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Posts Tagged ‘Amy Chua’

I left the analysis of the source of evil actions with Haidt’s idea of the ‘hive switch,’ which took Zimbardo’s understanding a step further in terms of group influences.

Being part of a whole has dangers when it comes to the out-group, even when the groups have been randomly created by experimenters, such as was the case with Zimbardo, and also with others who introduced no power differential.

Labelling, Denigration, Dehumanising and Genocide

When in-groups and out-groups exist in the real world the price paid by the out-group can be even higher. For instance, certain kinds of language are particularly toxic. One example of this is the denigrating labels one group of people can use against another. Referring to others as ‘rats,’ ‘cockroaches’ or ‘a swarm’ are typical examples of this abuse. This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

This point is succinctly made by Hauser in his book Moral Minds (page 199)[10]:

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group/out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: Declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation . . . .

This same process can be seen in a slightly difference form as John Fitzgerald Medina explains in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology. He unpacks 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 in his book on altruism 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. A recent BBC radio programme featured a scholar who had investigated in depth the thinking of groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda. He pointed out that the division, made in the minds of followers of these two terrorist organisations, between believers and unbelievers (kafirs) was absolute. They are two separate kinds of being, and therefore only the believer is fully human and deserving of compassion.

Mohsin Hamid makes a telling point on this issue in a recent Guardian article. His focus is on how the idea of the purity of the in-group is used to justify discrimination and even atrocities against the out-group. He started with a discussion of Pakistan, which translated means ‘The Land of the Pure,’ but rapidly expanded the scope of his analysis:

Pakistan is not unique. Rather, it is at the forefront of a global trend. All around the world, governments and would-be governments appear overwhelmed by complexity [Could he mean perceived chaos?] and are blindly unleashing the power of fission, championing quests for the pure. In India a politics of Hindu purity is wrenching open deep and bloody fissures in a diverse society. In Myanmar a politics of Buddhist purity is massacring and expelling the Rohingya. In the United States a politics of white purity is marching in white hoods and red baseball caps, demonising Muslims and Hispanic people, killing and brutalising black people, jeering at intellectuals, and spitting in the face of climate science.

The Toxic Effects of Inequality

However, there are other setting conditions for this kind of behavior, which relate to other Teachings of the Faith in a way that illustrates the beautiful coherence and interdependence of the various aspects of the whole of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. Take economic inequality. The Faith emphasises the importance of reducing such inequity, as well as eliminating prejudice of any kind, no matter what it’s origin. This would of course be important simply to alleviate the effects of the resulting extreme poverty on the disadvantaged such as greater health problems and a shorter life. However, inequality also has implications for the issue of denigrating language and persecution.

The matter is, in truth, quite complex. Chua pursues a possibility, which links a minority’s economic dominance with a savage backlash from the deprived majority. Of course Chua is not claiming that extremes of wealth justify the extermination of the wealthy by the impoverished, nor is she arguing that such extremes are the only motive for genocide. She is, though, saying that extreme inequality is an important but previously discounted factor that has to be added into the mix. Even the conferring of power to the previously disadvantaged does not dispel its toxic consequences.

The inequality obviously needs to be eliminated, while somehow ensuring that it is not by eliminating a group of people! This seems to be far easier said than done.

Wilkinson and Pickett (I came very close then to typing Wilson Picket – not a name that will mean much to the under fifties), in their analysis of inequality in The Spirit Level, cover a huge amount of ground in a thorough and well-balanced treatment of the topic.

To compact their case into the density of a singularity, they produce evidence to substantiate their claim that inequality underlies many of the problems in society that we insist on picking off one by one: these include violence and a widespread distrust that corrodes community life.

This is in their view largely because, the greater the degree of inequality, the more stressful life becomes for everyone, rich and poor alike. Increased stress brings numerous other problems in its wake, not least in terms of health. The tensions in the pecking order that inequality brings are at the heart of the social stresses involved, and social stresses, they argue, are the most damaging forms of stress both for individual health and social cohesion.

They look at a number of possible objections to their thesis and find good reasons, in their view, for dismissing them. For example, they find evidence to suggest that the direction of causation is from inequality to the problem, not from some other variable such as an English speaking culture. Portugal, a very different culture, is at the negative end of the problem spectrum along with the U.S. and the U.K. and shares inequality as the most plausible potential explanation. Scandinavian society along with Japan, also very different, is at the positive end of the problem spectrum and shares high levels of equality along with Norway, Sweden and the rest as the most plausible potential explanation.

Our Attitude to Death

There is another perspective to add into the mix here to give a more complete picture of my thinking so far. An extreme inability to come to terms with death – and its children, trauma, pain and suffering – creates what Solomon et al call ‘cracks in [our] shields’ (The Worm at the Core – page 185 passim). This in turn, as they unpack, brings all kinds of destruction in its wake.

They do seem to rubbish religion at times, which doesn’t appeal to me, but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – they accurately capture an essential problem. They may see faith as a false fix, as in a way everything is in their eyes, but they pin down exactly one thing that needs fixing, almost above all else perhaps, and demonstrate that how we choose to fix it can lead to dire or delightful consequences.

We have ‘clumsy modes of dealing with terror,’ they quote Yalom as stating (page 190). Unless we establish a firm enough foundation of meaning and a strong enough platform of self to stand upon, death, or rather our fear of death, will always unground us, pathologise our minds – narcissism, anxiety, depression, psychosis, OCD, anorexia (and maybe psychopathy; I’ll have to ponder more on that) are according to them at least partially rooted in a failure of meaning and selfhood in the face of death.

Solomon et al insist on saying ‘self-esteem’ albeit in a healthy rather than an unhealthy sense: I wish they didn’t.

I prefer selfhood. For now I’ll shorthand it by quoting a dictionary definition: ‘a complete sense of self.’ A complete sense of self, for me, has to go far beyond anything that makes me more important than anyone or anything else, as Robert Wright powerfully explains, and has to recognise how whatever I am is connected in some way to the universe as a whole and to all forms of life within it. When I damage you or them, I damage me.

They bring various kinds of evidence into the mix, usually studies showing, for example, that exposure to death stimuli results in higher levels of intolerance for those who are ‘different’ in some way, or in greater use of alcohol or tobacco.

In their summary of ‘psychological disorders as terror mismanagement’ (page 190) the kind of evidence Solomon et al adduce includes a significant link at times between death-anxiety and psychosis (page 191):

One study of 205 hospitalised schizophrenic man found that 80 patients were overtly preoccupied with death, and that death fears coincided with the onset of the schizophrenic symptoms or with times when the symptoms were magnified.

They argue that ‘[s]ubject to bouts of overwhelming terror, schizophrenics construct imaginary worlds – which are as real to them as this book is to you – to counteract the dread.’

In spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I have to admit they are making an important point.

They argue that all of us tend to create destructive solutions to the existential problem of death. This comes in two main forms: meaning systems/world views and self-esteem.

Let’s take world views as an example of their case (page 131):

It is deeply disturbing to have one’s fundamental beliefs called into question. Take our meanings and purposes away, characterise them as juvenile, useless, or evil, and all we have left are the vulnerable physical creatures that we are. Because cultural conceptions of reality keep a lid on mortal dread, acknowledging the legitimacy of beliefs contrary to our own unleashes the very terror those beliefs serve to quell. So we must parry the threat by derogating and dehumanising those with alternative views of life

The same kind of process applies if our self-esteem, as they term it, is threatened.

Because their book is focused on proving the nature of the problem they don’t say much about the solutions. They make a strong case that death denial is ultimately destructive leading to problems ranging from mindless consumerism through mental health problems to outright fanaticism. They spend less time contending that a constructive acceptance of death and its integration into a viable pattern of life bears the fruits of a common sense of humanity and a desire for positive purpose. Destructive terror-reducing purposes can be avoided. They share my liking for the existential therapy model, but don’t go far enough beyond that for me.

I think that just about covers the main influences on my thinking, apart from Bahá’í sources, which I will come back to later. Now to return to a consideration of Peterson’s perspective in the next post.

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‘Why are you banging on about rules again when you said you were delving into spiritual poetry? After The Forty Rules of Love I was looking forward to what you had to say about Machado. What on earth made you kick off about 12 Rules for Life?’ I can hear the chorus of protest from the safety of my study. I’m not sure whether it’s my readers or my right-brain that’s making all the noise.

As I mention later I think my left-brain threw a wobbly with the help of this book I found and hijacked my plan at least for the moment.

How did it manage to pull that off?

I’m afraid that’s a bit of a long story.

I have been tracking the toxic effects of ideology ever since I left behind my socialist leanings in the mid-70s, disillusioned by the violence and lies that seemed to be an inescapable part of the territory.

The Quest

I’ve recorded my path from Catholicism to socialism and from there through atheism, agnosticism, existentialism, Buddhism to the Bahá’í Faith, in my blog sequence Leaps of Faith. It’s enough to condense all that into as brief an account as possible here.

Right from the start, I couldn’t shake off this restless seeking after an indefinable something. Because I shared Chekhov’s revulsion from violence and lies I stepped away from the radical socialism I was toying with. Even milder versions that eschewed violence, to my eyes at least seemed like everyone else seeking power, far too keen on lies. The ends always justified the meanest means. In some incoherent way I was expressing that I valued truth and compassion more than power, except I could never have put it like that at the time.

This drove me to psychology as a way of understanding human nature better and perhaps of being enabled to be of some help sometimes to some people. And that led onto Buddhism which seemed a conveniently atheistical religion with a sophisticated psychology. Choosing to investigate that at the same time as I studied psychology was a no-brainer for me. And the meditation I practised as a result was a useful stabilising influence, under the pressures of study and work, as well subliminally reshaping my take on spirituality.

In the end I had come to a point in my life where the ideals of communism -‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ – seemed to me to have been betrayed by all of its followers that had actually got into power. For example, far from rescuing the bulk of Europe from tyranny, the war against Hitler, with supreme irony, handed whole swathes of the continent over to a tyranny of an equally repellent kind.

On the other hand, Buddhism, which still seems to me a religion of great beauty, depth and power, though I never threw in my lot with it, disappointed for a different reason.

I was impressed painfully by its combination of deep spirituality and practical inefficacy in the modern world. I had been haunted since the end of the Vietnam War by a potent symbol of this: those images of Buddhist monks burning themselves to death in the streets. The most widespread effects of these supremely compassionate acts of courageous self-immolation seemed to be futile if passionate demonstrations by the well-meaning and a series of tasteless jokes of the ‘What’s little and yellow and burns with a blue flame?’ variety, which combined racism and cruelty in about equal proportions.

Without knowing it at the time I longed, from the deepest levels of my being, for a pattern of belief, a meaning system, that could combine effective social action with moral restraints strong enough to prevent that social action becoming a source of oppression.

When I found the Bahá’í Faith, which in my view offered this combination of qualities, I leapt on board.

However, it didn’t quench this thirst I had for the deepest possible understanding of why ideologies ostensibly designed for good did so much evil, and this included both religions and political systems of thought. If I could not understand this, then I could not properly understand or explain what Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was saying in His descriptions of why our civilization is breaking down and what we need to do to mend it. He speaks (Century of Lightpage 95) of ‘these great oppressions that have befallen the world.’ I did not fully understand why it is so easy for humanity to transform utopian visions into dystopian practices, so I could not quench my thirst for this continuing quest.

Since I retired in 2008 from my work as a clinical psychologist I have had more time to pursue this obsession, and have used my blog to help me keep track of the twists and turns, breakthroughs and cul-de-sacs, along the way.

In 2009 I posted this on my blog:

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. 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’ve been pegging away consistently since then, in any gaps in time.

Simply in the order I can now recall the twists and turns as I sit here at my key board, the highpoints of my quest for understanding include Erich Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (I read him first even before I became a Bahá’í and have revisited him since retirement), Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, Eric Reitan’s Is God a Delusion?, Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary, Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire and Solomon et al’s The Worm at the Core.

So, I became extremely excited when I thought I had found another writer to add to this list: Jordan Peterson.

The flood of excitement apparently swept away my right-brain’s protest against delving into all this prose again, and my left-brain won the argument with my executive self as a result. There are loud protests going on in the background, and the planks of reason are ringing to the sound of stroppy right-brain stamping at this very moment, so I won’t be able to derail the poetry plan for long.

But for now, here’s a bit more detail.

Although at first, influenced by an interview with Peterson recorded in the Guardian, I was carried away by a positive feeling that here was a perspective that would move my understanding further forward, I have to say the reading of his book, Twelve Rules for Life, has left me with a similar problem to the one in Hillman’s The Soul’s Calling. After carefully reviewing that book I concluded:

Even though, in the end, I disagree with his core thesis, I have to acknowledge the value that lies in his having raised these issues for consideration in such a clear and compelling fashion.

The Magnet

It’s easy to explain what drew me to Peterson’s books.

He explains the challenge in almost exactly the same terms as I would choose to use: ‘how did evil – particularly group-fostered evil – come to play its role in the world?’ According to the interviewer, this is linked to our meaning systems:

His first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999), is a profound but often impenetrable tome that, to quote his biographer, describes the “structure of systems of beliefs and myths, their role in the regulation of emotion, creation of meaning, and motivation for genocide”.

And it is true that Peterson’s analysis of these issues contains much that is helpful. For instance in Maps of Meaning he writes, in describing his own journey from socialist idealism to his present position:

I discovered that beliefs make the world, in a very real way – that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense. This “discovery” has not turned me into a moral relativist, however: quite the contrary. I have become convinced that the world-that-is-belief is orderly: that there are universal moral absolutes (although these are structured such that a diverse range of human opinion remains both possible and beneficial). I believe that individuals and societies who flout these absolutes – in ignorance or in willful opposition – are doomed to misery and eventual dissolution.

That his personal history maps so closely onto mine in this respect, makes it hard for me to pin down exactly where I diverge from his perspective. More of that much later.

Norman Doidge’s introduction to the 12 Rules book pinpoints the strong attraction for me of Peterson’s overall approach. He speaks of (page xiii) ‘Jordan’s concern about our human capacity for evil in the name of good, and the psychological mystery is self-deception (how can a person deceive himself and get away with it?).’ He also describes the related question of ‘the human capacity for evil for the sake of evil, the joy some people take on destroying others.’

He goes on to describe (page xiv):

Jordan’s agonised awareness, as a teenager growing up in the middle of the Cold War, that much of mankind seemed on the verge of blowing up the planet to defend their various identities. He felt he had to understand how it could be that people would sacrifice everything for an ‘identity,’ whatever that was. And he felt he had to understand the ideologies that drove totalitarian regimes to a variant of the same behavior: killing their own citizens. In Maps of Meaning, and again in this book, one of the matters he cautions readers to be most wary of is ideology, no matter who is peddling it or to what end.

This was all music to my ears, and those parts of his book that reflect this perspective work well, except for a somewhat hectoring tone.

On the matter of suffering too my ideas are closely aligned to his (xv): ‘It is because we are born human that we are guaranteed a good dose of suffering. And chances are, if you or someone you love is not suffering now, they will be within five years, unless you are freakishly lucky.’ We have to find a place from which we can respond to suffering as constructively as possible.

Much that Peterson says makes reasonable sense and goes some way towards supporting my initial impression, on the basis of what I had read about him, that his books might be worth reading. A couple of thought-provoking quotes from Twelve Rules should serve to illustrate this.

He states (page 14): ‘Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.’ His ability to coin memorable aphorisms like this is one of his stronger points: they keep my right-brain quiet for a bit as well, which is another advantage. He roots this insight in our evolutionary history and proceeds to draw on psychophysiological evidence to suggest we need to pay attention to the implications of our biological heritage (page 15):

There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thought and feelings. It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society . . .

I would have been a touch more receptive to his point if he had written ‘deep within us,’ but that’s a minor quibble for present purposes. This monitor, he goes on to explain, impacts upon our levels of serotonin, which in turn affects our mood, behaviour and self-presentation: basically the less serotonin the worse you feel about yourself. Working against the monitor will require considerable conscious effort is the core point he wants to get across. All of this is relevant to what will come up later about the effects of inequality.

Taking a simpler point next (page 103):

You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are to complex to understand yourself.

We’ve got the hectoring ‘you’ problem again, but the basic point is worth making if not especially profound.

There are many more such examples So far, so good.

Does he though move my understanding any further than previous thinkers have taken it? I’m not sure. More of that after a quick review in the next two posts of what I think I’ve learnt already.

‘I’m not going to let you run away with this for much longer,’ whinges my right-brain.

‘If only you’d just shut up, I could work faster,’ the left-brain fires back.

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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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Corvusation

Integrity

At the end of the previous post I reflected on the following quotation:

CXXXIX: . . . Beware . . . lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds. Strive that ye may be enabled to manifest to the peoples of the earth the signs of God, and to mirror forth His commandments. Let your acts be a guide unto all mankind, for the professions of most men, be they high or low, differ from their conduct. It is through your deeds that ye can distinguish yourselves from others.[1]

ACT ManualIt is important that we remain true to our deepest self. While we can correct the way that we use words, and if that is done for the right motive it will change us for the better, it is just as, if not more important to align our inner being with spiritual lines of force.

It is easy to see how certain words in that quotation lend force to what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) prescribes. ‘Strive’ embodies the idea of commitment. ‘Commandments’ suggest the idea of values, so important in ACT. And the emphasis on ‘acts’ makes the connections obvious.

In this way we may not be subject to Bahá’u’lláh’s stricture concerning those whose words outnumber their deeds, that is if, and only if, our words, our deeds and our inner being – note that word ‘mirror’ again – are all of a piece and in tune with the spirit of the Faith.

This creates inner and outer unity such as Bahá’u’lláh described in the Hidden Words:

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. 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. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.[2]

And in His Tablets He laments the lack of this unity:

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.[3]

And, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá further explains, there is only one truly effective way out of this impasse:

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.[4]

My very battered copy of this classic.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Eric Fromm, a psychoanalyst, explains how this makes sense even in more materialistic terms[5]:

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.’

When we dismantle the barriers within us, often mediated by language, we can also become better able to dismantle those between us.

Of course we must refrain from lying, criticism and backbiting. Of course we must strive to practise true consultation. But we must not observe these verbal obligations divorced from basic processes of spiritualisation such as those the Universal House of Justice draws our attention to as Bahá’ís (though these are written for Bahá’ís you could apply them to any benign spiritual path):

  1. The recital each day of one of the Obligatory Prayers with pure-hearted devotion.
  2. The regular reading of the Sacred Scriptures, specifically at least each morning and evening, with reverence, attention and thought.
  3. Prayerful meditation on the Teachings, so that we may understand them more deeply, fulfil them more faithfully, and convey them more accurately to others.
  4. Striving every day to bring our behaviour more into accordance with the high standards that are set forth in the Teachings.
  5. Teaching the Cause of God.
  6. Selfless service in the work of the Cause and in the carrying on of our trade or profession.[6]

to which have now been added the sacred right and responsibility of Huqúqu’lláh, enabling us to enhance our use of material resources, and the daily recitation of Alláh-u-Abhá 95 times[7], a form of meditative discipline. It is important to note that it is not just what we do but how we do it that is of paramount importance: when we pray, it should ideally be with ‘pure-hearted devotion,’ when we reading Scripture it needs to be with ‘reverence, attention and thought,’ and meditation on the Teachings has to be ‘prayerful.’ Not an easy ask.

If we are sincerely treading this path to the best of our ability, then perhaps our words can exercise the influence described by Bahá’u’lláh when he writes:

No man of wisdom can demonstrate his knowledge save by means of words. This showeth the significance of the Word as is affirmed in all the Scriptures, whether of former times or more recently. For it is through its potency and animating spirit that the people of the world have attained so eminent a position. Moreover words and utterances should be both impressive and penetrating. However, no word will be infused with these two qualities unless it be uttered wholly for the sake of God and with due regard unto the exigencies of the occasion and the people.

The Great Being saith: Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets.[8]

This spells out that the power of such words derives from the Word of God and that its efficacy depends upon the purity of our inner lives. We also have to be sensitive to what psychologists have called the pragmatics of communication, i.e. the need to tune what we say to the receptivity of the listener.

Within that framework we also need to be aware that not all words are equally benign:

Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible. The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility. . . . . It behoveth a prudent man of wisdom to speak with utmost leniency and forbearance so that the sweetness of his words may induce everyone to attain that which befitteth man’s station.[9]

It is therefore impossible, according to my understanding, to separate words from enacted values. If we do, words then become barriers to insight and wisdom.

Hauser bookThe Bigger Picture

Obviously the ground this sequence of posts covers constitutes a minute fraction of the terrain mapped out in the Bahá’í Writings. All of this has to be placed in that wider context.

For instance, certain kinds of language are particularly toxic. One example of this are the denigrating labels one group of people can use against another. Referring to others as ‘rats,’ ‘cockroaches’ or ‘a swarm’ are typical examples of this abuse. This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

This point is succinctly made by Hauser in his book Moral Minds (page 199)[10]:

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group/out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: Declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation . . . .

However, there are other setting conditions for this kind of behaviour which relate to other Teachings of the Faith in a way that illustrates the beautiful coherence and interdependence of the various aspects of the whole of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. Take economic inequality. The Faith emphasises the importance of reducing such inequity. This would of course be important simply to alleviate the effects of the resulting extreme poverty on the disadvantaged such as greater health problems and a shorter life. However, inequality also has implications for the issue of denigrating language and persecution.

Chua bookChua pursues a complex argument which links a minority’s economic dominance with a savage backlash from the deprived majority[11]. Of course Chua is not claiming that extremes of wealth justify the extermination of the wealthy by the impoverished, nor is she arguing that such extremes are the only motive for genocide. She is, though, saying that extreme inequality is an important but previously discounted factor that has to be added into the mix. The inequality is what needs to be eliminated not the people!

So, indeed we do need vigorously to pursue our spiritual development, both as individuals and communities: this is done by turning away from words as veils and using values as our compass. This redeems words and makes them a force for good.

But that in itself is probably not enough. It important also not to lose sight of the wider picture.

We need to hold in mind a vision of the completely different kind of civilisation towards which we are all aspiring, one based on humanity’s essential unity, the supreme value that co-ordinates all our other values. We need to see how all its aspects, individual, community, institutional, systemic, local and global, are linked together. The state of the world as a whole will either inhibit or enhance the impact of our efforts just as much as our efforts will either help or harm the world. Our efforts are aimed at the ultimate transformation of the world, though as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:

. . . peace must first be established among individuals until it leadeth to peace among nations.[12]

It is imperative though that we continue to strive to bring both our speech, our actions and our inner beings into line with the spirit of the age as expressed by Bahá’u’lláh so that we may avoid contention and achieve the level of unity required for the problems of the world to be resolved [although His words may sometimes seem to be addressed mainly to Bahá’ís they are to be taken to heart by everyone]: in this way we will complete the process of shifting words from truth-concealing veils to world-transforming values.

The worldwide undertakings on which the Cause of God is embarked are far too significant, the need of the peoples of the world for the Message of Bahá’u’lláh far too urgent, the perils facing mankind far too grave, the progress of events far too swift, to permit His followers to squander their time and efforts in fruitless contention. Now, if ever, is the time for love among the friends, for unity of understanding and endeavour, for self-sacrifice and service by Bahá’ís in every part of the world[13]

[Oh, and by the way, in relation to the problem I described right at the beginning of this sequence, the question to ask one of the guards is: ‘If I asked the other guard which door leads to freedom, what door would he point to?’]

Footnotes:

[1] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.
[2] (Bahá’u’lláhArabic Hidden Words No. 68)
[3] Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, pages 163–64.
[4] Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76.
[5] Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – page 260.
[6] Messages from the Universal House of Justice: 1963-1968 (BPT: US): page 588.
[7] The former became obligatory as of Ridván 1992 (Universal House of Justice Ridván Message 1991) and the latter in December 1999 (Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World: 28 December 1999).
[8] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh page 173.
[9] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh pages 172-173
[10] Published by Little, Brown 2006. These issues, and other related ones are also extensively and illuminatingly discussed by Phillip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect (Rider: 2007 – pages 308-311).
[11] Amy Chua World on Fire (Heinemann: 2003) pages 111-112.
[12] SWAB: page 246.
[13] Universal House of Justice 1994 – letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the USA concerning Rights and Freedoms, Paragraph 19. This is downloadable from http://bahai-library.com/published.uhj/irf.html.

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The Cudgel Fight (for source of image see link)

Goya’s ‘The Cudgel Fight’ (for source of image see link)

I was recently set thinking about some key issues of concern to me. I am still in the process of refining my thoughts as subsequent posts will hopefully testify but I felt that drafting an interim report, even though still slightly confused, would help move my thinking forwards.

Are we locked in a fight to the death?

Amy Chua’s book, World on Fire, remains evidence for me about one of the sources of violence within society.

There were two threads to her argument: one was capitalism, and the West’s over-eagerness to export it, as well as democracy, and the problems which arise from forcing the pace of its implementation. 
Capitalism alone, some suggest, can make possible the rising standards of living that will in themselves reduce violence. Unfortunately, almost all statements which include ‘always,’ ‘never,’ ‘only’ and the like are automatically suspect. Amy Chua’s book strongly suggests that fast tracking a sawn-off version of capitalism in any country, especially when this is combined with a fledgling democracy which allows a previously oppressed minority to gain power, is a blueprint for disaster. The Phillipines, the country of her birth, spurred her to research this phenomenon more widely. She pins down the core of her concern early in her book (page 14):

It is striking to note that at no point in history did any Western nation ever implement laissez-faire capitalism and overnight universal suffrage at the same time – the precise formula of free-market democracy currently being pressed on developing countries around the world.

Beyond the Culture of Contest

In the West capitalism and democracy in their present forms both evolved slowly over long periods of time. They cannot be parachuted from outside into an unprepared culture.

I have been influenced greatly by Michael Karlberg’s book – Beyond the Culture of Contest – which raises serious questions about a society like ours that is founded historically on:

  1. competition in politics, when the urgent and critical need now is to achieve consensus across all divisions of opinion in certain areas;
  2. adversarialism in the court room, where truth is less important than winning; and
  3. hyper-competition in the market place, where the need for profit and the desire to consume find their perfectly destructive match.

He does not argue that these can be replaced overnight, even though the need to do so is becoming increasingly urgent.

Which brings me onto the third point.

While I am sympathetic to those who argue that these problems are neither new nor necessarily worse,  and even to those rational optimists who believe that the statistics prove that most of us have never been safer or healthier, I am attracted by the credibility of Jeremy Rifkin’s case, to give just one example, in his book, The Empathic Civilisation – where he argues that our strong empathic tendency has enabled us to build ever larger civilisations and the current version is globally interconnected. He writes (page 44):

The tragic flaw of history is that our increased empathic concern and sensitivity grows in direct proportion to the wreaking of greater entropic damage to the world we all cohabit and rely on for our existence and perpetuation.

In short, in history our separate civilisations have all too often got too big to sustain themselves and thereafter collapsed. In the past, that has been tragic but not catastrophic, in that there have always been other parts of the world totally unaffected by the crash. Not so now, possibly, when we have a virtually single civilisation planet-wide. If one part goes down we probably all do. I will be returning to his thesis in more detail in a later sequence of posts.

In that respect, as well perhaps as in others, our situation is therefore not exactly the same as it has always been, and our degree of interconnectedness potentiates the impact of destructive processes in a way that lifts them to a higher level, a difference of degree only perhaps, or possibly renders them of a different quality, i.e. different in kind.

ATOE bookKen Wilber’s book, A Theory of Everything, which I will be reviewing in the next sequence of posts, points to another key factor i.e. the access those with narrow and hostile views now have to destructive high level technology. This is a fear that Jeremy Rifkin also shares in his panoramic survey The Empathic Civilisation to which I shall also be returning (page 487):

Weapons of mass destruction, once the preserve of elites, are becoming more democratised with each passing day. A growing number of security experts believe that it is no longer even possible to keep weapons of mass destruction locked up and out of the hands of rogue governments, terrorist groups, or just deranged individuals.

Nor are these the only perspectives on our tendency to violence and how to remedy it. Being 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. Following on from the possibly flawed but none the less illuminating Milgram studies of obedience, Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘).

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.

Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle, and he emphasises the power of labelling and disgust to remove inhibitions against genocide. I don’t think his argument here has been undermined by evidence that his own moral life in an unrelated aspect was not entirely exemplary. He explains (page 199):

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group-out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation, from Auschwitz to Abu Ghraib.

I don’t think any of us, expert or otherwise, can claim to have a clear, complete and valid picture yet. In my view, though a layman in terms of my mastery of the complex evidence involved, it seems that we can either learn to sink our differences to a degree that will transform our culture, or else stick with our current patterns and sink without trace under our differences.

Robert WrightIs Capitalism really the answer?

There is clearly quite a lot depending upon which model of the way the world works the majority of humanity accepts – one model which accepts the inevitability of competition, the other which holds out hope for the probability of co-operation.

Evolutionary theory, when it has taken a psychological turn recently, accepts that humanity has a dual potential in that respect and, according to Michael McCullough, we can move beyond revenge towards forgiveness and cooperation, just as Robert Wright can legitimately argue that, throughout human history, we have proved ourselves capable of widening our sense of identity beyond the family or tribe to include ever more disparate and distant groups of people.

Economic theory is not my specialism. I do have a view though about its overall validity. For me, the problem with economics, as with any other social science such as psychology, my own discipline, is that it only goes as far as to provide a lens of our own, albeit systematic creation through which to observe and understand ourselves – a very tricky process whose conclusions have to be approached with extreme caution.

For example, what a convinced capitalist says reads well within its own assumptions, as does what I write to me of course. What he describes may apply if we accept the same premises and assumptions especially concerning human nature and the consequent social dynamics. For instance, one might argue that nothing does more to reduce violence and many other social ills than the rising standards of living that capitalism alone makes possible.

While I accept that capitalism has brought many benefits, as has liberal democracy, it seems to me that such optimism is missing a crucial point. It is not ‘rising standards of living’ that are necessarily the main issue but the rising inequality which unrestricted capitalism seems inevitably to produce, with all the socially destructive consequences this brings in its wake. Hardly a rationally desirable outcome, it seems to me, and certainly not a morally desirable one. I have already posted a review of The Spirit Level so I won’t rehearse those points again here.

Also, as John Fitgerald Medina pointed out in his book, Faith, Physics and Psychology (page 238):

 Economic theory does not allow economists to make distinctions between renewable resources and non-renewable resources.

In a 2012 BBC4 documentary – Surviving Progress – David Suzuki indicated that this defect is at the core of economics, which he describes not as a ‘science’ but as ‘a set of values.’ He contemptuously refers to its dismissive description of natural resources as ‘externalities’ as ‘a form of brain damage.’ The sense of urgency in this recent programme suggests that any remedy to the current model of economics, so kind to short-term profits, has some way to go before it gains widespread and effective acceptance. It is not clear whether we have that much time before disaster strikes.

There is a need to dig a bit deeper though, and I plan to do so in the follow up post next week.

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Dodge Hill, Stockport

I felt it would be appropriate to follow up the two posts on the power of tears with some of my earlier posts that fill in more of my childhood influences that might have a bearing on the topic. Today’s post was first published in 2010: the poem I’m republishing on Thursday describes a typical encounter at the house of the aunt described below. Saturday’s post will go into more detail about my uncle’s background amongst other things.

I had to make a trip up north to my home town of Stockport the week before last. Before going I had sorted out the locations of some early memories to revisit and was more than a little shaken to discover that even when a location had been spared from the developers and was exactly as it must have been when last I visited, it was radically different from what I remembered.

For instance, I used to visit my aunt in Love Lane (ironic she lived there, given that her life was tragically loveless) in Heaton Norris near the Recreation Ground (not that there was much recreation in her life either – she had had to abandon Art School when her parents fell ill and never went back: the walls of her house were laden with heavily framed ‘still lifes‘ whose varnish grew ever darker with the years). I remember the cobbled hill I used to climb with my dad as a wide straight interminable wasteland that left my dad breathless at the top and me feeling it would never end.

What did I see? Dodge Hill is narrow and windy (as in twisting not breezy!) and seemed relatively short to my adult eye — unevenly cobbled, it is true, but not the broad and almost endless highway I remember. The memory is so clear, so vivid and so often revisited that I would find it hard to replace it with reality even if I wanted to. As for my aunt’s house, though, only half of Love Lane remained, and predictably it was not the half she used to live in.

Revisiting my uncle’s house in Avon Street was a similar experience. The eye of my childhood must have had a Dickensian tendency. I remember the house as dark and tiny with a dirty claustrophobic yard at the back. Admittedly the house I saw was small but not oppressively so though it’s true the yard was only a few feet square.

I think in each case, though, emotion had coloured the portrait in my mind’s eye with the sepia of loneliness, the predominating tint in both their lives.

My auntie Ettie, my father’s sister, as the only unmarried daughter, had broken off her engagement and given up Art College to take care of her parents when they both fell sick. Theirs was a long decline into the grave and she never married. My dread of the encounter with the ache of that house in her Loveless Lane had clearly stained with its dark and forbidding colours the climb up what is quite a pleasant hill.

My uncle Frank, my mother’s brother, developed a tumour on his brain, I was told, some time after his return from fighting in the First World War. His wife left him, taking their children with her, and he moved back into his parents’ house in Avon Street. They died before I was born and he was alone there when I used to visit him.

The surgeons had removed the tumour and replaced the bone in his temple, through which they had gained entry to his brain, with a plastic flap that was slowly wearing thin. Apparently, once it wore out his life would end, or at least that’s what I believed. Shaving in the mirror every morning, he would have seen his remaining days measured out in the hollowing of the plastic which protected his brain and which I could hardly take my eyes off when I sat and talked with him. His house seemed to shrink around us just as the flap I watched seemed to be shrinking towards his brain.

The passage behind Uncle Frank's

The passage behind what was Uncle Frank’s house: his garden wall is on the right

If I needed a graphic reminder of how emotion can shape memory and, as in both these cases, perception itself, there could hardly be a better one than this. What we experience is a fusion of sense and feeling. What is particularly intriguing in the case of these two memories is that the feelings that coloured my perceptions originated at least in part (and I believe in considerable part) from the hearts of the other people I was visiting. I have had other experiences as an adult of how someone else’s state of feeling replicates itself in me. Loneliness, for some reason, has always communicated itself particularly strongly to me. Interestingly it can cause people to behave in ways that drive others further away thus making the problem worse, so much so that the following report stated:

. . . a large-scale study . . . found lonely people tend to transmit their sad feelings to those around them, which eventually led to them being isolated from society. “We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely,” said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, a leading U.S. expert on loneliness.

Cacioppo’s findings were published in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Whether the foundations for such transmission of emotion in general lie in the mirror neurons currently being studied by neurologists, or in the electromagnetic influences
that have been shown to cause one person’s heart to affect another’s, or from some other causes such as the behavioural ones Cacioppo adduces, I don’t feel competent to decide given the present stage of research: it seems probable that it is a combination of all these factors. All I know is it happens to many of us and it happens often. It is one of the roots of the empathy that it is so necessary for humanity to develop to its fullest extent if we are to eliminate cruelty and prejudice.

Empathy, of course, is not straightforward in its effects. The torturer, devoid of compassion, uses empathy to sense how best to inflict pain and create fear. James Fallon in his book The Psychopath Inside makes a helpful distinction in this respect (page 148):

. . . people with psychopathy, narcissism, and certain affective types of schizophrenia will have cognitive empathy but lack emotional empathy.

My own empathy in the situations I described was somewhat less toxic. It led me, rather as the research suggested would be the case, to feel like avoiding both these sad and lonely people rather than going to see them. Only my father’s insistence and company in the case of my aunt, and my mother’s requests in the case of my uncle, kept me turning up more or less every week to my aunt’s and rather less often to my uncle’s.

I later came to feel that extreme need can, and often does, elicit two intensely contradictory feelings: a powerful urge to help as we feel an echo of the other person’s suffering in our own hearts almost as though it were our own, and a strong desire to run away and hide because the feeling hurts so much and its cause seems far beyond our ability to deal with. We see this ambivalence played out time after time, in small ways when someone crosses the road to avoid a recently widowed wife and on a larger scale when too many of us switch channels to avoid experiencing the most recent images of multiple deaths from earthquake, flood or fire.

How much these experiences influenced my choice of profession as clinical psychologist is hard to define, but I suspect it did so strongly. Sometimes at least, it seems, I chose not to flee.

So, my experience of the demolition that had taken place in Memory Lane has led me unexpectedly to an important but rather uncomfortable place – a far less demanding version of the place to which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had directed Lua Getsinger.

Lua Getsinger

Howard Colby Ives describes what happened to her in his moving account of his encounters with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Portals to Freedom (pages 84-85):

As I write there is brought to memory a story told by Lua Getsinger . . . . . In the very early days of the knowledge of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh in America Mrs. Getsinger was in Akka having made the pilgrimage to the prison city to see the Master. She was with Him one day when he said to her, that He was too busy today to call upon a friend of His who was very ill and poor and He wished her to go in His  place. “Take him food and care for him as I have been doing,” he concluded. He told her where this man was to be found and she went gladly, proud that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá  should trust her with this mission.

She returned quickly. “Master,” she exclaimed, “surely you cannot realize to what a terrible place you sent me. I almost fainted from the awful stench, the filthy rooms, the degrading condition of that man and his house. I fled lest I contract some terrible disease.”

Sadly and sternly ‘Abdu’l-Bahá regarded her. “Dost thou desire to serve God,” He said, “serve thy fellow man for in him dost thou see the image and likeness of God.” He told her to go back to this man’s house. If it is filthy she should clean it; if this brother of yours is dirty, bathe  him; if he is hungry, feed him. Do not return until this is done. Many times had He done this for him and cannot  she serve him once?

This story also highlights the work of another factor, this time one that can completely thwart the development of empathy and compassion if we are not careful. This factor is disgust, something that Hauser deals with in his book Moral Minds (see Quotes).

While disgust is useful in protecting us from all sorts of contamination and infection, it also paves the way for such social evils as the leper‘s bell and the Hutus labelling of Tutsi’s as cockroaches during the genocide in Rwanda (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for a brilliant analysis of the full context). This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

We all need to learn as much as we can to enable us to choose help and support rather than flight or rejection more often.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

My trip up the much altered cobbled road of my sepia-tinted memory, on subsequent reflection strongly suggests I might still have a long way to go before I get anywhere near the top of the hill in question, though sometimes I feel even more breathless than my father was. Love Lane in its fullest sense may still be eluding me almost as much now as it seemed to do in my childhood. Hills are like that, revealing apparent summit after apparent summit as you strive to climb to the very top. Not a reason to stop climbing though.

I think I’d better stop writing now (is it a form of flight?) and keep climbing.

Or should that be keep writing, as a way of confronting the issues, and keep climbing?

If I ever come to a firm conclusion on that one I’ll be sure to let you know.

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Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra

For someone like me, who is trying to grasp as fully as possible all the implications of the distinction made by the Bahá’í World Centre between the West as it sees itself (‘developed’) and the West as it really is (merely industrialised), a recent Guardian article by  provided much food for thought. The Bahá’í document reads (page 5):

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialized. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance — in the final analysis, the very patterns of life — prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

Mishra has much to say that probes these issues and their origins quite deeply. In some ways it took me back to Amy Chua‘s excellent book, World on Fire and also links with John Ehrenfeld’s insightful co-authored bookFlourishingHis analysis covers somewhat different areas than theirs though, especially in terms of the complex history of these problems.  Below is the first section and a bit: for the detailed exposition of his thought as a whole see link.

The Western Model is Broken

“So far, the 21st century has been a rotten one for the western model,” according to a new book, The Fourth Revolution, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. This seems an extraordinary admission from two editors of the Economist, the flag-bearer of English liberalism, which has long insisted that the non-west could only achieve prosperity and stability through western prescriptions. It almost obscures the fact that the 20th century was blighted by the same pathologies that today make the western model seem unworkable, and render its fervent advocates a bit lost. The most violent century in human history, it was hardly the best advertisement for the “bland fanatics of western civilisation”, as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called them at the height of the cold war, “who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence”.

Niebuhr was critiquing a fundamentalist creed that has coloured our view of the world for more than a century: that western institutions of the nation-state and liberal democracy will be gradually generalised around the world, and that the aspiring middle classes created by industrial capitalism will bring about accountable, representative and stable governments – that every society, in short, is destined to evolve just as the west did. Critics of this teleological view, which defines “progress” exclusively as development along western lines, have long perceived its absolutist nature. Secular liberalism, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen cautioned as early as 1862, “is the final religion, though its church is not of the other world but of this”. But it has had many presumptive popes and encyclicals: from the 19th-century dream of a westernised world long championed by the Economist, in which capital, goods, jobs and people freely circulate, to Henry Luce’s proclamation of an “American century” of free trade, and “modernisation theory” – the attempt by American cold warriors to seduce the postcolonial world away from communist-style revolution and into the gradualist alternative of consumer capitalism and democracy.

The collapse of communist regimes in 1989 further emboldened Niebuhr’s bland fanatics. The old Marxist teleology was retrofitted rather than discarded in Francis Fukuyama’s influential end-of-history thesis, and cruder theories about the inevitable march to worldwide prosperity and stability were vended by such Panglosses of globalisation as Thomas Friedman. Arguing that people privileged enough to consume McDonald’s burgers don’t go to war with each other, the New York Times columnist was not alone in mixing old-fangled Eurocentrism with American can-doism, a doctrine that grew from America’s uninterrupted good fortune and unchallenged power in the century before September 2001.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 briefly disrupted celebrations of a world globalised by capital and consumption. But the shock to naive minds only further entrenched in them the intellectual habits of the cold war – thinking through binary oppositions of “free” and “unfree” worlds – and redoubled an old delusion: liberal democracy, conceived by modernisation theorists as the inevitable preference of the beneficiaries of capitalism, could now be implanted by force in recalcitrant societies. Invocations of a new “long struggle” against “Islamofascism” aroused many superannuated cold warriors who missed the ideological certainties of battling communism. Intellectual narcissism survived, and was often deepened by, the realisation that economic power had begun to shift from the west. The Chinese, who had “got capitalism”, were, after all, now “downloading western apps”, according to Niall Ferguson. As late as 2008, Fareed Zakaria declared in his much-cited book, The Post-American World, that “the rise of the rest is a consequence of American ideas and actions” and that “the world is going America’s way”, with countries “becoming more open, market-friendly and democratic”.

A world in flames

One event after another in recent months has cruelly exposed such facile narratives. China, though market-friendly, looks further from democracy than before. The experiment with free-market capitalism in Russia has entrenched a kleptocratic regime with a messianic belief in Russian supremacism. Authoritarian leaders, anti-democratic backlashes and rightwing extremism define the politics of even such ostensibly democratic countries as India, Israel, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Turkey.

The atrocities of this summer in particular have plunged political and media elites in the west into stunned bewilderment and some truly desperate cliches. The extraordinary hegemonic power of their ideas had helped them escape radical examination when the world could still be presented as going America’s way. But their preferred image of the west – the idealised one in which they sought to remake the rest of the world – has been consistently challenged by many critics, left or right, in the west as well as the east.

An empty billboard site in São Paolo, Brazil. Billboard advertising has been banned there since 2007. Photograph: Tony de Marco

An empty billboard site in São Paolo, Brazil. Billboard advertising has been banned there since 2007. Photograph: Tony de Marco

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