Archive for the ‘Psychology & Society’ Category

The primary question to be resolved is how the present world, with its entrenched pattern of conflict, can change to a world in which harmony and co-operation will prevail.

World order can be founded only on an unshakeable consciousness of the oneness of mankind, a spiritual truth which all the human sciences confirm. Anthropology, physiology, psychology, recognize only one human species, albeit infinitely varied in the secondary aspects of life. Recognition of this truth requires abandonment of prejudice—prejudice of every kind—race, class, colour, creed, nation, sex, degree of material civilization, everything which enables people to consider themselves superior to others.

(Universal House of Justice The Promise of World Peace Section III – 1985)

In the previous two posts I focused primarily on our major blindspots. Before going into more detail about the nature of bias, it needs to be clarified that solutions to problems and attitudes that create divisions are hard to come by because too many of us, perhaps especially in the individualistic West, have an investment in denying our collective and complex connectedness. This constitutes an additional and intractable blind spot. It may even be that as our complex interconnectedness becomes more irresistibly obvious we resort increasingly to a defensive protectionism, and fall prey to an increasing credulity in the face of simplistic and often scapegoating fixes to the problems that disturb us.

I’ve touched on the problems of Western individualism already in my previous sequence on balancing spirit and matter. I mentioned that, when I read Shweder’s Thinking Through Cultures, I learnt how biased in a potentially destructive way our implicit individualism is. I confessed to how this related to flaws in my own discipline of psychology, favoured in the Western world. Earlier in his book Shweder describes it as follows:

Not surprisingly, in most sociocentric role-based societies… it is sociology, not psychology, that thrives as an academic discipline. In other, more individualistic cultures (for example, the United States) it is psychology that flourishes at universities and popular bookstores, while sociology has an uneasy relationship to a public that find sociological discourse to be unreal and laden with ‘jargon.’[1]

In the years since he wrote that book, Shweder’s thesis has not ceased to be relevant, as Tom Oliver testifies in The Self Delusion, his powerful 2020 dismemberment of our myth of individualism:[2]

Our modern culture, from media advertising to our formal education system, all seem to emphasise extreme individuality, and these are arguably providing an overwhelming set of stimuli which are training our minds to increasingly perceive the world in an individuated away.

This affects our understanding of almost any situation and strongly influences our decision-making. Take mental health, my specialism, as one example:[3]

. . . Clinical medicine still labours under a biomedical model, focusing purely on biological factors. Thus, mental illnesses such as depression are treated with drugs… without dealing properly with root psychological, environmental and social causes.

Though he is clearly not a believer in any commonly understood paradigm of God, his attitude to the required relationship between religion and science, if we are to break through our block, is very refreshing:[4]

We see in the 21st century a genuine synergy emerging between science and spirituality… We can cut through the dogma and fables of organised religion and instead explore scientifically the moral and spiritual states that are often narrowly dubbed ‘religious experiences’ that may actually be just one possible way to see beneath the veil of self-delusion…

A new partnership is needed between science and religion in order to deal with the destruction of our natural world.

He believes firmly that ‘state-of-the-art scientific advances in understanding human interconnectedness – whether it be with the microbiome within us, the natural world around us, or with other people – open up considerable benefits in terms of personal and planetary health.’[5]

I will return to some of his other insights later in relation to bias, which is such a pervasive symptom of our failure to connect with others.

First though we need to look at Jennifer Eberhardt’s perspective on that.

Implicit Bias

Bias may not be as conscious and deliberate as we might be tempted to think, and we also may therefore not be as free from it as we would like. Bias can be internal, invisible even to us, resulting in unintended acts of discrimination.

In her engaging and accessible treatment of the subject in her book Biased, Jennifer Eberhardt begins her explanation by clarifying this, using the term ‘implicit bias’ to capture this pattern:[6]

Implicit bias is not a new way of calling someone a racist. In fact, you don’t have to be a racist at all to be influenced by it. Implicit bias is a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both the architecture of our brain and the disparities in our society.

A key foundation stone for this is located in research she summarises by saying:[7]

For nearly fifty years, scientists have been documenting the fact that people are much better at recognising faces of their own race than faces of other races . . .

That cringe-worthy expression ‘They all look alike’ has long been considered the province of the bigot. But it is actually a function of biology and exposure. Our brains are better at processing faces that evoke a sense of familiarity.

As a result, when we have negative associations to the unfamiliar they are activated with amazing speed:[8]

The process of making these [negative] connections is called bias. It can happen unintentionally. It can happen unconsciously. It can happen effortlessly. And it can happen in a matter of milliseconds.

This is why I am treating aspects of bias as another form of blind spot, similar to those I have dealt with in the previous two posts.

Stereotypes, Biases and their Sources

Eberhardt quotes Lippman’s interesting definition of stereotypes as ‘impressions that reflect subjective perceptions but stand in for objective reality.’[9] To create a stereotype, the important link here is between harbouring an impression and mistaking it for truth. Not surprisingly stereotypes can blind us ‘to information that [doesn’t] conform to what [we] already believe.’[10]This ‘confirmation bias is a mechanism that allows inaccurate beliefs to spread and persist.’ It is also not surprising to know [11]that ‘studies confirm that biased parents tend to produce children who are biased as well.’

Researchers have found abundant evidence for the different shapes such biases can take in terms of racial prejudice:[12]

What researchers typically find is that people are faster to categorise . . . faces and words when they are using the same key to respond to faces that are black and words that are bad. But if they’re using a single key to respond to faces that are black and to words that are good, their brains seem to bog down. It takes more effort to connect black and good, because black and bad are more strongly associated in our minds.

What is equally or perhaps even more disturbing is that there are also ‘results [which] suggested that the implicit association between blacks and apes was much stronger than the black-crime association.’[13]

Sharing the same race does not exempt us from bias either:[14]

Black people are just as likely as whites to expect signs of disorder in heavily black neighbourhoods.

. . . That suggests a sort of implicit bias that has more to do with associations we’ve absorbed through history and culture than with explicit racial animus.

Various emotions are implicated in different aspects of bias.

Fear is one. For example Bargh found that:[15]

those who had not received flu shots expressed more negative views about immigration than those who had been inoculated against the virus. Their sense of vulnerability to disease was tied to unacknowledged fears about infected immigrants.

Fear operates more generally than this, of course: ‘The same fear response that’s supposed to keep us safe can activate bias in ways that stigmatise and threaten others.’[16]The situation is even worse if we have to make decisions quickly: ‘bias is most likely to surface in situations where we’re fearful and we’re moving fast.’[17]

Disgust is another emotion involved in bias:[18]

When Harris and Fiske showed pictures of homeless people to study participants inside a neuro-imaging scanner,… the insula and amygdala – areas of the brain associated with disgust – were more active.

An additional twist makes the situation worse for some victims of prejudice. That skin colours remain the same across generations impedes the assimilation of those with darker skins because differences remain visible no matter what else changes over time, and, as Sherman and Clore’s research confirmed, the prevalent association of white with pure and black with bad runs deep. ‘“Sin is not just dirty,” the authors write, “it is black. And moral virtue is not just clean, but also white.”’ They conclude that ‘these associations allow implicit bias to turn skin colour into a value judgement.’ [19]

As we will find later, even closer connections across racial divides do not necessarily bring harmony and reduce prejudice:[20]

Online social networks connect us to our neighbours. But the same tools that promise security and promote camaraderie can foster a sort of tunnel vision that distorts our sense of danger, heightens suspicion, and even puts the safety of others at risk. Residents can circulate photographs of a ‘suspicious’ strangers to neighbours and police with the touch of a button and without any evidence the person is doing anything wrong – a practice that can amplify and justify bias in the minds of locals primed by worries about the safety of their homes.

To quote Eberhardt’s summary so far:[21]

In many ways, this is how bias operates. It conditions how we look at the world and the people within it, despite our conscious motivations and desires, and even when such conditioning can put us in harm’s way. Just as drivers are conditioned by how the roads are constructed in their native land, so too are we conditioned by racial narratives that narrow our vision and bias how we see the world around us.

We are conditioned to be biased and bias warps our way of seeing the world.

Next time I will look at some of the consequences of this in more detail and also at the complications that lie across the path towards possible solutions.


[1]. Shweder – page 169.
[2]. The Self Delusion – page 158.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 185.
[4]. The Self Delusion – pages 186-87.
[5]. The Self Delusion – page 194.
[6]. Biased – page 6.
[7]. Biased – pages 13-14.
[8]. Biased – page 32.
[9]. Biased – page 32.
[10]. Biased – page 33.
[11]. Biased – page 39.
[12]. Biased – page 40.
[13]. Biased – Page 143
[14]. Biased – page 160.
[15]. Biased – page 163.
[16]. Biased – Page 181.
[17]. Biased – page 184.
[18]. Biased – Page 164.
[19]. Biased – pages 166-67.
[20]. Biased – page 180.
[21]. Biased – Page 170.

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As a regular attender at the Hereford Death Cafe every month, how could I possibly resist posting this excellent article by  which I read in Saturday’s Guardian. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Is there a good way to approach the end of life? , a palliative care doctor, believes there is – and that we can all learn from her patients

he’s called Gemma. She’s three years old. She fell into a canal,” said a senior nurse. “By the time her parents managed to get her out, apparently she’d already stopped breathing.” “Paramedics three minutes away,” called another nurse, holding the scarlet phone on which emergencies were called through. With a grace and efficiency akin to choreography, a team of professionals who moments beforehand had been as disparate as atoms, dispersed across the hospital, were poised around an empty resuscitation bed, waiting as one to swing into action.

The consultant quietly confirmed each team member’s role. The anaesthetist, responsible for airway. The scribe, who would note down, in meticulous detail, the timings, the drugs, the doses, every iota of care which, if we were lucky, might snatch life back from lifelessness. Doctor one, doctor two – the roles and responsibilities went on. Then, a moment of silence before the paramedics’ brute force pushed a trolley through the swing doors and there, tiny, limp and pale, lay a toddler, unmoving beneath the harsh fluorescent lights.

It was impossible to hear the paramedics’ handover above the screams of Gemma’s mother. “Save her!” she pleaded, over and over. “Please, please, save her!” Gently, a nurse discussed with her whether she wished to stay or leave the bay for a moment. The crash team worked on, its focus absolute. In moments, the child had been intubated. Tubes and electrodes sprouted everywhere. Tiny, toddler-sized chest compressions continued, interrupted every two minutes to check for the resumption of a heartbeat.

Too inexperienced to help, I hovered on the periphery, trying not to wear my shock visibly. I had never before seen a child this unwell. Unless the crash team managed to restart the heart, I was watching, in effect, a dead little girl. I thought of my own toddler, safe at nursery, and of the magnitude of the horror with which Gemma’s mother, sequestered in a relatives’ room, must now be seized.

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Yesterday’s Guardian featured an article by Jonathan Aldred on the subject of inequality, for me an evil derived from our defective moral system only second to climate crisis. it provides yet another powerful example of how dissonance reduction blinds us to social injustices in urgent need of remedy. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

The economic arguments adopted by Britain and the US in the 1980s led to vastly increased inequality – and gave the false impression that this outcome was not only inevitable, but good.

In most rich countries, inequality is rising, and has been rising for some time. Many people believe this is a problem, but, equally, many think there’s not much we can do about it. After all, the argument goes, globalisation and new technology have created an economy in which those with highly valued skills or talents can earn huge rewards. Inequality inevitably rises. Attempting to reduce inequality via redistributive taxation is likely to fail because the global elite can easily hide their money in tax havens. Insofar as increased taxation does hit the rich, it will deter wealth creation, so we all end up poorer.

In both the US and the UK, from 1980 to 2016, the share of total income going to the top 1% has more than doubled. After allowing for inflation, the earnings of the bottom 90% in the US and UK have barely risen at all over the past 25 years. More generally, 50 years ago, a US CEO earned on average about 20 times as much as the typical worker. Today, the CEO earns 354 times as much.

Any argument that rising inequality is largely inevitable in our globalised economy faces a crucial objection. Since 1980 some countries have experienced a big increase in inequality (the US and the UK); some have seen a much smaller increase (Canada, Japan, Italy), while inequality has been stable or falling in others (France, Belgium and Hungary). So rising inequality cannot be inevitable. And the extent of inequality within a country cannot be solely determined by long-run global economic forces, because, although most richer countries have been subject to broadly similar forces, the experiences of inequality have differed.

. . . . .

Psychologists have shown that people have motivated beliefs: beliefs that they have chosen to hold because those beliefs meet a psychological need. Now, being poor in the US is extremely tough, given the meagre welfare benefits and high levels of post-tax inequality. So Americans have a greater need than Europeans to believe that you deserve what you get and you get what you deserve. These beliefs play a powerful role in motivating yourself and your children to work as hard as possible to avoid poverty. And these beliefs can help alleviate the guilt involved in ignoring a homeless person begging on your street.

This is not just a US issue. Britain is an outlier within Europe, with relatively high inequality and low economic and social mobility. Its recent history fits the cause-and-effect relationship here. Following the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, inequality rose significantly. After inequality rose, British attitudes changed. More people became convinced that generous welfare benefits make poor people lazy and that high salaries are essential to motivate talented people. However, intergenerational mobility fell: your income in Britain today is closely correlated with your parents’ income.

. . .

One evening in December 1974, a group of ambitious young conservatives met for dinner at the Two Continents restaurant in Washington DC. The group included the Chicago University economist Arthur Laffer, Donald Rumsfeld (then chief of staff to President Gerald Ford), and Dick Cheney (then Rumsfeld’s deputy, and a former Yale classmate of Laffer’s).

While discussing Ford’s recent tax increases, Laffer pointed out that, like a 0% income tax rate, a 100% rate would raise no revenue because no one would bother working. Logically, there must be some tax rate between these two extremes that would maximise tax revenue. Although Laffer does not remember doing so, he apparently grabbed a napkin and drew a curve on it, representing the relationship between tax rates and revenues. The Laffer curve was born and, with it, the idea of trickle-down economics.

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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.


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.”


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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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.


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.


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.


[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.)

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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.’


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.

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