Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.
The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the first: the second will come out on Thursday and the last on Friday.
Terror and the Human Form
The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection. The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)
I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.
I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo. I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.
I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.
I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.
I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.
They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:
. . . . not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.
Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . . With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.
. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.
The Horns of a Dilemma
I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.
Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).
The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.
Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:
More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.
(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)
Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance, also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated. Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.
What Haidt regards as central is this:
Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.
He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):
Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.
How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.