- Created on 30 April 2004
- 28 October 2010
By David Cromwell
There is an intense feeling that we all experience during our best moments that life has meaning; that it is priceless, and filled with immense potential. The seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal expressed this as 'authentic existence', in contrast to 'inauthentic existence' in which people tend to waste their lives in amusements or trivialities. Likewise, the twentieth century German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote of: 'Being that degrades itself in the mediocrity of everyday life' and of our 'forgetfulness of Existence'. In other words, we can become so swamped by the minutiae of just surviving, day by day, that we forget to enjoy the feeling of being alive in the world. Why is this?
The 'Outsider problem'
In a series of seven books published in the 1950s and 1960s, Colin Wilson tackled this existentialist question which he termed the 'Outsider problem'. Wilson's 'Outsider' is someone who thinks deeply about society's prevailing values, and who does not - or refuses to - conform to the requirements of being a 'civilised' or 'respectable' person. Put simply, Wilson addresses Socrates' question, "How should I live?" and observes that: "The man who is interested to know how he should live instead of merely taking life as it comes, is automatically an Outsider." (Wilson, 'The Outsider', Phoenix, London, updated 2001 edition, p. 66). Examples of Outsiders that Wilson considers are T. E. Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia'), Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Geoff Fox (founder of the Quakers) and the Buddha.
As part of an extensive and fascinating overview of - mostly western - literature, art and philosophy, Wilson examines the Outsider's attempts to explore the meaning of human life. In this overview, Wilson outlines - but then ultimately rejects - the nihilism and meaninglessness that underlies the output of various existentialist writers and philosophers in the twentieth century, notably Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre ("Man is a useless passion", wrote Sartre).
Wilson summarises the impact of Sartre's existentialism thus: "[it] removed the universal backcloth against which mediaeval man acted out his dreams, with a sense that everything he did would be brought up on judgement day. In its place, says Sartre, there is only the infinitude of space, which means that man's actions are of no importance to anyone but himself." (Wilson, 'Introduction to the New Existentialism', Hutchinson, London, 1966, p. 152)
Wilson cannot accept that Sartre's pessimistic view might represent reality, and he synthesises an alternative view of the human condition from history, art and literature to counter such pessimism. This is Wilson's attempt to develop an optimistic 'new' existentialism, building on the work of several philosophers, notably Edmund Husserl and Alfred North Whitehead. Wilson draws connections between their philosophical work, in which the analysis of human experience is paramount, and the deep insights into the human condition explored in art and literature by William Blake, Rainer Maria Rilke, Vincent van Gogh, George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy and many others.
As Wilson argues towards the conclusion of his second book, Religion and the Rebel (1957), "the only way one can talk about the problems of 'meaning' in life is by showing them in terms of living people." Therein, he argues, lies the great power of the best poets, dramatists and novelists. "True existentialism", Wilson says, "is the dramatic investigation of human nature through the medium of art." (Wilson, 'Religion and the Rebel', Ashgrove Press, Bath, 1984 edition, p. 300)
One of Wilson's favourite existentialists is, in fact, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. When Raskolnikov, the central character in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, considers the possibility of being executed for the murders he has committed, he reflects that "he would prefer to stand on a narrow ledge for all eternity, surrounded by darkness and tempest, rather than die at once. The fear of death has raised his consciousness of freedom to a point where he becomes aware of the absolute value of his existence. The 'indifference threshold' has been completely destroyed." (Wilson, 'Introduction to the New Existentialism', p. 129)
Wilson's concept of the 'indifference threshold' is the realisation that: "There is a margin of the human mind that can be stimulated by pain or inconvenience, but which is indifferent to pleasure." (Wilson, 'The Outsider', 2001 edition, p. 295) He expands further: "the recognition that man's moments of freedom tend to come under crisis or challenge, and that when things are going well, he tends to allow his grip on life to slacken." (Wilson, 'The Outsider', 2001 edition, p. 295) He provides the example of Sartre who once wrote that he felt at his most free and alive while working in the French underground resistance, while at constant risk of betrayal and death.
Spring bloom and a burst appendix
An example from my own experience of breaking through the 'indifference threshold' was when I fell ill halfway through a scientific cruise on the British research ship, Discovery, in April 1997. We were in the northeast Atlantic, undertaking physical, chemical and biological surveys of the 'spring bloom'. This is the seasonal upsurge in the production of microscopic marine plant life known as phytoplankton. The process is an important natural cycle in the Earth's climate system. The spring bloom is, in fact, the oceanic equivalent of what we observe at the same time of year on land: a riotous coming-alive of plant and animal life.
For me, however, the spring bloom was marked by the acute failure of my appendix. We were several hundred miles offshore, west of the Spanish town of Vigo. There were no surgical facilities on board Discovery, and the nearest ship with suitable facilities - HMS Argus, a hospital ship in the British navy's royal fleet auxiliary - was too distant. I would have to be evacuated from Discovery and taken to hospital in Vigo.
It took two days before we got close enough to the land for a Spanish coastal rescue helicopter to rendezvous with Discovery. It was just after five o'clock on a beautiful morning - the sun had just come up - when we caught sight of a distant bright light in the blue sky indicating the helicopter's approach. Ensconced in my bulky orange survival suit, I was strapped into a covered stretcher and hauled on board the helicopter. As I was being pulled up, I managed to wriggle one hand free to wave goodbye to the scientists, officers and crew on the Discovery below. Although I was dangling precariously over the ocean, and was in considerable discomfort from the appendicitis, I had this intense feeling of being alive. In the end, I was operated on successfully that afternoon, and a week later I was back home, recuperating well and with a renewed enthusiasm for life.
Indifference arising from clutching desire
For Wilson, the indifference threshold "was an absolutely fundamental recognition. It meant that 'life-devaluation' - the opposite of freedom - is due to our curious laziness, to a childish 'spoiledness' that gets resentful and bored in the face of minor problems. And freedom - the moment of vision, of poetry - is due to a certain unconscious discipline of the will." (Wilson, 'The Outsider', 2001 edition, p. 295)
But how does one actually break through the "indifference threshold". Or, to put it another way, how does one move from 'inauthentic existence' to 'authentic existence'? Wilson answers:
"There are two ways. First of all, one must live constantly in the face of death, recognising it as the ultimate necessity. (Gurdjieff had also declared that man could escape from his fallenness if he had an organ that made him constantly aware of the date of his death.)" Wilson continues:
"There is another way... Poetry and myth can bring man [sic] closer to the realm of pure Being." (Wilson, 'Beyond The Outsider: The Philosophy of the Future', Arthur Baker Limited, London, 1965, pp. 97-98)
This is an intriguing, but nonetheless a frustrating and inadequate response. Much though I admire his work, a major failing of Wilson's approach, in my opinion, is that he skirts around the idea that the problems of human existence are rooted in the overpowering sense we all share of the essential self, which we refer to as "I" or "me". To adopt a Buddhist perspective, we are forever grasping at an independent self that does not exist in reality. (This subtle though important concept need not detain us here; but see, for example, the section titled 'The Emptiness of I' in Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's 'Eight Steps to Happiness', Tharpa, Thulverston, 2000, pp. 191-195)
In the Buddhist view, it is attachment to this illusory self that gives rise to endless dissatisfaction and suffering as we try to quench our bottomless human desires. Wilson touches on this truth when he quotes a character called Job Huss in the H. G. Wells short story, 'The Undying Fire':
"Man. is born as the beasts are born, a greedy egotism, a clutching egotism, a clutching desire, a thing of lusts and fears." (Wilson, 'Beyond the Outsider', quoted, p.33)
That phrase, "a clutching desire", encapsulates the Buddhist concept of suffering that arises from attachment to a self-centred mind.
Wilson is also on the right trail when he recalls the character Mitya in Dostoyevsky's classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, who "is made to realize that the earth is full of suffering human beings, and that no one can be whole and complete without a sense of kinship with the suffering of all other living beings." (Wilson, 'The Outsider', 2001 edition, p. 201)
This powerful realisation, too, has parallels in Buddhist teachings. The eighth-century Indian sage Shantideva puts it simply in Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life:
"All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
all the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself."
Adopting this selfless approach is a true and worthy demonstration of Nietzsche's "will to power". That such a great philosopher did not recognise this application of his valuable concept was truly a lost opportunity in the development of western thought. (We return to Nietzsche below.)
Recall Wilson's remark above that "one must live constantly in the face of death, recognising it as the ultimate necessity". In summarising Heidegger's philosophy, Wilson concludes that: "We are all trapped in a world of dreams inside our own skulls, and nothing short of the threat of immediate death will wake us up to intense appreciation of our lives." (Wilson, 'Introduction to the New Existentialism', p. 25) Or, as Dr. Samuel Johnson expressed it succinctly: 'when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.' In Christianity, too, there is the notion that one's Maker may take you from the present life at any time: a compelling reason for believers to live out the present moment as though it could be one's last.
I have an example from my own life that sometimes gives me cause for thought. When I was six years of age, one of my best friends was killed in a road accident. I wasn't there when it happened. In fact, we had just moved home to another town. But I knew where the car had hit Barry; it was en route to a favourite spot where a group of us used to play. I've often gone over in my mind's eye what might have happened that day. A momentary distraction, Barry rushing excitedly across the road, not seeing the car, and the driver not being able to stop in time. I was told that Barry had died instantly. The tragic loss of that young life still disturbs me today, some thirty-five years later. If I happen to be feeling irritated or ungrateful or thwarted in some way, sometimes I recall Barry and the preciousness of human life; and how we can never really know in advance the time and manner of our own death.
In Buddhism, contemplating one's own death is strongly encouraged in order to generate the necessary motivation for training the mind on the path to enlightenment. There is simply no time to waste. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains that the main obstacle to making our human life meaningful is that we are "so attached to worldly activities [that] we do not have a strong wish to practice Dharma" [essentially, the Buddha's teachings]. Gyatso is clear what the first step must be: "to overcome this obstacle we need to meditate on death." (Gyatso, 'The Meditation Handbook', Tharpa Publications, London, 1995 edition, p. 37)
Indeed, Shantideva was rather blunt in admonishing himself in Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life: "This is no time to sleep, you fool!"
We can also hear this sense of urgency - of the pressing need to wake up immediately from daily life's mediocrities and corrupt societal values - in Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In the discourse titled 'The Vision and The Enigma', the prophet Zarathustra -the mouthpiece for Nietzsche's uncompleted philosophy of 'the revaluation of all values' - encounters a curious sight:
"A young shepherd did I see, writhing, choking, quivering, with distorted countenance, and with a heavy black serpent hanging out of his mouth.
Had I ever seen so much loathing and pale horror on one countenance? Had he perhaps gone to sleep? Then had the serpent crawled into his throat - there had it bitten itself fast.
My hand pulled at the serpent, and pulled: - in vain! I failed to pull the serpent out of his throat. Then there cried out of me: 'Bite, bite!
Its head off! Bite!' - so cried it out of me; my horror, my hatred, my loathing, my pity, all my good and bad cried with one voice out of me.-" (Nietzsche, 'Thus Spake Zarathustra', Dover Publications, Mineola, 1999, p. 109)
Commentator Anthony M. Ludovici explains the meaning of the parable: "the young shepherd is obviously the man of to-day; the snake that chokes him represents the stultifying and paralysing social values that threaten to shatter humanity, and the advice "Bite! Bite!" is but Nietzsche's exasperated cry to mankind to alter their values before it is too late." (Nietzsche, ibid., p. 249)
The unanswered question of what would Nietzsche's Superman actually do?
Nietzsche was concerned that man should transform himself into an Übermensch (the 'Overman' or 'Superman'), in an evolutionary step up from human life. He demanded greatness (the 'Superman') and insisted that everyone needs 'to find one's own way.' However, I agree with the writer Michael Tanner when he inserts a cautionary note:
"But one hardly needs to go from that to the extreme of demanding that everyone has the highest possible profile. By definition, greatness is a rare quality. That does not mean that most people should be despised or regarded as eliminable for not possessing or aspiring to it." (Tanner, 'Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction', OUP, 2000, p. 95)
Indeed not! As I mentioned earlier, Nietzsche never explained exactly what it was the Übermensch was supposed to do with his superhuman abilities. Perhaps this was a deliberate omission to avoid being overly prescriptive. More plausibly, in my view, it was simply because Nietzsche's vision ultimately failed him. (Although we must bear in mind that his productive life was tragically cut short: his last eleven years were spent insane). Certainly, there is no indication on Nietzsche's part that the Superman should use his advanced powers to reduce suffering and to boost happiness amongst all people; indeed, amongst all living beings. On the contrary, Nietzsche abhorred the concept of compassion (or 'pity'), believing it to be a prime characteristic of a discredited and weak 'slave' - as opposed to worthy or 'noble' - morality.
In The Anti-Christ, written just before his final collapse, Nietzsche explains why he held this disparaging view of compassion: "One loses force when one pities. The loss of force which life has already sustained through suffering is increased and multiplied even further by pity." (Nietzsche, 'Twilight of the Idols' and 'The Anti-Christ', Penguin Classics, London, 2003, p. 130)
He reinforces the message:
"The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than vice? - Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak." (Nietzsche, ibid., p. 128)
This is a shocking statement. It is difficult to reconcile it with the interpretation sometimes proffered that Nietzsche was simply attacking the misguided morals of those who would wish to intervene in the lives of others.
Although we should certainly not accept everything that Nietzsche argued, Tanner's view of one of Nietzsche's major themes is worth noting, namely that:
"What he [Nietzsche] portrays, in book after book, is the gradual but accelerating decline of Western man into a state where no values any longer impress him." (Tanner, ibid., pp. 36-37)
Nietzsche defines the values that, for him, constitute 'good' and 'bad':
"What is good? - All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.
"What is bad? - All that proceeds from weakness.
"What is happiness? - The feeling that power increases - that a resistance is overcome."
(Nietzsche, ibid., p. 127)
The will to power should indeed entail overcoming a resistance: namely, surmounting Wilson's "indifference threshold" in order that we come to feel truly alive, creative and connected with others. But again, we have to ask: is this sufficient? Is surmounting the 'indifference threshold' only about making us feel better? What would Nietzsche's Superman actually do with his amazing talents and noble morality? The question has never been adequately answered, to my knowledge.
Total compassion, not total indifference
Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk describes the search for meaning in almost Nietzschean terms, as "a constant attempt to break out of and blow apart all the tight, encrusting layers of illusion". (Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard, 'The Monk and the Philospher. A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life', Schocken Books, Random House, New York, 2000, p. 314)
Ricard explains that the path to wisdom and compassion involves transforming the mind. But rather than leading to a state of detachment or even nihilism, as detractors of Buddhism might claim, "the more you persevere in this process of inner transformation, the more you find that wisdom, serenity, and joy break through to you and impregnate your whole being - and that, unlike the pleasures of the world, they're completely independent of any outer circumstances. They can be experienced anywhere, at any time, and increase the more you use them." (Revel and Ricard, ibid., p. 318)
In his 1970 book, Poetry and Mysticism, Wilson speaks highly of Buddhism, highlighting its scientific approach to studying consciousness and how it rejects unverified belief or dogma. However, he ultimately rejects Buddhism because it supposedly has too "negative" an aim. (I believe, also, that Wilson cannot accept that Buddhism refutes the concept of an independently existing self. Instead, Wilson is attracted to Husserl's notion of a "transcendental ego" or a "real self". We do not explore these concepts further here.)
It is worthwhile quoting the relevant section from Poetry and Mysticism at length as it indicates some basic misunderstandings about Buddhism, perhaps still commonplace in the west, that we can then address below:
"[A]none who has ever fallen under the spell of Buddhism - or other eastern religion, for that matter - will have discovered the drawback. You can determinedly withdraw your mind from the objects of sense, assure yourself that you are free of all desire - and nothing whatever happens. You just sit there. You cannot 'contemplate' merely by wanting to contemplate. In fact, you soon realise that contemplation is closely bound up with desire. When you first perform that mental act of rejecting your desires and obsessions, the feeling of freedom is magnificent, and the mind is launched like a rocket, powered, by the desire you are rejecting. This is why religious conversions are such emotionally violent experiences. When there is nothing more to reject, the mind becomes static. And there is a world of difference between serenity and mere lack of motion." (Wilson, 'Poetry and Mysticism', Hutchinson & Co., London, 1972, p. 30)
In the above paragraph, Wilson would have us believe that he has actually managed to extinguish all his desires - highly unlikely unless he were on the verge of enlightenment! - and that he then found himself 'just sitting there', doing nothing. His mind became 'static'. Wilson says elsewhere that achieving such a state allows one to be indifferent to problems that may be afflicting us (or others). However, as the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard explains, to achieve enlightenment is not a supreme state of indifference, but exactly its opposite:
"[T]he goal of Buddhism is a complete and ultimate understanding of the phenomenal world, both inner and outer. Subtracting oneself from reality solves nothing at all. Nirvana is the very opposite of indifference toward the world. It's infinite compassion and love toward all beings in their totality." (Revel and Ricard, ibid., p. 177)
Wilson concludes his rejection of Buddhism as the 'solution' to the 'Outsider problem':
"I would not go so far as to reject the whole Buddhist concept of contemplative objectivity; it can be achieved in flashes. But I am inclined to believe that when the aspirant sits cross-legged and concentrates the gaze at the end of his nose, his immediate aim should not be a state of contemplation. It is too negative. The mind requires a more positive aim." (Wilson, ibid., p. 30)
In fact, the positive aim that Wilson has managed to overlook is the elimination of suffering and the promotion of happiness amongst all living beings, everywhere. What could be more positive than that? Perhaps we should not be too hard on Wilson, however. During his major phase of working out an approach to the 'new existentialism', in the 1950s and 1960s, accurate and accessible books about Buddhism - particularly about Mahayana Buddhism, with its central emphasis on compassion and love - were few and far between in the West. For much of the twentieth century, westerners who wrote about Buddhism tended to present it as an austere philosophy of detachment and an empty, dead universe. The supposed aim of the practising Buddhist was to achieve a supreme state of detachment or worldly indifference; to be totally unswayed by life's vicissitudes. This is a deep misunderstanding.
By way of contrast, Ricard points out that "inner equanimity is neither apathy nor indifference. It's accompanied by inner jubilation, and by an openness of mind expressed as unfailing altruism". (Revel and Ricard, p. 32) That "inner jubilation" echoes Nietzsche's joyful affirmation of life, as expressed in his writings. However, a key attribute that should go hand in hand with this inner jubilation is unfailing altruism; unlike Nietzsche's call for a 'noble morality' that despises pity as a weakness! There is a world of difference between joy as the selfish will to power, and joy as the compassionate will to serve and empower others.
- Created on 09 July 2004
- 28 October 2010
"Q. You're married?
Q. How old?
A. The boy is two and a half, and the little girl is a year and a half.
Q. Obviously, the question comes to my mind... the father of two little kids like that... how can he shoot babies?
A. I didn't have the little girl. I just had the little boy at the time.
Q. Uh-huh... How do you shoot babies?
A. I don't know. It's just one of those things."
(Mike Wallace of CBS News interviewing a participant of the US massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. Quoted Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.202)
Anyone Seen The Bad Guy?
As anyone who has worked in a modern corporation will know, the people working in those corporations are good, caring people. It's just that, in their work, they are required to obey a system of economic logic that subordinates human and animal suffering to short-term profit. They are decent, civilised people - their actions result in mass suffering and death.
It is wrong to think that evil comes with a black hat, horns, scarred face, handle-bar moustache, or even mad, staring eyes. Endless testimony has documented the banal nature of evil. Men, women and children are generally burned alive, not by grinning monsters, but by fresh-faced kids pushing throttles, raising flaps and pressing bomb releases.
Clinical psychologist, Lindsey Williams, notes that "apart from traits of authoritarianism and obedience, and ideological sympathy for the government, there is little evidence that torturers are markedly different from their peers - at least, until the point where they are recruited and trained as torturers." (Amnesty, May/June 1995, p.10)
Nobody, it turns out, ever +feels+ particularly evil, or particularly responsible for the suffering of the world. Consider, for example, that when Bill Clinton celebrated his election as president by firing cruise missiles into Baghdad on June 26, 1993, he generated a popularity spike in America. Kurt Nimmo provides some detail:
"Public-opinion polls showed his approval rating climbed by eleven percentage points on June 27th, the day after the attack, and more than two-thirds of those polled approved of the bombing. Americans like it when their presidents kill people in faraway lands, especially after they whop the tar out of them in lopsided wars. It is easy to stomach mass murder when it is presented as a video game on CNN and Fox News." (Kurt Nimmo7/6/2004 'Clinton's Life: In The Grip Of Mass Murder' http://kurtnimmo.com/blog/index.php?p=226)
The attack killed and injured dozens of Iraqis. But who killed them? Was it Clinton? Yes. But it was also the mass media who habitually promote evil threats abroad, and who constantly laud the importance and power of violent responses to them. It was the right-wing journalists who froth at the mouth, but also the 'liberal' journalists who offer articulate 'nuanced', 'cautious' support for leaders, and who urge 'restraint' without actually condemning the violence, or exposing the cynicism at its heart. It's the liberal leader writers currently promoting John Kerry and John Edwards as 'good guys' promising to lead the world out of the darkness generated by Bush and the other 'bad guys'.
If Kerry and Edwards displace Bush and Cheney, they will surely soon be off bombing some defenceless Third World 'rogue' - and the public will have been prepared by the current propaganda to perceive this as the 'good guys' making 'tough choices' for the betterment of humanity. As the bodies burst they, again, will hit a popularity spike.
Though journalists do not themselves know it, there is nothing random about the perennial coming of the 'good guys' - Clinton, Kerry, Blair, Brown. It is essential that our faith in the goodness of our leaders be constantly revitalised and refreshed. Erich Fromm explained why:
"To be sure obedience can be learned by sheer force. But this method has many disadvantages. It constitutes a constant threat that one day the many might have the means to overthrow the few by force; furthermore there are many kinds of activity which cannot be done properly if nothing but fear is behind the obedience. Hence the obedience which is only rooted in the fear of force must be transformed into one rooted in man's heart. Man must want and even need to obey, instead of only fearing to disobey. If this is to be achieved, power must assume the qualities of the All Good, of the All Wise; it must become All Knowing. If this happens, power can proclaim that disobedience is sin and obedience virtue." (Fromm, On Disobedience and other essays, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1984, p.7)
This is why it has taken so very long for the public to see through Blair's sweet smile to the compulsive manipulator and ruthless dissembler beneath.
The Mass Production Of Evil
In truth, the 'evil' individual is most often simply someone who unthinkingly accepts the 'superior wisdom' of others, who defers to their 'deeper understanding', and who conforms. The doors of hell are heavy, they take a lot of moving. They are not opened by the occasional damaged psychopath with an Uzi, by the rebellious teenager, by the disobedient schoolchild or petty thief. The doors of hell are almost always opened by people in uniform.
J. Robert Porter reports instructions given by a US general to the 25th Infantry Division operating in central Korea in July 1950. Referring to an area of more than one hundred square miles, the instructions read:
"All civilians seen in this area are to be treated as enemy and action taken accordingly."
A radio message from the US Army's First Cavalry Division around the same time was recorded as:
"No refugees to cross the front lines. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children." (Porter in Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.204)
It was in this same area at this exact same time that eyewitnesses reported 400 South Korean civilians - women, children, babies and old men - were deliberately gunned down by US warplanes and soldiers at No Gun Ri bridge. But the same media that forever focuses so enthusiastically on domestic murders and dramatic abductions was not interested in covering the atrocity. Porter writes:
"There was one problem. The people who ran the AP [Associated Press]. The people I worked for. I knew they would not share my enthusiasm for the story. It turned out to be even worse." (Ibid, p.206)
Porter and other journalists who tried to break the story in the late 1990s suffered demotion and career death. Porter writes:
"Bias has no place in good journalism... I do admit though: I am politically opposed to having soldiers kill babies in secret. Do you know anyone who is in favour of that?" (Ibid, p.205)
Porter was responding as a human being; his bosses were responding as corporate executives. Porter was subordinating everything to humanity and compassion; his bosses were subordinating everything to profit. Nobody's head was separated from their body as a result of what Porter's bosses did, but decisions of this kind create the conditions that make suffering possible, in fact inevitable.
Uniform, we know, means "conforming to the standard or rule". The doors of hell are opened by those who conform to the standard or the rule. The most lethal act always has been and always will be that of obeying without thinking, of placing our responsibility for what we do in the care of people who are themselves removed from the actuality of blood and gore, so that, ultimately, no one has both responsibility +and+ blood on their hands. Historian Howard Zinn writes:
"More and more in our time, the mass production of massive evil requires an enormously complicated division of labour. No one is positively responsible for the horror that ensues. But everyone is negatively responsible, because anyone can throw a wrench into the machinery." (Zinn, The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories, 1997, p.280)
But because in our society the powers that be have every interest in dressing us up in ideational and physical uniforms to do their bidding, the ultimate sin is declared to be, not conformity - renamed 'discipline', 'duty', 'tradition', 'honour', 'efficiency', 'pragmatism' - but retail violence and crime, the disobedient breaking of the (mythical) social contract that 'binds' society together.
This is nonsense but it is useful nonsense: the manifestation of criminality and violence in individuals is a bee sting to the cruise missile of conformity. Visit the blood-stained temples of Tibet, the killing fields of Cambodia, the empty villages of East Timor, the shattered streets of Chechnya, the busy graveyards of Iraq - go to Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, the craters on planet Vietnam, the bull-dozed pits of Auschwitz, and you will always, without fail, find the blood-soaked uniform in close attendance.
And yet, in our society, the great threat, the great crime that has us quaking in fear when we take a day off work or school, that has us railing against the scruffily dressed, the belligerent, the petty criminal, is disobedience.
The social reviling of individual 'troublemakers' and the happy acceptance of quiet obedience - of students in their exam rooms, teenagers with their regulation jeans, trainers and gelled hair, wild worship of the national football time, polite applause for royal nonsense - are all part of a mindset that facilitates mass killing around the world. It is this emphasis that allows us to ignore what is happening (because we know 'the experts' are in charge and know what they're doing), to make the shooting of babies "just one of those things" we were told to do.
Moral Responsibility - Awareness And Action
How many times last summer did we hear educated, friendly, articulate RAF pilots saying that the Iraq war and the killing it involved were "not really my scene" but "I'm here to do the job I've been trained to do"?
Psychologist Stanley Milgram noted that people willing to commit heinous acts on the command of authority quite often protest even as they obey, declaring their dissatisfaction with what they are being asked to do. Milgram noted:
"Some derived satisfaction from their thoughts and felt that - within themselves, at least - they had been on the side of the angels. What they failed to realise is that subjective feelings are largely irrelevant to the moral issue at hand so long as they are not transformed into action. Political control is effected through action. The attitudes of the guards at a concentration camp are of no consequence when in fact they are allowing the slaughter of innocent men to take place before them." (Milgram, op., cit, p.28)
The reality is that it is not nearly enough that we are good, decent people; that we are polite; that we take care of our kids; that we are kind, thoughtful and reasonable. These are important and good. But if, in addition, we simply do what we are told, if we don't think for ourselves - if we don't have the capacity to say 'no', to cause trouble, to be disobedient - then we may well end up the architects of somebody's hell.
I think it is useful to assume, as Zinn points out, that nobody is positively responsible for the horror in our world, but that everyone is negatively responsible because we can all act to stop it. It is no good looking outside ourselves and simply blaming others, just as it is no good transferring responsibility for our actions arguing that 'they' run the organisation, that 'politicians make the decisions' and 'I'm just doing my job.'
+We+ are responsible for our actions. That means it is our responsibility to understand, as best we can, the meaning of our actions in the world around us. We need to become serious students of politics, economics, political history, media propaganda, and so on, so that we can judge the ethical consequences of what we are doing. If these consequences are clearly destructive - regardless of what others would have us believe - then it is our responsibility to resist that destructiveness by refusing to cooperate, by demanding change, by changing our job, actions, values. To be ignorant, to not give a damn about how the world works - to assume that our task is merely to do what we're told and otherwise lose ourselves in entertainment - is deeply immoral.
This process of working to become an informed, self-directed, compassionate and morally responsible person leads us towards an astonishing realisation. Focusing solely on our own needs, on how best to get what we want, it turns out, leads us +away+ from personal happiness, contentment and peace of mind. Focusing instead on what is best for others, on how to help them, leads us +towards+ happiness.
- Created on 06 November 2004
- 28 October 2010
By David Edwards
"In thee mercy, in thee pity, in thee magnificence, in thee whatever of goodness is in any creature, are united." (Dante)
Treating Earth Like It Was Dirt
Having taken a wrong turning, become lost in a forest, and wandered though a dark tunnel - all classic metaphors of crisis and transformation - ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents stumble on a sumptuous banquet in an apparently deserted theme park in Miyazaki's animated film, Spirited Away.
Without a care in the world, or permission, the parents tuck in, declaring they will pay with cash or credit card when the absent caterers return. Theirs is the self-confidence of so many wealthy professionals who take for granted that money, and the power money brings, can fix every problem. When they were driving through the forest, Chihiro asked her father if they were lost. He replied, "Don't worry, I've got four-wheel drive." High-tech power fixes everything - even when you're going in the wrong direction.
The parents proceed to gorge themselves on the abundant feast. Despite their evident, animalistic pleasure the soundtrack leaves us in no doubt that this is very much a crisis, not a celebration. Horrified by their reckless greed, Chihiro implores her parents to stop, warning of trouble ahead - but they are too engrossed even to respond.
We quickly discover that the parents have indeed committed a grave sin - they have gatecrashed a feast for divine visitors to a spirit world bath house: "where eight million gods can rest their weary bones". Their poetic punishment? To be turned into vast, slobbering pigs penned for slaughter! It is down to little Chihiro, running off alone - bewildered and shaking with fear - to find a way to break the spell and return her parents to human form before they are eaten.
This is a wonderful set of metaphors for our modern condition. So many people are indeed enslaved to slavering, reckless greed in exactly this way - our corporate planet is collapsing under the weight of unrestrained consumption and infinitely rising profits. Who gives a damn about the future when we can pay off any damage we cause with credit cards and cash? The result, as XTC's Andy Partridge sings: "We treated Earth like it was dirt."
As epidemics of diabetes, obesity, alcoholism and other illnesses of over-consumption rage around us, we might just as well have upset the gods in the way of Chihiro's parents. We can talk in terms of consumerism offending the rules of ecological sustainability, if we like; or we can talk of offending nature's spirits. Either way, demonic storms of climate change are being summoned to smash, flatten and flood us.
And what is so wonderful is that Miyazaki dumps the symbolised version of this crisis into the symbolic lap of the apparently clueless Chihiro - all skinny legs, baggy shorts and T-shirt-clutching fear. Except that Chihiro does have +one+ clue - the one that matters.
Sympathy For A Stink God
Miyazaki goes to great lengths to indicate Chihiro's anxiety and vulnerability. She runs in blind panic from her pig-parents this way and that as looming spirits arrive for the banquet. At first, all she can do is scream and run, fall flat on her face, wish it were a dream, and sob into her hands. Is this the hero to save the day? Is this really someone with the power to break the spell of greed and pacify the anger of the gods?
Where Hollywood heroes nonchalantly wisecrack and muscle their way to salvation, Japan's Chihiro sits curled up in terror, shivering and lost. Her clarion call: "I'm afraid!"
And isn't this the fear and helplessness we all feel in contemplating the awesome problems around us, for which no sane individual could possibly feel a match? None of +us+ has the confidence or power of a Hollywood hero, either. All of us are alone, bewildered and insecure in the face of this, too.
Ernest Hemingway wrote beautifully of heroic struggles for the great cause, the great love, the great fish. But in our real lives we often don't know what the great cause +is+. We often don't know if our great love is the real thing, or just a childish infatuation. We don't know if, in facing adversity, we are being heroic or just doing what anyone would have done. In working to make the world a better place, we don't even know if we're making things worse!
Is it possible that the shivering Chihiro can somehow provide inspiration to the rest of us trembling, transient sparks of human consciousness? But what on earth could she possibly offer in response to the terrible crises facing her and us?
Throughout her many trials and tribulations it is made clear that Chihiro has both nothing and everything. She is small, physically weak, confused and afraid; and yet she has one overwhelming resource to make up for everything. Chihiro is guided by invincible love for her parents, and for the mysterious boy-God Haku, her friend and helper. Every decision she makes, every word she utters, every courageous act she attempts, is motivated by her desire to save her parents from being eaten, and Haku from dying.
First, to avoid being eaten herself - a real possibility in this spirit world - she has to demand work from Yubaba, the manager-witch of the bath house. Yubaba is duty-bound to give work to all who ask for it and, as a good business manager, is disinclined to eat her own staff!
One of Chihiro's first tasks is to bathe the dreaded Stink God - a vast muddy being with body odour that incinerates food to ashes. Knowing that work offers the only hope of rescuing her parents, Chihiro overcomes her revulsion and succeeds in hosing down the noxious divinity. Here, also, we see that she is encountering the consequences of greed. Finding a "thorn" in the side of the refreshed Stink God, she attaches a rope and pulls out what are in fact the handlebars of a dumped bicycle, followed by an emerging avalanche of scrap metal, tins and other fly-tipped rubbish. The Stink God sighs in blissful relief, "Well done!". The being, in fact, is a River God who has been polluted and gravely wounded, again, by the greed and wanton selfishness of man. The ecological message could hardly be clearer.
Chihiro's compassionate response on seeing the "thorn" was sufficient to transform the wretched Stink God into a gleaming fountain of clear water which, laughing delightedly, flies out of the bath house. Looking into her cupped hands, she finds she has been rewarded with a gift of magic food. Could this have the power to break the spell and transform her parents?
No Face - Every Place
Chihiro's most telling encounter with greed involves the spirit No Face. "Everyone", Miyazaki tells us, "has a No Face inside".
No Face is a silent, haunting figure with a voracious appetite that grows more extreme the more it is indulged. With gold magically manifesting from his hands, he buys endless praise, attention and sensual gratification. And yet he is never satisfied, declaring himself haunted by loneliness. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, reports of brain function:
"In craving, the circuitry associated with liking appears to be weakened. Because our sense of liking or enjoyment declines and our wanting increases, we want more and more and we like less and less. We must keep wanting - but we need more to enjoy it as much." (Quoted, Daniel Goleman, Destructive Emotions, Bloomsbury, 2003, p.202)
And so we can become a kind of bottomless black hole of desire, like No Face. In Buddhist terminology, No Face is an example of a "hungry ghost" - an insatiable, craving spirit ultimately tortured by its inability to love. When asked what a hungry ghost realm looks like, one Buddhist teacher replied: "America!"
The more No Face is indulged by the bath house workers, greedy for his gold, the more crazed he becomes until he eventually swallows several people whole. Again, the apparently powerless Chihiro is required to confront this symbol of greed, with No Face reflexively offering her a handful of gold. But with heart and mind immovably fixed on rescuing her loved ones, Chihiro is not interested: "I don't want any. Don't need any. I'm busy, please excuse me."
No Face is visibly deflated by this lack of grasping. Later, in sympathetic response to the monster's despair - "I'm lonely, lonely" - Chihiro offers him the magic food she received from the River God: "I was saving it for my parents, but you can have it." It is this act of generosity, this kindness, that finally satisfies No Face's hunger, which is actually of the spiritual kind. For the first time, he is being offered something out of kindness rather than out of lust for his gold. Just as the Stink God was purified by an outpouring of rubbish, so a flood of filth (and swallowed people) now pours out of No Face.
Moments later, we see him sitting calmly beside his now beloved Chihiro on a train travelling across a flooded landscape, with our diminutive heroine saying gently: "Behave yourself, okay?". On her lap, protected by her cupped hands, a rat and fly are dozing contentedly - two more former enemies who have been won over by kindness.
Miyazaki is clearly suggesting that Chihiro triumphs over all obstacles through the purity of her gentle heart. She does not slay dragons and ogres in the way of Western mythical heroes; she transforms them with love, generosity and compassion.
According to this version of the world, 'evil' is life traumatised and blocked by suffering and confusion. The solution is not to add to the suffering with hatred and revenge - like throwing dirt in the wound - but to relieve the suffering that is the underlying cause.
And so Chihiro does not need to lift weights, ride tanks, or wield mighty swords. She needs only to care about the suffering of others, and to work with all her strength and courage to relieve it.
This motivation, Miyazaki tells us, has the power to transform despair into delight, enemies into friends... and pigs into people!
(Note: This film is available in two versions: the Japanese original with subtitles, or, dubbed with American voices. I recommend the former.)
- Created on 04 August 2004
- 28 October 2010
By David Edwards
The Tear-Stained Robot
Writing in the Guardian, Peter Singer, a leading figure in the animal rights movement, describes the confrontation between animal rights activists and researchers experimenting on animals:
"This situation has arisen, in part, because the animal research community holds an ethical view that the animal movement rejects. That view is, in essence, that animals are things for us to use, as long as we spare them unnecessary pain.
"The animal activists, on the other hand, reject the assumption that animals are inferior beings, and that their interests should always be subordinate to our own. They see this as 'speciesism' - a prejudice against beings that are not members of our own species, and similar in many respects to racist or sexist prejudices against beings who are not members of a dominant race or sex." (Singer, 'Humans are sentient too', The Guardian, July 30, 2004)
Singer notes the irony of scientists acting on the basis of an essentially Biblical version of the world. Genesis 1:28, after all, declares:
"And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28, www.bibletools.org)
Darwin, by contrast, Singer notes, revealed an unplanned process of evolution - a process which provides no basis for assuming humanity should always take precedence over other animals. Singer roots his case for animal rights in a combination of objective fairness and compassion:
"As Jeremy Bentham wrote almost 200 years ago: 'The question is not 'Can they reason?', nor, 'Can they talk?', but 'Can they suffer?'"
The problem for Singer is that while science has helped challenge man's 'God-given right' to exploit animals, it has also challenged the idea that animal suffering necessarily matters. In his book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins writes:
"The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment." (www.world-of-dawkins.com/Catalano/quotes.shtml)
If we are merely "robot vehicles" produced by a random, godless universe, then restraint and compassion might be considered a freak of nature - a kind of ironic moral folly thrown up by selfish genes. In reality, the universe is supremely indifferent - the suffering of animal "robot vehicles" matters only if we choose to believe it does. If we choose to believe otherwise, who is to say we are wrong? By comparison, issues of human self-interest - health, longevity, pleasure, pain - are viewed as far more substantial and real, beyond mere subjective opinion.
Converting Pain Into Profit
A crude form of social Darwinism is certainly used to justify the ruthless operation of the greed-driven market economy. Unhindered economic 'natural selection' is said to emulate the natural world by 'evolving' more sophisticated technologies and societies, so generating wealth for all. It is understood that here, too, there is no place for 'sentiment' - efficiency is everything. Thus, the Farmer and Stockbreeder magazine in 1982:
"The modern layer is, after all, only a very efficient converting machine, changing the raw material - feeding stuffs - into the finished product - the egg." (Quoted, Danny Penman, The Price Of Meat, Gollancz, 1996, p.82)
And Hog Farm Management magazine:
"Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory. Schedule treatments like you would lubrication. Breeding season like the first step in an assembly line. And marketing like the delivery of finished goods." (Hog Farm Management, September 1976. Quoted, Peter Goering, Helena Norberg-Hodge and John Page, From the Ground Up, Zed Books, 1993, p.25)
The suffering that results from this reduction of feeling sentient beings to the status of unfeeling objects is beyond belief.
A standard modern broiler unit, for example, consists of four sheds, with the floor of each carpeted by some 30-40,000 birds. For efficiency, today's broilers have been designed to grow at twice the rate of 40 years ago. The result is that the chicken rapidly outgrows its skeletal strength such that its legs literally break under the weight; crippling joint pains and other skeletal problems are inevitably legion. Research published in 1992 in the Veterinary Record reported that 90 per cent of birds had detectable abnormalities in walking; in about 26 per cent of cases birds were likely to have suffered chronic pain.
About two and a half million birds die while being 'harvested' for slaughter, with half dying of heart failure and a third from physical injuries: many birds have their femurs dislocated at the hip as the result of being carried by 'catchers' 'harvesting' them by one leg. This generally causes internal bleeding and, in a third of cases, actually drives the bone up into the abdomen.
Chickens are often fully conscious when their throats are cut or when they are dumped into tanks of scalding hot water to remove their feathers. When killed, chickens are less than 2 months old, out of a natural life span of 10 to 15 years.
Pigs are penned in cruelly restrictive farrowing crates and crowded together in vast, darkened sheds. Transported in packed lorries, they often collapse and die from heat-stroke and stress-induced heart attacks on the way to slaughter. On arrival, they are herded in groups into a stunning room where they watch as other pigs are individually electrocuted by electric tongs placed across the head. Subsequently, they are shackled by a hind leg and carried away to have their throats cut. According to a study published in Meat Manufacturing and Marketing in 1993, nearly twenty per cent of pigs were improperly stunned or showed signs of recovery before being bled to death.
As noted above, people who feel compassion for the suffering of these and other animals are forever confronted by the 'pragmatic' challenge: compassion is all very well, but it is rooted only in the human mind, not in God-given morality, and so does not offer a serious challenge to the common sense priorities of profit, economic growth and national wealth. Typically, animal rights activists are met with a version of this response from the owner of a Dorset coarse fishing centre:
"If these people have a problem with what we do they should have the decency to come and speak to us and not threaten my family and our livelihood." (Quoted, Sandra Laville, 'Lobster liberators boiling mad', The Guardian, July 30, 2004)
From this point of view, compassion for animal suffering is seen as deluded and even immoral, involving the subordination of genuine self-interest to indulgent fantasy.
It is possible, however, to argue that the value of compassion and concern for others is rooted, not in divine authority, nor even in moral duty, but in enlightened self-interest.
Neuroplasticity And Enlightened Self-Interest
The evidence is now overwhelming that the human brain continually changes as a result of experience. In his book, Destructive Emotions, psychologist Daniel Goleman notes that this 'neuroplasticity' has been observed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), for example, in musicians:
"MRI studies find that in a violinist... the areas of the brain that control finger movement in the hand that does the fingering grow in size. Those who start their training earlier in life and practice longer show bigger changes in the brain." (Goleman, Disturbing Emotions, Bloomsbury, 2003, p.21)
Studies of top performers in a wide range of skills - from chess masters to Olympic athletes - have shown pronounced changes in the relevant muscle fibres and cognitive abilities. But there is much more.
Research conducted by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin recently studied brain activity in a European-born Buddhist monk, Oser, who had spent three decades meditating on compassion in the Himalayas.
Davidson's research had previously found that people who have high levels of brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain simultaneously report positive, happy states of mind, such as zeal, enthusiasm, joy, vigour and mental buoyancy. Oser was asked to meditate intensively on compassion and then to relax after sixty seconds while being monitored by an fMRI magnetic imaging machine. Goleman describes the results:
"While Oser was generating a state of compassion during meditation, he showed a remarkable leftward shift in this parameter of prefrontal function... In short, Oser's brain shift during compassion seemed to reflect an +extremely+ pleasant mood. The very act of concern for others' well-being, it seems, creates a greater sense of well-being within oneself." (Goleman, ibid, p.12)
In another experiment, Davidson monitored the base-line state of left prefrontal cortex activity indicating normal everyday mood in 175 American individuals. Subsequently, he also monitored the base-line state of a 'geshe', an abbot, from one of the leading Buddhist monasteries in India. Davidson reports:
"Something very interesting and exciting emerged from this. We recorded the brain activity of the geshe and were able to compare his brain activity to the other individuals who participated in experiments in my laboratory over the last couple of years... The geshe had the most extreme positive value out of the entire hundred and seventy-five that we had ever tested at that point." (Goleman, ibid, p.339)
Davidson describes the geshe as "an outlier" on the graph - his reading was "three standard deviations to the left", far beyond the rest of the bell curve for positive emotion.
These findings support claims made by meditators over hundreds of years that compassion and concern for others are in fact the basis of human happiness. They also support the claim that human emotions such as compassion, love, anger and jealousy arise more intensively and more often, the more often we generate them.
It is important to understand the fundamental nature of the meditation in which Oser had been engaging. In Buddhist psychology, the word meditation has a very specific meaning. Here, the Dalai Lama explains:
"Meditation means creating a continual familiarity with a virtuous object [idea] in order to transform your mind. Merely understanding some point does not transform your mind. You may intellectually see the advantages of an altruistic awakening mind, but that does not actually affect your self-centred attitude. Your self-centredness will be dispelled only through constantly familiarising yourself with that understanding. That is what is meant by meditation." (The Dalai Lama, Awakening The Mind, Lightening The Heart, Thorsons, 1997, p.51)
In other words, repeatedly familiarising the mind with the suffering of others, and acting to remedy that suffering, has the effect of increasing the intensity and frequency of compassionate thoughts. The implications, as Buddhists have long claimed, and as science is beginning to confirm, are remarkable:
"If everything you do with your body, speech, and mind is done for the benefit of others, there is no need to do anything more for your own benefit because the one is included in the other." (Gampopa)
If it is true that concern for others is a source of personal happiness, then the implications for our relationships are also remarkable.
To be motivated by compassion even in transporting an insect from our house using a glass and a postcard, in moving a snail to safety from a pavement, in rescuing a worm from the road, is beneficial. We can argue long and hard about whether tiny flies should be removed from a shower because they possess the same inalienable rights as human beings! But the fact is that every time we perform such acts of kindness, we strengthen the momentum of kindness in our minds with real and positive effects. No being is too small, as these ancient commentaries advise:
"Look at the tiny gnat. See him wringing his hands, wringing his feet."
Ants should not be overlooked:
"We must not ignore the population of ants, thinking that they are excluded: they are not."
And the same applies to animals responsible for great harm. Writing in the Observer, the novelist John Mortimer noted:
"One sure thing about foxes is that they have absolutely no concern for animal rights. No one who has found their chickens slaughtered, for entertainment not food, or seen lambs with their stomachs torn out, doubts that foxes have to be controlled. Whether they are trapped, poisoned, shot or killed by a dog would seem, to a visitor from Mars, to be a question of no great moral or political significance." (Mortimer, The Observer, November 23, 1997)
But it clearly is of moral significance. Like building a muscle through exercise, caring for others - no matter how ugly, cruel or insignificant they might seem - strengthens the kindness, generosity and compassion that are the foundations of our own happiness and peace of mind. Indeed, showing compassion for 'difficult' animals and people is like lifting a particularly heavy weight - it is the most powerful way to increase our compassion.
Every time we give time, energy, money, friendliness; every time we campaign, march, protest, send emails to journalists out of compassion for human and animal suffering; every time we do +anything+ out of a kindly motivation, we are strengthening these positive traits. And we do not need to be, indeed surely cannot be, faultless in our efforts - it is impossible to live without harming someone or something through our actions. The issue is not whether we are hypocrites, but that we should sincerely aspire to become less self-centred and destructive.
It is easy to imagine that generosity necessarily involves painful self-sacrifice. But as the poet Aryasura noted, exactly the opposite is true:
"Generosity is a great treasure. No thief can steal it, no fire destroy it, no water can ruin it, no king can command it. Generosity cleanses the mind of selfishness and greed, relieving our weariness as we travel through life. It is our best and closest friend, constantly giving pleasure and comfort." (Aryasura, The Marvelous Companion, Dharma Publishing, 1983, p.25)
As we repeatedly engage in these actions, it is claimed that our selfish and hostile tendencies - anger, craving, jealousy, stinginess, impatience, intolerance - are correspondingly reduced. Because these "mental pollutants" are the cause of much of our dissatisfaction, anxiety and unhappiness, positive acts countering them will, over time, gradually lead to an increased sense of well-being.
The ultimate rationale for defending animal and human rights, for working to reduce suffering and increase happiness, is that this motivation benefits us even as it benefits those we are seeking to help.
Compassionate individuals are happier, and a society of compassionate individuals is a happier, more peaceful, more sane society.
- Created on 21 November 2004
- 28 October 2010
By David Cromwell
"It's time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet."
(Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and philosopher)
What are you afraid of? What makes you anxious? Losing your health, your hair, your teeth, your looks? If you have children, perhaps you fear for them: for their health, the risk that they'll get wrapped up in drugs or crime, or that they'll miss out on a good education. If you're a parent, as I am, your biggest fear may well be that you'll lose your children. If you're not a parent, perhaps you desperately wish that you were. Or perhaps you'd prefer to remain childless, but fear becoming a parent accidentally.
Are you in love, looking for love or falling out of love? Do you fear being alone in your old age, perhaps even dying alone? And what about feelings of inadequacy? About not having a slim, well-toned body, or not being clever enough, or not having the 'right' clothes, gadgets, education, luxurious home or several holiday destinations through the year. Fear, anxiety, loneliness, insecurity, suffering. Why should any of this matter to political activists anyway?
Well, who wants to live in a world where we aren't concerned about each other? We are all united in wishing to be happy, to be free from suffering. Arguing the case for social justice and ecological sustainability with accurate facts, figures, quotes, references, examples and proposals is all very well. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We bandy around words ike 'community', 'solidarity', 'peace' and 'freedom'. And yet, we so often become uncomfortable or even dismissive if asked, 'what motivates you?', 'how do you remain committed?', or even 'how's life with you?'.
These questions are so often deemed irrelevant to political activism and organising; an impediment, or simply a distraction, to the primary task of confronting state-corporate power or building a movement from the ground up. Why is it considered strong to be driven by anger at injustices in the world, but considered weak to take time out to examine ourselves and what it takes to make us cry, laugh, sad, happy, enthused or fulfilled?
Something my father said recently struck me hard: "Nobody asked to be brought into this world".
This was in the context of how difficult life can be and how, simple and saccharine as it may sound, we ought to look out for each other. It is not a particularly original observation, of course, but at that moment it really resonated with me. Life can be hard; even for us in the 'privileged' and ' rich' countries of the west. The fact is, most of us at some time encounter stress, heartache, illness, frustration, ennui, depression, perhaps even despair. We should recognise those all too human frailties and afflictions in each other without scorn or discomfort, and without regarding it as a distraction from the political project of building a just and peaceful society. Rather than regarding such issues as a distraction, they should be recognised as utterly central to what we would like to achieve: true peace, freedom, happiness.
Fear of freedom
From the day that the baby realises that she is a separate entity from her mother, there is a striving to reproduce that primary tie; to connect with other individuals, and with human society as a whole. As the German psychologist Erich Fromm explained so well, the fear of being alone - of being an atomised individual in society - underlies the fear of genuine freedom: not so much freedom from things, such as poverty, repetitive work or damaging relationships; but the freedom to do things, to take responsibility for one's actions and thoughts, to cut the umbilical cord of dependency on 'higher' forms of authority, and to grow as a fully-integrated person.
The consequences of this fear can be harmful indeed: "in our effort to escape from aloneness and powerlessness", wrote Fromm, "we are ready to get rid of our individual self either by submission to new forms of authority or by a compulsive conforming to accepted patterns." (Fromm, 'Fear of Freedom', Routledge, London, 2002, p. 116). From there it is a slippery slope to simply knuckling under, getting on with life, doing whatever our 'benign' leaders want, or simply letting them get on with whatever it is they do; whether it be handing over yet more public revenue and power to corporations, introducing ever more draconian legislation to protect domestic 'security', or pulverising yet another already impoverished and devastated nation.
I was motivated to put these thoughts down, partly because of an exchange with someone I had on email three years ago, following the launch of the US/UK attacks on Afghanistan in late 2001. My correspondent is a decent person, a loving father, and someone with strong environmentalist leanings. And yet he told me: "The world isn't fair, never has been, never will be, and it's survival of the fittest whether we like it or not, so if we want to survive and maintain our pampered life-styles, we stay the fittest - and that doesn't necessarily mean the nicest if you're not part of our tribe." I was quite taken aback by this outburst.
I suspect, and it would admittedly be hard to verify this, that such a cynical 'pragmatic' view is held by a far greater number of westerners than we would like to think. It is a selfish notion that seems to accord with Darwinian evolution, with its dictate of 'survival of the fittest'. Applied, inappropriately, to human societies, it seems to imply that 'might is right'. On this view, competition is what drives human behaviour or, at the very least, it is a major component in human makeup. Compassion, altruism and kindness are evolutionary adaptations, so we are told, that improved our fitness to survive and flourish. As psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, in his typically sweeping style:
"Family feelings are designed to help our genes replicate themselves." (Pinker, 'How The Mind Works', p. 30).
In other words, we might put ourselves out for a close relative, to the extent of risking our lives to save him or her, but we would be less likely to do so for someone not related to ourselves, goes the argument.
Pinker adds that the "tragedy of reciprocal altruism is that sacrifices on behalf of nonrelatives cannot survive without a web of disagreeable emotions like anxiety, mistrust, guilt, shame, and anger." (Pinker, 'The Blank Slate', Penguin, London, p. 256).
For example, we might well feel anxious about, and even angry towards, individuals who take unfair advantage of our kindly acts in order to accrue benefits for themselves. This may be as simple as feeling resentful at having had one's colleague round to our home not just once, but twice, and still not having received a dinner invitation in return! Or, to use Pinker's examples: gaining from, but not contributing to, the public good, such as hunting animals for food, building a lighthouse that keeps everyone's ships off the rocks, or banding together to invade neighbours or to repel their invasions.
A successful, thriving society requires cooperation and a measure of trust and honour between its members. Those who cheat are an unfair burden on society, and 'law-abiding' members of the group must punish them. Otherwise cheaters could end up destroying the cohesion, even the very survival, of the whole group. Consequently, claims Pinker, anger "evolved from systems for aggression and was recruited to implement the cheater-punishment strategy demanded by reciprocal altruism." (Pinker, 'The Blank Slate', Penguin, London, p. 272).
"Go ahead, make my day!"
But is this depiction of anger as beneficial, providing evolutionary advantages, the whole truth?
Psychologist Martin Seligman, pioneer of the burgeoning field of 'positive psychology' cautions: "We deem it honest, just, and even healthy to express our anger. So we shout, we protest, and we litigate. 'Go ahead, make my day,' warns Dirty Harry. Part of the reason we allow ourselves this luxury is that we believe the psychodynamic theory of anger. If we don't express our rage, it will come out elsewhere - even more destructively, as in cardiac disease. But this theory turns out to be false; in fact, the reverse is true. Dwelling on trespass and the expression of anger produces more cardiac disease and more anger." (Seligman, 'Authentic Happiness', p. 69)
Anne Harrington, a science historian at Harvard University, points out the systematic failings of science in the investigation of deep human values such as altruism and compassion. These values tend to be simply eliminated from the scientific analysis, says Harrington:
"Historically, the more deeply our sciences have probed reality, the less relevant concepts like compassion become. Behind altruism is strategizing for genetic fitness."
In, other words, as psychologist Daniel Goleman notes, the scientific reduction of altruism to notions of "genetic fitness" is "how evolutionary theory explains away such selflessness." (Daniel Goleman, 'Destructive Emotions And How We Can Overcome Them. A Dialogue with the Dalai Lama', Bloomsbury, London, 2003, p. 280)
Evolutionary theory is, of course, one of the most successful scientific theories of all times, but one must be careful in using it to 'explain' human qualities, particularly if such explanations are one-sided. As Seligman maintains:
"I believe that evolution has favored both good and bad traits, and any number of adaptive roles in the world have selected for morality, cooperation, altruism, and goodness, just as any number have also selected for murder, theft, self-seeking, and terrorism" (Seligman, p. xiii).
Seligman explicitly rejects pessimistic depictions of selfish human nature, or of anger being innate. This approach, he argues, is scientifically unsound: "Current dogma may say that negative motivation is fundamental to human nature and positive motivation merely derives from it, but I have not seen a shred of evidence that compels us to believe thisS [the] dual-aspect view that positive and negative traits are equally authentic and fundamental is the basic motivational premise of Positive Psychology." (Seligman, p. 211)
Letting go of old bad habits by focussing on others
Returning now to the individual, it is all too easy for personal attitudes to be shaped by our own narrow bundle of inwardly-directed anxieties. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer expressed it well: "We live much more in our doubts and fears, our anxieties and hopes about the future, than in our recollections or in our present experiences."
Fear and anxiety so often dominate our reaction to people and the world around us. Isn't this terribly sad? By looking primarily inwards, at our own problems, which thus tend to multiply and magnify, we can too easily become attached to feelings of negativity, even misery. This almost becomes a badge of honour, a bundle of suffering that we must carry around on our backs wherever we go; excess baggage that we are, in fact, loathe to set down.
As psychotherapist Howard Cutler notes: "When it comes down to it, many of us resist giving up our misery - a vexing and baffling feature of human behavior I often observed in the past when treating psychotherapy patients. As miserable as some people might be, for many there is a kind of perverse pleasure in the self-righteous indignation one feels when one is treated unfairly. We hold on to our pain, wear it like a badge, it becomes part of us and we are reluctant to give it up. After all, at least our characteristic ways of looking at the world are familiar. Letting go of our customary responses, as destructive as they may be, may seem frightening, and often that fear abides on a deeply ingrained subconscious level."
That fear of letting go of our habitual tendencies can be conquered, or at least assuaged, by focusing on the needs of others, rather than our own. Seligman says simply: "When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of well-being." (Seligman, p. 43)
On the other hand, Seligman points out the evolutionary role of positive emotions: "They broaden our abiding intellectual, physical, and social resources, building up reserves we can draw upon when a threat or opportunity presents itself. When we are in a positive mood, people like us better, and friendship, love, and coalitions are more likely to cement. In contrast to the constrictions of negative emotion, our mental set is expansive, tolerant, and creative. We are open to new ideas and new experience." (Seligman, p. 35)
The conscious effort to undertake small acts of kindness for others is a good place to start. Though such acts may initially feel somewhat forced, it is worth the effort to weaken the fears, doubts and anxieties that afflict us all. It is a simple and fun pragmatic scientific experiment, at minimal cost, that anyone can try. When to begin? Now! As Marcus Aurelius wisely observed: "there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don't use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return." ('Meditations', new translation by Gregory Hays, Phoenix, London, 2003, p. 20).