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We’re going to need a bigger boat.
Love and Hate
We are hard-wired for deep empathy with our ‘brothers and sisters’…even brothers and sisters well outside narrow family connections.
We are hard-wired to hate and even kill anyone we feel threatens us and our people. Empathy freezes. Antipathy switches on.
The same neurotransmitter, oxytocin, is likely central to both reactions.
Robert Sapolsky, primatologist and neuroendocrinologist, lays it out very clearly here. I highly suggest watching it. Jump to 4:30 if you must but the whole video is, imho, essential for anyone trying to understand the play of instincts that shape contemporary politics.
Good Tribe / Bad Tribe
This article is a companion piece to my article good tribe / bad tribe — nerdcore mix that lays out the science describing the evolutionary path that got us here.
Each of the two articles starts more or less where the other left off.
The connection points?
- We evolved cooperating in lethal competition with other Sapien groups. This has left us with a signaling system that pits compassion with genocidal antipathy.
- There is a path out
Longer Now, Wider Here, Bigger Us
Thinking about the difference between a very ‘small here’ and a larger one, it occurred to him that time was being treated similarly.
I noticed that this very local attitude to space in New York paralleled a similarly limited attitude to time. Everything was exciting, fast, current, and temporary. Enormous buildings came and went, careers rose and crashed in weeks. You rarely got the feeling that anyone had the time to think two years ahead, let alone ten or a hundred. Everyone seemed to be passing through. It was undeniably lively, but the downside was that it seemed selfish, irresponsible and randomly dangerous. I came to think of this as “The Short Now”, and this suggested the possibility of its opposite — “The Long Now”.
Brian describes the Short Now elsewhere as a “lack of empathy for the future.”
There’s a piece missing. Certainly, we lack empathy for the future, but it’s a corollary of the missing third leg.
We need to add a Bigger Us to the Wider Here and Longer Now.
As Sapolsky noted, both the Small Us and the Big Us share a root in our evolved ability to connect emphatically with other people.
Past, Present, Future
Politics is organized hatred.
— Henry Adams
So, we have inherited cognitive bias to divide the world quickly into Us and Them. This arose and has been preserved because, for much of our evolutionary history, we would be dead without it. (For details, see my companion article.)
We survived our lethal competition with other groups by being able to ‘out cooperate’ them. Survival has been more or less a team sport for the last million years. The neurotransmitters that drove the impulse behind our cooperative and competitive cognitive biases were intertwined precisely for this reason. When competition was the most dangerous, our need to cooperate was the most intense.
The term ‘cognitive bias’ for what happens is a little bloodless. Mary Gauthier’s ‘Soldering On’ communicates some of the feel. (The lyrics are part of a project working with veterans to expresses their experience in song.)
One of the major dangers to any group of humans was other groups of humans. That has not completely changed.
But now our inability to find fellow feeling beyond narrow tribal borders is a much bigger threat.
A Bigger Us is central to our survival as a species.
Some Assembly Required
Now we have a problem. The history of nationalism and racism demonstrates the intractability of our gut-level Us vs Them reactions — and perhaps more importantly, how easy it is to exploit or mobilize that politically.
Where’s the dynamic that can lift some individuals, and perhaps all of us, out of small warring tribes into one universalone?
There is, regrettably, no one-size-fits-all prescription.
But we do have another evolved system that can help knit us together — provided we do the work.
This ‘evolved system’ is an integrating function that can generate a path forward through our fault lines: personal, cultural, and species-wide.
As a species of disjoint parts, we have evolved a powerful function that knits us together. This function can be consciously enhanced. Jung describes this as individual integration. Campbell describes it as cultural renewal won often through personal sacrifice.
(The first draft of this section started with a deeper look at the Jung/Campbell dynamic. When the length spun out of control, I split it out into a separate piece also on Medium. See Carl Jung — Building Self: Bliss, Disquiet, Enlightenment, and False Satoris)
Working on A Bigger Us
Our inability to find common purpose across our various tribes (ethnicity, nationality, gender, class) may be the crippling and critical fault line of our time.
If culture has an integrating dynamic, we would expect to find people, deep into the fracture, working with truth-telling and paths forward. Campbell predicts heroes — and there are.
I have a theory that I call Religious Genius.
The golden way is to be friends with the world and to regard the whole human family as one.
-Mahatma Gandhi (2005). “All Men Are Brothers”, p.115, A&C Black
There are people I consider recent exemplars of ‘religious genius.’ Two are pictured above. We acknowledge that there are people who have outstanding abilities (and motivation) in science, art, sports, and so on.
I believe there are people with genius in the ‘spiritual’ realm. The grounding of their performance is a deep connection with the ethical and existential challenges before us and a high-level view of our culture and history.
Formalizing the theory a bit: just as a pop of insight can give a possible solution to, say, a coding problem or a challenge building something, so a ‘pop’ of insight can show a path forward across a deep cultural divide.
- Tension — a challenge embraced. The bigger the challenge the more difficult but necessary is its embodiment in the thoughts and emotions of the individual working with it.
- Release — a solution ‘emerges’ from engagement. In the case of the biggest culture or species-wide challenges, the solution emerges from deep within the self. We need to mobilize more than our everyday self; the answer has to be as big as the question.
Intuition is the ability to imagine a path forward through some puzzle.
Religious genius is super-intuition working with a long view and the deep contradictions we embody as a species. A look down the corridors of future history.
Continuum and distinctions
While solving a ‘deep’ coding problem requires a bit of OCD and a few days or weeks, working with cultural contradiction are magnum opuses. They require being on the front line of an issue, much more time, and typically a price paid in individual suffering and sacrifice.
The contradictions in play are change and violence, us and them, individual benefit vs species survival.
But with deep involvement, a deep resolution is sometimes possible.
To restate, our intuition, spurred by minor contradictions, can often provide the hop to a solution. Similarly, spurred by deep contradictions, our intuition can sometimes provide a long view forward through the terrain of possible futures. We glimpse a path along the ridge of possibility between chasms of disaster.
Using Martin Luther King, Jr’s phrasing, we can catch a glimpse from the mountaintop.
In the case of Martin Luther King, Jr, he not only registered the necessary path forward but the likelihood that it would be personally fatal.
And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
-Martin Luther King, Jr (1968) “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop“
Delivered the day before his assassination
It is worth noting that the view from the mountaintop almost invariably sees one-ness, connection, common purpose, and unity of all ‘sentient beings.’
In 1957, well before our understanding of the climate crisis became clear and a pandemic reminded us of the interconnection of all peoples, he remarked:
But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men.
This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.
-Martin Luther King, Jr (1957) “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma”
No One is Going to Save Us…
The session opened with a story by Ms. Deterline. She related deciding to get past her discomfort with communication across racial divides and signing up for a week-long training. The audience was a mix and the trainer a male person of color.
Near the end of day one, a woman stood up and pointed out that all the material had been addressed to the White members of the audience and that her experience as a Black woman had been excluded. The trainer assured her that that would change the following day.
Towards the end of day two, the woman stood up again and pointed out that things had not changed. Then a second woman stood up enraged that a workshop she joined to work past anger had written her out of the script…in a workshop advertised to do exactly the opposite! Then a third Black woman stood up and continued with an angry tirade about what she had experienced (not just in the workshop), and how it had felt. The trainer tried to reign things in…by doing all the things he had been warning against the last two days…and, finally, just gave up and sat down with three days left to go.
Ms. Deterline’s reaction: “Oh my God, no one is going to save us!”
Save us…from ourselves
Where does all this leave me?
I’m probably not the right person to offer specific techniques. There are people (like Deterline and Harris) that have actual experience in how to forge the needed changes in particular contexts.
I do, however, feel competent to offer a few observations:
- First, the challenge is not dismissable. There’s no out, only through.
It is literally beneath the skin. We have a biological signaling system that, before we are conscious of it, types some people as Us and others as Them.
- Second, working with people’s frustration necessarily makes us uncomfortable — particularly if we might be a source of that frustration.
The situation might be as dramatic as that described above. More commonly, it could be a work meeting or everyday social interaction.
It is always more comfortable to settle back and work with someone we type as an Us. Our signaling system supports that. When dealing with a Them, we’re not sure their motives are trustworthy or their behavior predictable. Empathy here is harder work.
The uncomfortable path is the path forward.
- Third, the judo is that the Us/Them distinction is fungible.
Sapolsky points out that Us vs Them can easily shift to create, for example, a multi-ethnic Us that supports the same football team. The identity of Them isn’t baked in any more than we’re born knowing a particular language. Early in life, we have a genetic impulse to learn languages but the specific content that fills out that impulse varies. Similar hardwiring exists for Us vs Them, but unlike our language instinct that fades through adolescence, our Thems remain vivid but can vary from moment to moment throughout our life.
Save us…from our history
But now we arrive at the cultural level.
We have the ability to disconnect empathy in a manner that has historically been lethal to other groups of people.
Some of those people, true, were genuinely warring on us. That’s where the signaling system came from, after all.
However, many, perhaps most, Thems were targeted because of their relative powerlessness by people that gained politically and economically from preaching to Us against the Thems.
We are enmeshed in a legacy of political exploitation grounded in our cognitive bias. We have baked in a systemic disadvantage between groups based on ethnicity, skin color, gender, or class. We have papered that over with stories about how it’s not so bad…or how it’s based on some reality of difference…or how it’s not our personal doing so not our problem.
When those stories fail, a chasm opens beneath our feet.
And Here We Are
One of my favorite writers in the Jung/Campbell analytic space is Micheal Meade. Insights from people in this space are framed in terms of myth and dream and, noting that similar stories can empower both, they blur the distinction between personal integration and cultural transformation.
Meade observes that if change can’t arrive through a positive process then it is forced onto the Via Negativa — the Dark Road.
Our past limited successes achieving justice and equality have left us in a crippled position as we face a future that presents existential challenges to us as a species: climate change, interconnection that can make a disease globally pandemic, and economic, gender, and racial divides that poison the sense of common purpose we need.
On the Dark Road ‘symptoms’ become increasingly severe until they bring everything to a grinding halt.
We’re on it.
We really can’t afford that much longer.
Just as few of us can claim genius in science, arts, or sports but many of us have some talent, our natural human abilities do provide a path provided we curb our natural tendency to avoid emotional discomfort.
Well, I have a theory that I call Religious Sub-Genius.
Meade notes that without our discomfort (or more severe emotional distress) our interconnection remains an abstraction and not a living truth with both intellectual and emotional components.
In his terms, we are being ‘initiated’ into the Bigger Us as a lived reality.
From our dis-ease, individual paths forward and possibilities for contribution will emerge. I’m not particularly a hero but here’s my path.
- I try to internalize the contradictions. Uncomfortable engagement — if I sit with it — is transformative and the next steps can emerge.
- I note that this is a cultural issue. We didn’t build it ourselves and we can’t fix it solo. Why mention this? I’ve observed a backlash effect as people snap back from an impossible task and then deny the value or necessity of the struggle. Trying to be selfless is not a supportable strategy for almost all of us. We don’t stop being human. This is the sub-genius part.
- I try to keep in mind that we are at the center of a species-critical fracture line and that I am privileged to do the work.
- The rules of Right Action apply. I try to work as a discipline. My intellect can help with analysis but then I try to act as a ‘practice’ with some detachment from the result and, hence, leave the nagging little internal voices off to the side.
- I make the assumption that ‘where they attack, we defend.’ By example, when someone in power talks about ‘bad hombres’ you can pretty much guarantee that some powerless group of people is about to be under attack for reasons having very little to do with them.
- The judo here is that, if you notice someone trying to convince you that another whole group are the bad people, they are exploiting you as well as the people they are trying to get you to target! The real Thems are the people with power sowing hate. They gain by breaking Us up into smaller and less effective pieces.
In The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630–1865 Mark Peterson talks of the founding of Boston with a religious vision to be something new and more…the City on the Hill.
He argues that the city ‘fell’ in 1854 when the citizenry could not prevent Anthony Burns, an escaped slave, from being returned by several companies of marines to Alexandria, Virginia, under the Fugitive Slave Act.
Peter Turchin in War and Peace and War looks at the relative economies of northern and southern Italy. He notes a ‘Mason-Dixon’ line that divides two quite different economies: one a modern European nation and the other impoverished and based on competing clans rather than broader social institutions and conventions.
He argues that the dividing line maps the border of slavery in the Roman Empire and that this created, in the south, a black hole of social cohesion that remains poisonous to this day.
Clearly, slavery marks a nadir of shared purpose in any society.
Maybe it is hopeless or, just maybe, America, because of the deepness of our flaws, has the opportunity for the greatest spiritual accomplishment. Progress can only be made as one people. Indeed, the accomplishment might precisely be becoming one people.
That would be an American Exceptionalism worth touting.
We’re a complicated species.
Without our ability to cooperate and share resources and knowledge we would not have such widespread success…and be in the fix we’re in.
Without Us vs Them we would not have the potential for a Bigger Us. The lethal competition drove our intense cooperation — unique in many respects among all species on the planet. We have a biological signaling matrix that will either kill us or cure us…that can either poison or heal.
Just maybe, we could try and collectively compete against this challenge rather than against each other to truly become the City on the Hill.
We can turn our impulse to find our Us into a push to create the biggest Us possible. We kinda have to.
Justice is a critical first step.
No one is going to save us.
My Companion Article
The Supporting Article
Deterline and Harris’s Workshops
Thanks for reading.
My mailing list and various projects can be found at altabor.org.