes behaviour for which it is also used as an excuse.

I am currently reading Matthieu Ricard’s book on altruism and Timothy Snyder’s book on Nazism in tandem. It feels a bit like switching the light on and off in rapid alternation.

Not that Ricard’s book is blind to the dark side of our world at all. He argues that the prevalent credibility of the specious argument that human beings have evolved to be selfish leaves many people feeling that this is a self-evident truth that we simply have to accept, however reluctantly, and is used by others to explain and justify their self-seeking egotism.

He quotes (page 165) Frans de Waal who, speaking of Enron, the company ‘which went bankrupt thanks to embezzlement,’ said: ‘”the company’s CEO, Jeff Skilling – now in prison – was a great fan of Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene, and deliberately tried to mimic nature by instigating cutthroat competition within his company.”’

Ricard’s argument against accepting this toxic doctrine is, in my view, clear and compelling. He not only quotes Darwin himself as supporting the force of cooperation as an evolutionary positive but also adduces a wealth of replicable evidence to refute the baseless conviction that all behaviour, however apparently altruistic, is selfishly motivated.  This creed is completely contradicted by test after scientific test.

Sadly, though, evidence which is compelling for me is incredible to the all-too-many adherents of this cynical dogma (page 138):

Nonetheless, when confronted with the numerous examples of altruism which, like us, they witness in their daily lives, supporters of universal selfishness set to work proposing explanations that defy common sense. In other cases, they simply take for granted that genuine altruism can’t exist.

We’ve been here before, of course, with the battle being fought by reductionist materialists against the possibility of psi (see my posts on Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain). Daniel Batson, one of the key researchers into altruism, has responded to the critics by repeatedly producing further evidence for the genuineness of altruism that answers their current particular criticism and rules out their alternative explanations. In the end, in terms of this belief in the inherent selfishness of humanity (page 139), Ricard concludes that ‘A theory that is in principle unfalsifiable is not scientific, it is an ideology.’

lebensraum1

For source of image see link.

The Second World War 

And this is where Snyder comes into his own. His book is written as a warning to us that we should not complacently assume that we would never repeat the horrors of the Second World War. He feels that we are not so different from the people of that time that we could never repeat their nightmarish mistakes if the right conditions returned, as well they might, in his view. He raises the frightening possibility that, when we feel sufficiently threatened and an apparently plausible explanation comes along which appears to account for the threat and provides a supposedly effective defence, often by means of eliminating a scapegoat population, the vast majority of us will probably run eagerly after its proponents pleading to get on board, even if it means colluding in the slaughter of millions of completely innocent people, usually somewhere out of sight.

By what kinds of seductive pathways can this hell on earth be approached?

Most people born as I was in the shadow of the war will be fully aware of the Holocaust and its horrendous and abhorrent genocidal processes. What Snyder’s book does is examine in detail the various complex threads of argument by which this iniquity was made so palatable to so many.

In this first post I shall explore only one of these. Another will follow later. I am choosing this one first because of the overlap it detects between racist ideology and the very same culture that helped rescue Europe from Nazism – an irony that we would be wise to remember when we complacently assume that not only were we completely different then but that we could never ever be the same in the future.

While this thread links to the settlement made at the end of WW1 and the allocation of land that Germany thought should be hers, there is more to it than that, though clearly many in Germany felt that the settlement was unjust. And simply adding anti-Semitism into the mix doesn’t quite get there either. We need to add, amongst other things, the idea of Lebensraum and the provision of food that this would make possible. A key paragraph comes as early as page 15 in Black Earth:

“For Germany,” wrote Hitler, “the only possibility of a sound agrarian policy was the acquisition of land within Europe itself.” To be sure, there was no place near Germany that was uninhabited or even underpopulated. The crucial thing was to imagine that European” spaces” were, in fact, “open.” Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonisation of North America and Africa. The conquest and exploitation of these continents by Europeans formed the literary imagination of Europeans of Hitler’s generation. . . .

For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justification was self-evident. “The natives must give way,” he said. “Look at America.” . . . . The civilian head of the German colonial office saw matters much the same way, “The history of the colonisation of the United States, clearly the biggest colonial endeavour the world has ever known, had as its first act the complete annihilation of its native peoples.” He understood the need for an “annihilation operation.” The German state geologist called for a “Final Solution to the native question.”

An equally sinister extension of this thesis was (page 17) the idea that ‘experience in eastern Europe had established that neighbours could also be “black.” Europeans could be imagined to want “masters” and yield “space.” After the war, it was more practical to consider a return to Eastern Europe than to Africa.’ To this end Hitler (page 18) ‘presented as racial inferiors the largest cultural group in Europe, Germany’s eastern neighbours, the Slavs.’ So it was not only the Jews who were racially slurred and targeted.

This relates closely to John Fitzgerald Medina’s thesis, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, about how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and about how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. The Nazis, as well as highly esteemed figures in American history, justified their self-serving actions by invoking the notion that Africans and Native Americans were inherently inferior, an ideology of racism that persists in America and to some extent in Europe to this day, potential seeds of future denigration and genocide if we do not find effective means of transforming our collective consciousness. The diverse reactions, some of them very negative, towards the current influx of refugees suggests we might still have a long way to go before we are cleansed of racism and would never again be tempted towards ethnic cleansing of some kind at some point if we thought it served our purposes effectively enough.

Ricard also deals in some detail with how certain social and psychological factors can distance us from the humanity of others and lead to extremes of cruelty and mass killings (cf especially Chapter 30 – Dehumanising the Other) even though there is a deep-seated natural revulsion against killing our own kind (Chapter 29). While it is hard to predict in any given situation what proportion of a population will actively participate in a pogrom, if we can convince ourselves the other is not human our reluctance to kill can be overcome with horrific consequences. This remains true to this day and we would be wise not to forget it.

This is just the starting point for an examination of where we might go from here. Next time we’ll dig a bit deeper into the problem before looking at some of the possible remedies in the final post.