Archive for the ‘Identity & Society’ Category

My mind . . . . .
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘Prayer for My Daughter‘)

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 second of three. The first came out on Monday: this is the third and last.

A World-Embracing Vision

A central concept in Bahá’í discourse, as could be inferred from previous posts, is the heart. This is used to refer to the core of our being. It is not purely emotional, though emotion is an important factor.

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love.

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 3)

It also involves insight. Bahá’u’lláh uses the phrase ‘understanding heart’ on a number of occasions.

There is more to it even than that. In previous posts about the self and the soul I have explored the implications of the way that Bahá’u’lláh describes the heart either as a ‘mirror’ or a ‘garden.’ I won’t be revisiting those considerations here but they are relevant to this theme.

I want to look at another angle on the heart which Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly refers to.

In the Hidden Words (Persian: No.27) He writes:

All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; yet thou didst give My home and dwelling to another than Me and whenever the manifestation of My holiness sought His own abode, a stranger found He there, and, homeless, hastened to the sanctuary of the Beloved.

The meaning is clear. Like an addict we fill our hearts with junk as an addict blocks his receptors with heroin so that the appropriate ‘occupant’ is denied access and we do not function properly. We are in a real sense poisoned.

sunset-21Bahá’u’lláh is equally clear about the advice He gives:

Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. . . . . . And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness. God is My witness.

(Gleanings: CXIV)

Though it is easier said than done, of course, this has several important implications.

We are often divided within ourselves, worshipping more than one false god. We are divided from other people when we perceive them to be worshipping other gods than ours. This warps the proper functioning of the heart. It prevents us from becoming ‘a true upholder of His oneness,’ people who see all of humanity as our business and behave accordingly.

Bahá’u’lláh observed:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: pages 164-165)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá developed the same theme:

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 76)

Note that transcending such divisions within and between people is linked with a unifying devotion to an inclusive and loving God: if we worship an exclusive and narrow god our divisions and conflicts will be exacerbated.

There is a key passage in the Arabic Hidden Words (No. 68) which assists in helping us understand the spiritual dynamics here:

Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

Oneness and detachment are inextricably linked. Only when we detach ourselves from false gods can we integrate all aspects of ourselves, bring our divided loyalties together under one banner, and see ourselves at one with all humankind. When we dismantle the barriers within us we can also dismantle those between us. Only then can the expression of unity come from the depths of our being and manifest itself in actions and words that are a seamless fabric of complete integrity harmonised with all humanity. The process of striving to achieve this state in this physical world is a slow and painful one but cannot be evaded if we are to live a full and fulfilling life, as against an empty, sterile and potentially destructive one. Above all it involves expressing a sense of common humanity in action regardless of how we feel sometimes: positive values are a better guide to consistently positive action than feelings that can shift swiftly from light to dark and back again.

Without such a radical integration we will not be able to achieve the world embracing vision required of us if the problems confronting our civilisation are to have any hope of resolution. Anything less runs a very strong risk of perpetuating prejudice, conflict, discrimination and all the evils such as pogroms that have their roots in such heart-felt and deep-seated divisions.

We must be careful not to substitute some limited idea of God of our own devising for the limitless experience of love that is the one true God beyond all description. That way hatred lies. It is the ‘rose’ of love that we must plant in the garden of our hearts, not its daisy or its dandelion, though either of those would certainly be better than the stinging nettle of animosity, but probably not up to meeting the challenges that this shrinking and diverse world is currently throwing at us.

Planting the most inclusive and embracing flower of love in our hearts that we are capable of is the indispensable precursor to the positive personal transformation of a radical kind that is demanded of us now.

The Method

Without some plan of action, what I have described may well of course turn out to be empty rhetoric. Every great world religion has described in detail the steps we need to take to perfect ourselves once we have placed its message in our heart of hearts.

Buddhism is perhaps the clearest in its ways of doing this, with its four noble truths and eightfold path. Also its system of psychological understanding is second to none, which is perhaps why current psychological approaches to distress are borrowing so heavily from it, for example in the concept of mindfulness.

The Baha’i Faith is a much younger tradition but is unique in combining recommendations for individual spiritual development, such as prayer and reflection (in the sense I have discussed in detail in previous posts) with prescriptions for expressing spiritual understanding collectively in the special conditions of the modern world. There are two key components of this.

First, consultation, which is a spiritual and disciplined form of non-adversarial decision-making. Second is a way of organising a global network of like-minded people, which combines democratic elections with authority held collectively by an assembly. There is neither priesthood nor presidency. The system allows for a flexible process of responding to what we learn from experience: there is nothing fossilised about it.

I believe there is much to learn from the Baha’i model that can be successfully applied in our lives whether we decide to join the Baha’i community or not. The learning is readily transferable to almost any benign context.

An Appeal to our Better Selves

After such a long post as this, now is not the time to go into this in detail but the many links from this blog will introduce these ideas in accessible form. I intend to return to this aspect of the issue in due course.

I would like instead to close with the words of a powerful message, sent by our governing body at the Baha’i World Centre to the world’s religious leaders in 2002. It stated in its introduction:

Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism.

They continued:

The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion.

All is not lost, they argue:

Each of the great faiths can adduce impressive and credible testimony to its efficacy in nurturing moral character. Similarly, no one could convincingly argue that doctrines attached to one particular belief system have been either more or less prolific in generating bigotry and superstition than those attached to any other.

They assert their conviction:

. . . that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

And they close with the following appeal:

The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind.

This is work that we can all support, wherever we are and in whatever God we do or do not believe. We should not just leave it to our leaders.

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

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 second of three. The first came out on Monday: the last will come out tomorrow.

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,
The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William BlakeSongs of Experience Additional Poem

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.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

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.

Skating on Thin Ice

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.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

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.

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A group of seventh graders learning about preparing orchard plots for planting crops as part of the SAT program in Honduras

A couple of days ago an inspiring piece appeared on the Bahá’í World News site to which I was alerted by a friend on FB. Given all the gloom around at the moment it seemed a good idea to try and spread about something more positive, concerning a new approach to learning that will help create well-rounded community-conscious human beings rather than cogs for the wheels of industry and capital. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

WASHINGTON D.C. — In the last twenty years, remarkable strides have been achieved in providing access to education for children around the world. However, research in the field of education is showing that increased schooling has not automatically led to increased learning. The United Nations estimates that 250 million children are not able to read, write, or perform basic math, whether they have been to school or not.

Addressing what it calls a “learning crisis”, the Brookings Institution — a major think tank in the United States-started an initiative in 2015 called “Millions Learning“. The study sought to identify educational interventions where not only access to schools was improving, but also learning itself.

One of the programs featured in the report is the Baha’i-inspired initiative Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial (SAT, or in English, the Tutorial Learning System). Since its beginnings in the 1970s in Colombia, SAT has expanded across Latin America to reach more than 300,000 students, and it has been accredited and recognized by a number of governments.

The “Millions Learning” report highlights 14 educational programs that show increased learning outcomes through innovative approaches to schooling. A major criterion of the study was that these programs could be scaled up in size and implemented in other settings in a sustainable way.

According to Brookings, SAT is “catalyzing an education revolution” by “transforming how education is conceptualized, designed, and delivered.”

“SAT is radically different from the traditional secondary school and high school model, and it is cutting edge in so many ways,” said Jenny Perlman Robinson, author of the case study for the Brookings Institution. “It focuses on skills that are beyond the traditional academic skills, such as moral and character development, and it conceives of learning as something much broader.”

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'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

An unexpected ‘like’ alerted me to the existence of this post which I had completely forgotten. As I am planning to post a short sequence next week on the theme of consciousness – whether it is spirit, mind or brain – this post from 2010 seemed too closely related not to be repeated!

In a recent post I reviewed Iain McGilchrist‘s thought-provoking new book The Master and His Emissary. The night before last I watched a DVD, Food, Inc, about the American food industry (more of that in a moment). The images and information the film conveyed reminded me immediately of the nightmare world McGilchrist feels will be created by the untrammelled operation of the utilitarian left-hemisphere.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist spells out simply and clearly some of the characteristics of that world:

Skills . . . would be reduced to algorithmic procedures . . . which could be regulated by administrators. . . . Increasingly the living world would be modelled on the mechanical. . . . When we deal with a machine, there are three things that we want to know: how much it can do, how fast it can do it, and with what degree of precision. . . . In human affairs, increasing the amount or extent of something, or the speed with which something happens, or the inflexible precision with which it is conceived or applied, can actually destroy. But since the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of What, quantity would be the only criterion that it would understand. The right hemisphere’s appreciation of How (quality) would be lost.

(page 430)

He also quotes the work of Berger and colleagues (1974). When a society becomes dominated by technology they predict the development of what they call ‘mechanisticity’ and other distortions of the human spirit. This means:

. . . the development of a system that permits things to be reproduced endlessly, and enforces submergence of the individual in a large organisation or a production line: ‘measurability’, in other words the insistence on quantification, not qualification; ‘componentiality’, that is reality reduced to self-contained units, so that ‘everything is analysable into constituent components, and everything can be taken apart and put together again in terms of these components’; and an ‘abstract frame of reference’, in other words loss of context.

(page 430)

He summarises Gabriel Marcel as speaking of:

. . . the difficulty in maintaining one’s integrity as a unique, individual subject, in a world where a combination of the hubris of science and the drive of technology blots out the awe-inspiring business of conscious human existence, what he refers to as ‘the mystery of being,’ and replaces it with a set of technical problems for which they purport to have solutions.


Ultimately, ‘[m]orality would come to be judged at best on the basis of utilitarian calculation, at worst on the basis of enlightened self-interest’ (page 431).

The DVD ‘Food, Inc‘ gives us a vivid insight into just how ‘enlightened’ that self-interest has already turned out to be.

The trailer below gives only a faint flavour of the power of the film:

The advert for the film, also on YouTube, packs a somewhat stronger punch but could not be embedded here. There is, though, no substitute for sitting through a rather harrowing 90 minutes to convey the full horror of the reality to which blinkered left-brain processes reduce us when they are unmoderated by the empathic big picture the right-brain brings to bear.

It is fascinating to see how Schwartz’s book, which I also reviewed recently, shows how a different path has led him to similar conclusions. He writes in his co-authored book, The Mind & the Brain (page 276):

Stapp made the point that there is no stronger influence on human values than man’s belief about his relationship to the power that shapes the universe. . . . When the scientific revolution converted human beings from sparks of divine creation into not particularly special cogs in a giant impersonal machine, it eroded any rational basis for the notion of responsibility for one’s actions. We became a mechanical extension of what preceded us, over which we have no control.

This view is permeating our culture, he feels:

The view that people are mere machines and that the mind is just another (not particularly special) manifestation of a clockwork physical universe [has] infiltrated all our thinking . . .

(page 258)

In his view, it accounts for all ‘our moral decrepitude’ because

. . . materialism as a world view . . . . holds that the physical is all that exists, and that transcendent human mental experiences and emotions . . . are in reality nothing but the expressions of electrical impulses zipping along neurons.


This simplistic world view then refuses to acknowledge that there is a ‘mental force’ (i.e. a ‘physical force generated by mental effort’, which is not itself material – page 295) by means of which ‘through intense effort we can resist our baser appetites’ (page 257).

Such a reductionist world view is many million miles apart from the Bahá’í view that, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expressed it:

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Some Answered Questions)

Not only that. Volition, He explains, is a special characteristic not found in matter:

Man possesses certain virtues of which nature is deprived. He exercises volition; nature is without will. For instance, an exigency of the sun is the giving of light. It is controlled — it cannot do otherwise than radiate light — but it is not volitional.

(Promise of Universal Peace)

It seems as though this defective world view, which we can as a shorthand label materialism, which thrives when the left hemisphere cuts free of the right, is a significant part of the answer to a critical question religious faith poses to us:

Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself?

(Arabic Hidden Words: number 13)

The question which confronts us all is: ‘What am I going to do about it?’

This blog is part of my attempt to work out an answer.

The Bahá’í view at its core contends that, if we are to have an impact, we all need to find ways of working together rather than alone. We have to recognise our essential unity with everyone else, with all life everywhere,  before these problems can be properly addressed. Obviously, once that sense of oneness begins to be established, the more of us there are using it as an operating principle the greater our impact will be.

It seems to me that the thrust of McGilchrist’s position is that it will take nothing less than the combined energies of our entire being to empower us to succeed in this struggle, the humane wisdom of the right brain moderating the blind utilitarianism of the left, the wing of true religion and the wing of true science working together to lift us off the ground. This level of energy will only be available when we are at one and in harmony within ourselves. The vision required for this level of personal integration is spiritual not material in origin. Not until sufficient numbers of people invest great efforts of ‘mental force’ over long periods of time to lift themselves to this level will the healing of our society become possible.

Even so, such integration of the psyche is possible if the requisite effort is made and people are successfully making comparable efforts every second of every day. The great spiritual traditions as well as the latest developments in neuropsychology, underpinned in Schwartz’s view by modern physics, combine to confirm that this must and can be done.

We don’t have to let the machine mentality take over the world completely. More and more of us can join in building towards the critical mass of effort that will create a tipping point. Hopefully, in ever increasing numbers, we will.

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Torture is a dangerous innovation; it would appear that it is an assay not of the truth but of a man’s endurance. . . . . What would you not say, what would you not do, to avoid such grievous pain. Pain compels even the innocent to lie.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592): On Conscience (trans. M.A. Screech – Penguin Classics)

The spectre of torture as effective and desirable is back in the news again. I feel it worthwhile again to republish a pair of blog posts from two years ago, the first yesterday, the second today. The book I refer to in the posts – Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy – conclusively demonstrates, at least to my mind, that no form of torture will ever be effective no matter how acceptable we manage to persuade ourselves it is. 

The previous post has looked at recent Amnesty International survey findings concerning UK public opinion about torture. It drew on Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy specifically his chapter looking at whether torture works. It dealt with the problem of whether a torturer would know if you were lying. It seems that disturbingly often he would not. This post is examining the other criteria by which we might decide whether torture is effective and can contribute to the acquisition of life-saving information: the list picks up from the previous post with what is the second criterion in the overall list.

We had already established that, for me, there are insuperable moral objections to torture, but there are many people for whom it would be an option if it were effective. I hope they are reading this.

B. How well do cooperative prisoners remember?

Even the most elementary understanding of the effects of stress upon memory might cause a modern Torquemada or Topcliffe to question how useful it is to frighten someone out of their wits in order to obtain accurate and detailed factual information. Rejali is not slow to build on this perspective (page 466):

Lawrence Hinkle, a neurobiologist who, along with Wolff, advised the CIA on brainwashing, put it bluntly: “any circumstance that impairs the function of the brain potentially affects the ability to give information, as well as the ability to withhold it. . . . . The subjects’ ability to recall and communicate information accurately is as impaired as his will to resist.”

Sheila Cassidy is an interesting case in point again (page 467):

[She] could not remember information she knew only weeks before the arrest even when she wanted to cooperate. After days on the electric parilla, “I found it quite impossible to lie for the shocks came with such frequency and intensity that I could no longer think. So they broke me.” She decided to tell them the street address of where she had medically treated the man they wanted, but she could not remember.

This is probably an example of Ribot’s gradient which describes how, ‘when there is trauma to the brain, the farther back the memory, the more likely it is to survive the trauma.’

The conclusion is sobering for any aspiring torturer who cares to read about it (ibid.):

Ribot’s gradient does not occur for every kind of torture, but many techniques that cause pain also damage memory. By the time prisoners wish to co-operate, it may be too late.

Rejali then describes how a combination of sleep deprivation and repeated questioning under basic torture combine to create (page 468) the ‘illusion of knowing.’

Under repeated questioning, sleep deprived subjects display ‘higher confidence, but not greater accuracy.’

His final conclusion on this question is damning (page 469):

. . . . prisoners who experience memory lapses from trauma are likely to remember fictions quite vividly. When combined with the typical unskilled torturer, all this is a recipe for retrieving extremely poor information. Because both interrogators and cooperative prisoners have high confidence in this information, others are unlikely to second-guess its accuracy. This is yet another manner in which torture produces mistaken information.


For source of image see link

C. How Good is the Information Extorted?

This moves us onto the next question.

The evidence marshalled to address the first two questions is already pointing us towards a sceptical position on this one as well. Rejali writes (page 469):

. . . . there is statistical evidence that interrogators produce consistently poor information in battlefield conditions or emergencies involving torture.

He then, as his first example among several, analyses in detail the efficacy of the Phoenix Programme, an initiative of the CIA during the Vietnam War designed to capture and kill Vietcong operatives. They had devised what they clearly considered a careful process of verification before anyone was finally caught and killed.

Its success rate was not impressive. Kalvyas and Koch, two researchers who had access to the CIA database for research purposes estimated (ibid.):

The Phoenix program ‘victimised at least 38 innocents for every 1 actual Vietcong agent.’ . . . . This is truly awesome perverse selection.

It is plain as a pikestaff that the information they were acting on was seriously flawed. Rejali feels that poor information entered the database in two ways (page 471): ‘in the selection of people and in the methods of interrogation.’ He explains (page 472):

The database suggests that the pool of individuals selected was composed of people with no information to give. Informants may have voluntarily fingered some, while others undoubtedly talked under torture. . . . . [I]t seems plausible that torture compounded the selection errors: the ignorant figured the innocent and deceived the torturers, and the innocent were then interrogated or terminated.

By contrast, he adduces a most telling example from World War II (page 476-77):

. . . . during World War II, British counterespionage managed to identify almost every German spy without using torture – not just the 100 who hid among the seven thousand to nine thousand refugees coming to England each year, not just the 124 who arrived from friendly countries, but also the 70 sleeper cells that were in place before 1940. Only three agents eluded detection; five others refused to confess. The British then offered each agent a choice: talk or be tried and shot. Many Germans chose to talk and became double agents. They radioed incorrect coordinates for German V missiles, directing them to land harmlessly in fields. But for this misdirection, the distinguished war historian John Keegan concludes, in October 1944 alone the Germans would have killed about 1,300 people and injured 10,000 others.

There is no reason to think that torture, or even the fear of torture, would have yielded any better results.

I am inclined to agree with his conclusion. I accept that I do not know how many others might also be concealed behind the word ‘almost:’ what is clear is that very significant numbers of lives were saved. I accept that the threat of death would not pass my ethics test but here we are merely concerned with the pragmatics, ie ‘Does torture work?’ Clearly it doesn’t under any of the circumstances delineated so far.

German V-2 Ballistic Missile

German V-2 Ballistic Missile. (For source of image see link)

D. What about when time is short?

Rejali contends that an emergency with its condensed time frames does not alter the limitations described above. In fact (page 474) ‘it intensifies them by limiting what torturers can do.’ He explains that ‘real torture – not the stuff of television – takes days, if not weeks.’ Moreover, the techniques that could break someone by crossing their pain threshold quickly ‘[r]isk brain trauma. Ribot’s gradient becomes especially troublesome in ticking time bomb cases, since here the memory torturers want to extract is a recent one.’

Where does all this leave the pragmatic torturer?

I can’t do better at this point than quote at length from Rejali (page 478):

For harvesting information, torture is the clumsiest method available to organisations, even clumsier in some cases than flipping coins or shooting randomly into crowds. The sources of error are systematic and ineradicable. Innocent and ignorant prisoners generate malicious information, using torturers to settle private scores. Only highly experienced interrogators can spot such deception. Cooperative prisoners are unlikely to remember well and may give false answers with confidence. Neither they nor the interrogators can easily detect these errors.

In short, organised torture yields poor information, sweeps up many innocents, degrades organisational capabilities, and destroys interrogators. Limited time during battle or emergency intensifies all these problems.

In fact, the only time when torture might work well is ‘when we need it least, peacetime, nonemergency conditions.’ There is a catch though (pages 478-79):

Even then, torture has problems that cannot be eliminated, including desensitisation, death, unconsciousness, the loss of memory caused by damage, and the production of information that is more reliable the more it pertains to the remote past, not the immediate present.

Even if we number amongst those who feel that the ends can justify even the most revolting of means, it would be hard to continue justifying torture in the light of this evidence.


‘Homo sum, nihil humanum mihi alienum puto.’


[I am a human being; I believe that nothing human is alien to me.]

This cuts two ways.

The first part corresponds to the Golden Rule which in the Bahá’í Writings is expressed as, ‘Lay not on any soul a load which ye would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things ye would not desire for yourselves.’ In effect this means, ‘I must see that you are the same as I am and treat you as I would wish to be treated myself.’

However, the quotation from Terence also forces us to consider another possibility:  ‘Even though I hold what you do to be evil, I am as human and flawed as you are and might do the same myself in your situation.’

The findings of Amnesty International are disturbing for two sets of reasons. First of all, they show that many in our society can contemplate treating others in ways they would never wish to be treated themselves. Secondly, they force me to recognise that the society with which I most closely identified as a child and a young adult is seriously flawed in terms of universal support for its supposedly most cherished values. And that is a dangerous place for any liberal democracy to be in.

We do indeed have a long road to travel as a society before we move from being industrially advanced to being truly developed.

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Gaude and Garrigos

Writer Laurent Gaude (l) and Amnesty’s Genevieve Garrigos launched the “stop torture” campaign in Paris

‘. . . it is to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them.’

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592):  On the Lame (trans. M.A. Screech – Penguin Classics)

The spectre of torture as effective and desirable is back in the news again. I feel it worthwhile again to republish a pair of blog posts from two years ago, the first today, the second tomorrow. The book I refer to in the posts – Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy – conclusively demonstrates, at least to my mind, that no form of torture will ever be effective no matter how acceptable we manage to persuade ourselves it is. 

Amnesty International Survey Findings

On the 13th May the BBC News website posted a disturbing report of Amnesty International findings. They stated:

Nearly 30% of people in the UK believe torture can be justified, according to a survey by Amnesty International.

Amnesty said it had not expected the “alarming” result:”

. . . . At 29%, the belief that torture is sometimes necessary to protect the public was more prevalent in the UK than in Russia, Brazil or Argentina.

The survey involved 21,000 people in 21 countries as part of a global “Stop Torture” campaign. The UK results were based on a survey of 1,000 people aged over 18.

It is bad enough that on the basis of that statistic alone we come out worse than countries we label as less scrupulous than we are about human rights. Other figures give no comfort to those who would like to feel we are none the less well ahead of the field, surveying the torture scene from a secure and elevated position on firmly moral high ground. The report goes on:

. . . while the majority of those surveyed (56%) strongly disagreed that torture could be justified to protect the public, 44% ruled out prohibiting torture altogether.

The research suggested that 79 countries have carried out torture so far this year, with 27 different methods reported. The techniques range from electric shocks, beatings, rape, mock executions and stress positions to sleep deprivation.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said the findings suggested that:

People have bought into the idea that their personal safety can be enhanced in some way through the use of torture. That is simply untrue.

There is a wealth of evidence to support her contention here, evidence which, it would seem, has fallen well below too many people’s radar.

The Main Moral Objection

Before I tackle that aspect of the matter, I need first to mention the ends-means problem.

Mixed Dictators v5Regardless of whether torture is or is not effective at enhancing our safety, there is a moral argument for saying that to defend a liberal democracy by the use of torture and any other degrading and dehumanising treatment of the supposed ‘enemy,’ is to betray the very foundations and core values of our society.

We can take the point even further and apply it to any society. Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, is very clear that the sense that our values, no matter what they are, are so important that any means of propagating and defending them are by definition justified, has killed more people than any other human tendency. Do we really want to join that infamous band of proponents of this view? Do we want to sit enthroned beside Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and their zealous followers in that hall of infamy? I for one absolutely do not.

The Efficacy of Torture

Even if I did though, I would do well to look at the evidence for the efficacy of torture.

There is one excellent place to begin such a search: Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy.

Before I plunge into an exploration of Rejali’s position, I need to fess up to the fact that I bought his book six years ago when I retired and have not had the stomach to read all its nearly 600 pages. I have dipped into it enough to know how thorough and rigorous it is. I simply cannot dwell on such harrowing details as he adduces for any length of time without a truly compelling reason. I had the same problem reading Chang and Halliday’s book on Mao – I stopped reading about halfway through.

Perhaps because I grew up in the shadow of World War II and had nightmares in childhood to match, perhaps because I was twice admitted for surgery before I started school, perhaps because my parents were grieving for my recently dead sister, perhaps because I’ve read a lot about these issues over my life time, I feel that I now understand enough about physical and emotional pain as well as powerlessness in a frightening situation, without having to read anything that does not credibly promise to tell me something on this subject that I did not already know.

What I have done though, because I did not know the answer to this question, was read Rejali’s Chapter 21 which is titled ‘Does Torture Work?’

At the beginning of this chapter he asks eight key questions of which four concern us here (page 447):

  1. Can interrogators separate deceptive from accurate information when it is given to them?
  2. How accurately do cooperative prisoners remember information after torture?
  3. Does this investigative method yield better results than others normally at an army’s disposal?
  4. If not, does this investigative method yield better results under conditions of constrained time?


A. How well do interrogators spot the truth?

I already had a sense where this might be going from recently reading Adrian Raine’s excellent book – The Anatomy of Violence – where he writes about whether we can tell when children are lying (page 171):

. . . . Can’t we tell if a four-year-old is lying? Actually, we cannot. Accuracy levels are at 40 percent at this age, 47 percent at age five, and 43 percent at age six. Parents, you think you know what your kids get up to, but actually you don’t even have a clue with your own toddler.’

I was already wondering what hope a torturer might have with someone he barely knows.

Rejali begins his examination of this by looking first at the supposedly best trained and most effective interrogators – the police. Many police throughout the world are trained using a manual originally formulated by Inbau and Reid in the early forties: it has been updated regularly since. The evidence he quotes is not encouraging (Torture & Democracy – page 464):

‘. . . . police investigators and others with the relevant on-the-job experience perform only slightly better than chance, if at all.’

Aldert Vrij has attempted to tease out the reality of this more closely. He moved from the laboratory to the front-line.

Police detecting abilities improved (an accuracy rate of about 65% to detect truths and lies), but remained “far from perfect, and errors in truth-lie detection were frequently made.”

He couldn’t use a control group in this instance because the material was too sensitive. However, one comparative finding is disturbing (page 464-65):

. . . those police who follow the Inbau and Reid method were actually worse at detecting deception. “The more police followed their advice, the worse they were in their ability to distinguish between truth and lies.”

The evidence suggests (page 465) that ‘torturers have far less training or experience in interrogation than police . . . so the prospect that they will be better at spotting deception is not good.’ For obvious reasons publically available, controlled, fine-grained studies of torturers are hard to come by. The anecdotal evidence suggests that Rejali’s supposition is correct. In fact, they do not even seem reliably to know when they are being told the truth after someone has broken under torture, as Sheila Cassidy attests after electrotorture in Chile (ibid):

After several days, she broke down and revealed the names of the nuns and priests who had sheltered her. The devout interrogators could not believe her and continued torturing her for days afterward.

This is reminiscent of the last torture session in the film The Railwayman where we see the incredulity of the torturer confronted with a truth that has been extorted which does not fit his world view.

And so?

If this were the only complication torture had to cope with there might be some hope of resurrecting its reputation with a sceptic whose objections are pragmatic rather than principled.  There are however other equally discrediting ones to consider in the next post.

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