Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

In yesterday’s Guardian an article by Ai Weiwei resonated strongly with the basic principle of the oneness of humanity that is at the core of the Bahá’í Faith. Below is a short extract: for the full article, see link.

At this moment, the west – which has disproportionately benefited from globalisation – simply refuses to bear its responsibilities, even though the condition of many refugees is a direct result of the greed inherent in a global capitalist system. If we map the 70-plus border walls and fences built between nations in the past three decades – increasing from roughly a dozen after the fall of the Berlin Wall – we can see the extent of global economic and political disparities. The people most negatively affected by these walls are the poorest and most desperate of society.
. . . Can physical borders stop refugees? Instead of building walls, we should look at what is causing people to become refugees and work to solve those conditions to stem the flow at its source. To do so will require the most powerful nations in the world to adjust how they are actively shaping the world, how they are using political and economic ideology – enforced by overwhelming military power – to disrupt entire societies.
. . . Establishing the understanding that we all belong to one humanity is the most essential step for how we might continue to coexist on this sphere we call Earth. I know what it feels like to be a refugee and to experience the dehumanisation that comes with displacement from home and country. There are many borders to dismantle, but the most important are the ones within our own hearts and minds – these are the borders that are dividing humanity from itself.

Read Full Post »

Given that it still seems as though we have a long way to go on this issue is seems worthwhile republishing this post from five years ago as well as another related one tomorrow.

‘The Gift of Integrity,’ in Freeman’s book Gifted Lives, looks at a sad and disappointing life trajectory.

Alison was someone transplanted from an ordinary background to the class conscious intellectually top-heavy culture of Oxford (page 146-147):

Those from state schools who made it to the dreaming spires of Oxford were often deeply shocked to find their faces – and accents – did not fit. Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities still take about half their undergraduates from the tiny seven per cent of private schools, and only about 10 per cent of undergraduates there could be called working class, so the social dominance is of the privately educated. . . .

These powerful social effects were to devastate the life of Alison Cranfield. She was an outstandingly brilliant girl whose school, without much consideration as to whether it was the right place for her, had pushed her to Oxbridge for the pride of her school. This meant a big leap across the social-cultural divide and it proved too wide for her. She had slipped, fallen badly and suffered deep long-term emotional damage. Even to think of it, many years after the debacle, brought tears to her eyes.

William Golding‘s life story gives further insight into the impact of this kind of chasm between classes. In his daughter’s memoire, The Children of Lovers, she checks for herself what her father’s record at Oxford contained about him (page 69-70):

The University Appointments Committee – an early form of careers service – had carefully noted on their index card their considered  judgement of my father as ‘not quite a gent.’ The jaunty, Wodehousean tone doesn’t mean it’s a joke, and it’s certainly not a compliment. The judgement was precise and professionally significant.

She found similar statements elsewhere (page 70):

On a letter card, from his DipEd studies in 1937-8, they describe him as ‘a decent, sincere man,’ and they mention his book of poems published by MacMillan in 1934 –  a considerable feat for a grammar-school boy of twenty-three. But in the coded initials of his entry (interpreted for me once more by the scrupulous university archivist), he was N.T.S. Not Top Shelf.

Her conclusions were (ibid.):

Oxford in the 1930s was still a place of outrageous privilege, of rigid and effective class divisions, which both subtly and unsubtly apportioned opportunity by rank, and permanently shaped people’s careers and lives, so reinforcing privilege for the next generation.

She sheds further light on how exactly this process works in practice (page 70-71) and can pass down the generations:

One might say that the University Appointments Board had to safeguard the currency of its recommendations, given the expectations of future employers. After all, otherwise someone like my father, on the basis of his many good qualities, might have ended up quite unsuitably in charge of some top-shelf children. But the board makes sure this will not happen. It carefully notes that he is ‘fit only for day schools.’ So he sent his daughter to a place he hoped would fix that.

It’s perhaps worth noting that the visitor in RAF uniform who ended up outside my bedsit looking for an English Teacher, as described in an earlier post, was there as a result of the workings of the ‘old boys’ network. He had got his degree at Clare College many years earlier and had used his contacts to discover there was a more recent graduate in his area who might need a job. It was only a day school after all, but even so, after the kinds of interactions we had which I described earlier, he may have come to regret his decision and seen me as coming from too far below the top shelf altogether. And, to be truthful, I had never felt at home in the world of venison and bump suppers into which, willing but naive, I had agreed to be thrown on the back of my A level results and at the behest of my Headmaster. A more telling disadvantage though was probably my difficulty in adapting, after grammar school spoon-feeding, to the need for a more self-directed style of study.

All this highlights the full significance of the point that Michele Obama was trying to make in hosting the gathering of school girls from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson at an Oxford college.

Michelle Obama takes school pupils to Oxford University to encourage them to aim high. But only just over 1 per cent of Oxford’s undergraduates are of black British origin, Channel 4 News learns.

The First Lady first visited the all-girl Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (EGA) School in north London in 2009 (pictured), and has kept in touch with the school since.

Now, as part of her trip to the UK with the President, she visited Oxford University with around 35 of the school’s pupils. In 2009, Mrs Obama encouraged the pupils to “be the best that you can be”, and the trip to the university is expected to encourage the students – the majority of whom are from ethnic minority backgrounds – to think about studying for a degree.

The trip was designed as a day-long “immersion experience” at Oxford, including campus tours and mentoring sessions. The First Lady, who has a modest family background but attended Princeton and Harvard, also answered questions from the students, after telling them she was “thrilled to be back”.

She said: “I remember back at a young age trying to decide what schools to apply to and how well-meaning but misguided people questioned whether someone with my background could succeed at an elite university. When I was accepted I had all kinds of worries and doubts, I wouldn’t be as well prepared as students from privileged families and I wouldn’t fit in.

“But after a few months away from home I realised I was just as capable and I had just as much to offer [as] any of my classmates. We passionately believe that you have the talent within you, you have the drive, the experience to succeed at Oxford and universities just like it across the country and the world.”

This kind of self-belief is hugely important. However, Gifted Lives clearly indicates, and not just from one person’s experience, that even talent cannot protect you completely from the toxic effects of inequality. This has echoes of the description of the depressing effects of inequality explored across a number of dimensions in The Spirit Level. The Baha’i Faith has much to say on this issue (see link for the summary article by Bryan Graham from which the following quotations are taken).

. . . .  there are many examples of exploitation in the world; whether it is a senior executive exploiting corporate shareholders or a local landowner exploiting peasants. To refer to the passage quoted above: “When we see poverty allowed to reach a condition of starvation it is a sure sign that somewhere we shall find tyranny.”

He expands on this a little later in his summary:

Dahl interprets the modifying principle of poverty as tyranny as implying that “every human being has the right to a reasonable level of personal welfare,” a belief echoed by Sabetan and Fish in their call for the meeting of basic needs. Mohtadi emphasizes that the Bahá’í teachings on volunteer giving, progressive taxation, huqúqu’lláh, and zakát would all operate in such a way as to eliminate extremes of wealth in society. Huddleston highlights similar teachings and identifies the elimination of extreme differences in per capita wealth as one “of the main economic functions of the world government.” The Bahá’í system, therefore, combines voluntary and mandatory means for the elimination of the extremes of wealth, operating within a framework where wages are conceived as just rewards. The Bahá’í world would be more equal but not absolutely equal.

This suggests that, even though such initiatives as Michele Obama’s are praiseworthy and valuable, they are by no means a complete answer. She would be the first to agree with that, I’m sure. What is required is for all of us to put our best energies into reshaping of society. Each of us has to find a path of action by which to do that in a concerted way with other people. We can’t do it alone. This blog is attempting to look at as many possibilities of this kind as will fit into its compass. We each must decide what we are going to do. Not an easy task!

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

I’m a bit late flagging this up after a friend on FB alerted me to it, but it’s so intriguing that I thought it still worth posting a link. It seems my instinct that being too rich isn’t good for you is supported by some hard evidence, even though there are honourable exceptions among the billionaire class  It also adds a new dimension to the problems of inequality, an issue I’ve blogged about before.  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

What is clear about rich people and their moneyand becoming ever cleareris how it changes them. A body of quirky but persuasive research has sought to understand the effects of wealth and privilege on human behaviorand any future book about the nature of billionaires would do well to consult it. One especially fertile source is the University of California, Berkeley, psychology department lab overseen by a professor named Dacher Keltner. In one study, Keltner and his colleague Paul Piff installed note-takers and cameras at city street intersections with four-way stop signs. The people driving expensive cars were four times more likely to cut in front of other drivers than drivers of cheap cars. The researchers then followed the drivers to the city’s cross walks and positioned themselves as pedestrians, waiting to cross the street. The drivers in the cheap cars all respected the pedestrians’ right of way. The drivers in the expensive cars ignored the pedestrians 46.2 percent of the timea finding that was replicated in spirit by another team of researchers in Manhattan, who found drivers of expensive cars were far more likely to double park. In yet another study, the Berkeley researchers invited a cross section of the population into their lab and marched them through a series of tasks. Upon leaving the laboratory testing room the subjects passed a big jar of candy. The richer the person, the more likely he was to reach in and take candy from the jarand ignore the big sign on the jar that said the candy was for the children who passed through the department.

Maybe my favorite study done by the Berkeley team rigged a game with cash prizes in favor of one of the players, and then showed how that person, as he grows richer, becomes more likely to cheat. In his forthcoming book on power, Keltner contemplates his findings:

If I have $100,000 in my bank account, winning $50 alters my personal wealth in trivial fashion. It just isn’t that big of a deal. If I have $84 in my bank account, winning $50 not only changes my personal wealth significantly, it matters in terms of the quality of my lifethe extra $50 changes what bill I might be able to pay, what I might put in my refrigerator at the end of the month, the kind of date I would go out on, or whether or not I could buy a beer for a friend. The value of winning $50 is greater for the poor, and, by implication, the incentive for lying in our study greater. Yet it was our wealthy participants who were far more likely to lie for the chance of winning fifty bucks.

There is plenty more like this to be found, if you look for it. A team of researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed 43,000 Americans and found that, by some wide margin, the rich were more likely to shoplift than the poor. Another study, by a coalition of nonprofits called the Independent Sector, revealed that people with incomes below twenty-five grand give away, on average, 4.2 percent of their income, while those earning more than 150 grand a year give away only 2.7 percent. A UCLA neuroscientist named Keely Muscatell has published an interesting paper showing that wealth quiets the nerves in the brain associated with empathy: if you show rich people and poor people pictures of kids with cancer, the poor people’s brains exhibit a great deal more activity than the rich people’s. (An inability to empathize with others has just got to be a disadvantage for any rich person seeking political office, at least outside of New York City.) “As you move up the class ladder,” says Keltner, “you are more likely to violate the rules of the road, to lie, to cheat, to take candy from kids, to shoplift, and to be tightfisted in giving to others. Straightforward economic analyses have trouble making sense of this pattern of results.”

There is an obvious chicken-and-egg question to ask here. But it is beginning to seem that the problem isn’t that the kind of people who wind up on the pleasant side of inequality suffer from some moral disability that gives them a market edge. The problem is caused by the inequality itself: it triggers a chemical reaction in the privileged few. It tilts their brains. It causes them to be less likely to care about anyone but themselves or to experience the moral sentiments needed to be a decent citizen.

 

Read Full Post »

‘The Gift of Integrity,’ in Freeman’s book Gifted Lives, looks at a sad and disappointing life trajectory.

Alison was someone transplanted from an ordinary background to the class conscious intellectually top-heavy culture of Oxford (page 146-147):

Those from state schools who made it to the dreaming spires of Oxford were often deeply shocked to find their faces – and accents – did not fit. Both Oxford and Cambridge Universities still take about half their undergraduates from the tiny seven per cent of private schools, and only about 10 per cent of undergraduates there could be called working class, so the social dominance is of the privately educated. . . .

These powerful social effects were to devastate the life of Alison Cranfield. She was an outstandingly brilliant girl whose school, without much consideration as to whether it was the right place for her, had pushed her to Oxbridge for the pride of her school. This meant a big leap across the social-cultural divide and it proved too wide for her. She had slipped, fallen badly and suffered deep long-term emotional damage. Even to think of it, many years after the debacle, brought tears to her eyes.

William Golding‘s life story gives further insight into the impact of this kind of chasm between classes. In his daughter’s memoire, The Children of Lovers, she checks for herself what her father’s record at Oxford contained about him (page 69-70):

The University Appointments Committee – an early form of careers service – had carefully noted on their index card their considered  judgement of my father as ‘not quite a gent.’ The jaunty, Wodehousean tone doesn’t mean it’s a joke, and it’s certainly not a compliment. The judgement was precise and professionally significant.

She found similar statements elsewhere (page 70):

On a letter card, from his DipEd studies in 1937-8, they describe him as ‘a decent, sincere man,’ and they mention his book of poems published by MacMillan in 1934 –  a considerable feat for a grammar-school boy of twenty-three. But in the coded initials of his entry (interpreted for me once more by the scrupulous university archivist), he was N.T.S. Not Top Shelf.

Her conclusions were (ibid.):

Oxford in the 1930s was still a place of outrageous privilege, of rigid and effective class divisions, which both subtly and unsubtly apportioned opportunity by rank, and permanently shaped people’s careers and lives, so reinforcing privilege for the next generation.

She sheds further light on how exactly this process works in practice (page 70-71) and can pass down the generations:

One might say that the University Appointments Board had to safeguard the currency of its recommendations, given the expectations of future employers. After all, otherwise someone like my father, on the basis of his many good qualities, might have ended up quite unsuitably in charge of some top-shelf children. But the board makes sure this will not happen. It carefully notes that he is ‘fit only for day schools.’ So he sent his daughter to a place he hoped would fix that.

It’s perhaps worth noting that the visitor in RAF uniform who ended up outside my bedsit looking for an English Teacher, as described in an earlier post, was there as a result of the workings of the ‘old boys’ network. He had got his degree at Clare College many years earlier and had used his contacts to discover there was a more recent graduate in his area who might need a job. It was only a day school after all, but even so, after the kinds of interactions we had which I described earlier, he may have come to regret his decision and seen me as coming from too far below the top shelf altogether. And, to be truthful, I had never felt at home in the world of venison and bump suppers into which, willing but naive, I had agreed to be thrown on the back of my A level results and at the behest of my Headmaster. A more telling disadvantage though was probably my difficulty in adapting, after grammar school spoon-feeding, to the need for a more self-directed style of study.

All this highlights the full significance of the point that Michele Obama was trying to make in hosting the gathering of school girls from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson at an Oxford college.

Michelle Obama takes school pupils to Oxford University to encourage them to aim high. But only just over 1 per cent of Oxford’s undergraduates are of black British origin, Channel 4 News learns.

The First Lady first visited the all-girl Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (EGA) School in north London in 2009 (pictured), and has kept in touch with the school since.

Now, as part of her trip to the UK with the President, she visited Oxford University with around 35 of the school’s pupils. In 2009, Mrs Obama encouraged the pupils to “be the best that you can be”, and the trip to the university is expected to encourage the students – the majority of whom are from ethnic minority backgrounds – to think about studying for a degree.

The trip was designed as a day-long “immersion experience” at Oxford, including campus tours and mentoring sessions. The First Lady, who has a modest family background but attended Princeton and Harvard, also answered questions from the students, after telling them she was “thrilled to be back”.

She said: “I remember back at a young age trying to decide what schools to apply to and how well-meaning but misguided people questioned whether someone with my background could succeed at an elite university. When I was accepted I had all kinds of worries and doubts, I wouldn’t be as well prepared as students from privileged families and I wouldn’t fit in.

“But after a few months away from home I realised I was just as capable and I had just as much to offer [as] any of my classmates. We passionately believe that you have the talent within you, you have the drive, the experience to succeed at Oxford and universities just like it across the country and the world.”

This kind of self-belief is hugely important. However, Gifted Lives clearly indicates, and not just from one person’s experience, that even talent cannot protect you completely from the toxic effects of inequality. This has echoes of the description of the depressing effects of inequality explored across a number of dimensions in The Spirit Level. The Baha’i Faith has much to say on this issue (see link for the summary article by Bryan Graham from which the following quotations are taken).

. . . .  there are many examples of exploitation in the world; whether it is a senior executive exploiting corporate shareholders or a local landowner exploiting peasants. To refer to the passage quoted above: “When we see poverty allowed to reach a condition of starvation it is a sure sign that somewhere we shall find tyranny.”

He expands on this a little later in his summary:

Dahl interprets the modifying principle of poverty as tyranny as implying that “every human being has the right to a reasonable level of personal welfare,” a belief echoed by Sabetan and Fish in their call for the meeting of basic needs. Mohtadi emphasizes that the Bahá’í teachings on volunteer giving, progressive taxation, huqúqu’lláh, and zakát would all operate in such a way as to eliminate extremes of wealth in society. Huddleston highlights similar teachings and identifies the elimination of extreme differences in per capita wealth as one “of the main economic functions of the world government.” The Bahá’í system, therefore, combines voluntary and mandatory means for the elimination of the extremes of wealth, operating within a framework where wages are conceived as just rewards. The Bahá’í world would be more equal but not absolutely equal.

This suggests that, even though such initiatives as Michele Obama’s are praiseworthy and valuable, they are by no means a complete answer. She would be the first to agree with that, I’m sure. What is required is for all of us to put our best energies into reshaping of society. Each of us has to find a path of action by which to do that in a concerted way with other people. We can’t do it alone. This blog is attempting to look at as many possibilities of this kind as will fit into its compass. We each must decide what we are going to do. Not an easy task!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »