One of my readers is a guy who was a hippie in San Francisco in the late 60’s, but then took, as it were, “The right-hand path,” deciding that, in his words, “Conservatives have better answers than liberals.” He first contacted me several years ago to comment on my tendency to refer to the two major parties as “Repuglycans” and “Dumbocrats,” pointing out that this was likely to turn off more people than it would turn on. Well, those were juvenile insults stemming from my own deep sense of powerlessness in the ongoing circus, and I’ve abandoned the terms. Last month, he got in touch with me again, asking
I am curious — assuming you aren’t entrenched in a belief that conservatives are “sociopaths” or suffer from some other deficiency — what you make of this divide and how we might nonetheless speak across it and find some manner of constructively engaging each other…..I do wonder what it means for our country that we have become so polarized and separated that there is almost no temperate discussion across the divide. If you would like to compare notes on that, I’d be quite interested.
to which I replied:
This question, I think, is one of several that needs to be answered–and (those answers) implemented–if complex life forms on the planet are to have a future. As I’ve turned this over in my mind since I first read it, I have come up with several different approaches, and I think I’m going to have to write them down to fully understand what they mean and where they lead. That’s not something I’m going to do right this moment, but i appreciate your request as a call to organize my thoughts on the subject, including what I mean when I say “sociopath.”
I asked him for more information about how he saw things, so that I would have a better idea of who/what I was addressing, and he wrote
I don’t believe a world of voluntary peasants is necessary or even workable. I don’t believe human nature changes much. I don’t believe the earth is on the verge of ecological collapse. I am not a pacifist. I think war or the threat of war is sometimes necessary. Similar to democracy, I think capitalism is the worst economic system except for all the others. I think technology is the way forward and is steadily raising the standard of living worldwide. I think most leftist efforts to transform society trade minor gains for major unintended consequences.
The time has come for me to fulfil my promise. To some extent, I’m going to be thinking out loud (so to say), and I’m not quite sure where this is going to land. It may not be pretty, or even cheerful, but here goes.
First of all, to me, “sociopath” is not pejorative, merely descriptive, because most, if not all, those who are manifesting sociopathic behavior at the upper end of our society (or anywhere else in the social strata) did not make a conscious choice to be who they are, These individuals were conditioned into their adult selves by the circumstances of their birth and upbringing, and are no more to blame for the lives they lead than an abused child who acts out in increasingly erratic ways as s/he grows up. Did I just say that being brought up wealthy, with a sense of entitlement, is a form of child abuse?! What a thought! I think it’s important to use the word “sociopath” because we need to be clearly cognizant of what our situation is.
It isn’t just wealthy Republicans who are conditioned to be out of touch with reality. It’s true for most of us–Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Caucasian-Americans, African-Americans, Christians, agnostics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, even (gasp!) us Buddhists, whose spiritual practice is to free ourselves and others from domination by subconsciously driven behavior. We’re all bundles of conditioned responses walking around, thinking we have something we call “free will.” Some of us are more aware of it, and able to compensate for it, than others.
And it isn’t just the ol’ parental situation that determines us. It’s the community into which we were born, from home to neighbourhood to city, culture, country, religion–all these elements imprint our subconscious, in both intended and unintended ways. These civilizational levels of conditioning are just as crazy-making as what our parents did to us, but in different ways. As I see it, our family conditioning relates primarily to how we respond to stimuli, while our cultural conditioning mostly teaches us which stimuli to expect.
It’s not just the climate-change deniers who are out of touch with reality. It’s all the folks who don’t get that the core values of the culture we live in are the source of our problem. It’s the belief that we can have increased prosperity and economic growth and a stable, healthy environment. That notion, from my perspective, is just as deluded as the assertion that climate change isn’t happening, or couldn’t possibly be caused by human activity. I’m not saying “It’s those people over there who are the problem!” Many of the most ecologically responsible among us are just about too neurotic to get along with each other, let alone present what they’re doing in a way that might inspire masses of people. I would place myself in that category, but more on that later. First, I want to say more about why I see us all, not just “conservatives,” as mentally disturbed.
The base level–climate change denial–is denial of simple, high-school level chemistry. You can’t burn billions of years of accumulated hydrocarbons in just a couple of centuries, in a closed container (the Earth’s atmosphere), without altering the composition of the gases in the container. You end up with less oxygen and more carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane, and it doesn’t take a big rise in the levels of those chemicals in our atmosphere to lower the pH of the planet’s oceans and raise the amount of heat the planet absorbs, which in turn raises the amount of water the atmosphere can hold, and before you know it the climate becomes unstable, and where the new normal will be is difficult to predict. It won’t have any regard for our preferences, that’s for sure.
This is a very inconvenient truth. It means that most of the material aspects of “the American way of life” have got to go, before they kill most of us, and most of the other living creatures on the planet. We are using up the limited resources of a small planet at a “fast burnout” rate. Why don’t we slow down and leave some goodies for our great-great grandchildren and the generations beyond them? In the light of this, from my perspective, most of what I hear on the news–Christian and Islamic extremism at home and in the Middle East, sabre-rattling in Europe, industrial expansion in China, promises of a growing U.S. economy–is delusional activity, ignorant acting out by people who are “a danger to self and others,” as our psychiatric manuals and state laws put it. War and economic expansion make things worse, not better.
So…. why have we burned millions of years worth of hydrocarbons in just a couple of centuries?
The answer lies in the so-called secularization of our society, which was not really “secularization” at all, but a cultural decision to prioritize material values over spiritual ones. Christianity in the West has been replaced by what I would call Radical Fundamentalist Financialism, the central doctrine of which is that whatever makes the most money in the short term, regardless of long-term consequences, is the highest good. Thus, coal, oil, uranium, and gas are extracted, forests are felled. fish and other animals are “harvested” to the point of extinction. The felled forests become fields, and then the fields are paved over, because those activities make the most money in the short term. The long-term costs–air, land, and water pollution, declining soil fertility, declining biological diversity, declining food supplies, and a generally declining quality of life, are all seen as pluses from the Financialist viewpoint, because society will have to spend a lot of money to try and fix those situations, and thus somebody will “make a lot of money.” Cheerful acceptance of Financialism as our common cultural religion is not restricted to “right-wingers.” I have friends who consider themselves left Democrats, seem fairly wise in some respects, yet think fracking to increase U.S. natural gas production and “free us from the need to import so much oil” is a good idea. They’d rather have gas than drinking water. Is that a rational choice?
But–most of this “dangerous to self and others” behavior is conditioned responses, masquerading as “free will.” It makes sense to the people who act it out. By and large, they see themselves as caring, responsible people, and in many ways they are. For the most part, they are good to their children, their spouses,their parents, and their neighbors. They vote and pay their taxes and keep their lawns mowed. “The banality of evil,” American style. Attempting to force these millions of unwilling people to “green up” their lives would not work. It would just create massive resentment and resistance. Only they can change their minds. Nobody can do it for them.
Richard Thompson–“You Can’t Win”
So, to go back to my correspondent’s “better answers”–
I don’t believe the earth is on the verge of ecological collapse.
Might as well believe the sun goes around the Earth, my friend. The facts are not with you.
I don’t believe a world of voluntary peasants is necessary or even workable.…. I am not a pacifist. I think war or the threat of war is sometimes necessary. Similar to democracy, I think capitalism is the worst economic system except for all the others. I think technology is the way forward and is steadily raising the standard of living worldwide.
I think the macroeconomic facts of life refute all these claims, although I think a saner take on technology has been, and could continue to be a great help to the power-down transition that needs to happen, and make the future a lot more comfortable and well-informed than the past..
I think most leftist efforts to transform society trade minor gains for major unintended consequences.
I’ve kind of given my correspondent the bad news first–here’s some good news. As I said, I think that attempting to force people to change their behavior without changing their minds (which is, I believe, what my correspondent is referring to) is generally not a good idea, at least on these issues. Forcing Caucasian-Americans to stop overtly discriminating against African-Americans was a good idea, even though, fifty-some years into that campaign, it’s clear that there’s lots and lots of racism remaining, which brings us to the last of his “better answers.”
I don’t believe human nature changes much.
I haven’t addressed this yet, but I will. For now, let me say that, while the essence of human nature–the clear light of absolute reality–is, indeed, unchanging, the “relative” expression of human nature has changed a great deal through our history as a species. It is changing now, and will continue to evolve in the future, if we make it through this “bottleneck” and have a future.
I suppose this comes across as a rather defiant response to a comment thread which included this from my conservative friend:
I think liberals and conservatives could talk across the divide much more if they would ease up on their need for certainty and bring a little more humility to the table.
Well, you’re right about that, my friend.
But… I’ve just consigned most of humanity, including myself, to the loony bin, with little, if any, uncertainty or humility, and now I’m saying “sure, let’s talk!?”
Well, I’m in here too. We’re all in this together. My spiritual practice counsels me to “never become bored or weary of accomplishing the welfare of others.” So yeah, I’m willing to listen, willing to consider whether my answers really work or not, willing to walk a mile in your shoes, willing to ask you questions, willing to not get impatient waiting for you to do the same, because it’s only by listening to each other, listening to ourselves, being open to new information and learning, somehow, that we are not our personalities, thoughts, or opinions, that we will evolve into individuals in a society that can live harmoniously on this small, rare, blue-green planet. We have yet to find another one. I think this one’s worth conserving.
But wait, there’s more….
another comment he posted included this quote from a review of Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”:
Our task, then, is to organize society so that reason and intuition interact in healthy ways. Haidt’s research suggests several broad guidelines. First, we need to help citizens develop sympathetic relationships so that they seek to understand one another instead of using reason to parry opposing views. Second, we need to create time for contemplation. Research shows that two minutes of reflection on a good argument can change a person’s mind. Third, we need to break up our ideological segregation. From 1976 to 2008, the proportion of Americans living in highly partisan counties increased from 27 percent to 48 percent. The Internet exacerbates this problem by helping each user find evidence that supports his views.
My reply to that was simply, “I agree.” As I already said, forcing our views, however enlightened we may think they are, on others, does not work. And, “contemplation”–yes! More on that in a little bit.
I have read some of Ken Wilber’s erudite observations on human consciousness, and one of his conceptual structures that I have found useful is that of “levels of consciousness.” The diagram below illustrates them. (Click on it to enlarge it, find a fuller, but still concise, description here.) Each of his “levels of consciousness” is a self-confirming world view, yet each level “spirals” into the more comprehensive, more compassionate world view “above” it, resulting in a gradual evolution of the overall level of consciousness on the planet, exactly what we need if we are to avoid trashing the whole experiment. There is a way out of this mess!
What Wilber is a little vague on, however, is just how this evolution happens. Timothy Leary enquired into the subject, seeking an answer to the question of “what causes the ‘aha!’ moments when people change their self-concept and world view?” The answer he found got him in a world of trouble. It was a little too effective, and got a little too out of control, for our power-hungry hierarchy to stomach, and, while they have not been successful at much, they do seem to have pretty well shut the door that Dr. Leary opened, and so that mode of evolution is not available to us. One mode that is still available is extreme shock–no, not a couple hundred volts to the head, but life events that completely, undeniably contradict our story of who we are and what the world is about. At a personal level, it might be the discovery that one’s beloved partner is having an affair, or that one’s partner, child, or oneself is, contrary to what our religion has taught us is proper–gay. Serious illness or unexpected job/ home loss may have the same effect–or may plunge an individual into an angrier, more reactive, lower state of consciousness. There is no guarantee of a positive outcome.
Environmental excess can have the same effect. When a thousand-year flood, drought, heat wave, thaw, or freeze, or a nuclear accident or an oil spill, has affected your home and/or livelihood, it tends to interrupt the story you believe about your life, and make you reconsider everything you once held true. Again, there is no guarantee that people will not sink, rather than rise, on these occasions.
There is a gentle approach to de-conditioning that can be undertaken voluntarily. The “contemplation” Haidt speaks of is the key. When we sit and don’t do anything, aka meditate, we will, if we practice long enough, get to a place where our “automatic” responses become conscious to us, where we can begin to undo our own conditioning and act in an appropriate, rather than a predetermined, manner. It’s not as fast or as exciting as Dr. Leary’s approach, not as scary or potentially lethal as getting smacked upside the head by global climate change, or personal sexual change, but it can’t be made illegal (I don’t think!), it doesn’t depend on factors beyond our control, and it won’t kill anyone. All it requires us to do is decide to be still and open our ears, hearts, and minds. I hope that’s not too much to ask.
So yeah, ol’ buddy, speak your heart to me. To the best of my ability, I have contemplated what you have already told me, and I promise to keep doing so. I have my opinions, and I suspect I’ve come across to you as “entrenched” in them, but I’m very willing to hear you out. I’ve been wrong before.