For years, I have vacillated between optimism and pessimism with regard to the future. More often than not, I’ve opted for the former, but now I’m having serious doubts. When I focus on technology, I’m optimistic. When I switch to politics, I’m not.
At times it seems that for every step forward we take in technical expertise we take a few backward in our ability to function politically. We are seniors of science and adolescents at best politically when it comes to getting along with others. Indeed, our inability to function politically as adults appears over the long term to be driving us toward economic disaster.
The Enlightenment led us to believe in Reason, and we have reasoned our way into a scientific paradigm that mirrors magic. And yet, all over the world, people still kill one another with persistent regularity over disputes that in historical context nearly always appear stupid.
The Enlightenment failed to acknowledge early on that human beings are, to the core, a tribal species, and although we are great at reasoning, doing so is not our default setting. We are emotional creatures to an extreme, especially when it comes to the tribal politics of us and them.
Primatologist Frans de Waal said something recently to the effect that he likes dealing with our primate cousins—meaning chimpanzees, bonobos, and apes—simply because they don’t answer questionnaires. In other words, de Wall is appalled by our human tendency to offer reasons for our actions that are mere rationalizations that have nothing, whatsoever, to do with the real reasons for our behavior. More often than not, we are clueless as to why we do the things we do.
We are inundated from birth with words, looks, smiles, smirks, raised eyebrows, warnings, edicts, promises, and even prayers that suggest this is the way things are and so these things you must believe in order to be considered one of us. Numbering in the millions, these incidents occur day in and day out throughout our lives.
As we learn our respective languages, we internalize an amalgamation of metaphors which create the templates that we perceive as constituting reality. These models can be so powerful and so forceful that, in many cases, they will shape our political views such that the only things we will thereafter perceive as having value are those that conform to our internalized templates.
These metaphorical building blocks are fundamental to our ability to understand something from a previous sense of understanding, while laying a foundation as simple as the notion that up is better than down, warm is better than cold, that time is money, and the language of war is suitable for an argument.
In this way, we assume a worldview that seems like commonsense reality instead of the trumped-up cultural rendition that it truly represents. If we live in a community of bigots, acts of overt prejudice will be expected of us as a qualification for continuing group membership and proof of one’s loyalty.
We assimilate our beliefs about the world from our respective social groups, and the process is so subtle that most of it happens beneath our conscious awareness. Many years ago, having always been fascinated with the nature of belief, I was struck by one of those epiphanies that light up the sky and forever change one’s outlook. What I realized was the simple notion that my thoughts and beliefs had been formed just like everyone else’s, that the reason I believed what I did about the world was the same reason all others view the world as they do, namely because of acculturation. This seems as though it should be a no-brainer, completely understood at a kindergarten level, but such is not the case.
One of life’s biggest mysteries, in my view, is why, once people realize the arbitrary nature of how beliefs are constructed, it doesn’t give them pause to examine some of their own hard and fast assumptions. I don’t know whether most people just don’t ever come to question their own sense of reality or whether they do and just prefer the bubble they already live in instead of trying to get a better idea of what’s really going on in the world. Whatever the reason, it’s getting more and more dangerous not to make a serious attempt to understand the world and our place in it.
In every culture, people grow up with expectations of what the notion of character means in their society, what honorable behavior is and what it’s not. Most of us aspire to live up to our idealized sense of how we are expected to act. And yet, psychology and neuroscience clearly demonstrate that
- our behavior can be short-circuited simply by changing the circumstance we encounter,
- our likely actions are predicable with a fairly high degree of certainty, and
- those actions will not be compatible with our ideals of character and neither will they be what we would have predicted we would do if we had been asked to guess.
These facts should both disappoint us and serve as an urgent warning that our education about human behavior is woefully incomplete. If others can predict our behavior in a given set of circumstances better than we can, then we might need to reexamine what we mean by the idea and exercise of freedom.
For Stone Age minds to have the technological capability of wizards is a recipe for global catastrophe. From the beginning of our time on the planet, it has been wise for us to be wary of strangers, but when we acquired this innate sentinel awareness, our tendency to encounter strangers was rare. Today we are surrounded by people who view the world with different expectations, and when our views clash ideologically, we’re pushed ever closer to a state of suspicion and paranoia.
Social media enable people to come together and thus escape from too much otherness, indulging their overt tendency to increase cultural bonds through attempts to further alienate others. All over the country, people are gravitating to neighborhoods of politically likeminded citizens, and those who can’t make the move physically do so in cyberspace.
At the same, time there has never been as much information available to learn what science tells us about human behavior and how we may overcome our tendency for harmful self-deception. The only thing we are short of is the will to proceed and a sense of urgency that recognizes the seriousness of the threats we face if we don’t take deliberate steps to think our way into a more civil future.
Communism, capitalism, socialism, humanism, liberalism, and conservatism—what all these ideologies have in common is that they are isims. And although they do not make the claim specifically, the implication is that an isim is all one needs; it answers all relevant questions, like a read-only software program, performing every function and solving every problem that arises without needing to seek input or advice elsewhere.
We are drawn to isims because we are tribalistic and we crave easy answers and the shelter of consensus. For too many of us, though, isims amount to closed systems, and this is a foolish and very dangerous strategy because no systems or isims have all of the answers.
Contempt and resentment are like fire starting tools: the friction they generate is combustible, sparking hatred and compelling Stone Age minds to apply their technology to the creation of weapons and the war-like rhetoric that follows suit.
Our history should have made it clear by now that we have to compensate for our tribalistic nature and override our penchant for contempt with curiosity, if we are to have any chance of negotiating differences. A sustainable future depends upon a level of intellectual maturity beyond the tribalistic ethos of us and them.