Posts Tagged ‘Philip Zimbardo’

Altruism Black EarthThe previous post, triggered by two contrasting books – Altruism and Black Earth – raised the possibility that we might repeat the horrors of the Holocaust. We may not have travelled as far down the road of moral enlightenment as we would like to think. We are prone to rationalising our self-centredness and have not freed ourselves from the virus of racism.

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand

That a popular strain of American thought idolises the guru of egotism, Ayn Rand, should give us pause for thought. While proponents might contend that Rand and her acolytes place sufficient emphasis upon preserving the powers of the state to protect individual freedom in a way that will prevent any repetition of Hitler’s state destroying excesses, it is worth examining for a moment some of her ideas and the results that they are having to this day.

Ricard (page 302) recalls a televised interview in which Rand stated: ‘I consider altruism as evil . . . Altruism is immoral . . because . . . you are asked to love everybody indiscriminately . . . you only love those who deserve it.’ Her ‘sacred word’ is ‘EGO,’ but it did not bring her any happiness (page 305).

If she were not so influential in the States her bizarre position would not matter. Many Americans, in a 1993 survey, ‘cited Atlas Shrugged, her main work, as the book that influenced them most, after the Bible!’ Furthermore, as Ricard points out, she has powerful advocates (page 301):

Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, which controls the American economy, declared she had profoundly shaped his thinking, and that “our values are congruent.” Ayn Rand was at Greenspan’s side when he took the oath before President Ford. . . . Paul Ryan, who was a candidate for the American vice-presidency in 2012 as Mitt Romney’s running mate, requires his co-workers to read the writings of Ayn Rand; he asserts it was she who inspired his political career.

She has shaped libertarian economic thinking (page 303) which regards the poor as ‘killers of growth, beings who harm entrepreneurs.’ Moreover, ‘Only the individual creates growth; society is predatory, and the welfare state, a concept that prevails in Europe, constitutes “the most evil national psychology ever described,” and those who benefit from it are nothing but a gang of looters’ [The quote is from Ayn Rand 1976 in The Economist, 20 October, 2012, page 54].

I understand that it is important not to be simplistic about this and dismiss all libertarians as narrow-mindedly self-seeking. Jonathan Haidt analyses some of the complexities in his excellent The Righteous Mind. He clarifies that on the American political scene the word ‘libertarian’ denotes someone of a conservative mind set.  He teases out some important aspects of this world view in order to get out from under his preconceptions about it (pages 305-306):

[Libertarians] do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).

He unpacks this in the context of his understanding of the value of moral capital (page 292):

. . . we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community . . . . . .  and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

He writes (page 307):

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

So, after this analysis of the way that liberals, with whom he identifies, fail to understand some of the crucial insights of their political opponents (and of course vice versa), he reflects upon a disturbing trend (page 309):

America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. . . . .

So even from within his own balanced critique which accepts the value of moral capital, he is clearly aware of the dangers of group identity and especially of any group identity with a black-and-white view of the world and/or with an egotistical creed.

Narrow ideologies of this type are many and varied.


During the Second World War, for example, those who believed in some form of nationalism, originally well-short of Nazism’s totally racist ideology, when battered by the depredations of the Soviet Union during the period of its cynical pact with Hitler, were more likely to collude with pogroms (Snyder: page 130-31):

Insofar as the Soviets removed states that people wanted, and insofar as the Germans could pose as the ally of those who wished to restore them, the Germans could manipulate a powerful desire. The nature of this opportunity depended, of course, upon what leaders of national groups believed they could gain or lose from occupiers.

He explains exactly what this specifically meant in practice (page 142):

By destroying the Lithuanian and Latvian states, the Soviets gave the Germans the ability to promise a war of liberation.

What the Germans learnt (page 143) ‘was to exploit the experience of the Soviet occupation to further the most radical goals of their own, and what they invented was a politics of the greater evil.’

That pogroms were in fact somehow related to the sense that the Nazis were liberators is made clear (page 150):

. . . pogroms were most numerous where Germans drove out Soviet power, . . . Pogroms and other forms of local collaboration in killing were less likely in Poland, where anti-Semitism had been more prevalent before the war, than they were in Lithuania and Latvia, where anti-Semitism was less prevalent.

That pogroms tended not to escalate where that hopeful belief in liberation was absent is confirmed by their rarity in Poland where (page 161) ‘Germany could not even pretend to offer Poland to the Poles. Germany had already invaded Poland once.’ It seems as though people are not inclined to go the whole hog with wholesale systematic slaughter on the basis of psychological or material gain alone: you need an ideological component as well.

Narrow ideologies, possibly always in combination with greedy and/or self-serving tendencies, make us more vulnerable to perpetrating systematic atrocities against those who are seen as beyond the Pale[1] we have ourselves arbitrarily created. Self-interest and dissonance reduction seem to have played a strong part in the Holocaust as well: for example, blaming the Jews for all the ills perpetrated under Soviet occupation exonerated everyone else in those territories from the shame of their own collusion as well as ensuring the property they had gained would not be restored to their original owners (Snyder page 152-54). Killings do, of course, occur without an ideology to back them, and can involve large numbers of victims, but never on the same massive and sustained scale.

Raising a more general and bleakly pessimistic point, Snyder earlier quoted Herling, a victim of the Gulags (page 122): ‘. . . There is nothing, in fact, which a man cannot be forced to do by hunger and pain.’ Herling became convinced that ‘a man can only be human under human conditions.’

While the examples of heroic self-sacrifice in Nazi and Japanese concentration camps, in the cases of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, as well as in the current example of Bahá’í prisoners in Iran, suggest most strongly this is not true for everyone, Herling’s point is probably true for most of us under such extreme conditions. In our relatively benign social climate, the rarity of whistleblowing in the face of toxic reactions within an organisation suggests that most of us are too craven to stand up against abuses.

Expanding our Circle of Compassion

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

This sad probability is what drove Zimbardo, after his many experiences of humanity’s inability to resist evil, to formulate his ‘ten-step programme for resisting the impact of undesirable social influences and at the same time promoting personal resilience and civic virtue’ (The Lucifer Effect – pages 452-456). He ends his explanation of the steps by saying (page 456):

Before moving to the final stop in our journey, celebrating heroes and heroisms, I would like to add two final general recommendations. First, be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures. Second, moderate you’re in-group biases. That means accepting that your group is special but at the same time respecting the diversity that other groups offer. Fully appreciate the wonder of human variety and its variability. Assuming such a perspective will help you to reduce group biases that lead to derogating others, to prejudice and stereotyping, and to the evils of dehumanisation.

All this has confirmed my conviction that there is an imperative need for our society to actively believe in two fundamental truths: first, that altruism is as natural as egotism and can therefore be nurtured in our children, and second, that in this age it is not enough for us to extend our compassion only as far as our family or immediate neighbourhood – we can and should learn to embrace the whole earth and its inhabitants, living and non-living as our concern.

A core aspect of this is articulated in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

There is a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored this together in a recent workshop at the Bahá’í Summer School in Keele.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

It was heartening to find that Ricard’s book addresses exactly the same issue more effectively (page 28):

Like the sun that shines equally over both the “good” and the “bad,” over a magnificent landscape as well as over a pile of trash, impartiality extends to all beings without distinction. When compassion thus conceived is directed at a person who is causing great harm to others, it does not consist of tolerating, or encouraging by inaction, his hatred and his harmful actions, but in regarding that person as gravely ill or stricken with madness, and wishing that he be freed from the ignorance and hostility that are in him. This doesn’t mean that one will consider anyone who does not share one’s moral principles or deeply disagrees with them, as being ill. It refers to people whose views lead them to seriously harm others. In other words, it is not a matter of contemplating harmful actions with a equanimity, even indifference, but of understanding that it is possible to eradicate their causes the way that one can eliminate the causes of an illness.

In explaining a related meditative exercise he recommends (page 263):

Go further; include in this loving kindness, those who have harmed you, even those who are harming humanity in general. That does not mean that you want them to succeed in their malevolent undertakings; you simply form the wish that they give up their hatred, greed, cruelty or indifference, and that they become kind and concerned for the well-being of others. Look at them the way a doctor looks at his most seriously ill patients. Finally, embrace all sentient beings in a feeling of limitless and love.


James Fallon (far right) with his wife, daughters, and son.

What becomes even clearer both in terms of Ricard’s argument in his book as a whole, but also in terms of the Bahá’í model of civilisation building, is that prevention is infinitely better then cure. We need to address the problem of how to enable our society as a whole to widen its compass of compassion so that everyone who grows up within its sphere of influence embraces the whole of humanity in its circle of concern. There is some evidence (see link for Fallon’s view) to suggest that certain kinds of positive experience can temper the destructive aspects of even a genetic predisposition to psychopathy.

And once we have convinced ourselves of this, and we must do it soon, we need to ensure that we educate our children to become citizens who will feel inwardly compelled to take responsibility for the care of everyone and everything that lies directly or indirectly within their power. We must ensure that this sense of responsibility is not just a feeling. We must ensure that it is active.

More of this next time.


[1] The term ‘pale’ came to mean the area enclosed by a paling fence and later just figuratively ‘the area that is enclosed and safe’. So to be ‘beyond the pale’ was to be outside the area accepted as ‘home’. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. This was the name given to the western border region of the country, in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, ‘beyond the pale’. (See link for source of reference.)

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For Source of image see link

Given how much I quote psychological research on this blog, I was not comfortable to read a couple of recent articles which call psychology methodology into question from two different angles: one in terms of the use of deception and the other in terms of failure to replicate. In all conscience though I felt I had to share them as I draw on this body of evidence so much: I owe you all a psychological health warning.

The first article, Lying for Science by Antonio Melechi on the Aeon website, is a long and interesting read that a friend flagged up for me and, while his treatment of the issue of deception is important including even a sideswipe in passing at Zimbardo, what grabbed my attention most were the doubts flagged up about the validity of Milgram’s work on obedience.

The Australian psychologist Gina Perry has recently claimed that Milgram, as well as overlooking the sizeable number of volunteers who refused to comply with the experimenter’s demands, ignored the misgivings voiced by those who were skeptical of his learning experiment. At least one of Milgram’s laboratory volunteers withdrew, suspecting that ‘the whole experiment was designed to see if ordinary Americans would obey immoral orders’. Some participants were nonplussed by the experimenter’s indifference towards the ‘learners’ and unconvinced by the anguished cries that came from a nearby loudspeaker; others had an inchoate sense of something being amiss. Far from providing a reliable proxy of real-life behaviour, Milgram had, at best, staged a bold but confusing charade, a ham-fisted invitation to make-believe.

Given how often I quote him to support my line of reasoning, this kind of undermining is not good!

Below is a short extract from this statement of valid concerns marred by the odd cheap shot: for the full post see link.

Nearly 50 years ago, a 35-year-old bank employee from Madrid named Jordán Peña had a fiendish idea: he would contact fellow UFO-spotters across the city, purporting to be an extraterrestrial – DEI 98, from the planet Ummo. Spinning an audaciously convoluted yarn, Peña would proceed to chronicle the turbulent history of the fictitious planet, drip-feeding his saucer-eyed compadres information on the curious physiology of Ummo’s inhabitants, the intricacies of their language and system of government, and the mind-boggling technologies that they had deployed on recent missions to traverse the 14.6 light years from Ummo to earth.

Several hundred letters later, Peña’s Space Age prank was running amok. Letters from DEI 98 were hot property. Academics were beginning to give serious attention to the Ummite language and their constellation of pseudo-scientific formulas. And a Bolivian spiritualist cult, ‘the daughters of Ummo’, embraced the Ummite teachings with messianic fervour. Have faith, the Ummites are coming.  

When Señor Peña eventually stepped forward to reveal himself as the author of the Ummo correspondence, ufologists had good reason to suspect that his prodigiously elaborate hoax was probably a government-sponsored exercise in misinformation. Peña remained poker-faced. He had acted alone. He was testing a pet theory of widespread paranoia, and he was using the tried and tested methodology of every social psychologist. Ummo was not a hoax: it was an experiment.

In many ways, this was a plausible cover story. Peña’s alleged experiment was certainly conceived in an era when all manner of risky stratagems and questionable illusions were deemed fair play within the social sciences, especially in the field of social psychology. A few years earlier, to generate evidence for the theory of cognitive dissonance, the American psychologist Leon Festinger had staged a CIA-style undercover operation, infiltrating the Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, a Chicago-based Doomsday cult that was nervously awaiting the arrival of an extra-terrestrial rescue party, sent to save them from the Great Deluge which was, they believed, about to engulf North America.

Meanwhile, in order to study the whys and wherefores of inter-group conflict, the Turkish-born psychologist Muzafer Sherif donned caretaker’s overalls, spying on and stirring up enmity between 22 boys on a bogus summer camp in Oklahoma. And in the most controversial of all social psychology experiments, Stanley Milgram at Yale had tried to shed light on the kind of unthinking obedience found within the ranks of the Third Reich by way of a fake ‘learning experiment’, in which volunteers were asked to administer electric shocks to fellow subjects.

With the blustering chutzpah of the short-con artist and the slick artistry of the stage magician, Festinger, Sherif and Milgram led the generation of post-war psychologists that contrived to rewrite the rules of laboratory and field research. Whether hiding out in public toilets, staging blood-splattered accidents, feigning madness to gain entry to psychiatric hospitals, or commissioning Hollywood actors to deliver nonsensical lectures on game theory, these tenured tricksters were convinced of one thing: deception was the only reliable way of studying true-to-life behaviour.


Photograph: Pere Sanz / Alamy/Alamy (for source of image see link)

The second article Psychology experiments are failing the replication test by , from the Guardian at the end of August, I stumbled across myself and choked on the evidence indicating that ‘In the investigation, a whopping 75% of the social psychology experiments were not replicated, meaning that the originally reported findings vanished when other scientists repeated the experiments. Half of the cognitive psychology studies failed the same test. Details are published in the journal Science.’

Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

A major investigation into scores of claims made in psychology research journals has delivered a bleak verdict on the state of the science.

An international team of experts repeated 100 experiments published in top psychology journals and found that they could reproduce only 36% of original findings.

The study, which saw 270 scientists repeat experiments on five continents, was launched by psychologists in the US in response to rising concerns over the reliability of psychology research.

“There is no doubt that I would have loved for the effects to be more reproducible,” said Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology who led the study at the University of Virgina. “I am disappointed, in the sense that I think we can do better.”

“The key caution that an average reader should take away is any one study is not going to be the last word,” he added. “Science is a process of uncertainty reduction, and no one study is almost ever a definitive result on its own.”

All of the experiments the scientists repeated appeared in top ranking journals in 2008 and fell into two broad categories, namely cognitive and social psychology. Cognitive psychology is concerned with basic operations of the mind, and studies tend to look at areas such as perception, attention and memory. Social psychology looks at more social issues, such as self esteem, identity, prejudice and how people interact.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

I am embarking on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This sequence was first published in 2009 and in part since then at the time of the Olympics. This time, over the next four weeks I will have republished the whole sequence: this is the fourth post of seven – yes, I know it says 3b/5 but this and another post are split!


To mistakenly identify Bahá’í community life with the mode of religious activity that characterises the general society — in which the believer is a member of a congregation, leadership comes from an individual or individuals presumed to be qualified for the purpose, and personal participation is fitted into a schedule dominated by concerns of a very different nature — can only have the effect of marginalising the Faith and robbing the community of the spiritual vitality available to it.

(Universal House of Justice, 22 August 2002)

Training is helping move us from a passive congregational culture to an actively empowered one.

Referred to as the “chief propellant” of the change in culture, the training institutes, with their ability to produce an expanding number of human resources, have fundamentally altered the approach of the Bahá’í community to the tasks at hand. More than ever the rank and file of the believers are involved in meaningful and vital service to the Cause. Whether by holding devotional meetings, facilitating study circles, or teaching children’s classes, a greater number of friends have found paths of service that do not depend on public-speaking prowess.

(Building Momentum: pages 18-19)

The three activities referred to in that last quotation have often been described as ‘core activities.’  Core does not, however, mean only. The analogy of the spear has also been used, with these activities, or some aspect of them, referred to as the spearhead. This metaphor points up (terrible unintended pun – sorry!) the  issue here. A spearhead without a  shaft is not much use. So, there are many other things that we need to do as well as those three important components of our plan if they are to have the impact we would like.

The House of Justice has remarked on this increase in empowered participation:

It is especially gratifying to note the high degree of participation of believers in the various aspects of the growth process.

(Building Momentum: pages 18-19)

People often refer to how, in most organisations, 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Bahá’ís are learning how to buck this trend.

A Sequence of Courses

A critical tool in this process is a sequence of courses devised by the Ruhi Institute in Colombia, tested in the field there and gradually improved in the light of experience. Certain principles underpin the components of this set of materials:

From among the various possibilities, the Ruhi institute has chosen ‘service to the Cause’ as the organising principle of its educational activities.

(Learning about Growth: page 50)

They describe this further in one of the modules of the course:

The purpose of our courses is to empower the friends spiritually and morally to serve the Faith . . .

(Book Seven: page 102)

Learning to implement these courses here and in other countries has not been without its problems of course:

Out of a desire to apply the guidance ‘correctly,’ there was a tendency in isolated cases to go to extremes: either everyone was to be a tutor or restrictions were imposed; people who had taught children for years were told they couldn’t continue unless they did Book Three; firesides [informal introductory meetings usually with an invited speaker] were abandoned in place of study circles; people were rushed through the courses without doing the practice.

(Paul Lample: Revelation and Social Reality, pages 64 and 92)

This pain and discomfort of learning by these mistakes is perhaps the inevitable accompaniment of creativity and enacting higher values. There is no doubt though that the basic methodology is sound and has proved itself in many places, in spite of these teething problems, to be a powerful means of giving people the confidence to act. People are also learning how to dovetail the activities connected with the sequence of training courses with previously existing patterns of action such as the fireside and courses designed to further deepen our understanding of the Writings of the Faith.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Refining What We Do

We are also learning not only to be more active in service of the community as a whole, but also to think about what we are doing in order to do it better. The methodology for this was part of the Colombian experience and draws on models of action research (see Peter Reason for example) undertaken in the wider community.

The most [the teachers and administrators] could expect from themselves was to engage wholeheartedly in an intensive plan of action and an accompanying process of reflection and consultation. This reflection and consultation had to be carried out in unshakeable unity and with a spirit of utmost humility. The main thrust of the consultation had to be the objective analysis of possible courses of action and the evaluation of methods and results, all carried out in the light of the Writings of the Faith.

(Learning About Growth: page 10)

Other posts on this blog examine in considerable detail what Bahá’ís mean by consultation and reflection. The key components of the process described here are study, consultation, action and reflection.

Relating to Scripture

In using scripture as part of this process of empowerment certain aspects are emphasised:

. . . to reach true understanding . . . one must think deeply about the meaning of each statement and its applications in one’s own life and in the life of society. Three levels of comprehension are: basic understanding of the meaning of words and sentences, applying some of the concepts to one’s daily life, and thinking about the implications of a quotation for situations having no apparent or immediate connection with its theme.

(Learning about Growth: pages 30-31)

A good mnemonic for this is AIMs. The ‘A’ stands for applications, the ‘I’ for implications and the ‘M’ for meanings. The bedrock of the process of empowerment here is to enable us all to relate to the Word of God in a way that inspires us to put what we have understood into action for the betterment of the world.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The Links to Civilisation-Building

It is important to have a brief look now at how the work of each book including its ‘service’ component links to the aim of building a better world for everyone.

This is made quite explicit at the beginning of the first book in the sequence (page 9):

The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct.

(The Advent of Divine Justice: pages 24-25)

The theme is continued in the other books, for example:

Book Two (page 46):

The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh encompasses all units of human society; integrates the spiritual, administrative and social processes of life; and canalises human expression in its various forms towards the construction of a new civilisation.

(Universal House of Justice: 1989)

Book Three (page 9):

Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education, alone, can cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.

(Gleanings: CXXIII)

Book Four (page 8):

It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness.

(Gleanings: IV)

It is perhaps worth stressing here that specific patterns of action are linked to the work of each book and are central to the purposes of that book. Book Three is designed for example to empower people to run children’s classes. Book Four encourages us to speak to people about the lives of the central figures of the faith as a way to inspire them to a new way of living. The lives of the Báb and His disciples, for example, unfold before our eyes a quality of moral heroism that  many profound thinkers lament is missing from modern life.  Zimbardo devotes the closing chapter of his book  The Lucifer Effect to describing ways of cultivating exactly that quality in the ordinary challenges of life. Susan Neiman describes examples of such heroism in her book Moral Clarity.

Civilisation-building is the underpinning purpose of the courses and it is seen to begin with small changes in our patterns of daily action. Again in a later book:

Book Six (page 11):

The world is in great turmoil, and its problems seem to become daily more acute. We should, therefore, not sit idle . . . Bahá’u’lláh has not given us His Teachings to treasure them and hide them for our personal delight and pleasure. He gave them to us that we may pass them from mouth to mouth, until all the world . . . . enjoys their blessings and uplifting influence.

(Shoghi Effendi, The Guardian: 27 March 1933)

Book Seven (page 67):

Children are the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future. They bear the seeds of the character of future society which is largely shaped by what the adults constituting the community do or fail to do with respect to children.

(Universal House of Justice: Ridván  2000)

The Purpose of the Core Activities

Many people has felt confused at times about the exact purpose of the ‘core activities.’ A member of the Universal House of Justice has reportedly offered the following clarification.

He gave the example of a glass. He said that while it is not inaccurate to say that the glass is transparent, it is evident that transparency is not the purpose of the glass. Transparency is one of the attributes of the glass, but its purpose is to hold liquid. Similarly, one of the attributes of our core activities is that they become instruments for teaching – but that is not their purpose. He stressed that the purpose of our core activities is to enable us to serve society and help “translate that which hath been written into reality and action”.

The primary purpose of our core activities is to raise our capacity to serve society, such that these activities become instruments for developing communities, and not merely instruments for teaching the Faith.

He encouraged the participants present at the seminar to re-look at the Ruhi Institute books from 1 – 7 with the eye of society and to reflect on how the concepts embedded in them could be used for social action and not just for the sake of bringing more people into the Faith.

He developed this further. It is clear that we need to imbue participants engaged in our core activities with a vision of social transformation as well as personal transformation. Now if someone were to ask us whether the purpose of our inviting them to join study circles is to make them Bahá’ís, we can confidently say ‘no’ and tell them that the purpose of our core activities is to assist in the transformation and betterment of society.

The next posts will look more closely at the nature and value of devotional meetings and the compelling need for the spiritual education and proper nurturing  of children.

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For source of image see link

For source of image see link

In the last post I began to share some thoughts about whether current economic theory could solve our problems. I had reached the point of beginning to look at whether capitalism can deliver us from the dangers we are drifting deeply into.

Possible Restraints?

Setting aside inequality, moderately rising living standards on their own can come with an excessively high price tag in terms of quality of life in general. An example that comes readily to my mind is that of China. Figures, as I remember them from about four years ago, indicated that economic growth had lifted 200 million Chinese people out of poverty, obviously a welcome development for all those who benefited. Part of what helped drive that growth was the building of coal fired power stations at the rate of roughly one per week. New cars were flooding onto the road in their thousands per week. During the same period nearly one million Chinese people were dying of pollution-related diseases per year, obviously not a welcome development for those affected. Yes, the Chinese economy is managed by a one-party state, but that does not devalue this as a good example of where untrammeled growth on a capitalist-style economic model can lead.

Therefore the question arises: ‘Do we have to exert ourselves to meet expectations of unsustainable living standards which have unacceptable consequences?’ Want is not the same as need.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

In their thought-provoking book Flourishing John Ehrenfeld and Andrew Hoffman put the matter bluntly (page 12):

“Humans have changed Earth’s ecosystems more in the past 50 years than in any comparable historical period.” We have increased species extinction rates up to a thousand times over rates typical for Earth’s history. Almost 25 per cent of the world’s most important marine fish stocks are depleted or over-harvested, while 44% are fished at their biological limit and vulnerable to collapse. As we extract the world’s riches, we contaminate its atmosphere, altering our global climate through the unabated emission of greenhouse gases.

And these impacts are not evenly distributed. According to the UN, the richest 20 per cent of the world’s population consumes over 75 per cent of all private goods and services, while the poorest 20 per cent and consume just 1.5 per cent. Of the 4.4 billion people in the developing world (more than half of the world’s population), almost 60 per cent lack access to safe sewers, 33 per cent have no access to clean water, 25 per cent lack adequate housing, and 30 per cent have no modern health services.

This inevitably leads to a consideration of the kinds of restraints that need to be placed upon a ‘free market.’ Basically how laissez faire can we afford to be about market forces?  Surely they have to be counterbalanced and constrained by other considerations including moral ones.

Even when we are at war, while we need to listen to the generals, we must also be aware of the need for the constraints we currently call the Geneva Convention. Just as war is clearly not a desirable permanent mode, the same may be true of capitalism and its attendant dependency upon growth. There has to be some kind of constraint on its operations. How tight would those measures be before advocates of the status quo ruled them out as an unacceptable dilution of capitalism?

A more radical shift?

Moreover, if evolutionary thinkers see us as capable of developing beyond revenge and competition, and see cooperation as equally wired in and more compelling perhaps, we can transcend what drives us to consume as well as what makes the idea of profit so irresistible.  If so, would capitalism be the only viable model still?

Even as it stands, there are models of economic activity that, within their own terms, operate on a somewhat different logic, for example distributing profits more equitably and giving some power to influence company decisions to workers and surrounding communities. Economics is evolving – natural resources are no longer treated in economic models as inexhaustible gifts that do not have to be taken into account when determining the long-term costs and viability of projects.

Jeremy Rifkin, whose book The Empathic Civilization I referred to last time, is advocating what he called ‘distributed capitalism.’ In brief he feels that (page 544):

. . . the simple reality is that distributed information technologies and a distributed communications and energy infrastructure are giving rise to distributed capitalism and necessitate a new type of management.

I will be returning to his thinking in far more detail in a later sequence of posts. Clearly socialism is not the only alternative to relatively unbridled capitalism.

There are, of course, those who contend that we must look beyond both socialism/communism and capitalism. John Fitzgerald Medina, for instance, in this thought-provoking book, Faith, Physics and Psychology, argues (page 230):

Both systems place undue importance on economics as the core of civilisation. . . . From a spiritual perspective, in spite of all their surface differences, capitalism and socialism, when applied in actual practice, have both been destructive to human beings, communities, and the environment.

He regards it as imperative that we develop an approach to economics that is rooted in moral and spiritual values. I will be revisiting his thinking in more detail at a later date.

Any attempt to suggest, as has been the case, that violence may have its roots in simple racism, with nothing added on from a divisive and competitive system, and that nothing does more to reduce violence and many other social ills than the rising standards of living that capitalism alone makes possible, is too simplistic. This is true even if we set aside how entangled the development of racism is with the slavery that made possible the rate of economic development America enjoyed. And also true even when we set aside the evidence that the current economic model in America, blended with its residual racism, is maintaining horrific levels of inequality and compromising the efficacy of the educational system to remedy that. I will be going into far more detail about that in a subsequent sequence of posts.

As hinted at last time, I have dealt at length on my blog with the sources of prejudice which include the disgust reflex (Hauser), the hive switch (Haidt), culture (Pettigrew), and there is more to group violence than prejudice as Zimbardo explains in The Lucifer Effect and Milgram suggested very early on in his repeatedly re-examined studies of obedience. So, violence is not reducible to racism, and racism is not simple.

I accept there are benefits to liberal democracy. However, there are reasons for believing that its party political divides may need to be transcended as no longer fit for purpose, and just as they were the result of evolutionary processes over long periods of time it seems likely that we are going to have to undergo similar processes to lift us further up the ladder of development, economic, political, and legal, to create structures and systems adequate to the world in which we now find ourselves. As the Bahá’í World Centre indicates, this will be the work of centuries. If we do not, we will find that our modes of operation are too simplistic for the global conditions that confront us just as other systems have been tested and found wanting in the past.

Whether the shift in economic systems will be one of degree or kind is not yet completely clear.  Certainly that a massive shift of some kind is required, is unarguable, in my view.

Emp Civil

Jeremy Rifkin sees his ideal of ‘distributed capitalism’ as being effective only in the context of ‘biosphere consciousness’ (pages 598-99):

Our dawning awareness that the Earth functions like an indivisible organism requires us to rethink our notions of global risks, vulnerability, and security. If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are intertwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism. Carrying out that responsibility means living out our individual lives in our neighbourhood communities in ways that promote the general well-being of the larger biosphere within which we dwell.

I will have more to say about the adequacy of that motivator when I look at Rifkin’s thinking in more detail in a later sequence of posts.

The Bahá’í view is that our civilisation is at a tipping point and a fundamental change of focus is demanded of us. It is not a question of replacing money as a driving force, nor even about efficiency in some narrow sense. It is to do with consciousness-raising. A statement from the Bahá’í World Centre on social action explains:

In addition to a sound financial system, the question of efficiency needs attention. What should be avoided are limited conceptions of efficiency, for instance, those that consider only the relation of output to material input, even when the latter includes some quantitative measure of effort. A more sophisticated understanding of efficiency seems to be required. With regard to input, for example, work that is motivated by a spirit of service and an inner urge to excel clearly has a different value than work that is used as a vehicle to advance one’s personal interests. As to results, to give another example, the accomplishment of a particular task—say, the construction of a small facility for a school—may be far less important than the development of the participants’ capacity to cooperate and engage in unified action.

Such a shift of consciousness, as Rifkin, Medina and the Bahá’í model fully recognise, has to be part of a wider shift in understanding. For Rifkin this is a secular shift still in terms of biosphere consciousness: for Bahá’ís there has to be a spiritual dimension that enables us to see that our connection with other human beings and with the life-world goes deeper and higher than biology alone.

But that will be the subject of longer and later sequences of posts.

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The Cudgel Fight (for source of image see link)

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

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

Are we locked in a fight to the death?

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

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

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

Beyond the Culture of Contest

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

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

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

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

Which brings me onto the third point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nor are these the only perspectives on our tendency to violence and how to remedy it. Being oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. Following on from the possibly flawed but none the less illuminating Milgram studies of obedience, Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘).

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

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

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

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

Robert WrightIs Capitalism really the answer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the second of the sequence: the first was published yesterday

Ruling passion

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

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

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

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

Samuel Johnson (for source of image see link)

they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tolerant Devotion

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

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

The implications are fascinating.

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

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

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

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

A Possible Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Blake: Songs of Experience Additional Poem

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the first of three posts on consecutive days.

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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