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Posts Tagged ‘terror’

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

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

Labelling, Denigration, Dehumanising and Genocide

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

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

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

This same process can be seen in a slightly difference form as John Fitzgerald Medina explains in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology. He unpacks how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and about how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. The Nazis, as well as highly esteemed figures in American history, justified their self-serving actions by invoking the notion that Africans and Native Americans were inherently inferior, an ideology of racism that persists in America and to some extent in Europe to this day, potential seeds of future denigration and genocide if we do not find effective means of transforming our collective consciousness. The diverse reactions, some of them very negative, towards the current influx of refugees suggests we might still have a long way to go before we are cleansed of racism and would never again be tempted towards ethnic cleansing of some kind at some point if we thought it served our purposes effectively enough.

Ricard in his book on altruism also deals in some detail with how certain social and psychological factors can distance us from the humanity of others and lead to extremes of cruelty and mass killings (cf especially Chapter 30 – Dehumanising the Other) even though there is a deep-seated natural revulsion against killing our own kind (Chapter 29). While it is hard to predict in any given situation what proportion of a population will actively participate in a pogrom, if we can convince ourselves the other is not human our reluctance to kill can be overcome with horrific consequences. This remains true to this day and we would be wise not to forget it. A recent BBC radio programme featured a scholar who had investigated in depth the thinking of groups such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda. He pointed out that the division, made in the minds of followers of these two terrorist organisations, between believers and unbelievers (kafirs) was absolute. They are two separate kinds of being, and therefore only the believer is fully human and deserving of compassion.

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

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

The Toxic Effects of Inequality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Attitude to Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Another post it seems timely to republish, though an election campaign may or may not be an issue of immediate concern right now. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. 

As we see the election campaign just beginning to hot up, even at its most passionate it will be a far more benign affair than the political processes in less democratic countries tend to be. So far, so good – and something to be thankful for probably.

However, when we see the increasing scepticism of the average voter about our political process and boggle at the ineptitude of our representatives in parliament as they bungle their efforts to respond to the complex and often global problems that confront us, we are driven to ask how much faith should we have in such a divided, parochial and partisan system? Maybe we don’t help them do much better by our insistence on decisive clarity when a more measured caution would be more appropriate.

There are various factors underpinning this need of ours.

Politics as Security Blanket

One of the seemingly most compelling, which may have been recently working overtime in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, is that we may feel safer if we can deceive ourselves into believing our leaders know how to protect us and we may vote for them in consequence.

Life is a risky business. Emily Dickinson nailed our feeling of unease about this in a short poem:

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea –

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch –
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience –

When we are given any additional reason to be terrified, things can go badly wrong especially if our leaders lose their heads as well and/or simply exploit our fears to stay in power. Dan Gardner points out:

In reality, the fact that a politician may have something to gain by promoting a threat does not mean he or she does not believe the threat is real.

(Risk: page 143)

Sarah Bakewell describes Montaigne‘s view of how terror may distort our thinking into cruel and tyrannical shapes:

As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional  legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance.

Does that sound a touch familiar? Montaigne protested when it happened in his day and

. . . . pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain – and that, besides, it was ‘putting a very high price on one’s conjectures’ to have someone roasted alive on their account.

(How to Live: page 209)

Dan Gardner suggests, however, that the evidence may not unequivocally support the benefits of exploiting the fears of the electorate. He quotes a study that looked at the use of positive and negative emotions in adverts targeted at either well-informed or ill-informed potential voters:

. . . the effect of the emotional ‘enthusiasm’ ad was universal – it influenced everybody, whether they knew anything about politics or not. But the effect of the fear-based ad was divided. It did not boost the rate at which those who knew less about politics said they would get involved. But it did significantly influence those who knew more – making them much more likely to say they would volunteer and vote.

(Risk: page 147)

Conviction gets things done

If fear is not the main or only reason we respond well to decisive clarity in our leaders even when the problems we face are so complex such clarity is almost certainly self-deceiving, what else might be at work?

Perhaps we respond well to conviction, even if simplistic, because it promises to get things done. Obviously someone without any convictions at all is likely to be too paralysed by indecision to act at all. Not a good person then to have at the helm in a crisis. We look for people who share our frustration at the gap between how things are and how we feel they ought to be.

Susan Neiman is very good at pointing out what an effective driving force for good this discontent can be:

The demand is . . . not to abandon the ideals of our youth. . . . . . [W]hat you must abandon is the naive belief that they can be completely fulfilled. The abyss that separates is from ought is too deep to bridge entirely; the most we can hope to do is narrow it.

(Moral Clarity: pages 161-162)

And she clearly feels that it is right and proper that we do so.

What she says next gives us a clear glimpse of the dangers:

. . . the wish to bring the is and the ought together may imply a wish to be God, but it makes perfect sense.

(Op. Cit.: page 162)

This brings us to the point that Jonathan Haidt deals with so well in his brilliant book The Happiness Hypothesis.

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 proportion of violence at the individual level, but to get a really mass atrocity going you need idealism – the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

(Pages 75-76)

Montaigne apparently also had an interesting take on this;

Renaissance readers fetishised extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love. In all three pursuits, Montaigne seems to have had an inner thermostat which switched him off as soon as the temperature rose beyond a certain point. . . . [H]e valued friendship more than passion. ‘Transcendental humours frighten me,’ he said. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘goodwill’ – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration.

(How to Live: page 200)

In other posts I have already explored the dangers of conviction.  There are also obvious difficulties in asserting uncertainty as of any value in a politician. So where do these insights take us? Is there any way of avoiding the pitfalls of zealotry without crashing into the abyss of ineffectual indifference?

I think there is.

Widening the Moral Imagination

Robert Wright’s fascinating book The Evolution of God, in its closing pages, discusses a concept that might prove helpful to us here.

. . . 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.

(Page 429)

And, because the book concerns God and religion, he concludes:

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

(Page 430)

It is important to emphasise one crucial point. Here he is referring to a salvation of the whole world that is objectively so, not just so in the fanatical imagination of some partisan sect bent on imposing its will by force on the rest of us. On that basis I would wish to extend that conclusion to every ideology including those of the major political parties represented in the UK Parliament even if they would wish to substitute some term such as ‘benefit’ for the word ‘salvation’ drenched as the latter is in religious associations.

Wright’s idea or ideal of expanding ‘the moral imagination’ would imply that what gives us our sense of certainty, in that case, and our drive to change things would also make us more tentative (i.e. less arrogant) in our understanding and more compassionate of others. It would at the same time  enable us to recognise more effectively potentially dangerous limitations in our own and other people’s views and combat them vigorously but humanely.

Present day party politics doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants. Michael Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly:

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

(Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46)

He describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the  Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is:

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

(Page 131: my emphasis)

This insight that the whole of humanity is interconnected – is one family as it were – and our sense of the need to devise ways of expressing that understanding in our political processes, would give us the means to judge the value of our politicians as individuals rather than as party members – we might be asking not how good a Tory they are or Liberal but rather how broad are their sympathies and how widely do they identify with all humanity as against some small sub-group? We might not be as concerned to ensure that they are promising to promote our particular interests but rather to know that they see the well-being of all peoples as the central issue.

This is antithetical to the partisan spirit of party politics which by definition owes its existence to an identification with some interest group or other.  Maybe though this system of government is well past its sell-by date. The problems that face us are too global in reach and affect us all too significantly, though in different ways, for any single and simplistic perspective to provide the required solutions.

I am not even probing in this brief post other unhelpful dynamics within our current system such as how the dependency on the popular vote places the candidate for election in a double bind: (s)he must promise both to cut our taxes and increase our services. In mental health, a double bind was thought to be linked to the creation of psychotic states in the growing child: in this different situation perhaps we end up with quasi-delusional ones.

We need a shared global vision and a strong sense of common humanity if we are to move beyond the mess we see around us. Somehow I don’t see any political party, with its limited views, coming up with the answers we need. But – and maybe it is a big but – it needs many more of us to stand up for something bigger and better before the sustainers of the present system will expand their horizons beyond what they imagine are our immediate interests. They will continue to pander to us with their inadequate fictions as long as we continue to pander to them in return with our votes or our indifference.

Maybe there really is a third way. I think there is if enough of us believe there is.

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interrogation_room_by_cold_levian1Last Wednesday, an article in the Guardian described a flawed piece of research suggesting that support for torture is widespread in the States. I’ll be reposting tomorrow and the day after a review of a book, from nearly two years back, that conclusively demonstrates, at least to my mind, that no form of torture will ever be effective no matter how acceptable we manage to persuade ourselves it is. The Guardian post ends on a similar note. Below is an short extract: for the full post see link.

According to a new poll, two out of every three American adults believe that torture against suspected terrorists can be justified. The survey is timely; it was conducted between 22 and 28 March, the same week that terrorist attacks took place in Brussels and the same week that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed that torture might have effectively deterred those terrorists.

The question, which was put to 1,976 adults in a survey by Ipsos and Reuters this week, asked if respondents felt that torture to obtain information about terrorism activities could be justified.

The results, however, should be read with some caution.

At no point during the survey was the word torture defined. If respondents had been given specific torture techniques used by the US government – techniques such as rectal feeding or confinement in a box – their answers may have differed. Their responses might also have changed if they had been presented with a visual image of the torture that they were asked to consider.

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Mixed Dictators v5I’ve not had the time recently to keep up with my reading of all the current on-line articles dealing with topics of interest to me, but this one, by , I just had to read straightaway no matter what I put on hold. Snyder is Housum professor of history at Yale University.

Because I grew up in the shadow of the Second World War, and my nightmares were peopled with members of the Gestapo out for my blood, the title grabbed my attention immediately. Once I began reading I found his argument compelling. It maps almost exactly onto my attempts more fully to understand Nazism and the Holocaust, and fills in some gaps in a way I have never read before. It deals with two out of my three nightmare scenarios: Hitler and Stalin, but not Mao. It also shows me how my bête noire of the reptilian instinct within us can be terrifyingly exploited if politicians get the chance to create a strong sense of emergency, whether justified or not, and can then identify a seemingly credible and convenient scapegoat. It’s a long read but a necessary one. No matter how far we feel we have travelled since the war and how much we feel we have learned, we may still be blind enough to fall into the same abyss again. I will almost certainly be buying his book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. (Shortly after writing this I headed to town and bought my copy. So far it’s delivering on its promise: it’s thorough in its analysis but completely accessible.) Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

It was 20 years after I chose to become a historian that I first saw a photograph of the woman who made my career possible. In the small photograph that my doctoral supervisor, her son, showed me in his Warsaw apartment, Wanda J radiates self-possession, a quality that stood her in good stead during the Nazi occupation. She was a Jewish mother who protected herself and her two sons from the German campaign of mass murder that killed almost all of her fellow Warsaw Jews. When her family was summoned to the ghetto, she refused to go. She moved her children from place to place, relying upon the help of friends, acquaintances and strangers. When first the ghetto and then the rest of the city of Warsaw were burned to the ground, what counted, she thought, was the “faultless moral instinct” of the people who chose to help Jews.

Most of us would like to think that we possess a “moral instinct”. Perhaps we imagine that we would be rescuers in some future catastrophe. Yet if states were destroyed, local institutions corrupted and economic incentives directed towards murder, few of us would behave well. There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realised. A historian must be grateful to Wanda J for her courage and for the trace of herself that she left behind. But a historian must also consider why rescuers were so few. It is all too easy to fantasise that we, too, would have aided Wanda J. Separated from National Socialism by time and luck, we can dismiss Nazi ideas without contemplating how they functioned. It is our very forgetfulness of the circumstances of the Holocaust that convinces us that we are different from Nazis and shrouds the ways that we are the same. We share Hitler’s planet and some of his preoccupations; we have perhaps changed less than we think.

The Holocaust began with the idea that no human instinct was moral. Hitler described humans as members of races doomed to eternal and bloody struggle among themselves for finite resources. Hitler denied that any idea, be it religious, philosophical or political, justified seeing the other (or loving the other) as oneself. He claimed that conventional forms of ethics were Jewish inventions, and that conventional states would collapse during the racial struggle. Hitler specifically, and quite wrongly, denied that agricultural technology could alter the relationship between people and nourishment.

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For source of image see link

For source of image see link

I have embarked 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 will be republishing earlier posts on related topics as this sequence of posts unfolds. Below is a post from 2010, slightly amended and of particular relevance right now. 

As we see the election campaign just beginning to hot up, even at its most passionate it will be a far more benign affair than the political processes in less democratic countries tend to be. So far, so good – and something to be thankful for probably.

However, when we see the increasing scepticism of the average voter about our political process and boggle at the ineptitude of our representatives in parliament as they bungle their efforts to respond to the complex and often global problems that confront us, we are driven to ask how much faith should we have in such a divided, parochial and partisan system? Maybe we don’t help them do much better by our insistence on decisive clarity when a more measured caution would be more appropriate.

There are various factors underpinning this need of ours.

Politics as Security Blanket

One of the seemingly most compelling, which may have been recently working overtime in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, is that we may feel safer if we can deceive ourselves into believing our leaders know how to protect us and we may vote for them in consequence.

Life is a risky business. Emily Dickinson nailed our feeling of unease about this in a short poem:

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea –

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch –
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience –

When we are given any additional reason to be terrified, things can go badly wrong especially if our leaders lose their heads as well and/or simply exploit our fears to stay in power. Dan Gardner points out:

In reality, the fact that a politician may have something to gain by promoting a threat does not mean he or she does not believe the threat is real.

(Risk: page 143)

Sarah Bakewell describes Montaigne‘s view of how terror may distort our thinking into cruel and tyrannical shapes:

As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional  legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance.

Does that sound a touch familiar? Montaigne protested when it happened in his day and

. . . .pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain – and that, besides, it was ‘putting a very high price on one’s conjectures’ to have someone roasted alive on their account.

(How to Live: page 209)

Dan Gardner suggests, however, that the evidence may not unequivocally support the benefits of exploiting the fears of the electorate. He quotes a study that looked at the use of positive and negative emotions in adverts targeted at either well-informed or ill-informed potential voters:

. . . the effect of the emotional ‘enthusiasm’ ad was universal – it influenced everybody, whether they knew anything about politics or not. But the effect of the fear-based ad was divided. It did not boost the rate at which those who knew less about politics said they would get involved. But it did significantly influence those who knew more – making them much more likely to say they would volunteer and vote.

(Risk: page 147)

Conviction gets things done

If fear is not the main or only reason we respond well to decisive clarity in our leaders even when the problems we face are so complex such clarity is almost certainly self-deceiving, what else might be at work?

Perhaps we respond well to conviction, even if simplistic, because it promises to get things done. Obviously someone without any convictions at all is likely to be too paralysed by indecision to act at all. Not a good person then to have at the helm in a crisis. We look for people who share our frustration at the gap between how things are and how we feel they ought to be.

Susan Neiman is very good at pointing out what an effective driving force for good this discontent can be:

The demand is . . . not to abandon the ideals of our youth. . . . . . [W]hat you must abandon is the naive belief that they can be completely fulfilled. The abyss that separates is from ought is too deep to bridge entirely; the most we can hope to do is narrow it.

(Moral Clarity: pages 161-162)

And she clearly feels that it is right and proper that we do so.

What she says next gives us a clear glimpse of the dangers:

. . . the wish to bring the is and the ought together may imply a wish to be God, but it makes perfect sense.

(Op. Cit.: page 162)

This brings us to the point that Jonathan Haidt deals with so well in his brilliant book The Happiness Hypothesis.

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 proportion of violence at the individual level, but to get a really mass atrocity going you need idealism – the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

(Pages 75-76)

Montaigne apparently also had an interesting take on this;

Renaissance readers fetishised extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love. In all three pursuits, Montaigne seems to have had an inner thermostat which switched him off as soon as the temperature rose beyond a certain point. . . . [H]e valued friendship more than passion. ‘Transcendental humours frighten me,’ he said. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘goodwill’ – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration.

(How to Live: page 200)

In other posts I have already explored the dangers of conviction.  There are also obvious difficulties in asserting uncertainty as of any value in a politician. So where do these insights take us? Is there any way of avoiding the pitfalls of zealotry without crashing into the abyss of ineffectual indifference?

I think there is.

Widening the Moral Imagination

Robert Wright’s fascinating book The Evolution of God, in its closing pages, discusses a concept that might prove helpful to us here.

. . . 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.

(Page 429)

And, because the book concerns God and religion, he concludes:

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

(Page 430)

It is important to emphasise one crucial point. Here he is referring to a salvation of the whole world that is objectively so, not just so in the fanatical imagination of some partisan sect bent on imposing its will by force on the rest of us. On that basis I would wish to extend that conclusion to every ideology including those of the major political parties represented in the UK Parliament even if they would wish to substitute some term such as ‘benefit’ for the word ‘salvation’ drenched as the latter is in religious associations.

Wright’s idea or ideal of expanding ‘the moral imagination’ would imply that what gives us our sense of certainty, in that case, and our drive to change things would also make us more tentative (i.e. less arrogant) in our understanding and more compassionate of others. It would at the same time  enable us to recognise more effectively potentially dangerous limitations in our own and other people’s views and combat them vigorously but humanely.

Present day party politics doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants. Michael Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly:

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

(Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46)

He describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the  Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is:

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

(Page 131: my emphasis)

This insight that the whole of humanity is interconnected – is one family as it were – and our sense of the need to devise ways of expressing that understanding in our political processes, would give us the means to judge the value of our politicians as individuals rather than as party members – we might be asking not how good a Tory they are or Liberal but rather how broad are their sympathies and how widely do they identify with all humanity as against some small sub-group? We might not be as concerned to ensure that they are promising to promote our particular interests but rather to know that they see the well-being of all peoples as the central issue.

This is antithetical to the partisan spirit of party politics which by definition owes its existence to an identification with some interest group or other.  Maybe though this system of government is well past its sell-by date. The problems that face us are too global in reach and affect us all too significantly, though in different ways, for any single and simplistic perspective to provide the required solutions.

I am not even probing in this brief post other unhelpful dynamics within our current system such as how the dependency on the popular vote places the candidate for election in a double bind: (s)he must promise both to cut our taxes and increase our services. In mental health, a double bind was thought to be linked to the creation of psychotic states in the growing child: in this different situation perhaps we end up with quasi-delusional ones.

We need a shared global vision and a strong sense of common humanity if we are to move beyond the mess we see around us. Somehow I don’t see any political party, with its limited views, coming up with the answers we need. But – and maybe it is a big but – it needs many more of us to stand up for something bigger and better before the sustainers of the present system will expand their horizons beyond what they imagine are our immediate interests. They will continue to pander to us with their inadequate fictions as long as we continue to pander to them in return with our votes or our indifference.

Maybe there really is a third way. I think there is if enough of us believe there is.

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guns and rosaries

To coincide with yesterday’s publication of her new book – Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence – Karen Armstrong has written an interesting if not completely convincing piece for the Guardian. There is an equally interesting riposte by Noel Malcolm in the Telegraph which my good friend, Barney, alerted me to. I plan to share that tomorrow. 

I think each of them make valuable points. However, for me they fail to address clearly a fundamental aspect of the problem which Jonathan Haidt puts his finger on. Idealism, no matter how valuable it may be in many ways, can become fertile soil for murder and torture. Once you believe anything to strongly that the ends come to justify any means whatsoever you’re sunk in iniquity – an issue I have reblogged about recently. The other factors they adduce can all play a part in the toxic mix, and be used as justifications or act as triggers. None the less, if you remove over-identification with an ideology you significantly reduce the risk of an epidemic of atrocities. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is religious or secular.

Still what she says deserves careful consideration in my view as does Malcolm’s response. We need all the help we can get to reach a deeper understanding of the processes that lead to such senseless slaughter.

Below is an extract: for the full and lengthy post, see link.

As we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century. The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants. Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.

The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence. The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”. Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.

Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion. Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logical solution to their current problems? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion.

But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace.

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As we see the election campaign hotting up, even at its most passionate it will be a far more benign affair than the political processes in less democratic countries tend to be. So far, so good – and something to be thankful for probably.

However, when we see the increasing scepticism of the average voter about our political process and boggle at the ineptitude of our representatives in parliament as they bungle their efforts to respond to the complex and often global problems that confront us, we are driven to ask how much faith should we have in such a divided, parochial and partisan system? Maybe we don’t help them do much better by our insistence on decisive clarity when a more measured caution would be more appropriate.

There are various factors underpinning this need of ours.

Politics as Security Blanket

One of the seemingly most compelling, which may have been recently working overtime in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, is that we may feel safer if we can deceive ourselves into believing our leaders know how to protect us and we may vote for them in consequence.

Life is a risky business. Emily Dickinson nailed our feeling of unease about this in a short poem:

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea –

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch –
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience –

When we are given any additional reason to be terrified, things can go badly wrong especially if our leaders lose their heads as well and/or simply exploit our fears to stay in power. Dan Gardner points out:

In reality, the fact that a politician may have something to gain by promoting a threat does not mean he or she does not believe the threat is real.

(Risk: page 143)

Sarah Bakewell describes Montaigne‘s view of how terror may distort our thinking into cruel and tyrannical shapes:

As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional  legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance.

Does that sound a touch familiar? Montaigne protested when it happened in his day and

. . . .pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain – and that, besides, it was ‘putting a very high price on one’s conjectures’ to have someone roasted alive on their account.

(How to Live: page 209)

Dan Gardner suggests, however, that the evidence may not unequivocally support the benefits of exploiting the fears of the electorate. He quotes a study that looked at the use of positive and negative emotions in adverts targeted at either well-informed or ill-informed potential voters:

. . . the effect of the emotional ‘enthusiasm’ ad was universal – it influenced everybody, whether they knew anything about politics or not. But the effect of the fear-based ad was divided. It did not boost the rate at which those who knew less about politics said they would get involved. But it did significantly influence those who knew more – making them much more likely to say they would volunteer and vote.

(Risk: page 147)

Conviction gets things done

If fear is not the main or only reason we respond well to decisive clarity in our leaders even when the problems we face are so complex such clarity is almost certainly self-deceiving, what else might be at work?

Perhaps we respond well to conviction, even if simplistic, because it promises to get things done. Obviously someone without any convictions at all is likely to be too paralysed by indecision to act at all. Not a good person then to have at the helm in a crisis. We look for people who share our frustration at the gap between how things are and how we feel they ought to be.

Susan Neiman is very good at pointing out what an effective driving force for good this discontent can be:

The demand is . . . not to abandon the ideals of our youth. . . . . . [W]hat you must abandon is the naive belief that they can be completely fulfilled. The abyss that separates is from ought is too deep to bridge entirely; the most we can hope to do is narrow it.

(Moral Clarity: pages 161-162)

And she clearly feels that it is right and proper that we do so.

What she says next gives us a clear glimpse of the dangers:

. . . the wish to bring the is and the ought together may imply a wish to be God, but it makes perfect sense.

(Op. Cit.: page 162)

This brings us to the point that Jonathan Haidt deals with so well in his brilliant book The Happiness Hypothesis.

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 proportion of violence at the individual level, but to get a really mass atrocity going you need idealism – the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

(Pages 75-76)

Montaigne apparently also had an interesting take on this;

Renaissance readers fetishised extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love. In all three pursuits, Montaigne seems to have had an inner thermostat which switched him off as soon as the temperature rose beyond a certain point. . . . [H]e valued friendship more than passion. ‘Transcendental humours frighten me,’ he said. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘goodwill’ – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration.

(How to Live: page 200)

In other posts I have already explored the dangers of conviction.  There are also obvious difficulties in asserting uncertainty as of any value in a politician. So where do these insights take us? Is there any way of avoiding the pitfalls of zealotry without crashing into the abyss of ineffectual indifference?

I think there is.

Widening the Moral Imagination

Robert Wright’s fascinating book The Evolution of God, in its closing pages, discusses a concept that might prove helpful to us here.

. . . 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.

(Page 429)

And, because the book concerns God and religion, he concludes:

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

(Page 430)

It is important to emphasise one crucial point. Here he is referring to a salvation of the whole world that is objectively so, not just so in the fanatical imagination of some partisan sect bent on imposing its will by force on the rest of us. On that basis I would wish to extend that conclusion to every ideology including those of the major political parties represented in the UK Parliament even if they would wish to substitute some term such as ‘benefit’ for the word ‘salvation’ drenched as the latter is in religious associations.

Wright’s idea or ideal of expanding ‘the moral imagination’ would imply that what gives us our sense of certainty, in that case, and our drive to change things would also make us more tentative (i.e. less arrogant) in our understanding and more compassionate of others. It would at the same time  enable us to recognise more effectively potentially dangerous limitations in our own and other people’s views and combat them vigorously but humanely.

Present day party politics doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants. Michael Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly:

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

(Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46)

He describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the  Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is:

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

(Page 131: my emphasis)

This insight that the whole of humanity is interconnected – is one family as it were – and our sense of the need to devise ways of expressing that understanding in our political processes, would give us the means to judge the value of our politicians as individuals rather than as party members – we might be asking not how good a Tory they are or Liberal but rather how broad are their sympathies and how widely do they identify with all humanity as against some small sub-group? We might not be as concerned to ensure that they are promising to promote our particular interests but rather to know that they see the well-being of all peoples as the central issue.

This is antithetical to the partisan spirit of party politics which by definition owes its existence to an identification with some interest group or other.  Maybe though this system of government is well past its sell-by date. The problems that face us are too global in reach and affect us all too significantly, though in different ways, for any single and simplistic perspective to provide the required solutions.

We need a shared global vision and a strong sense of common humanity if we are to move beyond the mess we see around us. Somehow I don’t see any political party, with its limited views, coming up with the answers we need. But – and maybe it is a big but – it needs many more of us to stand up for something bigger and better before the sustainers of the present system will expand their horizons beyond what they imagine are our immediate interests. They will continue to pander to us with their inadequate fictions as long as we continue to pander to them in return with our votes or our indifference.

Maybe there really is a third way. I think there is if enough of us believe there is.

Read Full Post »