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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Haidt’

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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Gaude and Garrigos

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

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

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

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

Amnesty International Survey Findings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Main Moral Objection

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

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

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

The Efficacy of Torture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

interrogation_room_by_cold_levian1

A. How well do interrogators spot the truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so?

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

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Resist oppression with justice, oppose tyranny with equity, and respond to bloodthirstiness with loving kindness.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá quoted on 8 May 2015 in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of Iran)

As I have brought Shelley back into the frame with Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! The role of trauma in his life is again emphasised:

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt.

Yet more I will need to note and reflect upon in the light of what I have recently been learning.

As the previous posts have made clear, I hope, I am seeking to understand more deeply the nature of the relationship between the art and the artist who creates it, as well, if possible, as shedding some light on what kind of role contemporary reality has on that relationship. An important aspect of this exploration will be the positive impact of the arts on society, and not only by means of protest songs such as the one above and in previous posts.

I have decided at this point to do this by looking at the art in the light of the artist’s biography.

Almost by accident, and because I came at him initially with very few details about his life or art, I’m going to test out this approach with Shelley. An overview of key developments in his poetry and his thinking will take up the next four posts, before the fifth post moves onto the implications for my own tentative general model.

The Man & his Times

Ann WroeSome Impacts of Early Experience

How his early experiences affected Shelley as an artist is a complex matter to grapple with.

Given what we learned about Shelley’s early life in the second pair of posts, how did things develop for the poet in him as he grew older?

Holmes, in his biography of Shelley, expresses the feeling that (page 64) he was both ‘fascinated and terrified by the workings of his own mind’ and that ‘the secret workings of his own personality and the half-hidden movements of his own mind at a subconscious level were for him an ever-deepening source of imagery, and poetic myth-making.’

Ann Wroe’s thoughtful study, Being Shelleyquotes Shelley’s poems and notebooks many times to illustrate this point. He writes of (page 183) ‘The caverns of the mind,’ which seem ”obscure & shadowy’ or ‘beautifully bright.’ She appropriates his words from the Preface to The Cenci, confident that words he used to explain one of the aspects of religion in Protestant countries could be applied to the poet himself (page 184):

A gloomy passion for penetrating the impenetrable mysteries of our being, which terrifies its possessor at the darkness of the abyss to the brink of which it has conduct of him.

Interestingly, on another important point, as I read the Preface myself, I discovered a passage that is quoted neither by Holmes in his entire book nor by Wroe completely.

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

In this passage Shelley has given me a criterion of his own to help me judge the value of not only his dramatic works but of his poetry as a whole.

In spite of what his contemporaries, and perhaps even Shelley himself in his public persona, saw as his atheism, according to Holmes he seemed to believe (page 65) that ‘the mind and the soul were separate and different entities.’

Coleridge provides what is perhaps one of the most astute comments on the relationship between Shelley, the man, and Shelley, the poet (page 94):

Shelley was a man of great power as a poet… and could he only have had some notion of order, could [he] only have [had] some place to stand, and look down upon his mind, he would have succeeded.

This relates to the caveat that Myer’s had about the poetry of Blake (Irreducible Mind: page 445):

Myers. . . . . regards Blake as an example of strong imagination insufficiently controlled by supraliminal discipline: “throughout all the work of William Blake we see the subliminal self flashing for moments into unity, then smouldering again in a lurid and scattered glow” (Human Personality, vol 1, page 73).

I will need to keep an eye on this issue in relation to Shelley when I come to form my conclusions.

Holmes ShelleyBasically, as Holmes summarised and I quoted in a previous post (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

This instability may account for the uneven quality of his work, especially but not only the early poems.

The Influence of Recent Events on Shelley’s Political Beliefs

Shelley’s political views, in addition to being shaped by his personal background, were also formed against a backdrop of the aftermath of the French Revolution, its subsequent terrifying transformations into various forms of tyranny, and the English recoil from what they were observing from across the channel. William Godwin and his circle (page 122) felt that ‘revolutionary mobs do not in the end bring liberty, but civil war followed by some form of tyranny.’ In the wake of the indiscriminate bloodshed of the French Revolution, and in the face of the apparently irreversible tendency of humanity to spill even more blood since on an industrial scale, much ink has been spilt in countless attempts to explain it.

For present purposes it is perhaps enough to note the contention in Jonathan Haidt’s humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ which suggests that 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.

Earthly PowersThis powerful idea may have its roots in Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution which, he feels, took on ‘that appearance of a religious revolution which so astonished contemporaries’ (quoted in Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers – page 3), and flowering in Dawson’s simpler version of Eric Vogelin (page 8) when he wrote, ‘this determination to build Jerusalem, at once and on the spot, is the very force which is responsible for the intolerance and violence of the new political order.’

This tendency of idealism to make the ends justify the most abhorrent of means, and humanity’s addiction to making a quasi-religion out of terror as a result, continues to this day, morphing through Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism to the horror of Isis/Daesh right at this moment.

I am fully aware that statisticians can reassure us that we have never had it so good (see link for the full exploration):

In the UK, Matt Ridley has been beating his Rational Optimist drum for years, while Harvard professor Steven Pinker argued persuasively in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence is on the decline. Presiding over the field is Hans Rosling, the Swedish professor who is the closest thing statistics has ever had to a rock star. His TED talk The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen has been viewed more than 10m times. Last month the BBC aired a lecture, timed to coincide with new UN development goals (and made with input from Roser), called How to End Poverty in 15 Years. Rosling lectures all over the world to rapturous audiences, making his points with humour, striking visuals and the occasional flash of temper with interviewers who don’t get it.

But we still have a long way to go when you consider the absolute numbers of the dying rather than the percentage they constitute of the world’s population, and that extremism may not be as easily containable in a world where fanaticism could suddenly gain access to technologies capable of killing thousands, and possibly millions in a matter of moments.

Given the escalating responses of the major powers to the slaughter in Paris, it seems to me we might be entering a dangerous zone where revenge can be rationalised as self-defence, and those who raise legitimate questions about this approach can be dismissed as weak, confused or wooly-minded. We may have stepped more deeply into the black and white world of the reptilian brain, and the consequences could be even blacker than we feared.

We should have no difficulty really putting ourselves into Shelley’s shoes as he gazed on a landscape where his own government, as we shall see, could gun down unarmed protestors, and the government overseas had morphed from freedom fighters through totalitarian mass murderers to a one-man dictatorship threatening the whole continent. It is tragically ironic that it is now this same country that has suffered so much so recently from dystopian terror from overseas.

After his return from Ireland and his first entry into the field of anti-establishment politics (page 131), what he had seen there left an indelible impact on his mind and art:

The confrontation with the physical facts of poverty, disease and brute ignorance was an experience which never left Shelley, and they were to fill his best writing with images of macabre force. The issue of violent change was brought forward as a central question in his political thinking.

He was beginning to develop a remarkably advanced view of where society, religion and politics should be heading, though he had further to travel yet. In an 1812 pamphlet to Lord Ellenborough, he wrote (page 155):

The time is rapidly approaching, I hope, that you, my Lord, may live to behold its arrival, when the Mahometan, the Jew, the Christian, the Deist, and the Atheist will live together in one community, equally sharing the benefits which arise from association, and united in the bonds of brotherhood love

At this stage of his life, though, his overall vision was less than impressive. Holmes summarises it (page 201):

What Shelley was preaching came to be understood by his friends, and by his enemies, as a vision of the good life based on atheism, free love, republicanism and vegetarianism: a combination of the enlightened, the millennial and the cranky.

I rather resent the implication there that vegetarianism is cranky and atheism enlightened, but I accept his basic point about Shelley.

800px-John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852) is part of the Tate Gallery collection.

His View of Personal Relationships

According to Holmes, Shelley’s emphasis on love is marred by two very major blemishes (page 207-08):

The first is his blindness to the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations… His second blindness was to the way in which children made a fundamental alteration to the direction and responsibilities of a love relationship

Relating to the first point, in Epipsychidion, the poem that examines his own development, he writes eloquently, though with a kind of superior self-congratulating tunnel vision:

I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world, and so,
With one chained friend, and perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go.

Sadly ‘he was to pay dearly – and make others pay dearly – for his personal blindness in both these respects.’ His first wife, Harriet, was not the only victim, though perhaps the one who suffered most. Her pain at his abandonment of her, and of their children, which was invisible to him much of the time, drove her eventually to suicide (page 238):

. . . . busy with the excitement of [the planned expedition with his new love and her sister], Harriet’s pain and misery was obviously quite unreal to him.

This was completely typical (page 255) of the ‘total lack of understanding’ or ‘sympathy towards his wife’s feelings’ that he consistently displayed throughout this whole period. As my understanding of this issue shifts with the insights Emma has shared in her comments on my earlier posts, I can see that this is more likely to be the result of his narcissism rather than the effects of his traumatic schooling.

At this stage of his life (page 246) he was espousing ‘wholesale political terrorism and violence’ as the way of ‘liberating and freeing a “civilised” society.’ It would be sometime before he worked his way to a more temperate position.

Clearly at this stage he had neither learnt the lessons of the French Revolution about where the use of violence to achieve positive ends might lead, nor come to understand through pain what others close to him really suffered.

The next post begins to see an uplift in his poetry and in his understanding.

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Sept death cafe poster

Just another week to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe, so just re-posting this account of the first meeting I attended a few months back as a reminder.  

It was a pleasant walk yesterday evening to the Courtyard. It was an obvious venue to choose in some respects. It’s accessible, and connected in most people’s minds with pleasant memories of films, plays and shows. Just the sort of place to attract people to an event.

There was a catch though. Who wants to go to a Death Cafe? Would the magnet of the venue be enough to overcome the unmentionable word’s repellent effect?

Well, it seems that it was.

There were nine of us turned up for the experience. Admittedly, it sounded from what was said that even those who tried had failed to persuade any of their friends to come along as well. Incredulity combined with revulsion seemed the order of the day for most people.

That was one of the topics we explored together.

Why was our society so reluctant to talk openly about death? We shared stories of how the dying were met with refusal when they tried to open up the subject with their nearest and dearest. We contrasted it with other cultures whose traditions encourage them to sit in the same room as the dead person for hours, sharing moments of alternating laughter and sadness as they remember the life that has ended.

We were a mixed bunch.

Not all of us had been or still were in the ‘helping professions.’ A couple of us were people whose ordinary lives alone had caused them to seek a deeper understanding of death. One described how she had been visited by her parents as they died. Another how advancing years and his wife’s struggle with ill health was forcing death upon his attention.

Some openly mentioned their faith, including a Buddhist whose work was with the dying and bereaved, and a Christian who had experienced healing communion services that allowed the unquiet dead to rest.

We covered many other topics, amongst others: how knowing you are dying can lead to feelings of hopelessness, boredom, helplessness and an absence of all meaning; wondering how to deal with pain more effectively; and looking at ways of preparing for our death, and helping those who are left to celebrate our lives in the way we would have wished.

I even heard of roles unknown to me before. The idea of a ‘soul midwife’ had never crossed my ken. I also had not realised that the local hospice also ran a ‘hospice at home’ service.

I was given an opportunity to voice my somewhat crusading concerns about how a materialist model of psychology, which I feel is still the default position, could make interventions unhelpful or even damaging, discounting as it does the possibility of a spiritual dimension.

And everyone agreed that, regardless of all the different ways of describing that ineffable reality, we are talking about fundamentally the same thing, and it is something that binds us all together. The different way we speak of and understand it should not become a source of division and disagreement.

We tackled the question of how our individualistic and competitive society could recover or recreate a sense of connectedness in families and neighbourhoods so that people would be prepared to put themselves out to help others and that this sense of compassionate connectedness would endure rather than fizzle out. The evidence that Jonathan Haidt quotes, in The Righteous Mind, was mentioned, suggesting that groups requiring members to make sacrifices lasted longer if there was a spiritual worldview underpinning them.

At the end of the meeting our attention was drawn to a website recently launched which facilitates the sharing of ideas to help meet life’s challenges including those at the end of life. It works on the basis that pooling ideas enhances our ability to create solutions. See link for more info.

The two hours of the meeting flew by. We were keen to make sure there will be another one next month.

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Chekhov LettersThat an artist’s sphere is free from questions and is solidly packed with nothing but answers can be claimed only by one who has never written and has nothing to do with images. The artist observes, selects, surmises, composes – actions which by themselves presuppose a question at their very beginning… In demanding from an artist a conscious attitude toward his work you are right, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct posing of a question. Only the second is obligatory for an artist

(Letters of Anton Chekhov edited by Avrahm Yarmolinsky – page 88)

I found a blue notebook in my drawer the other day. It seems to date from the 1970s. It contains notes taken from many books by various authors including Victor Serge, Anthony Storr, Donald Kaplan, Ken Keyes, and Robert White. I have no memory of reading any of these books from which I took such care to record quotations, though I remember my fascination for the topics they cover, ranging from creativity through personal growth to revolution, because they continue to fascinate me to this day. I owned none of them. They were borrowed from the Hendon Library. I owe a lot to libraries, and that one in particular (see link). They are a necessity not a luxury even in the age of the internet.

One set of notes grabbed my attention in particular though. These come from Sophie Laffitte’s book on Chekhov. I can’t find much information at all about her on the web. A used copy of her book can apparently be obtained from Amazon at the cost of 1 penny. New it would cost over £70. Read into that what you wish!

Chekhov was a major influence on my development. Part of that was because he combined professional writing with the work of a doctor. I’ve recorded the following in my notes (page 71[1]):

Medicine is my lawful wife, literature my mistress. When I tire of the one, I spend the night with the other. . . . . If I did not have my medical pursuits, I should find it difficult to devote my random thoughts and spare time to literature.

I don’t know whether his reason for this difficulty was the same as mine when I was balancing impossible demands and wrote this in my journal in September 2000:

When I’m on the treadmill of tasks dictated by other people’s agendas I know I’m doing something useful but I feel totally alienated from myself. When I am writing, reading or reflecting for myself — or simply slumping in a deckchair in the sun sometimes — I feel close to the heart of who I really am — absorbing sensations and impressions, reflecting upon them, but doing nothing with them — but at the same time guilt gnaws away at me. I feel it is all profitless, pointless, indulgent. . . . . . So, I spend my life being the railway while longing to be the grass.

He probably made better use of his down time than I was able to do.

At the point in my life when I took the notes, I was combining training as a psychologist with a passion for poetry. His life resonated strongly for that reason. I was yet to experience any extreme conflict between duty and creativity: this only became apparent later. I may even have believed I could emulate the balance he achieved, albeit in a minor key, such is the arrogance of immaturity.

I can take some comfort perhaps from the words of Virginia Woolf (A Writer’s Diary – page 29):

I don’t like time to flap. Well then, work. Yes, but I so soon tire of work – can’t read more than a little, an hour of writing is enough for me.

I had been nudged even more strongly to take this moment down memory lane seriously when, after putting the notebook away again, this time on a shelf near my desk, I started to read Lydall Gordon’s introduction to A Writer’s Diary and found another fascinating angle on the man. Gordon describes Woolf as using her diary to commune ‘with her secret self, what Chekhov calls the kernel[2] of a life.’

Even though I blog, have used various psychotherapies and am very open with those I become close to, I think my diaries and journals are my way of reaching far deeper into the ground of my being than I can achieve in the company of or in communication with others.

Good I got the notebook down again because that was not all.

It was what he stood for that influenced me most and the purple scrawl of my notes reminded me of this when I looked at them again more closely.

I’ve rabbited on a lot about idealism and its costs and benefits, quoting Jonathan Haidt admiringly for his insights. Chekhov, who died in 1904 at the age of 44, exactly captured Haidt’s key insight into the means/ends problem. He wrote, at the age of 32 (page 179):

Disgusting means used to achieve excellent ends make the ends themselves odious… Were I a political man, I should never be able to bring myself to dishonour the present with a view to the future, even if, for a gramme (sic) of despicable lies, I were promised a hundred kilograms of future bliss.

Blue book

He sets out his standards for the writer (page 19):

(1) absolute objectivity; (2) truth in the description of people and things; (3) maximum brevity; (4) boldness and originality; (5) compassion.

My memory of his stories and plays suggests that he managed to hold to those standards in his later work. What resonates most strongly for me is the idea of upholding both truth and compassion. It is easier to honour one of those than both. There is a link for me there with both the Buddhist ideals of wisdom and compassion, and the Bahá’í ideal in consultation of combining truthfulness and courtesy. I’ve described that in training materials available on my blog as learning how to walk a razor’s edge.

Chekhov believed (page 71) that ‘to educate oneself requires ceaseless, unremitting work, night and day. Every hour counts.’ He advocated ‘constant reading’ and ‘the development of will power.’ We’re on Baumeister’s ground with that last remark. And Leonard Woolf testifies to his wife’s similar tenacious dedication to her novelist’s art (Writer’s Diary – page ix):

The diaries at least show the extraordinary energy, persistence, and concentration with which she devoted herself to the art of writing and the undeviating conscientiousness with which she wrote and rewrote and again rewrote her books.

Chekhov believed (Laffitte: page 85) that ‘educated men should . . . fulfil’ certain conditions, including ‘respect’ for their ‘fellow men,’ being ‘compassionate, not only towards beggars and cats. Their hearts are also moved by what is not visible to the naked eye.’ More below on what I think he means by that last point.

He also felt they should not lie or be vain. His comment on talent is relevant to his art:

If they have some kind of talent – they respect it. They sacrifice leisure, women, wine and futile pursuits to it.

The lives of many writers, artists and composers clearly reveal that this is easier said than done. I’ve blogged about this before and won’t rehearse it all again here.

It is towards the end of this collection of Chekhov quotes that I find perhaps the most powerful of all.

First, there is this brief comment ((page 115):

. . . . man’s destiny either does not exist at all, or exists in one thing only: in a love, full of self-sacrifice for one’s neighbour.

Chekhov Sophie LaffitteHe goes on to amplify that in a longer passage from Gooseberries, which I feel needs to be quoted in full:

We neither see nor hear those who are suffering and all that is appalling in life takes place somewhere off-stage. Everything is calm and peaceful and only mute statistics prove the opposite: so many people driven insane, so many buckets of vodka drunk, so many children dead from hunger. And this state of affairs is apparently necessary. Apparently, a happy man only remains so because the unhappy ones bear their burden in silence, and, without that silence, happiness would be impossible. It amounts to mass hypnosis. Behind the door of every happy contented human being, there should be someone armed with a small hammer, the blows of which would constantly remind him unhappy people do exist and that however contented he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws; misfortune, illness and poverty will eventually strike him down and, when they do, no one will see or hear him, just as now, he, himself, neither sees nor hears anyone. But the man with the hammer does not exist, the happy man goes on living, small everyday cares touch him lightly, much as the wind gently stirs the leaves of the aspens, and everything continues as before. . . . In actual fact, there is no happiness and there should be none, but if our life has any meaning or aim, that meaning and aim are in no way concerned with our personal happiness but with something far wiser and more important.

Even in the age of the internet we can find enough distractions to make widely publicised suffering invisible. Chekhov’s insights are still painfully relevant.

It seems that I could do a lot worse with any spare time I have than re-read Chekhov. The Guardian article at the Gooseberries link certainly suggests so. In discussing reservations about comfort reading Chris power states:

According to Vladimir Nabokov, “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader”. Sean O’Faolain, discussing Anton Chekhov’s short story Verotchka, writes, “Having reread it I feel … that nobody should read more than he can in 10 years reread; that first reading is a pleasure for youth, second reading an instruction for manhood, and third reading, no doubt, the consolation and despair of old age. . . . . .” What O’Faolain identifies here is an altogether higher form of comfort: that provided by an inexhaustible work of art.

Footnote:

[1] I’m not sure how reliable the page numbers are as I could only use Google Books who wouldn’t let me inside the book itself, simply dredging up accurate quotes to only some of my searches. I hope that doesn’t mean I transcribed the original text inaccurately!

[2] Gordon misleadingly quotes from The Lady with the Little Dog (Introduction: page xii): ‘He had two lives one, open, seen and known… and another life running its course in secret… Everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people.’ This is Gurov reflecting upon his life of deception as he conducts his affair with Anna Sergeyevna, the only woman he has ever been able to love. I do not feel this to be the same as the ‘kernel’ of one’s inner life, which is what I think Virginia Woolf was concerned with and to protect which both Leonard, her husband, and Virginia herself constructed a ‘carapace,’ to use Leonard’s term in his autobiography (Gordon’s introduction – page xiii). David Magarshack does not use the word kernel at all in his translation (Penguin Edition: page 279), although he uses the word husk to describe the lies that conceal ‘the quintessence of [Gurov’s] life.’

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Grave & Courtyard v2

It was a pleasant walk yesterday evening to the Courtyard. It was an obvious venue to choose in some respects. It’s accessible, and connected in most people’s minds with pleasant memories of films, plays and shows. Just the sort of place to attract people to an event.

There was a catch though. Who wants to go to a Death Cafe? Would the magnet of the venue be enough to overcome the unmentionable word’s repellent effect?

Well, it seems that it was.

There were nine of us turned up for the experience. Admittedly, it sounded from what was said that even those who tried had failed to persuade any of their friends to come along as well. Incredulity combined with revulsion seemed the order of the day for most people.

That was one of the topics we explored together.

Why was our society so reluctant to talk openly about death? We shared stories of how the dying were met with refusal when they tried to open up the subject with their nearest and dearest. We contrasted it with other cultures whose traditions encourage them to sit in the same room as the dead person for hours, sharing moments of alternating laughter and sadness as they remember the life that has ended.

We were a mixed bunch.

Not all of us had been or still were in the ‘helping professions.’ A couple of us were people whose ordinary lives alone had caused them to seek a deeper understanding of death. One described how she had been visited by her parents as they died. Another how advancing years and his wife’s struggle with ill health was forcing death upon his attention.

Some openly mentioned their faith, including a Buddhist whose work was with the dying and bereaved, and a Christian who had experienced healing communion services that allowed the unquiet dead to rest.

We covered many other topics, amongst others: how knowing you are dying can lead to feelings of hopelessness, boredom, helplessness and an absence of all meaning; wondering how to deal with pain more effectively; and looking at ways of preparing for our death, and helping those who are left to celebrate our lives in the way we would have wished.

I even heard of roles unknown to me before. The idea of a ‘soul midwife’ had never crossed my ken. I also had not realised that the local hospice also ran a ‘hospice at home’ service.

I was given an opportunity to voice my somewhat crusading concerns about how a materialist model of psychology, which I feel is still the default position, could make interventions unhelpful or even damaging, discounting as it does the possibility of a spiritual dimension.

And everyone agreed that, regardless of all the different ways of describing that ineffable reality, we are talking about fundamentally the same thing, and it is something that binds us all together. The different way we speak of and understand it should not become a source of division and disagreement.

We tackled the question of how our individualistic and competitive society could recover or recreate a sense of connectedness in families and neighbourhoods so that people would be prepared to put themselves out to help others and that this sense of compassionate connectedness would endure rather than fizzle out. The evidence that Jonathan Haidt quotes, in The Righteous Mind, was mentioned, suggesting that groups requiring members to make sacrifices lasted longer if there was a spiritual worldview underpinning them.

At the end of the meeting our attention was drawn to a website recently launched which facilitates the sharing of ideas to help meet life’s challenges including those at the end of life. It works on the basis that pooling ideas enhances our ability to create solutions. See link for more info.

The two hours of the meeting flew by. We were keen to make sure there will be another one next month.

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 . . . . . religion must be conducive to love and unity among mankind; for if it be the cause of enmity and strife, the absence of religion is preferable.

( ‘Abdu’l-BaháPromulgation of Universal Peace page 128)

A recent post by Sue Vincent on recycling posts triggered me to have a look at some earlier stuff and I came across this pair of posts from 2012 that still seems relevant in terms of its main ideas. I posted the first part on Monday.

In the previous post, focusing on the role of religion in society, I tried to convey some of Jonathan Haidt‘s key points, from his penetrating overview of the area – The Righteous Mind. He contends amongst other things that the sense of belonging religion brings is an essential foundation stone for more general human cooperation. He tested this idea against the evidence and found it rang true. He then moves on to look at other evidence that provides a test from a different angle.

Long-Term Social Glue

What was really interesting to me was that he finds that religions are better than other ideologies at binding communities together long-term. He quotes evidence of where communes were compared (page 256):

Communes can survive only to the extent that they can bind a group together, suppress self-interest, and solve the free rider problem. . . . Which kind of commune survived longer? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes.

He looks at the analysis of the key ingredient of this superiority (ibid.):

What was the secret ingredient that gave the religious communes a longer shelf life? . . . . He found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. . . . . . For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted.

This did not work for secular communes even though such sacrifices are necessary for longevity (ibid.): for them, ‘demands for sacrifice did not help.’

The inescapable conclusion seems to be, as Sosis argues, that (ibid.):

. . .  rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized. . . . In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.

As we have already seen, Haidt is very aware that there is a sting in the tail of this position that absolutely needs to be acknowledged (pages 265-266).

So religions do what they are supposed to do. As Wilson put it, they help people “to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.” But that job description applies equally well to the Mafia.

This is where Haidt’s close analysis of the kind of community a religion helps develop kicks in (pages 266-267):

Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon … none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people. . . . “It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

The Downside not Unique to Religion

As we have already seen, he looks closely at the old and thorny problem. You certainly can’t accuse him of ducking it (page 268).

Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonising another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited for that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity.

The subtle point he makes, which should be obvious to anyone who looks dispassionately at the history of atheist regimes such as those under Stalin or Pol Pot, is that the problem is not religion per se, but the loss of a compassionate perspective that can come from identifying strongly with a group of any kind rather than with humanity as a whole.

This is the potential cost of the tool that can bring huge collective benefits in its wake that help everyone. However, to focus simply on the costs of religion without also weighing in the same scale the costs of secularism is hardly fair and certainly not objective. Haidt makes it very clear that even in terms of evolutionary success, i.e. reproductive superiority, secularism isn’t doing very well, let alone in terms of more subjective measures such as happiness and well-being (ibid.).

We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago. . . . the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

He accepts that it is still early days in the history of such societies but feels that extreme caution is warranted before we can conclude that societies without a God can function any better on average than those with one, and he suspects that in the end they might come out worse for the comparison.

The Seed of Universal Fellow Feeling?

So, in spite of the well-attested dark side of belonging to a group, Haidt still feels that the potential is basically benign. He sees groups, which are demonised as the source of division and prejudice, also as the seedbed of fellow feeling (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

It helps if we factor in what Robert Wright has written in his book The Evolution of God. One of his key ideas could also apply with equal force to any ideology (page 439):

Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.

His ultimate contention builds on what Haidt is saying here (page 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

In Haidt’s words (page 307):

Anything that binds people together into dense networks of trust makes people less selfish.

Neither of these authors is complacent. They are very aware of the pitfalls that lie in wait. Haidt finds evidence, for example, that proximity to other groups does not necessarily breed tolerance and understanding (pages 307-308):

Putnam examined the level of social capital in hundreds of American communities and discovered that high levels of immigration and ethnic diversity seem to cause a reduction in social capital. . . . . . Putnam’s survey was able to distinguish two different kinds of social capital: bridging capital refers to trust between groups, between people who have different values and identities, while bonding capital refers to trust within groups. Putnam found that diversity reduced both kinds of social capital. . . . . people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to “hunker down”—that is, to pull in like a turtle.

Another Complicating Factor

Jeremy Rifkin, in his searching book, The Empathic Civilisation, highlights the contradiction that might still sink us even if we learn to love all our neighbours. It is true that he is convinced of the positive power of such a kind of empathy (page 16):

Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is the core of our nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilisation.

But he’s also aware of the entropy such wide connections bring in their train. As wider empathy creates bigger civilisations we need to consume more resources to sustain them, until what we need becomes unsustainable. One of the starkest statements of that principle comes early in his book (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.

Even so, even though all these writers understand the risks, there is tremendous hope in their more optimistic analysis of human potential and the value of religion at its best to bring that out. And if religion can help us extend our effective empathy beyond even our fellow human beings to include future generations, all life on the planet and even the planet itself, we might have some hope of long-term survival. Of course there are powerful forces that militate against this. We are all aware of them. But there are powerfully constructive forces within our nature upon which we can draw to effectively oppose them:

The faculties needed to construct a more just and sustainable social order—moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice and service to the common good—have too often been dismissed as naïve ideals. Yet, it is these, and related, qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production.

(From a statement by the Bahá’í International Community.)

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